fiction by dana y.t. lin
Wen-yi woke to the smell of rice porridge simmering over an open flame. She peered out the window to the backyard. The cloudy sky made for a cool, dull morning. Big brother, Gia, hovered over a clay pot with a large wooden spoon in hand. Next to him a toddler boy played in a pile of dried leaves. Little sister, Mei-yi, squatted nearby fidgeting with a spool of red thread. Mei-yi caught sight of her sister.
“Wen-wen!” called Mei-yi. Her eyes brightened, her cheeks red from the morning’s cold. The little girl wore short braids, a brown sweater, loose trousers and sandals too wide for her feet. She waved the spool in the air and gestured for Wen-yi to come outside.
“Hurry!” Mei-yi called again. “Mama won’t let me start the game without you.”
Wen-yi let her thin cotton blanket slip off her shoulders and hopped out of bed. Wearing a nightshirt, she pulled on an oversized sweater to hide her growing chest. She slipped into wooden sandals, ran out the room, down the hall, then left through the oak door into the backyard. She slowed once her shoes hit the slippery stone ground covered in dew.
“Take the needles,” came a voice from the house.
“Mama,” said Wen-yi.
A thin lady hobbled to meet her. Her brown cotton dress frazzled at the hems bore black patches stitched on its sleeves. Braided black hair streaked with grey on the top wound into a bun at the back. A single bloom of white adorned her hair. Her pale, smooth face framed dark, glossy eyes. Her hand held a balled up sock with two silver needles stuck in it.
“Thank you, mama.” Wen-yi carefully pulled out the needles.
“You better go before the sun is fully out. By then, the sunlight would have dried the leaves.”
“I know, mama. We’ll hurry.” Wen-yi stuck the needles into her braids. “Do you want me to walk you inside?”
“No, no. I’ll have Gia take me when he’s done with breakfast.”
“Mama!” cried Mei-yi. She ran up, wrapped her arms around her mother. “I wish you’d come, too. It’s so much fun.”
“Ah, mama isn’t so lucky. I have bound feet, see?” said the mother. She wiggled a foot. Her feet were a pair of stubs the size of oranges.
“I know, mama.” Mei-yi lowered her head then glanced up suddenly. “Can papa come? Can I get him?”
“No.” The mother stroked her daughter’s cheek. “Papa has to work in town. Maybe tomorrow.”
“Let’s go,” said Wen-yi. She pulled her sister away from their mother. “The faster we get back, the sooner we can have porridge.”
“Bye, mama.” Mei-yi followed Wen-yi through the bamboo gate towards the fields beyond their home. “See you, Gia! Little Brother!”
Gia, without turning around, waved his spoon in the air. Little Brother tossed a handful of leaves in the air and laughed, his cheeks just as red and round as Mei-yi’s.
“The one who brings in the heaviest batch will win!” the mother called after them.
The girls giggled all the way down the dirt path to the grove of fruit trees a couple miles from their backyard. Autumn leaves in all shades of orange and green coated the ground.
“Here.” Mei-yi handed the spool she had in her pocket to Wen-yi. “Can I have a head start today?”
“Sure.” Wen-yi picked out a short twig on the ground and tied it with one end of the string. She pulled a needle from her braid and threaded it with the other end. “I’ll still win.”
Mei-yi took the needle and ran off to the thickest area of leaves.
“Remember the rules?” asked Wen-yi. She threaded the second needle. “If we hear papa’s flute where do we go?”
“We play hide-and-seek!” answered Mei-yi. She dropped on all fours, stabbing the leaves one by one with the needle. Once she had five leaves, she’d push them all the way to the twig end of the thread. She repeated this with speed and giggles, only stopping to have Wen-yi tie up her full string of leaves then start again with another string.
Wen-yi employed a different technique. Instead of crawling everywhere like her little sister, she would kneel and gather the leaves into a big pile. Before long, Wen-yi’s heap was significantly larger than Mei-yi’s.
Both sisters worked fast. The warmer the day got, the drier the leaves. The drier the leaves, the more brittle and more difficult to poke with a needle.
“I don’t want to play anymore.” Mei-yi handed another full string of leaves to her sister. “I’m hungry,” she said.
Wen-yi stopped and sat on the ground. She motioned for her sister to sit on her lap.
“We’re almost done,” said Wen-yi. “Just a little more.”
“But I’m tired.” Mei-yi rubbed her knees, her trousers soiled at the knees. “Besides, there’s no way I’ll catch up. You always win.”
