Krystal Song’s “Tamoria”
Krystal Song is a first-gen immigrant with roots in Shanghai and Hong Kong. Her work in magical realism and fantasy looks into the shifting nature of memory and history. To learn more, visit: https://www.
Without further ado, and with both great pleasure and honor, we present you her story:
I remember when we were kids, my sister and I discovered a portal into a strange world. We never found out its real name, so we named it ourselves, with all the audacity of young explorers at the edge of a new world. Sam named it Tamoria, or maybe that was me–at that age, everything we did, we did together.
We moved into a new neighborhood shortly after I turned twelve. Every house on the block looked old and somehow blurry, as if coated in a thin sheen of fog and soot. Our new house was a disappointment: a decrepit wraparound porch the color of mud, flowery grandma wallpaper peeling in the corners. I didn’t like the odor either: mothballs and fake Christmas candles.
“But there’s a backyard,” my sister said, in her compelling way, and those words pulled at me like a fishing hook. When we ventured outside, I suggested calling our baby brother, but Sam told me not wait for him. In the years to come, my brother would blame me for this, time and time again.
Outside, the wind was fierce. Whipping up my ponytail, jingling the bells in my hair clip. In the air, the scent of magnolia blossoms and running water, trees and birds and living things. The backyard was really not a backyard but a miniature wood, with overgrown grasses and tall ferns and billowing trees with branches that just stretched on and on like hungry arms. The shade flickered overhead, the sun streaming in wherever it could find a foothold. Overripe apples littered the ground. By my feet, weeds shot out of cement cracks, their tiny blue petals the size of thumbnails.
“Magic,” I whispered. The place felt charged with static, currents of electric possibility running through the air. Goosebumps lined the soft pink of my inner arm.
My sister ran her hand over my wrist, then squeezed. “C’mon.”
We ran. Plunging into the thicket, the tall grasses overwhelmed us, until we could see nothing but each other. The world felt so big back then, but maybe we were just small, or perhaps both, like ants peering over the Grand Canyon.
I tripped first, or Sam did, either way, we both stumbled over the mound of loose soil, tumbling down and down, fallen thistles yanking at our hair, dirt slipping into the loose cups of our new bras. I landed on something soft. My sister landed on something hard. She let out a low gasp; I followed her startled gaze. Fresh blood flecked the white of her wrist, the shallow cut smeared with dirt. The craggy rock beneath her gazed guiltily back.
“Should I call for help?” I asked, unsettled by the sharp scent, the way blood, like nothing else, looks more real in person than in the movies.
Sam shook her head. She glanced back at the house, a foreign silhouette beyond the trees. The garden was only a few acres altogether, but the house and civilization and our family felt so far away. The thrill of magic lingered in the air, but also the thrill of something else, danger, was it?
“Do you hear that?” Sam asked. Her brows drew together as she squinted at a faraway sound. She moved towards the base of the trees and I almost lost her in the shadows, the trunks so wide we could have wrapped our arms around them and never touched.
“Like… wind, whirring through a tunnel.”
We both bent towards the source. Coming from beneath the rocks, a low, eerie whirling noise, like a leaky tire, or a bird’s final cry.
“It sounds like it’s coming from down there,” I said, pointing, then scrambling around the rocks into the cranny between them.
“Wait!” she cried, grabbing my wrist. I turned back. Her wide eyes met mine. Then she nodded.
There was a hole waiting there, between the roots and rocks, wide and black and beckoning.
We both jumped in.
Tamoria was an elusive world, not like ours where everything makes sense, or at least, affects to. There were no laws of gravity or traffic violations or statute laws. Instead, there were creatures of all kinds, who did what they liked and minded their own business. Altogether, it was a lucky thing we found this one and not another, for Dad was always reading the news and reporting another case of missing children, and in retrospect, that easily could have been us.
That afternoon when we jumped down the tunnel, we discovered a meadow on the other end, a regular paradise with iridescent butterflies and giant blueberries nearly the width of your pinky finger. We found other marvels too, marvels we’ve long forgot, because the only ones we remember are the ones we discuss, again and again, and even those might have shifted and altered over time, lost in translation.
