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The Peony’s Promise (2nd Prize, Category 4)

April, 2014
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Something serious must have happened for my father to take me out of boarding school and to come do it personally. Otherwise, he would have sent a servant. 

All through the carriage ride home, questions burn on my tongue, but I don’t say a word; I know that Father will tell me when he feels that the time is suitable.

“Faster,” Father urges the rickshaw driver for the umpteenth time, his neatly trimmed black hair, interspersed with silver strands, glistening in the heat. He mops his forehead with an embroidered handkerchief, then hastily thrusts the kerchief into his breast pocket, reconsiders and removes it, and wipes his brow again. 

The rickshaw rolls to a stop. Father steps onto the dusty road, and I follow close behind as he strides briskly into the courtyard. We receive no rowdy welcome from my younger brothers and sisters, no yelping bundles tugging on Big Brother’s shirttail, begging him to catch crickets with them today.

“Where is everyone?” I wonder aloud, looking around at the empty rooms with doors ajar.

“Gong Ren took all of your siblings to your aunt’s house,” Father answers.

“When will they return?” 

“You won’t see them again anytime soon.” Father turns his face away from me to avoid the unasked questions in my eyes.

My eyebrows, bushy and black, furrow in confusion and anxiety, but I know better than to persist. “Then Mother is also at Auntie’s house?” I inquire.

Father does not answer. He presses his lips together tightly and stares at the stone well beyond my shoulder. “No,” Father finally declares. He clears his throat and dares to meet my gaze. “Go upstairs and pack your things. Your train leaves in an hour.”

I try to hold Father’s gaze for a moment longer, my eyes flitting back and forth in attempts to decipher the hidden knowledge within his pupils, but Father looks away before I can uncover an explanation. As I mount the stairs to my room, my lean, strong legs carrying me two steps at a time, a thousand questions thrash in my mind like ocean breakers. Why am I leaving? Where am I going? Am I going alone? When will I return? Where is Mother? A thought briefly flutters into my mind: Perhaps the Communist Party has finally discovered us and wants us dead. 

I push open the wooden doors to my room. A musty odor fills my nostrils—I have not returned home in several months. The room is neat and bare, just as I left it when I departed for school, with a large canopy bed occupying most of the space, a mahogany desk beside the shuttered window on the left, and a tall wooden closet against the wall on the opposite side of the room. 

I lay my twin briefcases on the white comforter and stroll to the windows. With a firm push, the shutters swing open, inviting the sunlight and breeze to pour in. My eyes instinctively close against the glare.

Father did not tell me how much I needed to pack, but the finality of his statement confirmed that I would only be able to bring the essentials; everything else would have to be left behind. I unlatch my two suitcases and empty them of my few sets of clothes and my schoolbooks, quickly refilling them with my Zhongshan suit, a few cotton undershirts, two pairs of brown dress pants, my ball-point pen, my pad of writing paper. Thrusting several bills into the hidden pouch sewn into the waist of my pants, I take a final glance at my home, my childhood of sixteen years.

I will come back, I convince myself. I will return to once again write si—poetry—on the cool, smooth redwood desk, to lie on the plush mattress and think, to lean out the window and shout greetings to the rickshaw drivers in the early mornings. This is my home, my haven, my private sanctuary—but there is no time to hesitate now. Father is waiting for me downstairs.  

I do not shut my room door when I exit. It will remain an open welcome when I return. Descending the staircase, my single briefcase in hand, I find my father with bowed profile, stroking the peonies in the courtyard. Mother had loved those peonies and had meticulously supervised as servants tended them daily. If we had not been of such high standing, Mother likely would have crouched in the dirt and nurtured the flowers herself. For the first time since I entered the house, I observe that the petals have littered the ground, the flowers withering from the oppressive heat.

Father straightens up as soon as he notices my presence. He does not need to say a word—we both know that it is time to leave.

The rickshaw ride is uncomfortably silent. Resting my hands in my lap, I steal furtive glances at Father, but he seems not to notice. He stares blankly ahead, his back straight against the seat, emotionless, almost regal, like a noble who has been wrongly accused and is being led to his execution.

Finally, Father clears his throat. With his eyes fixed on the road, he bluntly delivers the news. 

“Your mother is dead. She drowned herself in the well this morning after she watched the Communists shoot her father and brothers.” 

I silently gasp for air, feeling as if I, too, have been mortally wounded. Father pauses for a moment and presses his lips together. Avoiding eye contact, he continues, “The Communists are coming to find the rest of our family. We are sending you to Hong Kong first.”

My face contorts slightly with the effort of hiding my shock, but I know that I cannot cry; men in China do not cry, especially not in sight of their elders. I look out the window and blink rapidly so that Father does not see my weakness.

