I had a mother once. She taught me to spin the finest yarn and thread, made from silkworms raised in our courtyard of mulberry trees. Patiently, she would soak thousands of cocoons, and together we’d wind the gossamer threads onto wooden spools. When she saw how nimbly my little fingers worked the wheel, spinning silk like strands of moonlight, she urged my father to take me on as his seamstress. “Learn well from Baba,” she told me when he agreed. “He is the best tailor in Gangsun, and if you study hard, one day you will be too.” “Yes, Mama,” I’d said obediently. Perhaps if she’d told me then that girls couldn’t become tailors, my story would have turned out differently. But alas. While Mama raised my brothers—brave Finlei, thoughtful Sendo, and wild Keton— Baba taught me to cut and stitch and embroider. He trained my eyes to see beyond simple lines and shapes, to manipulate shadows and balance beauty with structure. He made me handle every kind of cloth, from coarse cottons to fine silks, to gain mastery over fabrics and feel how they draped over the skin. He made me redo all my stitches if I skipped one, and from my mistakes I learned how a single seam could be the difference between a garment that fit and one that did not. How a careless rip could be mended but not undone. Without Baba’s training, I could never have become the emperor’s tailor.
But it was Mama’s faith in me that gave me the heart to even try. In the evenings, after our shop closed, she’d rub balm onto my sore fingers. “Baba’s working you hard,” she would say. “I don’t mind, Mama. I like sewing.” She lifted my chin so our eyes were level. Whatever she saw made her sigh. “You really are your father’s daughter. All right, but remember: tailoring is a craft, but it’s also an art. Sit by the window, feel the light, and watch the clouds and the birds.
” She paused, looking over my shoulder at the patterns I’d been cutting all day. “And don’t forget to have fun, Maia. You should make something for yourself, too.” “But I don’t want anything.” Mama tilted her head thoughtfully. As she changed the burnt-out joss sticks by our family altar, she picked up one of the three statues of Amana lining the shrine. They were plainly carved, faces and dresses washed out by the sun. “Why don’t you make three dresses for our mother goddess?” My eyes widened. “Mama, I couldn’t. They would have to be—” “—the most beautiful dresses in the world,” she finished for me.
She tousled my hair and kissed my forehead. “I’ll help you. We’ll dream them together.” I hugged Mama, burying my face in her chest and holding her so tight a laugh tinkled out of her throat, like the soft strokes of a dulcimer. What I would give to hear that laugh again. To see Mama one more time—to touch her face and comb my fingers through her thick braid of black hair as it loosened into waves rippling against her back. I remember I could never weave silk as soft as her hair, no matter how I tried, and I remember I used to think the freckles on her cheeks and arms were stars. Keton and I would sit on her lap, me trying to count them, Keton trying to sweep them off. The stories she’d tell us! It was Mama who dreamed of leaving Gangsun and living by the sea. She recounted to us the tales she’d grown up with—of fearless sailors, water dragons, and golden fish that granted wishes—tales Sendo drank in with his soul.
She believed in fairies and ghosts, in demons and gods. She taught me to sew amulets for passing travelers, to cut paper clothes to burn for our ancestors, to write charms to ward off evil spirits. Most of all, she believed in fate. “Keton says it isn’t my fate to become a tailor like Baba,” I sobbed to her one afternoon, weeping from the sting of my brother’s words. “He says girls can only become seamstresses, and if I work too hard I won’t have any friends, and no boy will ever want me—” “Don’t listen to your brother,” Mama said. “He doesn’t understand what a gift you have, Maia. Not yet.” She dried my tears with the edge of her sleeve. “What matters is, do you want to be a tailor?” “Yes,” I said in a small voice. “More than anything.
But I don’t want to be alone.” “You won’t be,” she promised. “It isn’t your fate. Tailors are closer to fate than most. Do you know why?” I thought hard. “Baba says the threads he stitches into his work give it life.” “It’s more than that,” replied Mama. “Tailoring is a craft that even the gods respect. There’s something magical about it. Even the simplest thread has great power.