My sister warned me not to tell our baby brother, that he would ruin the whole secret, but it was like holding the fluffiest marshmallow in the world and telling a child not to take a bite. I couldn’t help it; at night when Riley crawled into my bed, I whispered to him under a pillow that I knew a secret place better than Minecraft, and watched his eyes grow as shiny as high-resolution pixels.
At first he was angry at us–for excluding him, for choosing each other. But his sulk couldn’t hold in the face of the thrilling promise of Tamoria. We begged Sam and she relented, taking us both down to the rockfall by the base of the old trees.
There was a trick: You had to give an offering to enter, something of yourself. It could be something small, Tamoria wasn’t greedy, but it had to be something precious. We usually went with blood–that was easiest, and Dad wouldn’t suspect a thing. One time I gave up Riley’s USB with his favorite texture pack on it, and he wouldn’t speak to me for hours after. I finally found him in Tamoria that night, playing with the iridescent butterflies as they murmured to him in their unknowable language. I think they advised him to forgive me.
We never did figure out how sentient the world was, but as children, we never speculated for long. It was too easy to accept everything at face value, as it was, and why bother to find out, when everything remained so much more thrilling as a mystery? Perhaps this was our hubris, as we grew older, to break apart the pieces until nothing but seams of logic and calculations persisted. Skeletons, even skeletons of magic, were never quite as special.
The wonder would forsake us then, and we would be left wondering: how did we make sense of it all?
On Tuesday afternoon, Riley comes over for resume help. We’re in San Francisco now, all three of us, though Sam travels too much to really belong to any one city. Riley is trying to become a big grown-up, but unfortunately, he can never try hard enough around us older sisters, who tease him relentlessly no matter how tall he gets. At twenty, he towers over both Sam and I, loose-limbed and lean in his button-down shirt, the sleeves rolled up to his elbows. Another failed job interview. We mourn over dumplings.
“It was the second coding challenge,” he explains around a mouthful of food. “They asked me to spirally traverse a matrix.”
“Bummer,” I reply, my attention straying to the oven, where the chocolate pie needs to be checked.
He rolls his eyes at me. “At least try to sound sorry for me.”
“I know you’ll get something eventually,” I say, getting off my stool to take his empty glass. I refill it with milk before he even asks. Dad forced all of us children to drink a glass of milk a day, and now, even though he’s thousands of miles away, the habit persists.
My brother gulps it down without a second thought. “But what if I don’t?”
Absentmindedly, I wipe the frothy droplet from his chin. “Then you’ll live off your successful sisters for the rest of your long life.”
He scowls, pushing his chair back. “What do you mean, successful?” he mutters. “You stopped caring about your career ever since Noah.”
I still. Riley fidgets with his resume, then crumples it into a ball. “Whatever,” he says, switching on the gaming console and plopping down on the couch.
I say nothing. Sam isn’t worried for Riley. Maybe because he’s the baby boy of the family, and he always gets what he wants. Besides, if things fall through for him, Sam says she can reach out to her contacts in the tech industry. I don’t know if that’s a good idea, but I don’t say anything.
“When is Sam coming back anyway?” Riley grumbles. “You’re no help.”
“Hey,” I smack him on the shoulder. “Who just cooked you all that food?”
“You reheated a package.”
I laugh. “Wrong. I got it delivered from Mama Lu’s.”
“No wonder it was half decent.”
Sam arrives a quarter past ten, her short hair soaked to the roots from the incessant rain outside. She normally stays at her girlfriend’s place, but she promised to help Riley with interview tips tonight, despite the time, despite her seventy-hour work week.
I take one look at her and quickly pull out the frozen dumplings. She abandons her suitcases by the door, leaving a sad puddle to collect by the shoe rack.
“Don’t get my heels wet!” I shout over the sizzle of the frying pan. Sam pauses in the hallway before grumpily rolling her suitcase to the side. Then she collapses on the sofa beside Riley, stealing the controller out of his hands and proceeding to demolish his enemies. Riley plays twice as much Fortnite as Sam, but Sam’s hand-eye coordination is undeniably superior.
“Food’s ready,” I call, setting up the table for the second time this evening. Both Riley and Sam meander over, though Riley’s already had his weight in dumplings. I stand by the sink watching them eat, listening as Sam instructs him on firm handshakes and succinct answers.