“What if I give you my prize?”
“You always do that, too.” Mei-yi covered her mouth, yawned. “For once, I want to win fair so I can share my piece of salted egg with you and Little Brother.”
“What about Gia?”
“Big Brother is big enough to win his own prizes!”
Wen-yi laughed. She gave her sister a hug. “Well, I think we’ve got enough.“
A soft wind breezed through the trees carrying with it a gentle melody. After a few notes, it stopped.
“Do you hear that?” asked Wen-yi. She smiled, but her eyes betrayed fear. “It’s papa.”
“Yes! Another game!” Mei-yi leaped from her sister’s lap, jumped up and down, her braids flopping in the air.
“You can’t hide without these.” Wen-yi quickly tied up the ends of the strings, draped several over Mei-yi’s neck. The rest she put around her own neck and arms.
“Follow me!” she ordered.
The sisters ran away from the grove toward where the music came. Their wooden sandals clunked on the ground and their strings of leaves rustled up and down their shoulders. After a short distance of running on damp grass, Mei-yi stopped and clutched her stomach. Hungry and out of breath, she released a sharp wail. Wen-yi was several paces ahead.
“Wen-yi!” cried the little girl. She sat down on the grass, hunched over. “Where are we going? We could have hid behind the trees where we were, or climbed up them.”
Wen-yi looked over her shoulder of leaves and stopped. She dragged a hand across her forehead, panted for air.
“But Gia knows we were at the grove. It’ll be too easy for him to find us.”
“I don’t care.” Mei-yi’s eyes teared up. She rubbed her legs. “They hurt, my stomach, too.”
“I’ll carry you.” Wen-yi hoisted her sister up her back. “Hold on tight.”
“But it’s not fair.” Mei-yi sniffled. “With me on your back, you’ll run too slow. Gia will catch up.”
“No he won’t.” Wen-yi adjusted the leaves, scratched her neck.
She hooked each arm under each of her sister’s legs. Once she secured Mei-yi to her back, Wen-yi ran as fast as her legs would go. She stopped when they reached a gated area.
“Are we there?” asked Mei-yi as she slid off.
“Shh.” Wen-yi stifled a cough, caught her breath. “We don’t want Gia to hear us.”
Wen-yi pushed open the wooden gate and led Mei-yi inside. They walked past rows and rows of large stone tablets standing in the grass. The rustling of the stringed leaves echoed sharply against the dullness around. When they reached the end of the field, a couple rows of freshly dug, rectangular holes came to view. Some were filled with loose dirt and some covered by planks or large canvas.
“Can you teach me how to—“
Wen-yi held a finger to her lips.
“Wen-yi,” came a hushed voice from one of the holes. A hand reached up and pushed the plank aside. A man climbed out.
“Papa!” Mei-yi ran to her father and leaped into his welcoming arms.
“Shh.” The father, hair prematurely grey, dressed in farmer’s trousers and barefoot, held her close, pressed her face to his chest to quiet her. “Not so loud.”
Wen-yi went over and peered inside the pit. About six feet deep, Gia sat in a corner with a mound of clay pots with folded blankets underneath them. Little Brother slept on his shoulders. Next to him crouched a neighbor with his wife and three young children and two babies. The children appeared between three and eight years old. The wife had one baby in a sling on her back, and one in her arms.
“Get in.” Papa handed Mei-yi to Gia then extended his hand to Wen-yi.
“Mama?” Wen-yi stared into her father’s dark eyes.
“Take my hand.”
He looked away. “Jump in, Wen-yi.”
Wen-yi obeyed. She sat at the edge and slid into the pit. She found a spot next to Gia.
Gia leaned over and whispered into her ear, “Papa wanted to put her on his back. I had to bring Little Brother so papa could carry the food. Mama said she was too heavy, would slow us down, she insisted we leave without her.”
Papa carefully placed the planks over the hole, leaving himself enough room to slide down. Once inside, the neighbor grabbed a blanket and stuffed up the spot where papa entered. The neighbor wiggled the blanket until it covered the opening completely, making the inside of the pit very dark.
“Now, children,” whispered Papa, “the game begins.”
“Yes,” came the low voice of the neighbor. “Very quietly, who wants to get a piece of salted pork when we get back? Very quietly now.”
Mei-yi and the neighbor’s children all muttered, “Me!”
“Good,” said papa. “Starting from now we must remain very quiet.”
