Written for NYC Midnight's Flash Fiction Contest
Requirements were: Historical fiction, a farm, a diamond
On a November Tuesday in 1968, I walked to school two kilometers away on a dirty road, passing by magnolia trees and looking upward to a traceless sky, seemingly dyed red and violet, the colors of flower petals and children’s blushes. I was fifteen then, a little too old for blushes and quite too young to have a boyfriend. My mother told me every morning over our morning meal of porridge and pickled cabbage, that I was not to use my beauty for anything, unless I obtained perfect power over it. Every morning, she reminded me that I was powerless because I was a girl, and therefore working a few steps behind.
I only ever half-believed what adults told me. This Tuesday, I hiked to school and got distracted by the sky, stopping every now and again to kick rocks, shivering a little at the thought of the swimming team—I heard that the swimming instructor made his kids jump into East Lake on the first winter day of the year, ice or no ice. I was five minutes late, and I look back now on this five minutes, wondering if it would have made a difference.
My elementary school was a shack. The roof was cobbled together from scrap metal and clay straight from the ground. I stepped inside to the sound of a thousand whispers. I found my classmates—they were lined up beneath the only clock we had. The hallways echoed with impatient foot-tapping and furtive mumbles. And as I lined up next to my best friend, Xiaoling—Little Bell—I was momentarily deafened by a whistle to the eardrum. There was a man in a green military uniform pecking us into order. He looked at Little Bell, then directly at me. I still remember the pockmarks on his face, how hardened and revolting they made him look. He picked me out of the line and told me I was going to be a farmer.
“You will be a great service to China, demonstrate your loyalty to the great Chairman Mao, and bring pride to your family.” I thought, at the time, having been raised with a little bit of privilege, that farming was below me, below all of us. Surely, there were more qualified, more tanned-skinned, more peasant-like individuals.
The first boy that I loved, the one who I never told my mother about, was not chosen. I said goodbye to him that day, for I would have no others. We sat together under the oddly elaborate alcove set into the outside wall—this one was a carving of a tiger. I remember that it was raining lightly, the plink plink plink of raindrops on tile making music.
“Thank you,” Pen Li said, blinking and casting his eyes down.
“For loving me.” He took a satchel out of his pocket, one he must have had everyday—how could he have known? “I will keep loving you until I can’t.”
He handed to me, delicately, a diamond. Of course, then, I had no idea what it was. It was clear and slightly yellow, the size of my pinky fingernail, an unpolished, uncarved stone.
I never saw him again.
I was in the rice fields within a week. I scattered my schoolbooks all around our old family home and forgot to bring all the comforting things I never knew I needed—words on paper, my favorite blanket, my mother and father’s shirts, pictures, the wind-up music box my grandmother left me.
The first day, I ate breakfast with the farmers and Little Bell. We clasped hands at a wooden, surprisingly sturdy table, and I ate porridge with my left hand.
“Are you scared?” She whispered, her faint voice in my ear overshadowed by the raucousness of men and women celebrating a new day.
“If we have each other, we’ll be good, won’t we?”
“If we have each other, we are still just two girls.”
We learned quickly how to harvest the rice, how to put on rainboots and prepare ourselves to stand in wet rice paddies all day; all the villagers called us smart girls. They looked at our fair skin and said we were pretty. One woman my mother’s age was named Wang Ma. She warned us about leeches, calling them “lifesuckers” and showing us how we could wear a balm to deter them. And when the leeches clamped on anyway, she showed me how to pry them off with chopsticks and fire. She fed me, as only a woman could.
Wang Ma knew the value of the little stone I carried—she took one look at it and clasped my hand into a fist around it. “My girl, do not ever show this to anybody, including me. Perhaps you may see the kindness in our townspeople, but do not forget greed, and do not lose yourself in it.”
After two years of working as a rice farmer, struggling to eat, getting foot fungus, and developing a funneling pain in my lower back that never left, I sat completely alone on a train towards Wuhan, clutching a small treasure in my hand. I saw purity in the center, and in the sun, it was fire.
I remember sitting by the fire, soaked from working in the rain, crying and showing Wang Ma the red marks along my leg, the writhing leeches like black tumors on my pale skin. Little Bell was there, and she stroked my hair while staring into the fire. She was always there, yet always looking away, distracted and pensive. I thought of how the fire could consume us, how even Wang Ma, the strongest woman in the world, could not escape this fire if it should spread. I closed my eyes, and it felt the same as the sun feels against your eyelids, how it ebbs and flows, warm and fierce, how it goes red, red, black.
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