Many years later, Laif, who believed in dreams, would vehemently deny how a midnight revelation of Jesus in white robes resulted in the death of his only sister. The dream had come to him in a distant summer night when the sister was still intact in his mother’s womb. She had moved to the hospital the day before, escorted by the rest of the family, and as he lay suffocating in his own sweat in the twisted sheets he could hear her telepathic moans. He thought he had lost the battle against insomnia when sleep came in the form of a roguish teen. An angelic white robe cascaded into the ground beneath him, and his crooked teeth flashed as he revealed in a booming voice: “You are not your father’s son.” Waking up, Laif was able to recall the details so minutely that he did not for a second doubt the legitimacy of the claim, and a conversation he accidentally overheard of some relatives in the house only confirmed the belief. Both mother and daughter had returned from the hospital by then, shoving him into a state of oblivion that allowed him to haunt corners of the house unnoticed.

“They must finally be happy,” said a cousin as Laif slithered past his sister’s nursery where they were making quilts, “Now that they have a child of their own.”

“Yes, but you can never compensate for a mistake so big,” commented another. Without thinking, without feeling, Laif knew what the mistake that was not to be compensated for was. He knew it so well, with such lucidity of mind that years later at the dining table he was able to cite those exact words against his father’s quiet criminality. That outburst was the inevitable end result of rancor accumulated over years of neglect, self-doubt and finally, doubt of his supposed father. Without the rest of the family suspecting, the domestic harmony that they had so precariously nurtured for so long had fallen to pieces ever since the day of Mother’s betrayal.

In fact, the final face-off was over a decade late only due to Aamenatra’s unwitting persistence. Solitary, decidedly unhappy from birth, she had devoted to Laif such singular trust and perhaps even love that although he never succeeded in reciprocating it, Laif assumed a brotherly role of justice and tolerance up until the tipping point. Only a month before the outburst he had acted, as usual, as mediator in one of the constant violent clashes between Aamenatra and Ed. It was Tuesday, and the family had sat down for dinner when Aamenatra complained of her inability to move her right arm due to lack of space, “He takes up all the space,” she said, referring to Ed; “He stretches his left arm so much and he doesn’t even eat with it.”

When Laif suggested that he tuck his left arm beneath the table, Ed grew bitter, claiming that he needed both hands to hold his bowl, “You’re just jealous Father did not praise you this morning,” he said to Aamenatra. He was referring to one of Father’s customary remarks comparing his two younger children. Aamenatra was almost always in the favor of such comparisons. This morning, however, seeing how little Ed got ready for school much faster than his sister, he commented, more to himself than to the kids: “Ed is a man of action, unlike Aamenatra.” The episode, remembered by neither Father nor Aamenatra, had such an impact on Ed that he found his confidence renewed and the gnawing envy of his sister alleviated.

Aamenatra grew annoyed over the mentioning of such triviality, “You ninny,” she exclaimed, shoving him in the elbow. It did not take long for the shoves and punches to develop into a fight. Father, faithful only to his food, shifted not even the course of his eternal gaze. Laif finally managed to separate Aamenatra, whose eyes took on a dangerous gleam. Ed kept on hollering and scheming to slit open Aamenatra’s throat in her sleep.

Peace between the two had been impossible from the start because Aamenatra gave no notice to the things that mattered the world to Ed, and Laif saw this all too clearly. While Aamenatra’s birth belatedly materialized her parent’s conjugal love, Ed grew up and was named in the confusion of Mother’s betrayal. With Mother’s absence of body and Father’s absence of mind, he many times faced starvation and imminent death, feeding almost solely on Laif’s charity so that for a long while he considered him his only kin. Nevertheless, the night of the clash Ed dreamt of his brother clad in rags and tatters, “Ho ho ho,” Laif was saying, smirking in a way he had never seen him smirk, “Ho ho ho ho ho.” Later Ed would find imprinted to the dingy byways of his heart the desperate urge to weep, to run away and never lay eyes on his brother again, at the precise moment when all the tatters and rags started to rain like confetti.

Actually, without realizing it Ed was helplessly in awe of both male elders in the family. He was in so much awe that he felt suffocated by a maddening desire to impress. The next day after dinner, he proved himself once and for all a man of action by knocking on Aamenatra’s door three times. In the eternity it took for the door to open, his courage liquified like an expiring loach. When he was finally reminded of what he came for, which was to declare perpetual and absolute war, Aamenatra awarded him a look of disgust, “Get out,” she said, shutting her door once and for all.

Rejective, wall-like and evasive, Aamenatra’s door was really ever open to Laif, who visited time and again to ensure she was not rotting amidst her age-old carbon exhalations. Aamenatra not only accepted Laif. She welcomed him with what little love she had for the world, enlarging her own disconsolate solitude in indefatigable attempts to share, “We are insurmountable,” she announced as she scribbled down letters in the way she would runes, grasping heavenly inspirations by their floundering tails. “With proper preservation, the right amount of gas and insulation, eternity comes in a matter of time.”

