The Lantern

March 26, 2017
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    They tore my lantern into pieces.
    In the past month, I had cut the wood sticks, twisted a wick and glued the paper to make a decent lantern and set it off to the sky on the festival. I had also thought of a wish to say. But this evening, when I walked out of my house with the lantern in my hand, they stood in my way. They took the lantern from my hand. The leading boy slightly turned his wrists, and the thin paper fell to pieces. Then they pulled the wick out, threw it onto the ground and stamped on it. They knocked me over, took away what was mine and destroyed it.
    Shall I return to my house and cry to my parents? But no, that doesn’t work, for the boy at the front is my stepfather’s son. And my mother sat at the table and did the sewing all day, her eyes dimming and dimming as years went by.
    So when their laughter slowly vanished into the other end of the street, I crawled up from the ground. I stroke a fire—it was prepared for flying the lantern—and collected the scattered wick into my pocket. I picked up the broken lantern, held it against my chest, and walked into the deep alleys.
    I walked out of an alley and walked into another. There was no moon, and everything was dark. But I opened my eyes wide so that I could see things clear. I walked and walked, unaware of how much time had passed. Suddenly, the walls on the sides lit up. I looked back. At a distance, lanterns rose and floated in the night sky like torches.
    I stared at the vague light for a while, and turned to keep walking. The road ahead of me was lit up and then dimmed by the lanterns behind me. My eyes were flashed, and I began to stumble.
Finally my sight widened, and a river appeared. It was the edge of the village. I stroke a new fire. With the lantern in my arms, I slowly walked towards the riverbank. The river was all black and silent, but all the villagers knew that it surges forward day and night. Once someone falls into it, there’s no chance of coming out. It is an abyss.
    I chose a spot and was ready to sit down. Suddenly, a fire was lit up beside me. I sprung up on my feet.

    An arm’s distance from me stood a man. He was lighting up a cigarette.
    “What are you doing here?” he began to ask, as he slowly let out a ring.
    I gazed at him. He was tall and thin and wore a long coat. Judged by the outfit, I could tell that he is not local. Nor had I ever seen him before. I moved my gaze to his face. His eyes were long and narrow, reflecting the light of the cigarette and blinking in the dark.
    The way he asked his question kind of annoyed me. He did not belong to the village yet asked me what I was doing, as if I had intruded his territory.
    “I’m doing something important,” I answered.
    He laughed a short laugh, with no hint of emotion. “Well, guess what,” said he, “I’m here for something important too.”

    I paid no attention to him, but instead bent over and put the lantern on the ground carefully. I was indeed doing something important. I was going to light up the lantern and set it off to the sky. But now it was just pieces of paper and a broken wood stick. I pulled the wick out of my pocket, placed it on top of the lantern and stared at the mess for a while. Then I noticed that the man had been watching me by my side. I gazed back sharply.
    “What are you looking at?”
    The man smiled. “Are you setting off this lantern?”
    I did not speak.
    “It’s all crap now.”
    Still, I did not speak. I silently clenched my fist. It was funny that when I was facing those kids who bullied me, I had no intention to fight back. This tall man in front of me had just told the truth, yet I wanted to beat him. To death would be the best.
At that moment there was a gust of wind. The broken lantern on the ground got swept up and was flying towards the river. I screamed and pounced on, as my foot stepped on a rock and toppled. The next thing I knew was a surge of coldness that splashed from beneath, wrapped around my limbs and pulled me downwards. I’m falling into the river! The thought of it brought screams into my head. I started struggling violently.
    Something gripped my arm and stopped me from falling. I was still squirming. “Stay still—look up!” a voice commanded.
Out of instinct, I swung my legs and finally found a spot to land. Raising my head, I saw the man. He was gripping my arm and seemed to be trying hard.
    “Get up here!” he said.
    I crawled up the shore. As soon as my knees hit the ground, I knelt down and breathed heavily.  “The lantern…” I said.
    “I got your lantern back.” I pulled myself up and saw the man, holding my lantern in his hands. “The wick, though—I don’t know where it went with the wind.”
    I stood up and patted the dirt off my shirt. He was still looking around, as if looking for something. “Get a match, boy—you might find it somewhere. That was such a gust of wind, like woo……”
    I turned around and walked towards the alley.
    Behind me, the voice suddenly vanished. I walked firmly.               Another gust of wind went by, and I heard a weird scream.
    I looked back, only to see that the man was waving his arms to grab the lantern from the wind. He finally got hold of it and secured it in his arms. “Your lantern—are you not flying it anymore?”
    I looked at him for a while. “I don’t want it.” I replied, as I turned around and started walking again. “You can have it.”
    The sounds once again vanished behind me. Strangely, it was then that I heard the sound of the running water. The sound of the river had reached me—though so vague that my breath could cover it, I heard it indeed.
    “Ah.” A sigh fell into the air. In front of me, the light of fire rose on the grey wall of the alley.
    I couldn’t help but look back.
    The man was standing by the river, his long coat flying in the air. In one hand was my lantern, and in the other hand was a lit match.
    Time seemed to have frozen. The next moment, he swung both hands forward.
    My lantern immediately turned into a fireball and fell to the ground.
    Before I realized what I was doing, I darted myself at him.             “Stop!”
    “Why?” the man seized my waving hand and locked my wrist into his grip. His eyes narrowed. “You said that you’re giving it to me.”
“You…” I was speechless, but simply trembled. I liberated myself from his control and gazed at my lantern. Fire devoured it, turning it into ashes. The scalding wind wrapped me in.
    “Make a wish.”
    The man’s voice suddenly became very light, even soft.
    “You see, the lantern is lit.”
    My throat felt dry. “It’s of no use. ” I muttered. “The wish only comes true if it’s set off to the sky.”
    “And so it has,” the man put his hand on my shoulder, and used the other hand to point ahead. I saw countless pieces and sparks, swirling in the air and rising up into the vastness and darkness of the night sky. The fire rose so high, its color so bright, the sound it made so strident.
    So I closed my eyes and whispered my wish. When I opened my eyes, the fire was out. Smoke rose and disappeared.
    “That’s great!” the man clapped his hands. “You’ve set the lantern and your wish will come true! Tell me,” he bent over, “what was your wish?”
    I looked at his face, the black hair that covered his forehead and the glinting eyes underneath.
    “To live.” I said.
    His eyes narrowed, like moonlight leaking out of clouds. “To live,” he repeated.
    “Yes,” I said.
    He laughed. Not the kind of laugh he did earlier, but the kind that brings laugh to his eyes.
    “That’t nothing easy,” he said. “But you—you can do it.”
    He rose. After that, he cast no glance at me but instead gazed at the river that lay in the dark.
    I nodded, unaware if he had seen it. I walked away. Suddenly, something brought me to a halt.
    “The important thing that you’re doing,” I turned around and shouted, “do you need my help?”
    I could see clearly that he waved towards my direction.
    “No need, I can handle it myself.”
    Such answer was carried over.

    The next day, I was sweeping the floor at my house when someone broke in and brought news—last night, someone jumped into the river and killed himself. He wore a long coat and appeared to be from the city.
    I stopped my sweep.
    My father was asking man questions, and the man was answering him. Just then, my brother walked by. He took my broom away and smashed it onto the ground.
    I stood there, motionless. The man’s face appeared in my head. At that time I was going to fall into the river, yet he grabbed me. He grabbed me tightly. There was something on his face that was more radiant than the burning lantern. At the time, his whole face was glittering. What made it glitter was so bright that once seen, it cannot be forgotten.
    It was the burning desire for life.

    I swung my fist and smacked it onto the face of the boy before me.

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