When the epiphyllum buds reached peak bloom, petals everywhere began to fall. They began to fall like rain.
Editor’s Note: The following story by Yang Shuang-zi 楊双子 is part of a notebook Queer Time, co-edited by Ta-wei Chi and Ariel Chu, which gathers contemporary queer Taiwanese literature in translation. To read the full Queer Time collection, visit its home here.
To read Lin King’s English translation, click here.
The novel Seasons of Bloom begins in 1930s Taiwan, during a period of peace under Japanese colonial rule. Sixteen-year-old Yang Seh-Ni1 (known by her Japanese name, Yukiko) is really Yang Hsin-Yi, a college student from the 21st century. Ten years ago, Hsin-Yi jumped into a lake in the year 2016 and found herself in 1923, inhabiting the body of Yukiko, who was six years old at the time. After befriending Matsugasaki Sakiko, a girl descended from Japanese aristocracy, Hsin-Yi decided to accept the consequences of her time travel and live out the rest of her life as Yukiko.
In the following excerpt, Hsin-Yi has been living as Yukiko for a decade; though she has given up on returning to modern times, she still retains the worldview of a 21st-century woman, making her rather extraordinary for a teenage girl in the 1930s. As a member of Ti Ju Teng, a prominent family in central Taiwan, Yukiko aims to protect her loved ones from the historical catastrophes that she knows await them in the 1940s.
However, news arrives from Japan that Yukiko’s older brother and the heir to Ti Ju Teng, Yang Hui-Hong (known by his Japanese name, Keika), has attempted suicide. With this single event, all of Yukiko’s life plans have now been laid to waste.
EXCERPT FROM “CHAPTER THIRTEEN: EPIPHYLLUM”
After school, Yukiko headed to the public library. Sa-chan2 was waiting for her between two bookshelves.
Like always, the two of them were meeting in the library in the few minutes between returning and borrowing books, as if engaging in a secret rendezvous. Ordinarily they might have exchanged a few words about the school day, but that afternoon, after Naitō-sensei’s reprimand about classroom gossip, both were heavy-hearted and so did not say much.
At the library’s exit, Yukiko reached out to touch the sailor collar of Sa-chan’s school uniform, slowly and meticulously smoothing down the hem with her fingertips. In reality, Sa-chan’s collar was tidy and wrinkle-free; what Yukiko was really attempting to smooth out was the stubborn creases in their hearts.
If only those wrinkles could be as easily smoothed.
They parted. Yukiko was halfway down Shinseibashi Avenue when she heard hurried footsteps approaching her from behind.
She turned and found Sa-chan—cheeks reddened, hair tousled—wearing a solemn expression that deepened the crease between her brows.
Was this really the Sa-chan she knew? Among their classmates, Sakiko-san was known for living up to her namesake, “bloom:” when standing, she seemed like a Chinese peony; when sitting, a mountain peony; when walking, a lily.
But Sa-chan abandoned all their usual propriety and interrupted Yukiko mid-sentence. “Yuki, this is all too strange!” she cried. “It’s always been your dream to study on the mainland3—why are you giving up so easily? Tell me, is that strange or what? Shouldn’t it be our priority to build a foundation for financial independence if we ever want to become self-reliant women in this world? If this is just about money . . .”
“Sa-chan,” Yukiko cut her off. Not Sakiko-san, but Sa-chan. Though any one of their classmates could pass by at any moment, Yukiko, like Sa-chan, abandoned formal speech.
“If it were just a matter of money,” Yukiko continued, “don’t your parents have more than enough to live independently, whether on the island or the mainland? But, Sa-chan, isn’t it true that your family could only live freely after moving here, not because of money, but because of the scrutiny they receive over there?4 It doesn’t matter if you have money when you have to take your family name into consideration with everything you do!”
Sa-chan said nothing. Her eyes grew pink, brimming with tears that glimmered under the late-afternoon sun. Her lips quivered ever so slightly.
If only I could escape with Sa-chan!
This was the cry that boomed inside Yukiko.
The cry grew louder and louder, but its echoes could only be heard in the depths of her bones.
The rumors about Yukiko seeking a bridegroom to take her family name5 were true.
She had not told any of her friends—not Yumiko, Shizue, or Hua-Lui, and not even Sa-chan. Although clever Sa-chan could probably deduce it on her own.
