In the end, God kept the Heavens but not the Earth, collapsing empires and skyscrapers upon skyscrapers stacked high in Hong Kong, New York, Dubai, and other cities we’d forgotten the names for. All the lights of Earth dimmed, shut down, and descended into a darkness as vast as starless nights.
In the end, God lifted us up into the sky, perhaps on arks, perhaps in fever dreams, and we remained asleep as we floated up, dreamless and still.
In the end, I could no longer name the land beneath me, nor the hours or days that had passed. I didn’t know anyone beside me, didn’t recognize them. All these nameless, faceless people I was supposed to love looked almost ghostly. Almost holy, once we reached the light.
On that first day in Heaven, we didn’t arrive to golden gates or a castle in the clouds. The ground beneath us was some strange loam, soft and white and pillowy, and a stretch of nothing loomed in the distance. Many tall, gold-hued figures paced around, each an iteration of God shed off the Original like past selves, giving Him eyes that roamed the whole of the expanse. Each was called God, and we couldn’t tell one apart from another. God who greeted us told us that we were equal to each other. He said He would take away everything that caused us pain. That our bodies were new again and perfect, that no one was too thin or too plump, and each one of us was like Jesus before he was nailed to the cross. Sacred and transcendent.
But really, we had the same bodies as before. The clench of our chests that tightened each time we looked down at our round bellies or thighs had simply disappeared. It was a sudden realization. In that moment, so much relief flooded me that I felt like a girl again.
Then, I thought of my mother. I remembered the hazy silhouette of her but couldn’t recall her name. Why couldn’t I remember her? I kept reaching for something, over and over, struggling to name it, tongue coming up dry every time.
What remained of earth I saw in flashes. Rays of light streaming through tree leaves. Cherries cool and sweet against my toothache. A little blue house, periwinkle and pert. Its single front door, swinging wide.
Mama was God in that house. She stood above us, warm as a pillow, solid as a wall. Her voice changed with the times; soft and sweet in the summer afternoons, deepening to a low drawl when the cabinets were empty again.
I see it now— flashes of a bare pantry, and days where Mama stretched baskets of rice with soy sauce packets and jasmine tea. That’s what she smelled like, soy sauce and jasmine. She drifted from room to room, wearing the scent of home on her.
She always had an answer to quell my curiosities, no matter how old I got. She told me it was from all the books she read as a child.
How are babies made?
You pray, baobei.
What will we have for dinner tonight?
The most delicious jasmine rice in the whole world.
Am I pretty, Mama?
Of course. Your face was passed down by those empresses from thousands of years ago. Don’t you doubt it even once.
No matter how little we had then, she would always soothe me with a smile and a story. When she first came to our town, I was just a baby, she’d said. We had even less than we do now, but the church ladies so kindly took us in. They sent us faded pink dresses their kids had outgrown, children’s books with corners worn down to the cardboard, overbought and underused groceries. It wasn’t long before she would kneel in church with them, giving in to their version of salvation.
Sometimes, when I was hungry enough to cry, she whispered quiet with a spoonful of honey dipped into my mouth, and the tears would drain from me right then and there. In those moments, life could be a little sweet.
Years later, when she traded our hunger for her age and toiling, my body slowly ballooned into a smooth, pale putty. For Mama too, her skin no longer clung to her bones. But she was always the same, a jasmine and soy sauce queen, a pillar, a haven.
It must’ve been around then that I noticed others’ stares and whispers piercing against my body, magazines and movies boasting thinner girls, all of it leaving me shivering behind closed doors and turning against my own new self. The world preferred the body I used to have, even when I could no longer go back to it.
I still remember when I’d light a candle and hold it in front of the mirror, to my belly that protruded like a baby watermelon, to my goosebump-covered breasts. The room would fill with the dim burn of magnolias and jasmine, and I suppose I wanted to be as soft as the smells of them. Whenever I saw some protrusion of flesh I couldn’t get rid of, I’d pinch my cheeks and arms and stomach, as if pain could force the skin to retreat. Then, I’d kneel down and pray to a God I desperately sought to believe in.
On those nights when I began to hate the shape of my body, I found refuge in Mama’s, squishier and plumper than mine, and yet, all the more for me to adore. There, she’d hush me, saying our bodies were beautiful things. She’d tell me that Heaven was a place meant for us, and we would never be hungry or sad or wanting again. But I always thought that Heaven was a kind of place nestled against her, where I could fall asleep, forgetting our losses.