After what feels like several years on the road, we arrive at the train station. The rickshaw driver nods graciously as we drop several coins into his palm, and he pedals away in search of his next passengers. I stare longingly after the driver, wishing that I could ride away from my fate just as easily.

I turn and accidentally meet my father’s gaze, but it seems that the firmness has faded from his face. Instead, his brows have melted together in a furrow of pain and worry, sorrow sealing his lips in a straight line. For a moment, Father resembles a young boy who has lost sight of his parents in a crowded marketplace, standing helpless and forlorn in a corner as people jostle past him. I know that he is sharing my pain.

Wordlessly, we descend the steps into the departure platform. Father instructs me to stand at an unoccupied brick column to wait for him as he purchases my train ticket at the kiosk. He knows that I can buy the ticket myself, but this is his final gesture to me before he must let go of my hand entirely. I watch Father as he waits in line, the man whom I am told I resemble greatly. Half a head taller than all of the other passengers in the station, he carries himself with calm dignity. His dark gray Zhongshan suit is as unruffled as his expression, and his immaculate shoes shine a dull ebony. But Father seems to have grown so weary! His shoulders have begun to hunch ever so slightly; the muscles on his face have slackened with worry. Father briefly glances over at me. I quickly shift my gaze to the brown briefcase of the man standing next in line.    

My thoughts wander to my mother. Mother, who, unlike the jabbering aunties in the houses next door, sat demurely with the corners of her mouth always turned upward in a secret smile. Mother, who visited my room whenever I was home and encouraged me to write si even though Father opposed it. Mother, who suggested that peonies be planted in the courtyard to add color and beauty to our lives. I choke back tears and stare downward, pretending that one of my shirt buttons has come undone. Mother, I promise I won’t fail you. I’ll work hard to earn enough money so that Father and Little Brothers and Little Sisters can all join me in Hong Kong soon. I promise.

In my bleary vision, I notice Father’s figure approaching, so I pretend that I am sweating a lot and wipe my face on my shirtsleeve. 

“Here is the ticket. Get off the train at Harbor Station. Then, take the earliest ship to Kowloon City in Hong Kong. Fourth Uncle will meet you at the dock.” Father’s eyes fix firmly on mine until I provide a weak nod of acknowledgement. Father opens his mouth as if to say something else, but he changes his mind and quickly closes it again. He turns his head toward the empty railroad tracks, waiting for the train to arrive.

I lean against the pillar, with both hands clutching the handles of my leather briefcases in front of me. I do not want the train to come and snatch me from my homeland, my childhood, my family, but I know I have no choice. If the train does not take me, the Communists will. I sense the pillar behind me trembling. The train has arrived.

 

Father reluctantly turns his head back toward me, pain glistening in his eyes. “Wen Bing, take care of yourself,” he reminds for the last time.

 

“I will,” I promise obediently. I turn and begin to join the hundreds of passengers who are trudging toward the train’s open doors.

 

Suddenly, I feel a strong hand grab my forearm. I look over my shoulder and am shocked to discover that the hand belongs to Father.

 

Startled by his own impulsive act, Father fumbles for an excuse.

 

“I..I forgot to give you something,” he feigns. He reaches into his breast pocket and pulls out several bills, perhaps amounting to a few hundred kuai. “Here, take this. You’ll need money in Hong Kong.”

 

“Thank you, Father,” I answer, somewhat dazed, as I thrust the dollar bills into the hidden pouch in my pants lining. Father and I stand staring at one another, as if frozen in motion, until the railway conductor breaks the spell.

 

“This is the final call! The train is leaving!”

 

“Goodbye, Father.” My words are barely audible, an irreversible ultimatum. I do not say more, for fear that my quavering voice will betray me, and I hurry to the train.

 

I find a vacant seat by the compartment window, where I catch one final glimpse of Father before the train begins to rumble out of the station. We stare at one another, not waving and unsmiling, because we do not know if our paths will cross again, because we have no inkling of what the bleak future holds. As the train pulls away, Father’s image shrinks until it fades into the afternoon light. I have nothing to remember him by—the money hardly counts.  

 

I reach into my hidden pouch to smooth out the money, and I am surprised when my fingertips brush against a firmer fold of paper. I know that it is writing paper simply by its texture. It must have gotten caught between Father’s sheets of money.

 

I extract the yellowed note and unfold it curiously. The ink is fading and barely legible, but it unmistakably forms a si—a final poem:

 

The peony flower from the soil springs forth;

Her blushing cheeks are a beauty of great worth.

She graces the garden with her splendor bright;

She hushes even the dark reaches of night.

Though her petals drop she need not be dismayed;

Where her seeds fall she will see the light of day.

Her beauty promises not a life of ease,

But she brings hope of prosperity and peace.

 



By Joyce Lam,

18 years, Concordia International School Shanghai

 

 

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