“A Language We Shared” by Megan Neumann
For the first thirteen years of my life, even though we lived in the same house, I ignored my grandfather. We didn’t even speak to each other – but then, we didn’t speak the same language. To me, he was more of a nuisance to be avoided, like a creaky floorboard you tried not to step on.
On the day we finally spoke, I had been avoiding him. It was Saturday, and I wanted to read in my room. Gung Gung stood in the doorway to the living room smoking his pipe and leaning on his cane. He didn’t need the cane. My grandfather’s legs were thick and round like the trunks of trees. More than once, I’d seen him doing squats early in the morning. He carried the cane as an accessory, something to swing proudly as he walked or use as a weapon to swat irritating children who didn’t speak his language.
He had been swinging his cane more furiously than usual that morning. He mumbled something at me in Cantonese, waving his arms and the cane in wide gestures. I shrugged and walked away.
I knew later my mom would come into my room and yell about respecting our elders.
“I don’t understand him,” I’d say. “He’s crazy.”
“June, you ungrateful girl.” Then she would swat my thigh. “Da sei nay!” she’d scream. I wasn’t sure what this meant, but I suspected it translated into something along the lines of, “I’m going to beat you.”
Gung Gung followed me as I walked away, still ranting in Cantonese.
“I don’t know what you’re saying!” I told him, trying to reach my room as quickly as possible. For some reason, he never entered my room. From time to time, he’d look in, standing with his toes at the edge of the threshold. He’d glance around, his eyebrows raised, his face perpetually stuck in an expression of disdain and judgment. But he would never enter.
I had almost reached my room when I heard my mother call down the hall.
“June! Get in the car! We’re going out!”
Then I heard her say something in Cantonese. Gung Gung turned, listening to her words. Then he started down the hall. I followed him.
It was a rare thing for Gung Gung to go out with us. He didn’t like going to American stores or restaurants. “The words annoy him,” Mom told me once. “He hates seeing all the English everywhere.”
“Then why did he come here?” I had asked, and as the words fell from my mouth, I could feel a beating coming.
My mother’s eyes had narrowed. “Because he loves us, you ungrateful girl.”
Outside, Mom was already in the car. She sat in the driver’s seat with the engine running, rock music playing softly. My grandfather was already getting into the backseat. I stood, unsure of what was happening. Where was she taking us without warning? I had a new book, and the last thing I wanted was to spend the day with a grouchy grandfather and my mom.
Mom rolled down the window. “Get in! We’re going to the park so that your Gung Gung can get some exercise.”
“Why do I have to go?” I said, groaning. The trips to the park, though rare, were an all-day affair.
“Because you love your Gung Gung! Now get in the car.” Then she mumbled, though I heard her, “You need some exercise too, Fei mui.” This was a nickname of mine from when I was a chubby baby. It meant “fat little sister.”
I rode in the front, gazing out the window. Sometimes Gung Gung would say something, and my mom would answer in exasperated tones.
“What did he say?” I asked her.
She sighed, “Oh, he was just complaining about the size of all the houses.”
“What’s wrong with them?”
“He says they’re too big for one family. In Hong Kong, we had seven in one apartment.”
“I know,” I said. Then I fell silent. Stories of being poor in Hong Kong were prevalent in our everyday conversations. I never wanted to act like I was scared by what she told me, but at night I would imagine myself living in a small room with five other siblings, walking to school in that enormous city. The closeness and the vastness of it, all those people crowded into a small space, frightened me. The number of people was even greater now. My aunts still lived there in their own tiny apartments. I had never met them.
In the backseat, Gung Gung made angry noises. He had his cane and began hitting it against the other seat repeatedly. My mom answered in harsh tones until he finally stopped.
The park was a state park by the lake. The route was always a risky journey. Mom hated driving on highways or interstates, any road where drivers went over fifty. She’d take the scenic route, which included going over a rickety wooden bridge built sixty years earlier. I’d hold my breath every time we passed over it. I thought that would keep us safe.
It happened quickly. Gung Gung swatted his cane against the back of Mom’s seat, grumbling to her. She reached back, trying to take the cane from him by force, only one hand on the wheel.
We started to drive over the bridge, and I held my breath as I always did. As I took the breath, I heard the pop. It sounded like gunfire. Then the car jerked.
The front of the car turned and faced the side of the bridge. I calmly thought we were going to hit the water. It wasn’t until we had actually gone through the barrier and were falling that I started to panic.
I must have blacked out because, in my next moment of consciousness, water surrounded me. The windshield had cracked, and my body hung diagonally and limply like a puppet. The seat belt held me in place. To my left, Mom dangled over a white cloud of airbag. Her eyes weren’t open like mine. She had a gash on her head. Glass from the windshield must have cut her. Beneath her, the air bag slowly deflated, becoming less of a cloud and more of a shriveled prune.
