Tuesday, September 21, 2010


Written for NYC Midnight's Flash Fiction Contest
Challenge #2
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 what?”

“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.

Saturday, August 21, 2010

For NYC Midnight's Flash Fiction Contest

Category: Romantic Comedy
Place: Bridge
Item: Tambourine

Big Lobster, Warm Tea

Wang Li was a very serious man. He was, in fact, so stern in appearance that his friends referred to him as “Old Bear”, a pun on the Chinese word for “fierce.” He was one of those men that walked around with a constant cigarette in the mouth and talked unnecessarily loudly at whoever would listen. He more than once frightened small children into crying and running away to safety. In spite of the reputation, Wang Li was wise, level-headed, and pure at heart. And he was taking his morning stroll. The Wuhan air was a bit musky and thick, as usual. So thick you could wrap your tongue around it. Wang Li had never known another city, and so he did not so much mind his home. Smoking his first cigarette of the day, he inhaled that acidic air and hacked. Wang Li knew what cancer was, but he never listened when his wife, Tang Hua—literally “sugar flower”—told him to quit, and chuckled when she would threaten him with divorce. She had been threatening it for thirty six years, and the security of time had long taken the bite out of her words.

Wang Li approached Youth Park and sat himself down at his favorite spot by the river, near what the locals called Fortune Bridge. This was his favorite thing to watch early in the morning—women dancing with fans.

They were not necessarily beautiful women, nor were they young women. They had been convening here every morning of the year, except for those few days two years ago when a rare blizzard hit Wuhan and shed snow two meters deep on their pebble dance floor, and on their near-sacred bridge. Sacred because that was where their long-time leader stood, morning after morning, commanding attention from up high, trusty tambourine in hand.

Her name was Huang Xiao Xia—“little shrimp.” But she was not so shrimplike now. She had been perhaps beautiful—a few decades ago, she may have been striking. Time had worked its intricate sculpting on her, adding lines and blemishes, drooping her once-pert breasts, and gently winding her hair until it was speckled gray and crinkled like hay. She was once voluptuous, but now she was just big. She stood on that bridge, tambourine in the air, in her flowery red dress, looking like a lobster.

And there was another man, named Howard. Howard stared at Huang Xiao Xia as if she were the most delicious lobster he had ever seen. Howard was American and fat. If it weren’t for his lack of chin and his big owl glasses, it would be hard to pick Howard out in a crowd. He had the appearance of globby pudding. And Wang Li hated him at first sight.

They began dancing—Huang Xiao Xia, standing atop the bridge with her back to her dancers, shook her tambourine, and one of her dedicated followers quickly ran the old tape player. Thirty-year-old classical Chinese music thumped, its bass setting the dancers daintily stomping their feet. Huang Xiao Xia shook one globular hip and turned around, her beady eyes on any unpleasant twitches in her army. With a swoosh of her big skirt, she marched down the bridge and spectators sensed the tension of twenty-two women simultaneously gulping. After the first eight beats, the tambourine hovered menacingly in her hand—CLICK! An errant elbow here. CLACK, an unpretty expression on the face.

Howard, the dental surgeon from Ohio, leaned forward with spittle on the edges of his lips. He had never seen such beauty and ferocity in one creature. He was getting up unconsciously, and soon his pudding hips were shaking along to the booming bass. This woman was his favorite food personified. He began getting hot, dancing like a knave on the edge of this elegant throng. He pulled his polo out of his khakis and, as Huang Xiao Xia turned her infinitely piercing gaze toward him, he closed his eyes and imagined her…THWACK!

Wang Li, who had been watching from his usual spot, stood up and laughed. A good, hearty, belly-shaking laugh. He laughed until he started hacking his smoker’s hack, and kept laughing until he was dry-heaving. He pointed at Howard, who was flustered and had a nice welt in his head, and stated very simply “Foreigner!” This simple word was universally understood, and the entire troupe was soon pointing and laughing too. Howard would later write to his mother that China was quite a hostile country.

Wang Li went home that morning with a story for his wife. His Flower waited for him, as she always did, with a smile and a warm cup of tea. And as he told the story, Flower simply reminded him how embarrassed he was when he made that deep bow in public and gestured to her awkwardly, his arms spread out, the first time he saw her. She told him, wisely as ever, that love begins dramatically and ends in simple things, like a cup of tea.

