I’ve been dreaming a lot lately. In my dream you wear a patched floral cotton jacket, you have braided hair, your cheeks are frozen red, and you are happily rolling in my arms, like a little dolphin. That’s the fifth winter we spent together, when you just started school, lying in the snow and for the first time, pronouncing my name in awkward mandarin. Guxiang. Hometown. That’s how you called me.
Now I am almost too old to speak. All my trees have withered, and the earthworms no longer swim intimately along my skin. My memory is getting worse. Sometimes I cannot even remember how many seasons there are in a year. The wind from the north passes through my body, and every time it comes, I get a little older.
You were born in a good time, when I was able to feed you and bring you up. You didn’t need to worry about starving or freezing. You wanted very little at that time, and I was able to give it all: rice and baked sweet potatoes, the first snow of winter; many summers and springs. I let you run on my chest, step on my beating heart to cross the hills and streams, listen to my breathing, and sleep in peace. You were so young; you trusted me and loved me. You tried hard to learn to talk to me, and walked your every step in my shadow since you were afraid of losing your way back to me, as if I was your whole world.
I taught you our dialect, how to draw water from the well, how to sow seeds, how to harvest, and how to respect life. Finally, I taught you death.
The first death I taught you was that of the weeds in spring. During spring farming season, your Ba would pull them, chop them, burn them, or make them into pig feed. The weeds tried so hard to live, to get the sun, to grow, only to have their lives cut and pulled out of the soil. You didn’t know why. You stuffed those cut weeds into my palm, begging me to let them sprout again. But I kept silent. It was the first time I did not fulfill your wish.
The second death I taught you was that of your rabbit, the white one your family kept in the backyard. You liked it so much that you named it Xiao Xue. You made friends with it, and picked fresh cabbage for it every day. Two months later, it was disemboweled and laid on your dining table.
You wept bitterly and asked me why. Your parents answered for me: “Rabbits are raised for food. Your generations, your Ye and Nai, your Ma and Ba we all do it, so you should do it. Shut up, hold your chopsticks and eat.”
That night, for the first time, you refused to sleep in my arms. Haizi, many lives are born to die.
The third death I taught you was that of your aunt. One day she was knitting sweaters for you and her upcoming baby; the next day she died in the childbed. Her husband and mother-in-law had found her a cheap midwife from the village and hadn’t allowed her to go to the hospital for a cesarean, saying that it would make the baby born stupid. After your aunt stopped breathing, they used a pair of scissors to cut her open to get the baby out, but the baby wasn’t breathing either.
You went through the first funeral in life. People told you that her Gui Hun, ghost, would return in seven days. People told you that girls must kneel on a straw mat and were not qualified to sit on a reed mat with boys, since girls symbolize bad luck in Feng Shui. People told you to cry, as loudly as you could, for all your aunt’s grievances and sorrows, otherwise you were unfilial. You couldn’t cry, so people made you kneel and confess until your knees were bloody and mangled.
Haizi, I didn’t want to teach it to you, but you still learned. You came to realize that death is a girl’s straw mat; death is crying and kneeling; death is not always dignified.
I wrote your aunt’s name on a red silk cloth and hung it on the branch of my tea tree. Many red cloths were hung on my trees, each with one name of my dead child.
After the funeral, you asked me, “Will you die too?”
How did I answer you? I remember… I told you that I wouldn’t die. I wouldn’t let you become adrift in the world, having no home to come back to. But I was lying.
Countless lives were born and then died in my body. You would gradually know those things, their names written in red silk cloths, the lives they spent.
You would know that my first child, your great-great-grandfather, died of natural causes. I had a good time with him. When he was born, the war hadn’t begun. Every day, he walked idly on me with his old cow. When the cow stopped to eat grass, he would smoke Han Yan and sing Shan Ge, praying for great weather and good crops. I know that he was talking to me.
My second child was your great-grandfather. Surely you remember him. He was the hero of this village. Yes, Haizi, he died in the war. Before joining the army, he knelt and kissed me, and put a part of me into his cloth bag, so my soul was split in two: one half waited in the village, and the other half followed him across the mountains to the north, to the front line. He was killed by Japanese invaders. People said they cut his arms and legs, stamped hot irons on his body, and infected his wounds, let them rot. He didn’t admit to being a Communist, so they stabbed bayonets into his chest and killed him. Years after the war, people brought him back to me. It was his dying wish.