It had been decided: after graduation, Yukiko would not go to the mainland to continue her education. Instead, she would take a husband under the Yang name and uphold the Ti Ju Teng family business.
Father had delayed his return from the mainland multiple times. At first, he had sent word that he and Keika-nīsan would return before the Lunar New Year, but a few days after the Gregorian New Year, he had sent a lengthy letter recanting this plan. Keika-nīsan had a psychological illness, Father had written—he could not resolve the feelings of deep despair within himself. Father had decided to seek a slower-paced treatment using Chinese medicine and would remain on the mainland until Keika-nīsan had fully recovered.
Yukiko had read the long letter, written entirely in kanji, aloud to Grandmother and Mother. The three of them had been alone. Mother had burst into angry tears, and Grandmother’s expression had been as unfathomable as deep water.
That same night, Grandmother had repeated an ancient Chinese saying to Yukiko: “A country relies on its generals; a family relies on its eldest son.” The future heir was of the utmost importance to a family, hence the years of care and effort that had been invested in Keika, eldest son of the eldest son. Moreover, Grandmother had added, the family had been lenient about Keika’s previous mishaps, always trying their best to set him back on the right path. But, considering the less-than-ideal outcome, Grandmother would no longer put off the obvious and final decision.
“Ti Ju Teng cannot be entrusted to Keika.”
Grandmother had said it lightly, matter-of-factly.
In that moment, Yukiko had wondered: What had the older girls of Ti Ju Teng been thinking when they, too, had knelt on this footstool by Grandmother’s wooden bed, curled up by Grandmother’s legs? What kinds of thoughts had run through their heads?
Even Grandmother had to admit that the idea of making the lastborn daughter take a husband under the family name—when in fact the eldest son was capable of marrying and producing offspring—was a preposterous notion. Yet Yukiko’s elder sister, the eldest daughter of the eldest son, had already married into that tea-trading family in far-off Datōtei6. Yukiko’s older cousin, the eldest daughter of the second-born son, had married into a small, unknown family. Her twin sister, the second-born daughter of the second-born son, was too ill to wed. Talk about preposterous!
Grandmother had then clarified: Yukiko was still four or five years from the marriageable age, and Grandmother was in no hurry to settle on a candidate. It would take a lot of time and careful observation to determine whether somebody would be a good match. As for school—women’s colleges on the island were all focused on grooming their students into good little wives. Rather than go all the way to Taihoku7 for such an education, Yukiko would be better off studying at home. Whatever books she wanted—novels, biographies, magazines—she only had to say the word . . .
Yukiko had felt like somebody had emptied out both her heart and her mind.
From the moment Grandmother had declared that studying in the mainland was now out of the question, Yukiko had been plunged into an impenetrable fog. She could not see the future, could not guess what her next step would be. What she did know for certain was that, if it was necessary for her to marry at all, taking a husband under the Yang name was far preferable to marrying into some family far from home.
No—but that wasn’t all.
The implication of taking a husband under her name was that Yukiko would be the one to inherit Ti Ju Teng. She would become the family’s next pillar; she would be able to steer Ti Ju Teng away from the various dangers that she knew were coming in the near future. Even if she could not realize her dream of studying in the mainland, she could still realize her dream of repositioning the family to avoid the brunt of the coming wars.
She could, in short, ensure that every single member of Ti Ju Teng would survive.
Was that not what she wanted?
And yet, perched on the footstool before Grandmother’s feet, Yukiko had seen nothing, felt nothing. Something hard and cold like frosted steel had blockaded her chest.
That conversation had taken place in the beginning of winter, back when the air had still stirred with autumn breeze. One day soon after, while Yukiko and Sa-chan had been taking their customary nap on Grandmother’s broad wooden bed, Yukiko had confessed that she would no longer be able to fulfill their promise of going to the mainland together. Under the silk canopy, a series of expressions had clouded Sa-chan’s face: shock, confusion, distress, deliberation. After a few moments, her countenance had settled into what was indisputably one of deep pain.
“Isn’t there any other—”
Sa-chan had not finished the question before stopping herself.
Given Sa-chan’s strong will, Yukiko had thought that she would raise objections upon hearing the news. But in the moment, Sa-chan had not said another word. The agony in her face had shown that she had understood Yukiko’s position entirely. She had not wished to make things more difficult for Yukiko than they already were.
