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Evening. Midnight. Dawn.

I light three candles and place it by the window, just as I do every evening. The sky is a pale pink and reflects the color on the tan, dry grass outside.

“My cake, Ma! Like the ones on tele!” says Cai, tugging on my dress. I sigh. “Just this time,” I tell her. Just because Cai is a young girl, I’ll let her celebrate her birthday with cake and candles.

“Let me do the litany first, then I’ll use the candles, okay?” I ask for Cai’s permission. She gives an open mouthed smile with her pale, plump cheeks, and toddles away.

I take a wooden chair and place it by the candles and the window. I circle my right hand four times in front of me and say something in the traditional K’a Lin language, which unfortunately, is dead. I look at the sky when I do this.

I take a candle and put it in the frosted cake. Cai comes and grabs a candle.

“NO, Cai, what are you doing? Put it down, quickly!” I panic. She drops it and runs, the brief fire blazing on the floor. I throw some water on the baby fire and use an old, ragged skirt to repeatedly throw at it. Some black ashes are on the floor and I give a moan.

She peers in. Her eyebrows furrow a little and her slanted eyes are full of worry.
“Come back Cai, I’m very sorry. I didn’t want you to get hurt. Let’s celebrate your birthday in peace.” She takes a chair and sits quietly. The crimson cloth wrapped around her hair is a little crooked, but I’ll let it slide for now.

As I light a new candle, I think about the world. Never am I going to let Cai watch Western television again. The old ratty T.V which is in snowy black and white should be for news only.

“I will make a wish, okay?” asks Cai. I nod and she blows out the candles.

We eat quietly until she pipes up, “I will give some cake to John?”

“No, he will get sick.”

“This cake is good.”

“Good.”

She is in her own little world now.

I walk outside and pluck some shrubs and herbs for John, the yak, then I go visit his shed. The beautiful creature sits next to a tree and I place the pan of greens in front of him. He doesn’t really like me that much so he stares at the pan, his nose slightly tucked in. I think he secretly knows that I might sell him off one day when we need the money.

Or shave his lovely, obsidian coat, weave it into a rug or something, and sell that. I may also find a female yak so I can have them both produce calves, and then sell John and his wife off.
There are endless possibilities with him.
He snorts and sits. His shaggy fur waves in the air in front of his nose.

“You wish Cai was here to feed you, right?” He looks at me and then at the ground. I leave him and go back to the dining table, where Cai is done with her cake.

“Is there a present?” she asks.

Her face is now apparent with dreams. She thinks I will crush one of them. But what she doesn’t know won’t hurt her. We don’t give presents on birthdays. Our ancestors didn’t give them, so why should we?

She is my daughter and I do not want her to cry.

“Yes, Cai. You will love it.”

I sprint to our bedroom where there is a small, three legged dresser that I made with wood. There is a drawer where I keep all the traditional headbands, and I take out one that I haven’t used in a long time. I take a needle with string that was already on the table, since I stitch all the time, and quickly engrave “Cai” on it. That’s something new. She’s never had a headband with her name on it. It doesn’t look very good, since I did it really quickly. I run back to her and present it.
She stares for a second and then gives a weak smile. “Thank you” she mumbles. I remove the one on her head and put the new one on.
“There. Gorgeous,” I say. The weak smile is permanent on her face and a bead of sweat trickles down her face.

***
A light tapping bothers the straw door in our hut, and a flood of poor, skinny toddlers with inflated bellies pours into our hut. Cai does the honors of cutting the rest of our cake into tiny pieces and feeding each child. I am a proud mother and lift the corners of my mouth. These boys are the true people, similar to our ancestors: skinny, poor, and hardworking. These villagers know we are richer and more powerful, and we often give our leftovers to them because we are the K’a Lin people, the most gracious and most merciful.

Each child has starry eyes and their mouths are dropped, anticipating gifts as if it‘s their birthdays. Cai is friends with these brothers.

