You have arrived for a better life at the New House in the New Land. It has been a long journey, the first time you’ve ever been on an aeroplane. It was nerve-racking when they checked the suitcases at the airport, even though your family has next to no possessions, let alone anything to hide. You didn’t know what big meant until you saw the city with the glass towers that touched the sky, the suburbs with houses so close together. You tell yourself everything is going to be fine. The hardest part is over. You made it.
You’re all too scared to go inside. First Uncle could be in there. He insisted on a funeral as per the local customs of this land – one that possibly didn’t include the ritual of telling him he was now dead, so he might have come home unaware.
Ma Ma’s knuckles are white from grasping the yellow protective talisman with both hands. Ba Ba pretends superstitions are for ignorant people. He inserts the key into the door. He doesn’t turn the handle.
The rag doll that Ma Ma made out of an old rice sack is clasped tightly in your arms – you are much too old for her any more, but she’s all you have. You stare up at the huge white columns propping up the crumbly tofu triangle of a roof. The long drop down to earth from the winding stone staircase you have climbed creates the same scary feeling in your stomach.
You turn instinctively towards Ma Ma’s side as you used to do, to bury your face inside the folds of her dress. But now that she is huge with child, she has taken to gently nudging you away, so you pull back before she does.
‘I didn’t expect it to be . . . a mansion,’ says Ma Ma.
‘Houses in the New Land are all supposed to be big. I have been warned,’ replies Ba Ba.
You stare up, disorientated. You don’t know if the house is truly too big or if it’s only big because you’re used to living in a cramped space.
Long fingers of cactus reach all the way up to the second floor, covering the walls like hands on a face. Balanced on the roof at the very top is a third storey, a single room with a semicircular window like an open eye.
A light inside the window flickers on and then off again. A wink. No, it is just your imagination. But what a strange thing to imagine. You look over at your parents, but they don’t seem to have noticed.
The cold winter wind blows, an icy chill that none of you have ever felt before. The amber pane in the middle of the front door is frosted and blind. Ba Ba rattles at the handle, which appears to be stuck. Suddenly, it gives way and you all tumble into a musty darkness.
It takes your eyes a while to adjust. Soon you realise you are staring at a world made completely out of dark brown wood and motes of dust that float past your nose like magic.