“Mama, do you need help?”
A woman, clad in a simple gray shirt and pants, pretended not to hear the girl. She hung up three pairs of undergarments, then spoke to the clothes.
“Yes, hang these up.” The woman pattered toward the hut as the girl shuffled into her place.
“Is there anything to eat?”
The woman sighed, disappeared into the mud brick hut, and returned with a pebble of man tou. “Eat this. If you want more food, go to Nana’s house; I don’t have enough for you.”
The little girl hung her parents’ and seven siblings’ clothes on the line and took an eager bite into the man tou. She winced. She could have whet a chopping knife on it.
The little girl’s name was Lian. Lian from ke lian, “poor thing.” Her mother handed Lian at one week old to a nanny because Lian’s father had refused to look at her. “I can’t take her,” he said. “I could if she was a boy.”
Lian called her nana “mean Nana.” When she didn’t finish the chores quickly enough, Nana jabbed Lian’s spine with bamboo chopsticks that thrived on her tears. Night didn’t offer peace, either. It sent her dreams of her birth, her mother’s face, abandonment, and vultures. Jolting awake just as beaks dug into the hill of her stomach, Lian would sob as her tear-crusted eyes adjusted to the statue silhouettes of Nana and her son, Ming.
Over time, Lian learned to seal her tears away. Her life wasn’t worth crying about.
• • •
Lian reclined with Ming, two years her senior, in the gentle arms of the millet fields when she wasn’t doing chores at either hut. Something was comforting yet restricting in the way the peridot stalks hid them from the outside and hid the outside from them, leaving her an isolated button of sky. Lian would half listen to Ming chatter about his wooden birds. He built them with stories his uncle had told before an old, infected bullet wound took his life.
Lian didn’t have many memories, for her life was like the mud brick walls that penned her inside the hut: uniform, plain, systematic. But she still remembered the red bandanna that sang to her at night:
Flit like the sparrow and ascend like the eagle,
Fear not the crow, for the palace will shield you,
Jade it will bring and the sky as a pillow,
But only for hearts gold in oceans of millet.
She would forever have imprinted in her mind the first and last time she had played tag with Ming and his collapse in the street. His limbs splayed across the dirt like twigs in a stream. His rib cage chafed his paper skin. He gasped, his purple tongue erect in his cobalt mouth. Lian had screamed. It was her first encounter with raw fear.
When Nana arrived, she shot Lian a glare. Lian stiffened and watched her scoop Ming into her arms and pant home, leaving Lian feeling like a wad of soggy rice paper kicked to the roadside.
Then there were the sun-baked days when Lian watched Ming fold, snap, and glue together thin wooden chips with rice. When times weren’t too hard, Ming reached for the more expensive brown rice. “The brown rice is stickier,” he said as he rubbed rice paste over her hands. Lian squealed.
A day after New Year’s festival, Lian swept, cooked, washed, beat, rolled, and tidied the hut. She drowned in a sour onion mood, and at dusk, while taking down the clothes from the line, Lian gave up. She hung back up everything she’d just taken down and kicked the dirt in the yard. Lian howled when her big toe smashed into a rock, but she didn’t stop. Tripping into Nana’s way, she spun a whirlwind of woks and corn grit and stools and rags. Lian then bee-lined to the cool bamboo mat, satisfied with her aftermath, only to have Nana’s voice swat her away.
“Haizi, you forgot to bring in the clothes and fold them!”
Lian huffed. “Why can’t you do it? I’ve done a lot already.”
“So have I,” Nana said. “But you have to complete your chores.”
“I’ve endured a lot already.”
“I’ve endured more than you,” Nana said. “You’re just a pig compared to me.”
“I am not a pig.”
“Ha,” Nana said. “How are you not? Your family got rid of you because you were an extra mouth and body to feed and squeeze against. You’re the same here. You’re wulai, capable of nothing, and nobody wants nothing.”
Lian brooded. She went outside and took down the clothes.
When Nana and Ming’s breaths ebbed into the shallow hush of night, Lian snatched a square of cloth and tied a few plums into it. She slung the makeshift pouch over her shoulder and watched the sleeping curves rise and fall, rise and fall, before tip-toeing into the moon’s silver shower.
She knew she wouldn’t be welcomed at her parents’ hut, so she headed to the town’s central square. Lian blinked and then found her body soaked with sunshine and grass. The roosters crowed with her stomach, and the market played tug-of-war with the tiny specks of a distant village. The village promised ores of freedom, but the market offered shifty souls of sustenance. Lian succumbed to the lure of the market.