Despite all this, here they were now: months later, on this frigid spring day, the formerly reasonable Sa-chan had chased Yukiko all the way down Shinseibashi Avenue. Messy-haired. Teary-eyed.
“Yuki, this is all too strange!”
This must have been her true opinion all along.
Yukiko’s chest swelled. She longed to seize Sa-chan’s hand and run off to some faraway land that nobody knew. In reality, however, all she could do was to turn on her heels and walk off in the opposite direction—away from Sa-chan.
When Yukiko got off the train at her station, every sight and sound felt like a sharp sting: the shrill whistle of the steam engine, the bright banners of the storefronts, the sunlight reflecting off the American car awaiting her by the station door.
On the drive home, Hian-Bun-nīsan8 smoked three whole cigarettes in a row. He only put out the last one when the car rolled into the Ti Ju Teng gardens.
“I heard that even your classmates are gossiping about the rumors of your marriage,” he said at last.
“Hian-Bun-nīsan is well-informed as always.”
Lin, the driver, chuckled. “Doesn’t Miss know? Master Hian-Bun sent out a bunch of people to scope out the news!”
“Lin, shut your damn mouth!”
Hian-Bun-nīsan’s harsh rebuke not only made Lin jump, but also jolted Yukiko out of her stupor.
The strike of a match, the flare of a flame: Hian-Bun-nīsan lit his fourth cigarette.
“Yukiko, I can give you the life you want. Including, of course, letting you continue with your education.”
“. . . Is Hian-Bun-nīsan saying he’d like to take my last name?”
“Ha! Little Yukiko-chan still says whatever she wants, even now that she’s all grown up.” Hian-Bun-nīsan laughed, swallowing and exhaling smoke. “Just know this one thing. When it comes to your marriage, I am the best candidate.”
Yukiko did not know what to say.
The car slowly circled the half-moon pond and pulled to a stop in front of Ti Ju Teng’s outer apartments. Behind the garden wall stood the Yang family’s courtyard mansion, just as it had stood for countless generations since the Qing Dynasty. Steadfast, enduring Ti Ju Teng. The setting sun stained its red bricks into a bloodlike color, as if the walls and roofs were carved from a dark ruby.
Yukiko lost herself in the imposing sight. She could almost make out familiar silhouettes in the courtyard, flickering in and out of sight: Grandmother, Mother, Aunty Lan, Madam Tshiu-Seng, and the young members of Ti Ju Teng who reminded her of so many blooming flowers: Haruko-nēsan, Onko-nēsan, Yoshiko-nēsan—and, of course, Keika-nīsan . . .
Spring flowers: after reaching full bloom, they wilted day by day.
The days began to grow warmer. One day, Ti Ju Teng received an invitation from the Matsugasaki residence for an epiphyllum blossom viewing.
Epiphyllum flowers bloomed only in the dead of night. Attending the viewing would mean staying overnight at the Matsugasakis’; Grandmother and Mother therefore decided to send Yukiko as their sole representative. Yukiko hesitated at first, but Mother said to her, “No need to worry, just go. Do what you would like to do.”
Yukiko understood, in that moment, that her mother also knew about Grandmother’s decision. Or rather, that it had in fact been Grandmother and Mother’s decision all along.
The invitation was for a Saturday, a half-day at school. After class, Yukiko took the back alleys toward the Matsugasaki residence.
Sa-chan greeted her at the door. She had changed out of her uniform and was in a plain, English-style dress.
“There’s nobody else at home—” Sa-chan began, then stopped mid-sentence. Her eyes met Yukiko’s.
Yukiko knew that they were both recalling an earlier conversation, one that had taken place at this very door. Back then, when Sa-chan had said “There’s nobody else at home right now,” Yukiko—recalling erotic clichés from the twenty-first century—had not been able to stop herself from giggling. Now, standing in the same entryway and looking at each other, neither of them could muster up a smile.
Nevertheless, Sa-chan invited Yukiko in and served her ochazuke made with broth. She laid out pickled cucumbers, radishes, and turnips, saying “Sorry—we don’t have pickled eggplants today.”
The table was silent except for the gentle sounds of their chewing. A little while later, Sa-chan’s chopsticks stopped moving.
“If only . . . if only the world would end right this second.”