“No noise,” added the neighbor, “no talking, no laughing, no sneezing. Get it?”
“Yes,” the children mumbled.
“No matter what you hear outside,” Papa said. “It might get loud. The ground may shake. But no noise. Understand?”
No one answered.
That night thunder roared above and earth rumbled below. The distant sound of marching footsteps came from beyond the gate. With the sun now set, the pit became pitch black. The babies were kept quiet in the comfort of their mother’s breasts. The younger children hid under blankets. The adults had stuffed rags into their mouths so when they cried, they would not be heard. Their pants were drenched in their own tears.
Rain slipped between the wooden planks and wet the ground. Papa tapped Wen-yi’s shoulder for help. Wen-yi removed the leaf necklaces around her neck and began spreading the leaves on the floor for bedding. When she reached for her sister’s, Mei-yi refused.
“But the leaves are for the fire to cook.” Mei-yi held on to her strings. “Mama will ask me about it.”
“The ground has too much moisture.” Wen-yi patted the earth. “If we don’t put the leaves down, the blankets will get very wet.”
“Papa,” came Gia’s voice. “Little Brother feels hot.”
“Let me hold him,” Wen-yi offered.
“I have to pee,” came the voice of the neighbor’s little boy.
“Here,” said the neighbor’s wife. There was the sound of a clay pot being dragged on the dirt. “This one is empty.”
The next night, more rumblings and quaking, but the footsteps sounded closer and the thunder sounded like firecrackers.
“Ouch!” cried one of the neighbor’s children.
“Shh!” his father rebuked.
“But my rice bit me,” he whispered back.
Wen-yi let Little Brother eat off her hands. His lips felt burning hot on her fingers. He was very quiet.
“Mine bit me, too,” Mei-yi said.
“Shh,” crooned Wen-Yi. In the dark, she reached for Mei-yi’s hand. “Didn’t mama tell you? Ants will give you magic powers.”
“Where is mama?”
By day three, the stench from the pots became unbearable.
“How much longer?” Mei-yi tugged on Wen-yi’s sleeve.
“When the storm passes,” Wen-yi replies. She held Little Brother closer.
Little Brother hadn’t made a noise since morning.
By the fourth day, Papa finally pushed away the planks that covered the hole. It was dark outside, nighttime. Papa climbed up first, followed by the neighbor.
“Stay,” Papa ordered.
They covered the hole with planks again. Their footsteps headed toward the gate. After a few hours, they came back.
“Haven’t heard a bomb or a rifle in a whole day,” the neighbor said. “They’re probably on to the next village.”
“Let’s hope they’re gone for good.”
The planks were hauled to the side. The wife gathered her children around her and handed them one by one to her husband. Papa helped the neighbor pull his family out of the pit first.
“Are we going to see mama now?” Mei-yi asked her sister.
Wen-yi looked to her father, but he didn’t answer. She lifted the limp body of Little Brother to him. Gia then hoisted her up. A faint hint of ashes and sulfur hung in the air.
They walked in silence for miles, using the light of the moon to find their way. The neighbor and his family reached their home first. After another mile, Wen-yi and her family arrived home.
“Go find a candle,” Papa told Gia.
After Gia lighted an oil lamp, they walked through the ruins of their ancestral home. The doors appeared kicked off its hinges, the floors filled with ashes and debris, the walls black from flames.
“This is messy.” Mei-yi observed, blinking back tears. “I hate storms.”
Papa placed Little Brother in his bed when they got to the boys’ room. The boy appeared blue and rigid.
“Papa?” Mei-yi wiped her eyes, walked up to the crib and peered inside. “I think Little Brother won, don’t you?”
Her father didn’t answer.
“He stayed the most quiet,” Mei-yi explained. She tugged on her sister’s sleeves. “Didn’t he?”
“Yes,” Wen-yi whispered, barely able to speak. She went over and tucked a blanket under her little brother’s chin. As she smoothed the blanket her fingers stopped at the embroidery on the bottom. A pair of green and gold bamboo, a symbol of their family name, now tattered, was stitched by her mother.
“I think he deserves the salted pork, doesn’t he?” Mei-yi turned around and headed out the door. “Let’s go tell mama.”
About the Author
Ms. Lin based ‘Games’ on her mother’s childhood in Canton, China during the early years of World War 2. Though writing mostly humor, she is often inspired by her parents’ bedtime stories from her childhood. She currently resides in Southern California with her husband and children. For further information, visit Dana online at www.danaytlin.com.