The Comforts of Home

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Libi Pedder / Camera Press / Retna

Novelist Amy Tan

My husband rises early each morning and goes downstairs to read the newspaper. I scrunch deeper under the comforter, squeezing out more dreams. Until a few months ago, my three-pound boy dog would dance on my face to waken me. Now his two-pound sister, who is also bereft, lies quietly on my chest. If I don't stir, she licks my nostrils as gentle reveille.

We live in a hundred-year-old house overlooking the harbor, the straits, and the bay. From the bedroom window, I see an island of ghosts. It is a peaked mountain shaped like a peasant's conical hat. A hundred years ago, the island was the quarantine station for Chinese immigrants, some detained so long they wrote poems about loneliness. No one lives on the island anymore. At night, it is a purple shadow. Sometimes I think about the young woman whose father built her this house a hundred years ago. She must have seen lanterns blaze on the island at night.

Every morning, the water looks different, glassy or choppy, sapphire-colored or muddy gray. One day, we saw a glinting spot of water as long as a rich man's yacht. My husband and I asked, What's that? A school of golden fish? It was the sun angled just so. The next time we saw it, we forgot and said, What's that?

Egrets, pelicans, and scrub jays fly by, turkey vultures too. In the fall, cyclones of geese and ducks circle the harbor. In the summer, hummingbirds sidle up to the windowpane. Every morning I hear the grinding of coffee. Its scent rises as my husband climbs the stairs. He hands me my morning mug, and we do our ritual. "What do you say?" he asks. "Thank you," I answer, and he receives his kiss. There have been days when I awake confused because it is quiet and the smell of the house is of unstirred air. And then I remember that my husband is away on a trip. To miss someone is to also miss what is supposed to be the same in the house.

Not so long ago, the little dogs raced together down the stairs, then flew out the door and onto the porch. The boy barked at the world and the girl nipped his heels. They ran to the lawn and peed on the same patch. The little boy galloped like a pony in tall grass. The little girl followed him to the pond. The boy chased off blackbirds. The girl barked as if she had helped. After the little boy died of old age, the little girl sat for many weeks at the top of the stairs facing the front door. That was where she and the boy had waited together whenever my husband and I had left the house without them. In the garden, next to the pond that the boy dog loved, I will plant a dwarf crab apple tree. It will flower in the spring.

Every morning the newspapers are waiting for me on the breakfast table. The crossword puzzle is filled in, and my husband is upstairs in his office. I take the papers and my second mug of coffee to the living room. The little girl dog lies in a spotlight on the rug. At ten o'clock, I go upstairs to my study, a former sunporch with nine windows and never enough bookshelves.

Once or twice a month, there is an excuse for a party. My editor is here for her daughter's wedding. My friend the art collector wants to meet my friend the art curator. My mother's birthday is today and we should make pot stickers to remember that she made them better. Take-out Chinese food arrives along with the first guest. The rooms fill slowly, then suddenly. The air grows warm with words. On cold nights, the partygoers borrow sweaters and wraps to stand outside on the deck. In autumn, they watch the moon rise and the island glow. Then someone is the first to leave. By midnight, the house is quiet, as if no one had ever come. But wait, there is leftover Chinese food. Evidence.

Every night, before sleep, I admire the water, the indigo island against an India ink sky. In a hundred years someone else will stand before this window. She will notice how the water looks different every day, how it is also the same. She will wonder if anyone ever lived on the island. She will write the answer in poetry.

Amy Tan is the author of The Joy Luck Club, The Kitchen God's Wife, The Hundred Secret Senses, The Bonesetter's Daughter, The Moon Lady, and The Chinese Siamese Cat.