Everyone thinks it’s crazy we’ve managed to stay so close over the years, but I don’t think so. On the outside, it looks like we’ve done it, managed the miracle. But there’s something slipping beneath the surface, something that we lose between us with every passing moment. The strained smiles, the words left unsaid, the way Sam never quite meets my eye when she says goodbye.
Tonight, when she leaves, I try make her slow down, stop. I take her wrist, the way she used to take mine, and in the doorway I can smell her familiar laundry smell. It used to be my scent too, before I switched to an organic brand. Up close, I can see the white hairs in her ponytail, too many for a twenty-seven-year-old. “When are you coming over again?”
“I leave for Shanghai next Friday,” she says, glancing at her smartwatch as it lights up with a new text. “I’ll check in with Riley before then to see if he lands final round with MN. If not, I’ll see you when I get back?”
I bite my lip. “Sam, we never see each other anymore.”
“I’m looking at you right now.”
“Only when Riley needs help. We never have fun anymore.”
“I don’t have fun, period.”
“That doesn’t sound healthy,” Riley remarks from the sofa. We both turn to glare at him. Only I’m allowed to admonish our sister.
“I need to make senior director, and then I’ll calm down,” Sam says. “It’s a pivotal time for me, you know that.” She runs her hands through her hair; I can feel her patience running thin like a taut thread. “I hate to say this, but you’ve been a paranoid ass ever since Noah left you. You’re stuck in the past, in memories. You need to go out and meet someone else already.”
I let her go. She barely glances at me as she says goodbye.
This is what I think. I think that on the surface, everything is fine. We look fine; we act fine; we feel fine. But beyond that, it’s all shambles. Everything coming apart. Sam has bags under her eyes the size of plums. Riley deactivated his LinkedIn last week; he barely talks to his friends anymore. And me? What is there in my life to be happy about? What do I have going on for me besides my sister, my brother? I used to have a world out there, a world that was mine. Now all I have is an empty bed.
Six months later, I get the call that Dad is in the hospital. For his funeral, we take the three-thousand-mile-flight back and return to the old home. Strangely, it looks newer than before, shining almost, like a model you’d find on a magazine spread. The wraparound porch has a fresh coat of beige paint, as if it was redone only yesterday. Come to think of it, the theory’s possible. The doctor said Dad had a heart attack in the middle of intensive labor. We don’t know if labor means repainting the porch, or sanding the wood, or vacuuming the floors. It could have been all three.
The house is spotless inside too, as if no one lives here, or only ghosts who do not leave fingerprints. It’s like the house became Mom’s shrine after she passed, and all Dad could do was pay homage by playing Martha Stewart. It feels wrong to touch the banister, to leave oily residue on the shining rosewood. I go to the refrigerator out of habit, checking for expired milk or rotten apples. There’s only a few battery packs and baking soda. Did Dad starve himself? Did he even know how to make food?
The question hits me, with the intensity of a blaring horn: Why did we never return?
Truthfully, I don’t know. I guess at first, it was the distance. Sam got into Stanford and switched coasts; naturally, us siblings followed. Dad was a good dad, a model one, taking us to SAT tutoring sessions, track practice, checking all the boxes. But he was there almost as a ghost is: translucent, half-awake, lost in the crevices of his memory.
When I entered sixth grade, Dad chose my first day of school to tear down the backyard. Sam had left me for junior high, and I felt all out of sorts that day, wandering the halls without my brother and sister. When I got home, I remember bursting with news of gossip and classmates and homework. Then I saw the mound of fresh earth in the backyard, high as an emperor’s grave, and the great craggy tree trunks, lying on their sides like fallen warriors. I screamed at Dad, at the construction workers, at the bitter blue sky. I ran for the portal at the base of the old trees, for Tamoria. But it was gone. All I could find was bright orange tape and overturned soil and a hulking blue Porta Potty. I tried to cut myself, to release the sacrifice, but Sam came home and grabbed my hands and whispered in my ears, and she pulled me away so we could cry alone together. I remember Riley being so lost, wrapping his arms around my stomach as if I was an anchor. I remember Dad’s puzzled expression, as if he couldn’t comprehend how he’d raised such feral creatures. And I remember Sam, her arms warm and steady, rocking us to sleep when we dreamt of Tamoria alive and well, and the loss felt as sharp and stinging as a missing limb.
