296 words. Pay attention.
*Winner of the 2013 Hong Kong Writers Circle Summer Flash Fiction Contest
This word she recognized. Study. How many times she’d shoved it at Fei Fei like some kind of starspun talisman. Like a contract. Like a gift.
Xue. She eyed the word with suspicion. It was so pretty in Fei Fei’s mouth, rising from nothingness full of breath and promises. No wonder she’d made it sound like snow.
Snow. She thought of the airy blue diamonds she’d seen only once as a child, those snowflakes born from the Min river that float up and up past Snow Treasure Peak until they paint the sky, never realizing they’re supposed to fall. How could you even put such a word on paper? So dishonest, these scribbling lines.
Ah, yes…zi. This one too she knew. Child.
Li Lan recalled the morning eleven years earlier when Zhong Aixian left Gucheng Town for Chengdu, his hair cut short as scrub brush, his eyes dangling a smile she thought he’d lost forever. Still she could feel the barky rasp of his fingers against her wrist as he kissed her forehead goodbye. It rasped too, the kiss, so painfully it took ten years for her to realize how much she’d treasured it.
Three letters. Nine months. A call to the snot green dial phone in Wang’s noodle shop. She remembered the walk home, dust choking up from the tire ruts along Heavenly Mountain Avenue, Old Chen spitting and staring out from behind a turned-over bicycle, it’s rear wheel spinning like a clock, noonday sun dewing on the cypress. Li Lan’s eyes were so very hard then, unwilling to cry in front of the gathering villagers, even as she stepped on a nail and wrote the poem of blood script sorrow that marks the dirt path home still today. She wondered what she’d tell Fei Fei, what an I-beam was, a harness, how they break and why her father fell from the sky. Why he couldn’t fly like he promised, like blue snow.
So too Li Lan remembered Fei Fei leaving on every first day of school. Ten years, only one backpack, that cartoon, that American mouse grinning as she danced through the same cloud of dust, along those same, thousand-year old tire ruts, ponytail whipping back and forth like a wagging finger. Study, she’d said so many times. Study hard. This is your work, study. And go to college. And find a good job. And marry a tall, rich man so Momma won’t have to patch trousers and coats and backpacks till her fingers rot off. Every switch-slap on the hand, every tug of a ponytail came roiling back up in her mind. They bubbled out of her daughter’s springtime eyes, wrote themselves in her freckles. Fei Fei was good at math. Li Lan still wasn’t certain what math really is.
Xue. Study. And exactly thirty-seven other characters she couldn’t read except for hao, good, and yuan, money, that she knew made up the name of some hellish school and some bastard bank and seven numbers she’d hate more than any numbers she’d ever know for the rest of her life. When the check arrived, she already knew it was the last thing she wanted. Eighty thousand. Was this the price of a daughter? It was so much higher than the price of a husband – the price that could send a daughter to school.
Li Lan tore the check into dozens of pieces, ripping and ripping until they couldn’t possibly shrink any smaller, and as she watched the last blue shred cling to the windowsill, she imagined Fei Fei on the schoolhouse roof, tiny brown toes gripping the gutter’s edge, her ponytail fighting, fighting the wind because all of Gucheng knew that no one in her family could fly.