Your grandmother, my third child, died of starvation. She was only fourteen when she married her crippled husband for money to cure her Ba, who had lung disease from years of work in the coal mines. She gave birth to eight children, three of whom were girls who were given away or sunk in wells at birth. In her thirties, the Great Leap Forward brought natural disasters and great famine. Her husband died. My body became so barren at that time. No matter how hard I tried, I couldn’t feed her and her children. On that winter, she sold her oldest son, your father, to another farmer in the village in exchange for two sacks of rice. During those years, she sold most of her children, while she herself stayed with me till death.
Haizi, my haizi. The thought of her makes me feel desperate. You must be astonished since no one has told her story to you. You were too young at that time, and they were afraid you would have nightmares and cry. But do you know? Crying is a good thing. I want to have tears.
When did it start? It seems like you grew up overnight. You went to school in town; you knew more and more. I had nothing to teach you.
There is an idiom in this country called Ye Luo Gui Gen, which means falling leaves will return to their roots. These were the only word you taught me. You always mispronounced it in your spelling tests at school, since your mandarin had an accent learned from me. Every time you mispronounced it, your teacher would hit you on the palm with a ruler. Then came one of the few times you were willing to stay by my side. In the evening after school you would sit in my arms, hold your little fists with all your strength, and recite in your broken mandarin over and over again: “Ye Luo Gui Gen, Ye Luo Gui Gen, Ye Luo Gui Gen.”
I would let the wind cross the leaves of my tea trees. The tiny leaves would rustle down, rest on your hair and eyebrows, and stroke your hair for me.
Then, always, you would look up at the cramped pale sky and promise to yourself that you would leave here. I knew you wanted to leave this small village, to college, to city, to the world.
I could give you rice, maple leaves in autumn, baked sweet potatoes, and the first snow, Haizi, but I couldn’t give you college, city, freedom, and eyes to see the world.
You slowly started to hate me.
You hated the rustic cotton jacket I sewed, and the coarse dialect I taugsht you. You hated my soil, the long spring plowing, and the endless autumn harvest, which made your fingernails always full of dirt and made your classmates mock you as Xiang Ba Lao. You hated my ignorance the most. You hated my disregard for life. You hated me because of your grandma and aunt, because of the children who didn’t have a chance to open their eyes, like the weeds you used to stuff into my palm.
You thought I was a curse representing poverty. You thought I imprisoned your family. The more people told you to stay with me, the more you wanted to run far away. And I knew you were right. You are my child, but you don’t belong to me. You don’t belong to the village and the fields. You shouldn’t get married and have children at the age of eighteen, abandoning your own name hurriedly to become someone’s wife and mother. You shouldn’t worry about the plowing, harvest, and daily necessities all day long, and you shouldn’t have a trivial life. Then you finally realized your dream.
You got into a university in the city and left me.
You didn’t need me anymore.
During these years you were away, I grew old. My breasts dried up, my skin was full of wrinkles, and I could no longer grow tea trees like I used to. People with mining trucks and tractors came and bulldozed the Lao Wu where you and your ancestors had lived. They dug deep into my vessels, extracting the oil and all my blood, creating many scars, and then left. I don’t hate them.
I can only hear your name from others, sometimes in letters you sent back, sometimes in the newspapers. Those are my happiest days. Little by little, I learn that you have graduated from college, that you have become a writer, that your novels will be published, that you will get married, that you will have your own child, that you are going further and further, that you won’t come back again.
Haizi, I’m happy and sad.
These are my final words. I know you must feel tired now and want to cover your ears.
Please listen, my haizi, just a second. I won’t ask for anything else.
You are my child, my little leaf, my life after death.
I always imagine your new home in the city building. Will the tea trees sprout there?
Will it snow there?
I always imagine your life without me.
I imagine you sitting under the lamp, holding a pen, and writing stroke by stroke. I imagine all your words are burning on my withered roots, and you will write on the new roots, carry me back home, carry me across the mountains and seas, and carry me to another spring.
Chang Liu is a first-year MFA candidate at LSU, author, and daydreamer. She loves and hates her eternal hometown Tongmu, a small mountain village in Jiangxi, mainland China. Valuing writing as her irreplaceable pain and cure, she focuses on the stories after all stories have ended, how we deal with the left-behind pain, how we introspect, how to remember, and how to forget. She has worked as a part-time online writer for Jinjiangwenxue since 2018. Her debut novel has been published by Narikasaii Publishing. She can’t live without her two cats, Yuki and Kuro.