She didn’t move, but behind me Gung Gung said something. I couldn’t understand his words, but at the same time I heard a voice.
“She is unconscious. The doors will not open.”
The voice came from behind me, but when I turned, I could only see Gung Gung, looking at me, his eyes serious.
“Who said that?” I asked.
Gung Gung’s eyes opened wide at my words. “What?” I heard the voice say as Gung Gung’s mouth moved. “I can understand you, girl. How did you learn Chinese?”
I heard Gung Gung’s Cantonese words beneath his English words.
“I’m not speaking Chinese, Gung Gung!” I said. “I can hear you in my head! Can you hear me?”
He nodded quickly. “Whaaa,” he said, which didn’t translate to anything else in my head. “I didn’t think it would happen to me.”
“What?” I asked. “What’s happening to us?”
He shook his head. “Never mind that now! June Mei, we’ll die here if we can’t get out. We must save your mother!”
He was right. The only thing that mattered was escaping the car. I thought briefly that perhaps I was dreaming all this; perhaps I was still safe in the car, riding to the park. Or, more likely, I was still unconscious in our sinking car.
I shook my head, trying not to think about it.
“What should I do?” I asked him.
The water rose higher and so did my panic.
“You must unbuckle yourself, but be careful,” said the voice in my head that was Gung Gung. “When you do, you will fall. You might hit your head on the glass and be unconscious also.”
I nodded and reached for my buckle. My fingers fumbled with the mechanism. The button didn’t want to press in. Around me, the water rose slowly, and our car sank deeper.
“It won’t come undone,” I said, almost screaming. I started to feel the chill of the water throughout my body. It was November, too cold for swimming. My teeth chattered, and I cupped my hands to my mouth to blow warm air into them.
“You must try harder,” Gung Gung said, his voice rising too, only not with fear. It was a strong voice, a voice of authority. “Push harder. Ignore the pain you feel. Ignore the fear.”
“I can’t!” I screamed. “Can’t you help me?”
“I can’t help you,” he said. “I’m too big to fit through the seats to get you. And I’ve hurt my arm. You will need to help me after you help your mother.” He said everything calmly. I looked back and saw a horrible piece of bright white bone jutting from his skin. His arm must have snapped when he was struggling to hold onto his cane. Still, he had the same look of calm disdain he reserved for my messy room. He nodded once, very quickly.
I had heard from my mother that Communists had locked him away in China. He had been a teacher and an artist and a threat to Communism in some way. He had escaped the prison in the night, risking his life to be with his family again. I had always doubted this story, but now I didn’t.
His voice told me he had seen worse. Everything would be okay.
I nodded too and pressed again on the buckle. I felt it move and the belt loosened around me. I fell forward, though not as quickly as I would have if the water wasn’t chest high.
“Now roll down the window,” he said, urgency in his voice. “You need to be quick about it.”
“But the water will rush in!” I said,
“It’s the only way,” he said.
The button to roll down the window still worked. As I pressed it, more water poured in.
“Hold your breath! When the water fills the car, unbuckle your mom. Then swim out the window.”
“What?” I turned to face him. The water almost chin high now. “I can’t swim out with her.”
“What about you?” I pushed myself up on the chair and angled my head so that my mouth was above water.
“I’ll be okay. You go first with your mother.”
“I can’t,” I cried, but as I said it, I knew that I must. There was no choice. I would try and either succeed or die. I took a deep breath and ducked under the water. Swimming was not something I excelled at. Opening my eyes underwater had always frightened me, but I forced myself to do it.
My mom’s seatbelt was easier to press than my own. It opened easily and Mom sank in the water. I wrapped my arms around her.
“You can do this,” I heard Gung Gung’s voice say clearly despite my head being underwater. I swam to the window and somehow our bodies fit through it.
My chest hurt and I wanted to open my mouth to breathe.
“Don’t do it,” Gung Gung said. “Let your body float upward. The air will help you float. Just kick your feet.”
I did as he said, not wondering how I could still hear him.
He was right. Our bodies moved upward in the water as I kicked. Light shone down through the surface. It grew brighter and brighter the more I kicked.
Then we reached the surface. I gulped in air. Mom coughed up water. She seemed to be breathing on her own after coughing a bit.
I slowly swam to the shore. I pulled Mom beside me and held her close, fearing she would stop breathing.
“Gung Gung?” I asked aloud, hoping he would hear me if he was still alive.
“Where are you?”
“I’m swimming to the surface,” he said. “I’ll be with you soon.”
I watched the water anxiously, waiting for a sudden splash to break the surface. Time passed slowly. I checked my mother’s breathing again. She had stopped coughing and now her chest was moving up and down in slow, but steady, movements.