” “Power?” “Have I told you about the thread of fate?” I shook my head. “Everyone has a thread tied to someone—a person who’s meant to be by your side and make you happy. Mine is tied to Baba.” I glanced at my wrists and ankles. “I don’t see anything.” “You can’t see it.” Mama chuckled gently. “Only the gods can. The thread may be long, stretching over mountains and rivers, and it may be years before you find its end. But you’ll know when you meet the right one.
” “What if someone cuts it?” I worried. “Nothing can break it, for destiny is the strongest promise. You’ll be bound to each other no matter what happens.” “The way I’m bound to you and Baba, and Finlei? And Sendo?” I was mad at Keton, so I didn’t care if my youngest brother and I were tied together. “It’s similar, but different.” Mama touched my nose and rubbed it affectionately. “One day you’ll see.” That night I took a spool of red thread and cut a string to tie around my ankle. I didn’t want my brothers to see it and make fun of me, so I tucked the loose end under the cuff of my pant leg. But as I walked with my secret tickling my ankle, I wondered if I’d feel something when I met the person I was fated to be with.
Would the string give a little tug? Would it stretch and bind to its other half? I wore that string around my ankle for months. Little by little it frayed, but my faith in fate did not. Until fate took Mama from me. It came for her slowly, over many months, like it came for the cypress tree outside our shophouse. Every day, leaves trickled from its spindly arms—only a few at first, but more and more as autumn loomed. Then, one day, I woke up to find all the branches bare. And our cypress tree was no more, at least until spring. Mama had no spring. Her autumn began with a stray cough here and there, always covered up with a smile. She forgot to add cabbage to the pork dumplings Finlei loved so much, and she forgot the names of the heroes in the stories she’d tell Sendo and me before we went to sleep.
She even let Keton win at cards and gave him too much money to spend on his errands in the marketplace. I hadn’t given much thought to these slips. Mama would have told us if she wasn’t feeling well. Then one winter morning, just as I’d finished adorning our statues of Amana with our three dresses—of the sun, the moon, and the stars—Mama fainted in the kitchen. I shook her. I was still small, and her head was heavy when I lifted it to rest on my lap. “Baba!” I screamed. “Baba! She won’t wake up!” That morning, everything changed. Instead of praying to my ancestors to wish them well in their afterlife, I prayed that they spare Mama. I prayed to Amana, to the three statues I’d painted and clothed, to let her live.
To let Mama see my brothers and me grow up, and not to let her leave Baba, who loved her so much, alone. Every time I closed my eyes and pictured the future, I saw my family whole. I saw Mama next to Baba, laughing, and teasing us all with the fragrant smells of her cooking. I saw my brothers surrounding me—Finlei reminding me to sit straight, Sendo slipping me an extra tangerine, and Keton pulling on my braids. How wrong I was. Mama died a week before my eighth birthday. I spent my birthday sewing white mourning clothes for my family, which we wore for the next one hundred days. That year, the winter felt especially cold. I cut the red thread off my ankle. Seeing how broken Baba was without Mama, I didn’t want to be tied to anyone and suffer the same pain.
As the years passed, my faith in the gods faded, and I stopped believing in magic. I shuttered my dreams and poured myself into keeping our family together, into being strong for Baba, for my brothers, for myself. Every time a little happiness dared to seep into the cracks of my heart and tried to make it full again, fate intervened to remind me I couldn’t escape my destiny. Fate took my heart and crushed it little by little: when Finlei died, then Sendo, and when Keton returned with broken legs and ghosts in his eyes. The Maia of yesterday picked up those pieces and painstakingly sewed them back together. But I was no longer that Maia. Beginning today, things would be different. Beginning today, when fate caught me, I’d meet it head-on and make it my own. Beginning today, I would have no heart.