Yatyee sprints as she wills her legs to make bigger strides.


atyee sprints as she wills her legs to make bigger strides. She can see the finish line, white paint over orange-brown dust. She pushes as she soars through the last few leaps. She may not have long limbs, but she has power. She pushes through, and as her classmates cheer, Yatyee knows she is a winner.

It is 1945 and she has just won another medal on Sports Day at Chinese Middle School in Port Louis. It’s her favourite school day, because it breaks the routine. It’s like skipping class without getting punished. Plus, she gets the spotlight for once.

The days are long and class is boring at this all-girls school, until she meets Lewis. He is here to teach English and French, but is not an actual teacher. He stands in for his sister for a week as there was no one else on such short notice. He’s a young adult, which is to Yatyee the best type of adult. There can’t be more than ten years between them, after all. He has a wide forehead, a sign of stubbornness. His voice is comforting to Yatyee, despite its gruffness. He sounds like he knows what he’s talking about.

At the end of his week at Chinese Middle School, he talks to her. He has been eyeing her for a week—the girl in the back row with voluminous hair who makes jokes under her breath. She thinks she is slick; the truth is he has pretended not to notice. Lewis knows she will stay on his mind. He has stayed out of trouble so far, but with his teaching duties over, he can finally take his chance. They should get to know each other, he says. They can’t not see each other again. Yatyee discovers a new side of him, one that is charming. Neither coy nor brazen, but just confident enough. Before she knows it, she is imagining a life with him.

By the end of the year, Lewis is sending in proposals. Her father refuses. Yatyee’s dream shatters. Her father will not accept a man like Lewis, whose family does not own anything. Her father is a rich man himself, and he plans to marry her off to someone well-off. Someone secure.

But Lewis is a stubborn man, and the proposals keep coming. He writes letter after letter, wearing Yatyee’s old man down.

“I hope you don’t regret this,” he finally relents.

Yatyee almost runs a lap around her house in celebration.

Jane walks down the aisle. The church is full and her dress feels light on her. She’s 17, poised like a monarch.

Lewis is Catholic, so she had to get baptized. Otherwise, they wouldn’t be able to get married at church. His family members brainstormed potential baptismal names for her as her family only ever used Chinese names. Someone suggested Patricia. Lewis said Jane. Someone else said a biblical name she didn’t quite catch. Somehow, they agreed on Patricia. Officially, her names shall be Yatyee and Patricia. To the young bride, it doesn’t really matter. In his arms, she will always be Jane.

When she asks him why he calls her that, he strokes her hair and replies that “Jane is a name for a pretty girl.”

Officially, her names shall be Yatyee and Patricia. To the young bride, it doesn’t really matter. In his arms, she will always be Jane.

Lewis gets a good job writing letters at the harbour. A lot of men talk big, but even the educated ones hardly write well. But Lewis can. Didn’t his letters sway her father after all? When Lewis comes home, he tutors his friends’ kids for free, because he can see that they have potential. Their doors are open, the house is always alive.

He teaches her to cook. At her father’s house, she had maids that cleaned up after her and cooks who made her anything she wanted. Having thrown herself into adult life, Jane now learns how to be a wife. She realizes that she was not a princess on her wedding day; she was one at her father’s house, where she had hobbies instead of chores.

Lewis’s little brother and Jane are around the same age. If Lewis is the calm sibling, he is the adventurous one. He spends his weekends with friends spearfishing: diving in the ocean intrepidly with a harpoon in hand. Jane is secretly grateful that Lewis hates fishing. The thought of him underwater terrifies her.

Some time after the birth of their second child, Lewis’s brother brings them two big vielle rouge that he caught. He raves about the quality of the fish. Once cooked, it probably is excellent. Lewis drinks with his brother and his friends inside as Jane is in the yard cleaning the fish on the baba ross cari, that small stone table used to crush spices.

The task is taxing on her. There is the removal of the scales, which reminds her that knives are not only for cutting. As the knife grazes along the skin, scales fly everywhere. Some of them go as far as the curry tree with the fragrant leaves. Not even the smell of curry leaves can cover the stench of fresh fish. The only thing that smells worse than fresh fish is rotten fish.

Her baby starts crying, the wailing loud and clear despite the distance. She starts walking inside, but as the wails turn into screeches, her legs gather speed. She sprints up the stairs. She feeds her baby, makes her burp and puts her to sleep. Then, her toddler needs to use the toilet. It’s in a shed outside, so she has to stay with him.

As she brings him back to the house, she hears the laughter of the men in the living room. Her heart sinks. She has left the fish outside. The fish sit on the warm stone, their guts exposed. Where there should have been white flesh, Jane sees an amalgamation of black orbs, like rotten sweetsop. Flies.

She has to tell Lewis. He is laughing way louder than usual. From outside the house, she can even hear him sing. Up close, she sees the gaucherie in his body; he looks uncertain of what he should do with his limbs. His hair is shiny, not with the wax that makes him look like a Hong Kongese actor, but with sweat. His breath stinks of Goodwill rum.

Jane has heard about this from her friends. No matter how patient a man is, he will get violent when drunk. Her friends have bruises, blue like the ocean beyond the lagoon, where the best fish swim. Marks of their husbands’ whisky. She tells her drunk husband she ruined the fish and her heart beats like she’s just run a race. Adrenaline turned into fear. She braces herself for a hit. Nothing comes.

Instead, Lewis asks her what else they have in the pantry. That night, they have rice and lentils. The meal is warm, like the feeling in Jane’s chest.

Lewis prefers having girls over boys; he says they are easier. Less to worry about. Less likely to turn bad. Jane learns that Lewis can be relentless with his sons, but never with his daughters. None of the boys turns bad. 20 years after the day she wore the white monarch dress, they have 12 children: seven boys and five girls. The eleventh is called Patricia. The twelfth's name is Marie-Jane.