“She will live,” I heard Gung Gung say. There was a splash, and he swam toward me, using his one good arm and kicking his legs.
Then he was standing over me on the shore, his shadow covering both me and Mom. When I looked up at him, he was nodding.
“You have done well today,” he said. “Your mother will survive.”
“Your arm,” I said. I held my gaze on his face, too frightened to look at the bone.
“Ha!” he said audibly. “This is nothing.” I heard those words in my mind.
I stared out at the water. Our car was gone. A few bubbles rose up in the water as a reminder of where it had been.
“How are we talking?” I asked him. He had sat beside me on the shore. His breathing was heavy and deep, but somehow I knew he was not too tired.
“It runs in the family,” he said. “I had heard of it as a child, but never believed it. My mother told me her mother could communicate her thoughts to others in the family. I thought it was only an old story. Or perhaps if it was true, it had died out in the previous generations. Now I know it is still alive in us.”
I furrowed my brow, unsure if I believed this, unsure if any of it was really happening.
“It’s really happening,” he said. “I’m proud of you.”
He turned, and I saw that same look of disdain he always had, only there was a hint of a smile behind it.
I fell asleep on the shore and woke up in the hospital. My mom was in a bed beside me. I learned later that another car had seen us and stopped to help.
A nurse came in and smiled at me. “You’re awake,” she said. “You’re not going to be here much longer. You’re in tip-top shape.”
“What about my mom?” I asked.
“She’s okay too. Just a few stitches. She’s resting now.”
“What about Gung Gung,” I said, but seeing her confusion, I corrected myself and said, “My grandpa?”
“He’s a fighter. We’ll have him out soon too.”
“Can I go see him?”
The nurse led me to my clothes and told me his room number. I wandered through the hospital looking for the right room. In my mind, I called out to him, but couldn’t hear a response. I wondered if he was sleeping.
When I found his room, he was sitting up, his left arm in a sling and the other grasping the remote control. He clicked through the channels quickly, muttering to himself.
“Gung Gung?” I said.
He turned to me and narrowed his eyes. Then he nodded quickly.
“Can you understand me?” I asked.
He mumbled something in Cantonese, and I heard nothing in my head.
“I can’t understand you anymore,” I said my voice trembling. I felt tears coming to my eyes. “Was it real?”
He said something else, his voice softening. Then he put the remote down and motioned for me to come near him. I went to his bed, and he wrapped an arm around me. He continued speaking softly, though I didn’t know what he was saying.
Days later I told my mom what had happened in the car. She laughed and said, “I’m sure you just dreamed it afterwards. Scary things can make us imagine things.”
“I didn’t dream it! Ask Gung Gung!” I yelled and stormed off to my room.
Later she would tell me that she had asked Gung Gung and that he had only chuckled. I wasn’t sure if I believed her. Maybe Gung Gung wanted to keep it a secret.
I spent the next few weeks trying to learn Chinese phrases so that I could ask him myself. I had learned to say basic things like, “I need to go to the bathroom” or “Where is the food?”
I couldn’t figure out how to phrase, “Remember that time we communicated through telepathy?”
The first time I asked my mom how to say this, she laughed and told me not to bother her with silly questions. When I kept asking her, she grew frustrated and said, “You need to stop with this imaginary stuff. You’re a big girl now. No more!”
I gave up on asking her directly and instead tried to come up with clever ways of finding out indirectly. For instance, I learned to say words like “talk” and “mind.” I’d say these things when I was alone with Gung Gung. But he would just nod and repeat the word “talk.”
Gung Gung started wandering from the house. He started to forget things too – things like my mom or that his wife had died six years ago.
He was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s soon after. I would sit with him watching TV. Sometimes he would know me, sometimes not. Sometimes he would look at me, his face stern, his eyes intense. I’d think I had heard my name, just faintly in the back of my mind. He’d nod, and I knew that he remembered.
A year after the wreck, he died of a heart attack. After that, I didn’t speak to anyone about Gung Gung and me, how we had communicated that one day. As an adult, I wondered if it was real, doubting myself and my sanity. Or I would rationalize that children make things up; they dream silly things. Maybe I had made it up as a way to survive the crash, as a way to save my mother.
But sometimes, when I sit with my infant daughter and I look into her eyes and think how I love her, she smiles back. That’s when I know it’s still there. It’s still in the family.
About the Author
Megan Neumann is a speculative fiction writer living in Little Rock, Arkansas with her husband, two dogs, and one bossy cat. Her stories have appeared in Luna Station Quarterly, Perihelion Science Fiction, and SQ Mag. She grew up in a household with grandparents who spoke only Cantonese, and much of this story is based on her own experiences.