ollowing her emigration to the United States in 1965, Vivian Huang fell into a
strange illness, a melodic preoccupation from which her new surroundings, her
husband and children were almost forgotten as she struggled to hear faint,
imagined strains of music. The origin of her illness lay in memory. She did not
listen for the symphonic boom from Carnegie Hall, or the smooth sounds of the
American stereo cabinet, but for the faint and wistful strains of the gramophone
that she and her friends had played when they were barely teenagers, at her
familys old house in Beijing. Strauss waltzes and Beethoven sonatas hummed so
quietly in her mind that Vivian had to lie very still in order to hear them. When
she closed her eyes, scenes from the ancient walled city spun against her lids,
vivid and fleeting, as if she were watching from a plush seat in a movie house.
These reveries were shattered each evening when her
husband, Ming, came home from work and directed their sons practice sessions on
First your turn, Ben, she heard Mings firm voice say. There
was a long pause.
Vivian imagined Ben dragging his feet away from the television set and into the
practice room. He stood ready to play like a sad little cricket, his tiny
instrument drooped under his chin. After a few scratchy notes he began to howl.
Ma . . . Ma, Mama!
Mama doesnt feel well. Ming gritted his teeth.
Despite Bens refusals and cries, it was half an hour before Ming gave up.
right, he said finally. Now, Charles.
Charles tuned his strings. Vivian opened her eyes and saw Bens small
the doorway. He had tiptoed in so that Ming wouldnt hear. Now he stood and
stared, terrified at the sight of her lying in bed.