They often like to give us a token of thanks. Last time it was a branch. Before that a basket weaved out of grass. Before that a banana leaf. Before that some dirt. Before that an acorn. This time a rope.
Cai squeals, her cheeks inflating and her hands spread out to grab it.

Anything for John.

She hurries outside and ties it around John’s shag of a neck and kisses him, then goes back inside the hut to play with the toddlers and the dirt floor. He has that same bored expression on his face. They play a game with a rock and drawing on the dirt. I know that it’s her best birthday yet if she’s having fun with friends.
She becomes sleepy after having fun with friends for a few hours and so she crawls into the “bed,” which is crafted out of leaves and straws.






***

I awake and feel my way through, rather than lighting a match, because matches are expensive these days. I don’t know what I am doing. I should just go back to sleep, I tell myself. But a sudden urge keeps me strained away from sleep. I walk outside for fresh air and a blast of wet, sticky air overwhelms me. The smell outside is unpleasant, much like the odor of wild animals. It’s quiet and scary, and I feel like I am the only person in the world. I walk towards Joon’s mini, run down store and say hello, waking him up.

“Oh, hello,” mumbles Joon from sleep. He keeps a tiny T.V by his desk, where an English or American soap opera was on, and a man and woman were kissing. I turn it off swiftly, and although I shouldn’t feel this way, my face flushes with embarrassment.

“Don’t you treasure our culture? Why do you watch T.V at midnight?” I snap.

He mumbles something.

“I suspect you’re going to go off and buy a phone too,” I scoff.

He murmurs half in sleep. The store sells American food, chips, but also traditional goods. It looks too modern for my liking. I would never buy any of this. There’s our traditional soap, necklaces made out of pebbles, bags weaved out of straws and grass...and then there’s a dark, glass bottle. I take a whiff and give a disgusted noise. I think what is forbidden to think--that my friend Joon is drunk. I rip off the chip bags hanging down and take the bottle. I run across the field until I hear the sloshing of dirty river water. Where everyone washes clothes, throws out garbage, and even emits feces and urine.
I can hear the cry for help that the water screams because it’s been poisoned so badly. It is as if I will be sinned. I throw the chip bags and bottle in the rushing water. The bottle clanks across the rocks in the water, but I do not think it breaks or even cracks. The bottle keeps hopping, almost skipping, as if it is blessed to enter water that trails sorrow and dirt. The bottle can capture some of the dirt from the water, probably. I’m so glad Cai didn’t follow me here. I stomp off and go home to go to sleep, but I know I won’t be able to.






***

It’s more like a sunset than a sunrise at dawn. I decide to wash my dress and hang it where the sunlight is prominent. I put on a new dress, and wrap my head with thick, emerald cloth. The sunlight shimmers ever so slightly and flies buzz around outside. I once again light three candles and recite the prayer.

I decide I must write things down. I take some dye that’s used for cloth, take a thin branch from a tree, and using parchment, I write the following:
Never let Cai watch T.V
Never let Cai see Joon or his store
Never let Cai use Western innovations, such as a pen
Teach Cai (and myself) the K’a Lin language
Do not speak English as much as possible
Keep friends with the poor toddlers


I take the religious book with K’a Lin text that has English translations and cross out the English part. I will teach myself and Cai to speak and read the language. We will forever live with that tongue.

I look in the bedroom for Cai, but she is gone. I notice that her bed has sloppy ink scattered. There are a lot of writings on it, but two stick out. I decipher it; she wrote “Barbi” and “Amerika.” My mind throbs so bad and my heart bursts out.

I run frantically in our small hut, calling, “Cai! WHERE ARE YOU?! Cai?”

The sunlight does not help. The wondrous clouds are thickening, and their tears are pouring on me.

I finally end up behind the hut where we keep John. Cai named him that stupid name, and that reminds me that I have to change it. I see Cai sleeping next to John, a half eaten piece of cake next to her, and his rope in her hand.



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