“Chinese Opera”

I kept the guts of the music box after Donny smashed it. The black lacquered wood had shattered on the staircase, while our son shrieked his face into a purple mask in his crib. My father had given me the music box as a reward for singing at his boss’s party.  At the party, he took me aside—into the bedroom of the boss’s daughter. Her white-canopied bed glowed, the dust ruffle a cloud. He leaned down to speak to me.

“I want you to do this,” he said. Light from the vanity lamp reflected off the thick lenses of his glasses, so that his eyes were a blurry glare.  “I really, really do.”

I shook my head and shrank into myself. Pressing me would cause more resistance, he knew, and he straightened. He glanced at the music box on the antiqued dresser and my gaze followed his. The lid was open to display a figure from the Chinese opera. Her face was pale, her cheeks painted in swathes of begonia pink. Over her head she wielded a silver sword, and two feather plumes rose from her black hair, like the wild curling horns of a ram.  Her chin pointed upward, her face lifted in righteous fury. The angle of her left arm suggested a foe about to be smote, advancing from somewhere beyond the velvet lining of the box. I hung on the force of that gesture. My father saw my need.

“You like that?” He reached for the music box. My heart fluttered at the thought of his fingerprints marring its glossy surface. “I’ll give it to you.”

My breath caught. He nodded. I felt smaller, but hard and sharp, gathered together in some vital way.

I sang in a corner of the kitchen, the adults standing around me, attentive and straining to hear my voice. In the car on the way home, my father presented me with the music box. I don’t know how he smuggled it out. A few months later he over-wound it. The figure remained stuck with her sword down, her white face and painted-on eyebrows directed abstractly at the knick-knacks I’d assembled:  a cracked mood ring, a dirty rope bracelet, and one wheat-back penny.

Then Donny got his hands on it. The barrel and tines look like 10-karat gold, but they aren’t gold.  I don’t know what they’re made of.

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Margaret Luongo

About Margaret Luongo

Margaret Luongo's stories have appeared in Tin House, The Cincinnati Review, FENCE, Granta.com, The Pushcart Prize anthology and other publications. Her story collections--If the Heart is Lean and History of Art--were published by LSU Press. She teaches creative writing and contemporary fiction at Miami University in Ohio.