A strident note jars me out of my memories. I raise my head to see my brother in the living room, testing his hand at the rusty piano. A feeble rendition of Clair de Lune peters out, my sister wincing at the offkey notes. Like most things, she is better at music than Riley.
I turn back to the furniture, or the lack thereof. There are no picture frames in this house, as if we never existed. As if our childhood was not exhausted within these beige walls, beige carpets, beige ceilings. No wonder we turned out so vanilla, I think, when we eked out our existences in this freshwater suburban wasteland.
But we didn’t, not quite. I glance at the backdoor at the same time as my sister. We turn to each other, and déjà vu strikes, that old fuzzy feeling, the way we used to meet each other’s eyes like a mirror’s reflection, acting as one.
“Do you remember Tamoria?” I ask.
The piano halts. The last grating note rings in the stillness.
“What is that?” my brother asks. I try not to let the words sink in, but they hurt regardless, a dull ache in my chest.
My sister looks away. “Just a game we used to play.”
Riley glances between us quizzically, as if trying to follow a bouncing ball. He never was good at sports. “Are you sure?”
“Sam,” I say quietly, carefully. The thrum deepens in my chest. “It was real.”
She meets my eyes now, and her gaze is cold, penetrating. It is how she signs her deals, negotiates her pay. It is how she operates at life, yet it hurts to know it can be directed at me, that I am the same as the rest. “Don’t be ridiculous.” She barks out a laugh. “You always were so romantic, even back then.”
Riley plays to fill the tension, but his jagged notes only amplify it. I look out the kitchen window, at the immaculate gazebo and the painstakingly trimmed rose bushes. I remember the great gnarled trees that had once taken their place. They had seemed so big once, like dinosaurs at the dawn of the new era. The overgrown grasses had been an ocean, the rippling waves enough to rival the Pacific. And what had I been? A mite of a girl, a mite who had believed in anything, and everything, and had known a world was hers.
The night before Dad’s memorial, I can’t sleep. Riley snores softly in the old kids’ room, squished against the corner of the bunk bed. His blankets mummify him like a lumpy burrito. He looks so young against the Star Wars comforter, I almost want to hug him. To smooth the shock of messy hair off his forehead and kiss him goodnight. Riley, I think, never knew Mom. Riley never knew how much he had to miss.
Riley never needed Tamoria like I did. Like Sam did.
I drift down the hall, from one doorway to the next. I feel like a burglar in my own home, except instead of taking, the novelty lies in what I leave behind. The soft dents in the plush carpet, molded by my heels, the long black hairs, stark against the beige of the flooring. Dad kept this place so clean, it’s almost like a museum, a tribute to our childhood. To our perfect home.
What was he trying so hard to preserve?
I think, more than ever before, that I am like him. Fighting so hard to make sense of the past, to maintain that thin ice of composure. At any moment, the surface threatens to break, exposing frigid waters beneath. We are all holding our breath.
My life now is a lie, an empty lie, one that Noah stepped into and then decided he didn’t want a part of anymore. I feel as if he exposed the sham, and now I cannot hide the hollowness. Beneath the surface, there’s just a shell of a girl, trying so desperately to preserve her memories, the rose gold innocence of childhood. But the truth is quite simple: I can never go back.
The stairs creak as I head down to the kitchen, making sure all the lights are off and the preparations are ready. The lemon blueberry pies cool on the stove, diffusing rich aromas of citrus and burnt sugar. Bulletins are printed and arranged in neat stacks, lined up on the dining room table like solemn prisoners. Everything must go smoothly tomorrow. Dad’s co-workers and distant relatives will all be here, and they will want to know how the children turned out. This, more than anything, will reflect Dad’s legacy. I know this. Sam knows this. Even Riley knows this, though perhaps only in some nebulous manner. A silent understanding has passed between us three survivors: our final service to our family, to reflect the perfect front.
I leave the kitchen, checking the master bedroom, but of course Sam has shut and locked her door. I think I see a faint glow emanating from the crack by the floor, but I can’t be sure. Either way, I don’t want to face her tonight, not when my memories are more alive than anything before my eyes.