At this, Yukiko almost burst into tears.
The world would not end here.
Sa-chan’s mother, Kiyoko-san, returned with Japanese sweets from Yōrōken meant for that night’s viewing. The Matsugasaki residence was located in bustling Kawabata-chō; while the mansion was tranquil within its walled enclosure, people’s voices outside could be heard all the way until sundown. When Kiyoko-san heard a vendor calling out for hot almond tea, she sent Saitō-san, the housekeeper, to buy a few bowls, along with crisp fried dough wrapped in newspaper.
At midnight, the epiphyllum blossoms reached full bloom. They were exceptionally breathtaking and exuded a rich aroma that filled the lungs of their viewers. The summery night sky, which showed no signs of clouds or even the moon, was somehow carpeted with glittering stars. One could easily point out Venus, Polaris, the Summer Triangle: the world continued to run itself, to move forward.
Sa-chan had nodded off, resting her head against a column. Yukiko removed her jacket and laid it gently over Sa-chan’s shoulders.
“How sweet-natured Yukiko-san is,” Kiyoko-san said, smiling. Next to her, Sa-chan’s father, Yukinaga-san, was likewise smiling. Yukiko, who had not realized that they had been watching her, only nodded by way of response.
As if suddenly recalling something, Yukinaga-san added, “Yukiko-san is the only person whom Sakiko, with all her pride and principles, truly admires from the bottom of her heart. It must be because of Yukiko-san’s sweet nature.”
Next to him, Saitō-san said, “Sakiko-san always treats Yukiko-san like a sister. Now you see—it is because Yukiko-san treats Sakiko-san with the same sincerity.” As the Matsugasakis’ housekeeper, Saitō-san was often tasked with delivering invitations and gifts to Ti Ju Teng, and sometimes also delivered small trinkets from Sa-chan to Yukiko. After so many years, he and Yukiko were likewise well-acquainted.
Yukiko felt suddenly ill at ease with all this attention. Observing her embarrassment and evidently not wishing to further it, Kiyoko-san woke Sa-chan with a laugh: “Go sleep in your room—the blossoms are closing anyhow.”
Thus ended the flower viewing. Yukiko followed Kiyoko-san and Sa-chan to wash up and change into nightclothes. Before they stepped into Sa-chan’s bedroom, however, Kiyoko-san gestured for Yukiko to stop. “Oh, my—there seems to be a stain on Yukiko-san’s hem. Shall we take a look at it somewhere with more light?”
And yet, under the bright lights of the living room, the nightgown she had borrowed from Sa-chan was completely spotless. Intuiting that something was off, Yukiko looked directly into Kiyoko-san’s eyes.
“Yukinaga-san was right,” Kiyoko-san said, formal as ever. “It is because Yukiko-san is so considerate and so clever that many people are heartbroken over Yukiko-san’s plight.” There was a trace of apology in her eyes. “But Yukiko-san—as a mother, there are many difficult considerations that make it impossible to grant Sakiko’s request. If Yukiko-san could forgive us on this account . . .”
“Sorry—I do not mean to be rude—but I do not know what Kiyoko-san is referring to.”
“Hm? Does Yukiko-san not know?” Kiyoko-san’s expression was one of utter surprise. Moments later, she had restored her previous calm and was looking at Yukiko thoughtfully. “Sakiko demanded that Yukinaga-san make Taisanrō9 ask for Yukiko-san’s hand in marriage.”
“Wh—what? How is that possible?”
Compared to Kiyoko-san’s momentary surprise, Yukiko’s shock almost made her lose her composure entirely.
Kiyoko-san shook her head, smiling sadly. “After Yukinaga-san declined, Sakiko asked to continue her education on the island instead of in Kyoto. Of course, Yukinaga-san denied this as well. He was hard on her—‘Was all your talk about your future ambitions just a joke?’ To be honest, Yukiko-san, we were both extremely disappointed in her.”
Yukiko tried her best to control her own face. She pinched her own fingers, attempting to summon up some phrases that would be appropriate for the moment. Yet she was biting her lip too firmly to utter a single word.
“. . . Yukiko-san, it is now clear to me that we were wrong to blame Sakiko’s behavior on you. She has acted like a stubborn fool purely because of the foolish blood she inherited from her own father and mother! But seeing as you share such a sisterly affection with her, surely Yukiko-san can also see what the right path for Sakiko is.”