She walked along the rows of stands and asked vendors if she could stay and eat with them for one day. She thought of the long journey to the distant villages and knew she needed to build her energy. But as one after another declined, Lian became agitated. Her nerves fluttered as she passed by the fog-breathing men who stared like animals.
Finally, a vendor grunted. “But only if you do the dirty work,” he said, flicking his hand over the brine-drizzled hills of rinds, cigarettes, and flies. Lian gulped, but her stomach threatened to claw out in hunger. The vendor poured her a bowl of gruel. After hours of hard work, Lian was shoved another bowl. The gruel trickled down her throat but not quite to her stomach.
The vendor kicked clear a patch of dirt behind the stand for Lian’s bed. A stained newspaper covering an upside down bowl was her pillow. Lian languished there for a night, inhaling the aroma of rotten cabbage and musty smoke. As she registered the tickle of energy dripping out of her chest, the villages seemed as distant as the stars. Lian yearned for the bamboo mat back home. Well, Nana’s home.
She never ran away again.
• • •
Lian lived torn between two families until she was 11 years old and the seventh moon buzzed around her body. Sitting with Ming in the millet field, she watched him flick the edges of the wood slices that held together his bird. He wore a bright yellow shirt, for he didn’t like dark clothing. “Makes me sad,” he had said.
Ming rose from the feathery soil and asked, “Want to fly?” Lian nodded and stood up too.
Ming drew his arm back, then snapped it forward, his twiggy frame vibrating. Lian admired the birds hovering against gravity, toward the specks of a village. The sparrows screeched away but circled back after the wooden bird had dropped into the golden ocean.
The two bolted to recover the bird, and as they ran, Lian peeked at Ming’s face. He had a flat nose afraid of standing up for itself, and lips so thin and red they were violet. Wispy eyebrows arched pleasantly over his magnetite eyes.
“Lian,” Ming said when they found the bird, “some day I’m going to build a bigger bird that we can both fit in. Would you like that?”
She nodded. But a bird people could fit in? That was impossible. How much effort would it take? Where could they find a bird-throwing giant?
“We’ll escape our village and ride our bird around the world,” he said. “We’ll save people, shower rice on hungry lands, and pelt olives at warring countries!” Ming smiled and extended his hand to Lian.
Lian stared at the bony fingers. She inched her hand over to his.
She jumped. It was her second oldest sister, Jing.
“Mom wants you. Come with me.”
“Okay,” called Lian, hoping the volume of her voice masked the tremors. Did Jing see? Lian yelled over her shoulder, “I have to go. See you later!”
“Wait!” Ming shouted.
He panted to Lian, and she slowed to match his pace. At the hut, he left Lian outside to get some twine. He bit it off with his incisors and threaded it into his wooden bird.
“Here,” he said, tying a firm knot. “This is my best so far.”
Lian looped the string around her neck and held the bird against her shirt. Before they left, Jing looked at Ming, wondering what was between them.
When Lian got to the hut, her mother put a bowl of millet, rice, and corn into her hands. “Feed the chickens,” she ordered.
Lian stepped into the backyard. Recognizing the girl and bowl, the chickens, in shawls of black, white, and brown, clucked over to her feet. As she sprinkled the feed, Lian couldn’t help imagining that she was showering rice and pelting olives.
A chicken screeched. Lian looked down and jumped when she saw the wing pinned beneath her foot.
She’d just finished feeding when she heard a strange noise, a roaring scream. Alarmed, Lian raised her head.
Big metal birds.
They were beautiful, their naked skin glimmering as they hovered against gravity. Lian fondled the bird around her neck and saw that it looked like the birds above. Ming’s wish had come true! But Ming didn’t build these. Lian watched the foreign wings sully the jade sky.
The other villagers glanced up from their work, and those inside huts sprinted out to admire the sight. Or so Lian thought. The adults dropped their sickles, clothes pins, ladles, shovels, everything, and yanked their children and elder relatives away with only the necessities they could grasp in bare hands.
Ri ben lai le! Ri ben lai le!
Japan is here! Japan is here!
Lian ran inside to join her parents and siblings, only to spot her third oldest brother’s moccasin disappear out the door. She lurched across the hut, but by the time she had leapt out, the stampede of villagers had washed it away. Lian pinned down her rising tears.