Some people told me that Heaven was like the rolling countryside where the sun never sets. Like a favorite room in a childhood home when everything was still taken care of, or refuge from one that was lacking.
Some said it was a world of clouds, where we’d eat on cloud plates and sleep on cloud beds. But now that we’ve arrived, it was easy to see that there were no clouds at all, no touch, and no sleep. Just an empty stretch of soft white loam, surrounded by all the other roaming people that God chose to save.
We were told that our suffering would be no more. We witnessed it firsthand— how the fields would open up into milky silt for miles, and we’d wander the fields without obligation or aim or hurt. All conquests and struggles were no more.
I remembered less and less the longer I stayed here. The dates of wars and facts of the living washed away from me, the way rain puddles dissipated back into the sky. The person closest to me on earth was Mama, but she remained faceless in my head, her features evaporated too. Even the memories I just recalled seemed to fade.
I walked down the fields watching everyone who stood among God, and saw a figure who embodied the sun striding next to me, passing by groups of people with serene half-smiles.
Thank you, God.
We love you.
Your promises were true— you saved us.
Voices sounded around us, and God smiled, then placed His hands around each person to embrace them. He was bathed in an angelic light, golden and father-like if fatherhood had been properly rendered in a child’s life. What I imagined my father to be if he had stayed, if he had protected me and my mother from the wolves in men’s bodies.
God then turned towards me, and said, You feel it still. Some kind of pain.
I nodded, stepping in line with Him down the endless field, walking past crowds of other people. Every kind of person was here— a dog-owner chasing a greyhound and a golden retriever as they sprang up on him. Families long separated, now brought together, laughing in unadulterated joy. A father and a mother, two fathers holding a baby in pink, mothers and sons waltzing around each other. A woman with wisterias and baby’s breath and sunflowers blooming out of her apron. The mailman who I’d seen walking faithfully down my street every morning. I wonder if they felt what I’d felt, if unease had first crawled under their skin and then settled into a barely there scratch. If God too spoke to them, hand on the small of their back, to alleviate that itch.
Another God stood in the distance, waving and talking to the people around Him. Gazing on, I saw the youth pastor who showed up at my mother’s funeral and my former friend Mara who left our town for life in some big city. I waved to them, and they both smiled back, as if there were no words needed to say hello, it’s so nice to see you again.
When I turned my head the other way, and there was God once more, far enough that I almost didn’t see her— flash of black hair, carefully painted smile, suddenly bare neck. Her head would only come up to my chin, but I would always be smaller than her.
Not even God’s stare could break my gaze. Immediately, He whisked me away, but a seal had been broken in me. The sight of her brought me back, back, back.
Do you remember, Mama? When we wanted nothing more than to be in Heaven, how we held ourselves back, how we worshipped. Every meager meal we had was supplemented with a prayer, every thin blanket wrapped around us to keep out the winter nights. We always told ourselves that it would one day be over, and we’d be safe in the sky. Above was where we looked when we had nothing else to comfort us. You pointed to any space in the clouds where the sun peeked through, and told me, Jesus rose and entered through there, so you would one day rise to Heaven too.
The day I got baptized, it was Christmas of the year I turned 18. How I thought it would change me. They dipped me into the water for just long enough to soak me completely, then wrung me out as quickly as I’d been submerged. People in the audience clapped while I dripped reused bathwater onto the ground, and in the distance, the stained glass windows tinted everyone a ruby red hue. I smiled, looking above all their heads, to the door where I would leave newly christened. I’d thought I’d feel so changed, like a real Christian, standing up in front of the hundreds of people who were anticipating my switch over to their side.
But the whole time, all I could think about was how much it was like losing my virginity. So nervous until I went under, a little too painful for something so quick, and then, no rush of happiness or awe for something that I was told would be life-changing. This is it? kept echoing in my mind as I stood in the aftermath. A skittish kind of relief rushed through me, a surfacing like coming up for air in the middle of the sea. And yet, everyone congratulated me, as if they saw a newly bestowed badge of honor that I could not.
It happened in the days when things had gotten better already, when our prayers seemed to have landed in God’s ears. Every week, you’d leave late at night and come back before sunrise with a feast that would last us for days. On the nights we had to resort to rice and water, I couldn’t stop my voice from turning sour. Hunger burns into you after all, the memory of it like a phantom limb. I thought things would be better now, Mama. But we’re still hungry in our small house. Wouldn’t God have saved us by now? Whenever I said something like that, you’d leave earlier and stay out late into the morning, until your hurt nestled its way into me too. But sorry wasn’t a word in our house, so you fled while I sought shelter in another body.