Dad occupies my thoughts as I venture out the back door, the wind goading the lace edges of my nightgown. I think about what he was trying to protect, the life he had with Mom, the outline of a family that was there in every way except the ones that really mattered. He did everything right, always by the book. He wasn’t a tiger dad–Sam was enough of a pressure cooker for all of us–but he was supportive, and he tried his best. Is that what they will say on my gravestone? She tried her best?
I return to the back of the garden–Tamoria’s grave. Here the beautiful rose bushes sway in rhythmic tandem, their pruned symmetrical shapes dancing like synchronized swimmers. The sight is so perfect it makes me want to puke. I lean down, peering between the branches to spot the careful markings that Dad tied to the trunks, to keep them in place, to mark their growth. Painstaking, meticulous. He tried his best. I think I see now what Dad was trying to do for us.
We were never close when he was alive. Even as kids, I remember the way he would ignore us as we ran like heathens through the backyard, spinning outlandish stories into the frosted air. I watched a cartoon picture once when I was six, and it’s stuck with me ever since. I’d clutched at the remote control so hard my knuckles turned white, watching with big eyes as the handsome father tucked his daughter in and kissed her goodnight. I wanted it so badly then, but I didn’t dare ask. Some small part of me was not so masochistic; some small part of me knew he would say no.
He did try his best.
So did Sam. She read every one of our college applications–all two dozen of them. She taught me how to sort an Excel sheet, how to set up a 401K and invest in mutual funds. She did everything right, by the book, but gradually the chasm yawned as we slipped from our youths, and the distance, once inconceivable, became a force of its own.
She tried her best too.
I walk to the roots of the old tree, or at least, where I remember them to be. Now there is only a mound of soft grass, and a lemon tree, groomed into the pleasing shape of a plump egg. I sit at its feet, inhaling the sweet fragrance in deep gulps, as if this alone can save me.
My thoughts, inevitably, complete the circle and turn to Riley. My chest aches, because for him, this becomes the norm. This perfect family, doing everything right, but only as ghosts do, passing each other but never touching.
We all tried our best. Why, I wonder, is that never enough?
My eyelids grow heavy; the world softens around me. I lean back against the cool grasses and remember the whisper of knowing butterflies. What I miss most about Tamoria, I think, is how tender it was. How tender we were. If I didn’t hold onto those memories, I would think it impossible for us to have so much heart.
The scents of citrus and jasmine bring me back to life. The fragrance is so fresh and bright in the air I feel as if I could take a sip. I rub at my eyes, yawning, and then look up.
The world is alive before me. The trees flicker with glowing blossoms, their petals like gemstones catching the moonlight. The sky is a kaleidoscope of colors, the stars dancing and blurring so fast it is like watching moths gathering to flame. The winds curl around my limbs, a long-lost mother, whispering greetings and murmuring sweet lullabies. In the air, I catch an old refrain, an intoxicating melody, swelling like ocean waves before the storm. I have heard that song before.
Tamoria. Nothing has changed. The world is alight and on fire; no rules define me here; I know if I were to walk a thousand miles in one direction I could return to where I began, or hit a cliff at the end of the flat world, or discover an entirely new place, one that exists only in the fringes of my mind. The animals are probably asleep at this hour, but I can hear their living noises: soft breaths, the flutter of wings, a whisper of tails swishing against grass.
I am really here. I stand on wobbly feet and take a tentative step forward, towards the fruit trees positively bending over with overripe fruit, bursting to be picked. Their branches groan with delight as I twist off a fat tangerine. Beneath the skin is the most exquisite shade of orange, like the Tamoria sunset seconds before the night overwhelms the skies. I break off a wedge and pop it in my mouth; juice floods my throat, so sweet I almost squeeze my eyes shut. Instead I turn around, offering a wedge to–
I am alone. San and Riley are not with me. They are elsewhere, away, I can’t remember where exactly, but what’s important is that they have left me, and they have left Tamoria.
The melody wanders in one ear, out the other. Only now do I hear bittersweet nature of the song. It is not the same world, because I am not the same.
When I awake, I am back in my bed, the covers thrown off. Sweat coats my skin. I think the grief is getting to me.
No one eats the lemon blueberry pies at the reception. The guests all favor the nian gao at the dessert bar. Dad’s Shanghainese friends never did like how sugary American foods are. “You should have known better,” Sam tells me. Riley averts his eyes.