The days are long and tiring. The house is spilling over with life. With that many mouths to feed, Jane learns to make things in bulk. She always cooks stew, because she just needs a lot of water to make a lot of sauce. Meat is sparse. The kids line up and take their portion, like in a canteen. The table is too small, so they spread across the living room to eat. Cliques form among Jane’s little clan. The boys will joke that they can form their own football team.

At some point, the kids start looking after each other. Big sisters become little mothers. Jane remains mother of all mothers. At the end of each day, she lies down with Lewis. At the end of each day, she becomes Jane, and only Jane.

Popo accelerates as she heads towards the room, cane in hand. She is vehemently against using it, but sometimes it does help when she has to hurry.

Popo. She loves the sound of it, how everyone in the family just refers to her as the grandmother. Her grandkids may not speak Hakka, but they all know what that word means.

As her cane propels her forward, she knows that the new maid can hear her, but she doesn’t care. She has tried several times to catch her in the act but failed every time. She is too slow and the maid is too swift.

Popo bursts into the room, demanding that the maid opens her bag. The woman’s eyes almost leave their sockets and she becomes agitated like a trapped animal.

“Madam,” she shrieks, “it was probably your granddaughter!”

Her granddaughter, who is six at the time. Very believable. Popo knows the house, knows all its ins and outs. She knows her daughter Patricia bought new bedsheets in Port Louis. They were blue like the sea within the lagoon. A safe, comforting blue colour. They have been disappearing, and Popo can feel it like the house feels every loss. Popo has not told the maid what she’s been suspecting. She indirectly confessed. How can she prove it definitively though?

No, Popo cannot touch the maid’s belongings. She cannot physically do anything to her. But there is something else she can do.

“I don’t like thieves, but I hate liars. Never come back here.”

That night, Popo prays that she will find an appropriate replacement. Please send an honest, hardworking person my way. Every night, she sits on her empty bed and prays, muttering with a rosary in hand. She mixes Hakka and Creole, but it does not matter because God will understand. And then, she sleeps alone.

In every child that is born, she looks for Lewis. It’s a good thing his genes are strong. The kids all have the same forehead. She holds every child, muscle memory taking over the motion. She strokes their head, the skin of her hands made paper thin with time. Yet, her arms are cushions: they’re safe. The children and grandchildren are all over the world: she is at the head of an empire.

She mixes Hakka and Creole, but it does not matter because God will understand. And then, she sleeps alone.

Lewis has been gone for decades now. He had a heart attack in the living room when her youngest child was still a teenager. He used to say he wanted to die at home.

Most of Popo’s grandchildren have not met him.

Potai is bent over in the car seat, trying to catch her breath. She has just reached a housewarming party. In the house lives her 27th great-grandchild. She now has more great-grandchildren than grandchildren, so her title has gone up a generation from popo. Her own daughters are the popos now, after all.

That car ride was horrible, worse than a marathon. She cannot breathe, she can barely hear. Head bent down, she cannot see them: the priest who is here to bless the house, her children with their budding wrinkles, her grandchildren with their smartphones and great-grandchildren holding up toys.

A whisper ripples across the group, and she overhears it. Clinic.

In-between huffs and wheezes, she blurts out “I don’t want to sleep alone.” “I won’t go, I don’t want to sleep alone.”

She finally looks up and they are all gawking at her, barely hiding their pity. This won’t do.

Potai wills her limbs to move. She throws a leg out as her hand grips the side of the open door. She will get out of the car. She will show them she can do it. She’s a winner, after all. She tries to pull herself out but cannot do anything else. Her limbs are too heavy and she cannot breathe.

The crowd moves, and her children come forward like Moses breaking through the sea.

“We won’t leave you alone, we promise.”

As the car drives away towards the clinic, she can make out two shadows outside the window. They are waving. Under the garden light, she sees how their eyes glisten. They are her two youngest grandchildren; she cannot tell that they are tearing up. She has been old all their lives.

Potai has outlived her husband, her husband’s little brothers, and her own little brother. Outlived her friends, a son and even a grandson.

Once at the clinic, she gets sent to the ICU. She sleeps alone, but not really. Around her are other people lying down. She cannot touch anyone. She wants to talk to the nurses, but her breath catches in the mask on her mouth.

A week later, Potai is back home. A nebulizer mask is strapped to her face. There are two people huddled around her on the couch: one holds her head up while cradling her neck, the other holds her nebulizer mask in place. They are her twelfth child, Marie-Jane, and the latter’s daughter, Tanya Jane.

Three generations of Jane sitting together.

After all, what’s in a name? Potai has had so many throughout her life. In her living room cabinet, there is a handwritten list of all the members of the family, with their names written in the Roman alphabet and Chinese characters, even though no one in the family uses Chinese names anymore.

As Potai phases in and out of consciousness, she lets out the occasional babble.

“I was the best runner. At school, Chinese school, I ran and I always won!”

“The fish … I left them outside. They were grade A fish! Go fetch them, I left them outside!”

“The maid, she’s bad, really bad. She steals stuff … bedsheets. Those bedsheets cost 50 rupees, would you believe?!”

“He said it was pretty,” she half-mumbles, half-whispers.

At this, her granddaughter, the one who writes, scoots closer to the woman who was the start of it all. The girl asks her to repeat, and Potai speaks up, loud and clear.

“Lewis used to call me Jane.”

About the author

Tanya Ng Cheong is a Toronto-based writer from Mauritius. She recently graduated from the University of Toronto Scarborough, where she studied English, journalism and creative writing. Her work can be found in Room, Ricepaper, and Block Party.