Kiyoko-san exhaled a quiet sigh.
The two of them walked back to Sakiko’s bedroom. Kiyoko-san said, “Please rest well tonight, Yukiko-san.”
The room was dark; Yukiko could make out two sets of pillows and blankets on the tatami. She felt her way to the empty set.
Sa-chan’s voice: “That took a while. Did you end up changing clothes?”
Yukiko shook her head, then remembered that Sa-chan could not see her in the dark. “No, Kiyoko-san made a mistake. The gown was clean, but we had a little chat.”
Sa-chan chuckled. “That’s because Mother is also fond of you.”
Yukiko’s heart twinged. She turned toward Sa-chan and leaned forward and forward until her forehead touched Sa-chan’s shoulder. Sa-chan responded by stroking her hair.
“Are you not feeling well, Yuki?”
Yukiko could not bring herself to speak. She shook her head gently under Sa-chan’s palm, gritting her teeth so that she would not call out Sa-chan’s name.
Sa-chan had never said anything to suggest that she had been chastised by her parents for making impossible demands on Yukiko’s behalf.
What had Sa-chan been thinking?
Because of the things that had befallen Keika-nīsan, Yukiko could no longer go to the mainland. Did Sa-chan believe that she could give Yukiko a better deal? Was that why she had made such brash requests of her parents?
Within their limited circumstances, Sa-chan alone had tried to free Yukiko from her predicament.
This was no “foolish blood” of the Matsuzakis. This had been Sa-chan’s best effort at illuminating a way forward for Yukiko.
Sa-chan, doing her utmost to carve out a path for Yukiko, was the brightest, most incandescent star in that cloudless, moonless night. Yukiko knew this better than anyone. Yet, with the light that Sa-chan shed, Yukiko saw that the path before her was one of impenetrable mud. She could not see how to proceed; she felt so depleted that she could no longer fathom taking any action at all. She also knew, without a doubt, that from this day on, there would always be a fissure between the Matsugasaki and Yang families.
The world continued to run itself, to move forward.
One week later, on the day of the Dragon Boat Festival, Father brought Keika-nīsan home to Ti Ju Teng. Uncle’s fiftieth birthday banquet was in a few days, and the family had just purchased a new, streamlined Ford from America.
One month later, the newspapers announced the “China Incident” at Luguo Bridge. It was the seventh of July, 1937. At around that same time, the Wu family of Lugang10 sent word that they wished to to postpone Keika-nīsan’s wedding to the following summer.
For the next six months, they heard and read all kinds of news from the Battle of Nanking, until the Imperial Japanese Army eventually conquered the city.
Two months after that, Taihoku was bombed by fighter jets from Soviet Russia and the Republic of China11. Meanwhile, the Imperial Army was reporting victory after victory against China. Despite the air strike, the war seemed to be progressing well for Japan.
The year was 1938. Spring flowers blossomed once more.
When the epiphyllum buds reached peak bloom, petals everywhere began to fall. They began to fall like rain.
1 This translation uses Taiwanese Hokkien romanization. Though the novel is written in Mandarin Chinese, most of the conversations are in Japanese or Taiwanese Hokkien.
2 Yukiko’s nickname for Sakiko, which she only uses in private. This translation uses Japanese honorifics: -chan for a familiar address, -san for a respectful address, -nīsan for an older-brother figure, -nēsan for an older-sister figure, and -sensei for teacher.
3 Under Japanese colonization, “the mainland” refers to Japan, while “the island” refers to Taiwan.
4 As part of the Japanese aristocracy, Sakiko’s family would have been more restricted on the mainland.
5 A traditional form of marriage known as “zhao zhui:”A husband takes his wife’s family name, and their children likewise take the maternal name. This usually occurs only when a prominent family does not have a son to continue the family name.
6 A historically important commercial district in Taipei. Datōtei is the Japanese name; the Mandarin is Dadaocheng.
7 The Japanese colonial name for Taipei.
8 Yukiko’s older cousin, the eldest son of her father’s younger sister, who now acts as Ti Ju Teng’s manager.
9 Sakiko’s older brother.
10 A prosperous family whose daughter is engaged to Keika.
11 Known in English as the Taihoku Air Strike and in Mandarin as the Songshan Air Strike.