Monday, March 30, 2009



Word: beloved

She wore a shawl made of lace, tenderly stroking the face before her. A face of laughter in the face of death. A mortality--she touches it and shivers; it plays on her like drunkenness, like irony, like faith.

Thursday, March 26, 2009


There used to be so many children.
Not anymore, we can only afford
what we can afford.
How far did you come?
Oh, not far. I live in the mountains.
We grow different things--water
chestnuts. I help my mother
peel these chestnuts all day.
We finish two bags,
a whole day's work, and they come
and give us twenty kuai.

The girl from the mountains
tells me she feels
the weakness in my arms.
Have you ever done hard labor?

I float on the Li River again,
Lying into the water without drowning.
Her force tells me: Breathe out,
don't hold your breath.

With the seventy kuai you pay,
I only get seven. No, the boss
is not kind to us. We rely
on generosity from strangers.

I want to ask: what can I do?
I want to replace her arms, tanned
from long days kneeling in dirt,
cutting shoots from chestnuts,
patient as the sun bakes the clay
until it cracks, her fingers,
which pluck fruit from the earth.
When she says You are so white,
so pure, I want to tell her
she is much more beautiful.

I want to tell her anything.
I miss seeing children playing.
A lady from the other night
was kind, gave me a hundred,
said to consider it a tip.

I hand her as much money
as she makes in a month.
You're beautiful, thank you,
you're beautiful.

She will go back tomorrow
and peel chestnuts
with her mother.
There is only rain
which follows the small
sun-creases by her eyes,
which beads in trenches
and tells her
there will be life tomorrow.

(c) Mary Li 2009

Friday, March 6, 2009

Friday, October 17, 2008

October baby

We have pushed you out to sea
on a bed lined with tulips.
Somewhere the saltwater
comes into you; somewhere
you have hardened, mermaid.
You are limestone, a broken
beacon at the bottom,
a whale’s moan.

I have misplaced you
and have tried looking
for you in pictures.
Meet me if you still love me
and I will find you at the end
of the unfathomable ocean,
my rolled pants,
my hands eager
compass points.

Kavya Vaidyanathan, I hope you are resting.

Thursday, September 25, 2008

The food...after posting this, I am hungry.

This is cafeteria food. This is from a particular cafeteria in which there's a huuuge wall of food, and different windows have different selections--you can just grab whatever looks good. The bottom left is some cubed squash, cooked to perfection and soft to the bite. Some shredded potatoes top-left, some duck and lotus root top right (loving the lotus root here), and some congee/rice porridge bottom right. All for about 10 RMB (1.5 dollars?) This is not bad pickin's to have everyday.

I went to a restaurant by one of the smaller lakes around here with my cousins.

I'm still not sure what these are. Some kind of thing that grows on top of the water, kind of like lotus. It tasted nutty/beaney. They liked it, but I didn't think it was anything special.

Fish balls! 鱼 圆 The specialty of that particular lake. These were scrumptious. The soup/broth was really good, and the fish balls were tender and succulent and just melted in your mouth. I asked if they used flour and fish, and my cousins said that it was just fish; as long as it was fresh, they just kept grinding it until it stuck together to form a sphere that blesses your tastebuds.

Famous. A STREET OF FOOD. That's right! We went over to Hankou, which is another district in Wuhan. I normally live in the Wuchang district, which is not nearly as bustling. Every stand sets up shop and serves up something delicious. Called 小 吃, literally "little eat", each thing is just enough to give you a taste, and you go from stand to stand until you still want to eat more, but you can't.

They deep-fry these and add either a slightly spicy rub or a really spicy rub. The lotus. Oh man. Amazing, satisfying crunch.
Grilled seafood. Clams, mussels. I tried out the mussels. They had garlic on top, and the flavors got cooked into the meat, which was tender, fresh, and delicious.The Chinese are masterful at the art of steaming. You may think that steaming yields bland food, but no, these treats are far from bland.So I'm sorry, I took a bite. Just to demonstrate the interior, really! Pork, corn, crabmeat, wrapped in nori (seaweed) and steamed. A delicious combination.