Swept into the mass of villagers, Lian glanced up at the sky now to behold a viscous cloud of birds. The lead bird had just crossed the north village border when it lay a cylindrical egg in midair. In seconds, the egg cracked. Fire spurted and debris scattered. Dust crawled into nostrils, and heat licked the tips of her hair.
• • •
Nana struggled to pull Ming out of the hut. He was a jellyfish on land; he couldn’t get enough oxygen to stand because he knew. Ming knew. His uncle told him this day would come.
I could carry him, Nana thought, letting Ming slump out of her hands to the floor. Then she noticed Lian wasn’t in the hut.
“Ming, where’s Lian?”
“Lian – went – back,” Ming stuttered.
“What are the chances she’s safe with her family?”
“Okay,” she said after a pause. “I’m going to find her. Once you catch your breath, get out and meet me at the south dam gate!”
She stumbled out the door toward center village, toward the metal birds, her red bandanna flapping, her red blood screeching. Then the first explosion burst, and Nana ran faster than she ever had before. She felt invincible, if only for a moment.
Lianlian! Ni zai na’er?
A thin voice strung its way through the booms and cries to Lian’s eardrum. Lian whipped her head around and spotted a familiar red bandanna. “Nana!” she gasped. I’m not alone, I’m not alone! Lian plowed through the mud brick crowd to Nana, and they linked hands.
Bu yao song shou.
Do not let go.
Lian nodded, her tongue a wad of cloth.
They ran back toward Nana’s hut. Eggs cracked like rain in a thunderstorm of ash. Their boiling metal shells lodged into her neck, but Lian didn’t feel the pain. She was a bull in an ocean of red.
The metal birds closed in. There was no time to check for Ming. Nana rattled vessel-popping prayers as she led Lian through a maze of huts. As the two stumbled toward the south dam, they spotted a figure sprawled on the dam gate steps.
“Mingming!” Nana cried. “Er zi!” Son!
Ming’s eyes lit up when he saw them. As they neared, the roaring noises neared as well. Lian suddenly felt a chill, a shadow. She saw a black dot overhead.
A black egg falling. Lian gasped and veered away from the dam, pulling Nana with her. Lian flung her arm toward Ming, but only his lips moved.
“Go, I lov-”
The egg cracked onto the dam gate. The fire smoldered Lian’s eyes, but not before she saw a bloody yellow body aspirating into soot.
She was underwater. Lian screamed as iron fists slammed her against the wall of a hut and clamped her airways shut. She tried to wriggle through the chunky gelatin, but the cold was so refreshing and it chilled the metal in her neck. She was exhausted, and the maroon blood caressed her and felt so safe, so maternal, so permanent. The pain finally flared, but Lian relaxed and loosened her grip on a hand.
The hand gripped back and hauled her up, up, up, until she broke the surface of consciousness. She coughed as Nana struggled to keep both of them afloat. “Please tell me this is a dream,” Lian wheezed. Nana grappled in the froth until she snagged a wooden board.
Zhua hao! Hold on!
Lian closed her eyes. The life she’d always known had been ripped away and supplanted by the smell of rust, the sight of debris, and the taste of something unnatural. But she felt an emboldening vine curl within her. The water was sweeping her out of the village she’d been trapped in her entire life, and she finally held escape in her palms.
But the water gurgled, There is a price. A tendril of panic bound her lungs and pried her eyes open. Lian blankly registered a diminishing cloud of humming dots, then realized somebody wasn’t there to witness the departure.
He’d never be able to build and ride his bird. He’d gotten to see only the damage the birds could do. Lian’s mind then flashed to the image of their hands almost touching, and she sighed. She fingered Ming’s wooden bird only to find it splintered. “No more saving the world,” Lian whispered.
Nana trembled beside Lian, her eyes fixed in her own world. Her old bandanna was ripped and singed but still an unbleached red. Nana had risked her son’s life for a wulai. Lian grabbed the hand stroking her head and clasped it in her own. Nana’s eyes stayed behind a film, but Lian kissed her hand, saying, “Thank you, thank you, thank you.”
She took a shaky breath. Lian closed her palm around the shell of Ming’s necklace, tugged lightly, and felt it crumble. She set it gently in the flood and watched the eddies swallow the bird into its bloody stomach.
Lian dipped her head in farewell. Then she started to cry.
This piece has been published in Teen Ink’s monthly print magazine.