Aamenatra’s words exuded such profound sadness that Laif felt obliged to overflow her with mystical nonsense, “Time is circular, like a ferris wheel.” he said, more out of reflex than understanding. Startled by the rhetorics, Aamenatra confused word with sense and speculation with dreams, until hope for meaning was forever lost in an enchanted labyrinth of broken syllables. Laif, perched with celestial detachment on a corner of her bed, never once lost his calm. His gaze never faltered to her gentle rocking as she struggled for peace between a need to express and the nausea that ensued.

Amidst hot confessions of love and understanding, he never lost sight of his abnegation and his doom. It was precisely his immobility that affected Aamenatra, magnetized her from the inescapable caverns of her solitude. “You and I,” she said, “we are different from the rest of them bitches.” She said it without realizing that Laif had been a battle lost ever since that immemorial dusk fourteen years ago, when their mutual mother failed to return from a trip to the grocer’s.

Laif had really ceased belonging to Aamenatra or anyone else since as early as that starless summer night of her conception, the night he dreamt of Jesus in white robes. His own mother’s abandonment only furthered his isolation. Living with a Father who was not his Father, who he hated for His cowardice, His money and His inability to prevent His wife and his mother’s betrayal, plunged him into a more impenetrable solitude than Aamenatra, even Aamenatra ever felt and surrounded his heart with coats of bitter iron. Laif himself was not aware of this until one day returning from his provincial middle school he stumbled across Aamenatra, who was at that time being beaten by two schoolmates. “Little bitch without a mother,” the girls were yelling as they tried to separate Aamenatra’s gigantic mass of hair from her scalp. Aamenatra, cowering tattered and bruised in a corner, seemed as intact and imperturbable as she had been in her mother’s womb.

Unable to find in his heart the slightest prickle of pity, Laif walked away without being seen. Nevertheless, from that day on he guarded her, not out of love as everyone had supposed, but out of the same doomed resignation with which he echoed her prophetic allegations. Popularly considered the sanest of his breed, despite an ominous piercing glare and almost abnormal reticence, Laif put his capability for madness in disguise so that the primordial force it generated when unleashed at last would make insignificant all the madness in that madhouse of their home added together and tripled. Ed’s existential crisis, Aamenatra’s metaphysical afflictions, and Father’s nostalgic absence all paled in contrast on that fateful eve of revelation. It had, in fact, started in the afternoon with the surprise arrival of some forgotten distant relative.

The woman invaded the static three-o’clock heat with three peremptory knocks. She was in nylon stockings, plumed cloche hat and a bohemian shawl, with half her feet past the door before Laif had time to react. Her festive face, full of upturned eyes and jiggling wrinkles, manifested nothing of the family’s tragic blood. But when she identified herself as Mother’s second brother’s third cousin’s first aunt, they received her with a rare hospitality in order not to hurt her feelings. Her good judgement showed the second she became seated on the living room coach, “What a nasty room,” she observed, protruding her neck like a senile tortoise. “This house needs light.”

Instead of recognizing blood in her sun-kissed creases and volatile accent, Laif recognized danger. He saw at once the subversive force of her acute vision, made all the more deadly due to her loose mouth and lack of manners. Her next remark confirmed his observation, “I hope you all have not become hermits because Mother left you.”

The relative whose existence no one recalled seemed to have encyclopedic knowledge of the family. She greeted each child by name without being introduced and navigated the house as if she had lived in it her entire life. Once Ed coughed, and she said: “You’ll get pneumonia if you don’t dry your body every time you shower.” Ed went livid because he had indeed not dried himself before putting on his pajamas for over a week, out of laziness.

“How did you know?” He asked, trembling with excitement that someone had finally noticed him.

“God testifies how I keep a faithful eye on the family,” was all she said. She was even aware of Aamenatra’s incompatibility with this world, “Don’t you worry,” she said to her, “Your suffering won’t last much longer.”

At this Aamenatra threw her a look of such hate that would have effectively shut up anyone, but she smiled understandingly and changed the subject to garden keeping. Laif went into the kitchen to prepare another makeshift meal, and Father pretended to listen while he tried to evoke the careless summers of his moneyless youth. Ed was the only one who gave any attention to the intruder, “And how would you do that?” he would ask, his eyes trained on a vacant spot as he visualized the strange woman tending to unheard-of plants in her exotic garden. And she would explain to him, without haste or malice, the way she grappled with gigantic alligator eating garlic and tricked silver-lashed roses into shredding their thorns. When dinner was finally ready, Ed’s eyes watered at the thought of her imminent leave, “You will stay for dinner, won’t you?” he pleaded.

It was a needless plea, for God himself couldn’t have made her leave right then. She seated herself at the head of the table, regardless of Aamenatra’s looks of disdain and Laif’s looks of alarm. After examining the bowl of noodles in front of her with the meticulosity and pedantry of an anatomist, her ready critique liquified into an ocean of sorrow: “This is what you eat every day?”