It was an older boy, thin and gorgeous in ways that I always wanted to be. I let him touch me with hands that were nearly as soft as yours, with eyes that could smooth over all the parts of my body that I held my candle to. Earlier, I’d overheard him remarking that I was the biggest girl he’d seen. He still told me that I was beautiful, an unblinking lie handed to me like an apology bouquet. Of course it cut. But he was here now, and I had no one else, so I didn’t let myself wonder how these two hims could find space in a single boy.
It was the night I was supposed to feel like a woman, yet didn’t. Instead, an unexpected shame rose in me like a fresh flame, a slow apple-bite burn. I thought I’d dismissed whatever preservation of purity that the church praised and preached, but now, I was newly lost. I felt that I could never go back to who I was before, to the Eden I’d starved in, to God’s clear waters. In a frenzy, I sought to find comfort in the space that your body allowed me. You had left hours ago. I missed you enough that I must’ve manifested you, and you came back through that front door in no time, your face looking like you’d aged decades. I could hardly wait to hug you. And that was when I spotted the deep violet bruises on your neck.
Mama, what are those?
These? you’d say, barely brushing your fingers around your neck as if it could break at any moment. Nothing, really. Just strawberry stains. Little bits of sugar. Then, you’d lift up the brown paper bag in your hand, distract me with the whole rotisserie chicken, bunches of broccoli, and loaf of white bread inside.
When I stayed peering into your eyes, lost and looking for you still, you asked, Baobei, what’s wrong?
Have you ever been with a boy?
You stared at me as if the devil had possessed me, as if I knew anything other than my own guilt.
Have you felt like a woman after?
That was the first time your eyes didn’t hold some kind of knowing in them. No, you looked like you were no longer God in our house, and our gazes swept across the room, searching for something to fill the silence with. You for an answer, and me for a way to take it back.
It was the beginning of a kind of understanding and a kind of surrender. Some days, you came back with bruises and bills, calling the former strawberries, cao mei, and the latter sustenance. We would eat in silence before one of us turned away.
I wanted to say Please don’t go. I wanted to say Really, we have enough. I wanted to say I’m sorry. Forgive me. But the silence buffered between us, an immovable weight.
After a while, I let reality settle in me like swallowed ice. Your body was not your own, different from the way my body was not mine. But I’d always thought that one day, we’d reclaim them. I didn’t know it then, but time was a necessary ingredient in collapsing the space between us. On the day that I cast aside others’ expectations, even God’s, it was a decade later, and perhaps we would’ve remedied the conversations we never had. But you had already passed on, away from the plentifulness I made for myself, from the woman I’d finally become.
That’s my mother.
I know, God said, a softness blanketing His voice now.
Why can’t I see her?
She’s in pain. An almost sorrow fills His eyes, a shadow stretching across the white plains.
All this time I’d spent not remembering, the Mama I saw now cut fresh, cleaving my memories to me again. Back then, when I prayed to God, I wondered how much of it was so that I could forget and be forgiven. I wondered how much of it was a role I played just because Mama had offered it to me.
I want to talk to her.
You can’t. Stay.
I’ll ensure that nothing from your past life disturbs you.
But I never said what I needed to her.
He smiled as if He understood. She has her own regrets. No matter. Soon, you both won’t remember such pain anymore.
Do you remember when you first arrived? How you felt? I forgave you so that you can be clean of sin and burdens. Naturally, you will feel light and guileless. But you still have memories that need to be cleansed. As does your Mama.
I flinched, never having heard Mama in any man’s mouth, not even God’s. She was only ever Mama to me. It occurred to me that God had never felt the love of His own mother, and I felt almost sorry for Him.
Mama’s bruises were gone. I thought it was what I’d always wanted, but I wasn’t sure if it was a happy or tragic thing anymore. It struck me strangely hollow.
I’m sad. Tears began to gather at the corners of my eyes.
And God said, No, don’t be sad. He reached inside me, clasping at something I couldn’t see. And then, it was gone, just like that. The heaviness disappeared, the ache easing.
In the distance, lights dimmed. God collected my tears into the dark of His fist, kept them as proof that His work was holy. And after, I didn’t feel sad anymore, but I felt so incredibly lonely.