Grandmother insisted the rashes, what WebMD said was dermatitis, was her body making scales. Armor. They remove elders from their homes here, she said. (The woman had been here a week). I told her I wouldn’t do that. To her the air here was hard and sharp, unforgiving on tangren’s supple skin, it’d zest her Chineseness clean if her body didn’t protect itself. You have no choice in this country, she said, they do not see elders, they see the old. I told her we’d look for medicine just in case though.
My apartment didn’t have for her any honeysuckle flower or dandelion leaf or red sage or Wind-Clear Powder but the number one search result for dermatitis home remedies was an oatmeal bath. I couldn’t speak Mandarin as well as I understood it so I looked up Google Images to show Grandmother what that was. The first search displayed either babies or packets of Aveeno you can get at the pharmacy. Adding “adults” to the search bar only yielded beautiful white ladies in spas. There were no image results showing a venerated eighty-year old matriarch, bathing honorably on a visit to her very respectful grandchildren, grandchildren who knew that mooncakes were not for Lunar New Year and knew not to jab their chopsticks into rice like incense. So, finally, I translated the word for “bath” and told her oatmeal is like rice porridge. The skepticism sunk in the bean-curd wrinkles of her sallowing cheeks, weighed in her stiff strides all the way to the fluorescent red and white CVS sign slicing the black night a few blocks away.
The entire next day at work, I dreaded having to convince Grandmother to get into the bath. Of lowering her brittle bones limb by limb gently into goopy indignity, of lifting out a marrow-deep pride by an armpit squishy like an old plum, while colloids slopped off her flaps of flaking, sagging skin. I prayed she could be convinced this was me helping her, my honoring her in the way I knew how. “I tried,” my spa-quality ring-spun cotton towel wrapped around her would say. I’d tried.
But when I came home, I found a trail of wilted sacks, emptied of their jasmine rice (where she got them I don’t know), their woven polypropylene seams ripped open, leading into the bathroom. There I found, tubbed and napping while goopy gallons of steaming rice porridge spilled over the porcelain lip, a dragon—tiny flames flitting out her snout with each snore, golden whiskers wriggling loose in the hot mist. Grandmother’s green scales, like a sheet of chainmail jade, gleamed in that pearly cauldron of velvety congee to salvage our ancestors’ softer rind I knew I had long surrendered too easily to oats.
Patrick J. Zhou lives in Washington, D.C. with his wife Joy, newborn daughter Naomi, and their gray cat Bobby Newport. He is a 2023 winner of the PEN/Dau Short Story Prize for Emerging Writers and his short stories appear or are forthcoming in Carve and the minnesota review.