Laif was pleading with his eyes, but Aamenatra did not care, “Shut up or leave.” The woman did not say another word, and the ten-year-old still growing, silence fell dead upon their skin, pushing air against air and dragging body and soul into the heavenly abysses of gravity. Only Ed was aware of its presence, humiliated by the way his family treated their guest. For the first time in his life he summoned up enough courage to break the spell.

“Keep telling me about your garden,” he said in a whisper.

The woman eyed him smilingly. It was a melancholy smile, however, and while trying to tell him about her garden she stumbled and gave in with a sigh. “The kids need a woman.”

This time, Laif forestalled Aamenatra. “Aamenatra is a woman,” he said. But she was not so easily disposed of, “Oh, you know what I mean… A mother.”

Ed realized his mistake a little too late as the world they spent a decade hallucinating, weaving with the most intricate paradoxes and lies, a feeble offspring of familial complicity, crumbled like disappointed mirage into thin air. As with all of their tribulations, this final one wallowed in silence until Laif attempted at rescue, “We mind our own businesses here in this house,” he said; “And we don’t need a mother.”

For the first time, Father fell out of fantasies of his dead youth; “He’s right,” he echoed, as feeble and as firm as his dreams; “We haven’t needed a mother since the day she gave in to momentary darkness.” Laif was trembling, his shoulders surging like waves before a storm. The woman did not give him a chance to flood.

“You are just like your father,” she said irrelevantly, addressing Laif. When no response was elicited save for more violent trembling and fatal stares, she went on to explain: “Two silent counterparts of the family, you determine what is proper and what is not. Your combined static power suppresses hope and despair. You are god and wisdom and herald of disharmony. You share a helpless nostalgia for the past that makes you dead to this life.”

She would have chanted on and on, weaving a list of nonexistent connections much like the way they hallucinated a semblance of peace; but Laif ran out of self-control, “I wouldn’t recognize that coward of a Father if my life depended on it,” he said.

Father spoke without raising his voice, “How dare you.”

“Laif,” said Aamenatra. Instead of sharing Ed’s grief, Aamenatra reveled in her brother’s bravery. She anticipated and feared for what it signaled.

“She did not leave you because of your poverty,” said Laif, each passing syllable dipped into a more furious whisper; “She left you because she no longer loved you, because you are a coward trapped in your own pathetic.” Father was speechless, his own pathetic past unfolding in many dimensional picture scrolls; “Left you because you are a pathetic. To hell with your damn money and your damn success because that can’t buy you your own son and daughters love and god knows how much I wish you…”

“Laif!” It was the woman; “How dare you talk to your Father this way.”

“Oh, but he is not my Father.”

Meanwhile Father was paling, shriveling until he became again the diaphanous fetus of his memory, shielded by skin and blood of his mother from every harm of past or future, “What on earth,” was all he could manage.

So Laif evoked, digging back to the prehistoric stages of his memory. That extended nightmare of heavenly revelation, “I was never a part of this madhouse, not now and not ever.”

The woman was indifferent, “Don’t be silly,” she said, “You are your Father’s child all right.” The silence reeked of pregnancy as Aamenatra bit her nails, contemplating death; “You just aren’t your Mother’s.”

Then it was Laif who was a fetus, shrinking until Aamenatra lost sight of him. He tried to reason. “You are crazy,” he said to Father; “Your house is a mental asylum.”

When he made for the door Father grabbed him, “Don’t be silly. You belong with us.” His eyes flamed for an instant. Aamenatra looked with horror as they lost color. “I’m sorry,” said Father, almost apologetic.

The house was so full of shock no one noticed when Aamenatra, too, slipped out the door. She followed him down the stairs to outside the apartment building, where rain disintegrated paint and cement and drilled little holes into the faces of passersby. The city was crumbling like a busted placenta. Unaware of lurching dangers, unaware of anything in fact, Laif traversed corroded byways and collapsing bridges with such precision and agility that chance observers had no doubt he was destined. After hours of roaming, Laif stopped short in front of a crossroad that despite the apocalyptic rain was brimming with automobiles. Turning around he caught Aamenatra with his colorless eyes.

“Come back, Laif,” she begged. “Come back or I’ll die before your eyes.”

Laif did not hesitate as he crossed the road, paying no heed to the weaving mess of vehicles, “Go to hell,” he said without looking back. Aamenatra tried to follow him. At first step a dissolving double-decker hit her and sent her flying all the way back home.

No one attempted to fathom how Aamenatra lost life with all her body parts intact, as whole and clean as when she was in her mother’s womb. Ed arranged the funeral because Father had lost his ability to speak. Every insomniac night before the funeral he would slip out of bed and open the coffin he had ordered, talking to his sister’s arabesque cheeks and unshuttable marble eyes until dawn. All the insomniac nights after the funeral he would continue talking to his sister, no longer the transient tyrant of his childhood but the immortal corpse of his mind.

Laif did not come to the funeral and was never seen again.

Mandy Chen is a student and young writer living in Shenzhen.