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Dinner simmered on the stove as I, the eight years old, diligently copied one Chinese word after another. Suddenly, my friend Jinhai sprinted in, cheeks flushed with excitement.
“What is it?” I asked.
“An old man selling toys just moved in!” Jinhai exclaimed. “Come on!” He pulled me out of the room, abandoning my homework on the table.
I was wary-Jinhai was notorious for his pranks. But as we crossed the threshold, I spotted a gray bearded man laboriously unpacking what looked like hundreds of marvelous toys. There were tiny cloth dolls, larger ones made of clay with painted features, pinwheels that spun in the breeze, postcards bearing pictures of faraway places.
“Hey, boys,” the man greeted us. “You may call me Wang Da Ye.”
“Wang Da Ye hao,” we automatically responded. He smiled at us in a grandfatherly way and resumed setting up his stall. Other children clustered around the stall, elbowing each other out of the way to admire the many toys. I=2 0only had eyes for one.
Sitting off to the side was a clay dog. It was small, and constructed of reddish clay with darker brown spots. Around its neck was a sleek navy blue ribbon with a tiny silver bell. It was the best thing I had ever laid eyes on.
“How much is the spotted dog?” I blurted out.
“Oh,” I murmured. “Thank you.” I knew we could not afford it. I turned and left.
went to bed that night full of longing. I had never wanted anything as much as that spotted clay dog! I couldn’t rationalize this even to myself.
After that day, my mind was filled with thoughts of the little spotted dog, the silvery chimes of the bell, the dappled red surface. During school, my answers were hilariously off, earning me disappointed gazes from my teachers as well as the respect of my rowdier classmates. At home, I let the rice burn almost every evening as I sat in my chair and dreamt of holding the little clay figure in my hands. And for the first time in my young life, I lamented being poor.
Every day, after school, I would visit Wang Da Ye’s stall to admire the dog. My fantasies had taken me so far that I could actually believe that it was mine, and that with one command or gesture the clay animal would come to life and spring forward into my arms. I even named it Hua, for the flower-like patterns on its earthen body.
My imaginings were getting desperate, and the Chinese New Year hovered on the horizon. I knew that any day, Hua would disappear from the stall, having gone home with some other lucky child to celebrate the holiday. Whenever this thought crossed my mind, my heart ached.
It was silly to let something as inconsequential as a clay dog ruin my spirits, but I had grown so attached to Hua-so attached that on the eve of the new year, I did something very foolish and wrong.
The sun was setting, casting a warm yellow glow on the treetops. I stepped outside and walked nervously down the street. The stall was crowded with people. Heart hammering in my chest, I reached out to take Hua. The instant my fingers met cool clay, I grabbed the figurine and ran.
I didn’t stop running until I stood in the tiny room my brothers and I shared. I lay d own on the bed and held Hua out before me. I had stolen her, committed a crime. But still, she was mine.
Of course, my father came to know of this in a matter of days. After a lengthy scolding, he ordered that I go to Wang Da Ye and apologize. By now, my euphoria had cleared and I felt ashamed. And terrified-if Baba was this angry, I could only imagine how Wang Da Ye, who was all but a stranger to me, would react.
Baba dragged me outside and down the street to where Wang Da Ye sat patiently at his stall. An array of new clay toys and pinwheels sat before him.
“My son is here to apologize for stealing one of your toys,” my father announced harshly, eyeing Hua in my arms.
“I’m sorry,” I mumbled, right on cue. I looked up, and to my relief and confusion, the old man’s eyes held no loathing, but understanding.
“It’s alright,” he replied gently.
I held out Hua. My selfish side screamed in defiance, urging my arm to pull back, while my noble side prodded me on. Wang Da Ye shook his head. “You must keep it.”
“I-I couldn’t,” I stammered, my arm frozen.
“That is out of the question,” my father boomed. “Children must learn right from wrong.”
Finally, Wang Da Ye reluctantly accepted the clay dog. “Do not punish him!” he warned my father as we left. “If a child is punished during the New Year, he will have no happiness the entire year!”
Several months later, Wang Da Ye moved again. On the day before he left, I stopped at the stall to watch him pack. Neither of us spoke. He was gone the next day.
I trudged into my room that afternoon. I stopped short, however, when I spotted the small clay dog sitting on the bed.
More than thirty years have passed. I haven’t met Wang Da Ye since the day he moved away, though I searched for him. Contrastingly, Hua, a symbol of his kindness and benevolence, has always remained by my side.