For dinner, we eat the leftover pie, though no one has much of an appetite.
While Sam discusses life insurance, I stare at my fork, watching the lemon meringue wobble and bounce. The blueberries stain the sunshine cream beautifully, but the taste is slightly sour. I should have added more sugar, but I thought the fruit would be sweeter.
The blueberries in Tamoria never did disappoint. The thought comes to me unbidden, like a motion sensor light that switches on before your first step. It is being in this house again, having these strange dreams; I cannot control the deluge of memories, the unadulterated longing. I wish so badly that it was real. And it was real, to me. I remember it all: the giant blueberries the size of your pinky, or really your thumb now, so big they could have been peaches, but they tasted just like berries, juicy and so sweet your jaw would seize up, tingling all over. I remember giggling at the violet juices running down Riley’s chin, the stains all over his shirts and even shoes. The time Sam threw one at my back and it hurt like a rock, and I cried and she apologized so many times she started crying too. I remember the iridescent butterflies we used to catch, bottling them in punctured glass jars, hoping we might someday use them as night lights to guide our path home…
The butterflies. I drop my fork. The metal clatters loudly against the plate. My sister jerks toward me, agitated.
“What?” she snaps.
“The butterflies. We used to bring them out of Tamoria and feed them bits of rosemary.” Vivid memories race through my mind–the soft wisp of their wings, the quiet flutter against the night air. “What happened to them?”
Sam’s face is caught between indecision and shock. She opens her mouth; nothing comes out.
“What butterflies?” Riley asks, his voice choked. I didn’t realize he’d been crying. Briefly, I feel bad for not being a better older sister. Then I remember he has Sam.
“The ones from Tamoria.”
“We shouldn’t have done that,” Sam rasps. “That was wrong.”
I shoot her a glance, startled. I think I see a flash of familiarity, something that speaks to who she once was. Then it is gone, and I am searching for relics in a ransacked tomb.
I get to my feet. “Where did we keep them?”
Sam stands too. Riley follows, though more out of blind obedience than comprehension. “I-I think in the upstairs cabinet, behind the towel rack.”
I run upstairs; Sam matches me and Riley keeps pace behind her, but I was always the fastest at track practice. I get there first and fling open the cabinet doors, tossing towels out of the way, coughing off the pungent scent of jasmine and rosemary.
Sam and Riley crowd around me, breathing hard, and together we spot the trinket chest at the back of the shelf. I extract it with shaking hands, and then I realize we are all shaking. I look at the two of them, at their bright, scared eyes. You liars, I think. You all remember.
And then I open the box, which emits a faint tinkling melody: jingle bells, jingle bells, jingle all the way. It comes back to me how much I hated that fake Christmas candle smell in the house, how much I avoided staying indoors.
Inside the red velvet, there’s a ragged friendship bracelet, and a Ziploc bag full of baby teeth. Beneath the small trinkets are rows of jam jars, punctuated with needle-sized breathing holes. Sam picks one up and unscrews the lid. She empties the jar into her palm. All that comes out are blue-tinged ashes, remnants of what once was.
We let out a collective exhale. Sam is crying now, and the ashes slip between her trembling fingers, collecting on the carpet. I see bits of rosemary stuck between them, and I wonder what we were thinking. Riley takes the jar from her and examines it. He looks awed, and a little confused, and I know more than memory or understanding it is this moment that is getting to him. It’s getting to me too, and I can’t help but feel something huge is passing us by, as if we’re on the verge of a great meteor or a new star, but none of us want to open our eyes. I want to shake them, cry out: are we destined to become ghosts of our own lives? But I cannot draw the courage. Because if it was never real, then we lose nothing.
Sometimes, I let myself wonder. I think, if I could go back, what would I go back for? Would I leave my job, my Nob Hill apartment, even my hopes for Noah? Would I return for the sun-dappled blueberries, the liquid silver moonlight that streamed through the ferns, drawing patterns like stained glass on the backs of your hands? I remember that elusive sense of marvel, that ache in your gut when you laugh and laugh until you’re positive you can never stop. I remember Sam, and Riley, their careless bare feet and their beautiful smiles. And then I remember, in the dead of the night, a little girl who knew with intoxicating confidence that the whole world was hers. I wonder if I would return for her.