Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Winter Clouds - Two

You keep track of all my sorrows. You have collected all my tears in your bottle. You have recorded each one in your book.   -- Psalm 56:8

*       *       *

Cloud (Dongyun) sat on that green wooden bench by her front door, peering out into the courtyard as I walked by.  I did not know what to do.  Should I stop and speak with her or pretend that I was too much in a hurry?

I decided to stop in, then immediately regretted it.  I could smell the dirty chamber pot brewing in the corner and crusty dishes lining the few patches of floor space in the room.  A tattered quilt was on its way sliding off the side of the bed, and peeling newspaper hung as if on half mast solutes to show the mournful gray surface of the wall beneath.  I wanted to run away but she spotted me.

A school book lay open on a wooden table next to her, deserted.  Her eyes were gray and empty, as if all the dreams inside had drained away during the last storm.

Like the one from last night.

We had barely finished dinner when I heard the shouts.

"... Useless! .... no!... no good!... such a burden! Why? Why????"   
Bang!... Bang! ... Bang!  Something wooden knocked, cracked then splat against something hard.  These sounds punctuated Mr Shen's rants.  Cloud's house was but a few steps from mine, crammed between other little homes the sizes of large tool sheds.  Once the home of a wealthy family, this historical courtyard now wore the split personalities of thirty makeshift homes like a poorly stitched patchwork quilt.  This quilt of togetherness, its lumpy, frayed, frail, shabby, fragile, leaky and well worn warmth was all we had, besides each other.  So day by day we watched each other's comings and goings, our downcast shoulders, flat faced weariness, and not so occasional outbursts.

But last night I only heard Mr Shen. No screams, sobs or pleas from Cloud escaped at all.  When I pressed my ears to the window, peeking out through the gaps in the curtains, nothing but frozen shadows and dark corners leaped into my view.

She must have sat just like this, taking in the world and washing it away again with the abundance of gray rain gathered in her eyes.

"Are you doing your homework?" I asked.
"....."  she murmured something to herself, curling her body inward like a bowl.
"What?"
"..., no good, go away..." several murmured words finally slipped from the tight circle that had become her body while I pressed close to her head.

She raised an arm to push her hair away from her face, and I caught glimpses of red scratches and marks. My heart tightened, seized by something cold and dark, pressing in and needling me more than the cold winter air.  I labored on my breathing, but my legs carried me nowhere.  So I sat down next to her, asking if she had something to eat, something from Shanghai perhaps?

She only had  one last "White Rabbit" candy left, so we each took half.  Huddling close to the weak ring of warmth by the stove, we chewed on the sticky lumps until milky sweetness covered our tongues.  There were no need for words, but an occasional "useless..., dumbest..., waste!..." couldn't help themselves but escaped from my friend's mouth, in between sounds of our gums smacking.  She rocked back and forth gently, as if held by invisible arms, in an invisible chair, rocking her all the way back to Shanghai.


Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Winter Clouds - One

This is the story about a childhood friend.  She had eyes the color of clouds, and perpetually gray expressions. When she told me her name-"Winter clouds", I choked on my words.

*  *  *

"Hello!"  I stopped in my tracks, noticing the door to the infamous "black room" had opened, and a girl my age, seven, or eight at the most as she seemed even smaller than me if that were possible, sat by the threshold.

The "black room" wasn't really black at all.  It had a green door, flower patterned curtains and red brick walls.  But a thick layer of moldy grime covered everything, giving them a dull gray appearance.  No sunlight ever reached here, not with taller buildings all around it and a pathway wide enough for only one person in front of it.   Yet there was a sort of an awning over the door frame. 

The girl turned a bit at the sound, revealing the translucent color of her eyes, the color of rain clouds, teary yet devoid of emotions.  She appeared to have floated away in a day dream, her eyes transfixed into mine yet many miles away from where I stood. 

"Are you new here?"  I tried again, hoping she would respond this time. I rather liked her scarlet colored jacket, with a cinched waist and round pockets.  With her face pale and smooth, dark hair pulled neatly into braids, she looked rather cute and stylish.

"I am not new.  But I just moved here to live with my dad."

"Oh your dad must be Mr. Shen, I know him."

She tilted her head, a puzzled look clouding up her delicate features, as if surprised and bothered slightly at this.
 
"But I've hardly ever seen him. He seems to always be working or going out of town."
"He was coming to see us, my mother and I, in Shanghai."
"Oh,  that must be it.  Is that where you came from then?"
"Yes, that was it. Yes I miss Shanghai and my mom. It is too cold and too dry here." She said.

"Beijing is better than Shanghai, it's the Capital!" I wasn't sure why, or where had I heard of this emotionally charged line of declaration, but it came out of me like a shell flying out of a lit canon.  (Later I would learn that this was a long and widely held debate between the residents of these two great cities, and that) Firing without aiming was to be my lifelong specialty.

"That's not possible." She said a-matter-of-factly. "Shanghai has every kind of great food, biscuits, cakes, sugared plums, and lots of candies.  There is hardly anything except cabbages here."  she twisted her mouth to the side, and giving me a side-way glance of victory, knowing I'd have no come back to that.

She was right. My mouth was too busy watering by then to speak.

*   *    *

The next day Mrs Wu's Math class almost exploded.  It was ten minutes past bell rang and no one was there to teach.  At first there were just a few whispers from the naughtiest and boldest kids.  Minute by minute, whispers grew louder and spread wider. Soon the classroom was more like a tea room, with all sorts of things knocking and nearly every kids shouting. Liu Bao was starting to aim his newly minted paper airplane at the back of Gao Luo's head when the teacher walked in with my new neighbor. 

"Everyone, we have a new student today, her name is DongYun (winter clouds). Please welcome her to our class. "

No one clapped or said welcome.  We stared instead.  Was this the same girl I met yesterday?  I could hardly recognize her.  Her neat braids were falling apart, with strands of hair hanging over her face. Her eyelids drooped and pulled her eyes into strange triangles.  Tears had run down her cheeks some time ago, dried and left tracks of white lines across her otherwise ashen face.  She shifted her feet - her pretty red jacket rustled with her movement, bulging and gaping because a button was missing and the rest were misaligned.

The wind screeched, blowing through the gaps between the window panes and their frames, beating down bear branches of a row of young trees against the high panes.  Nothing lived outside at this moment, not even birds.  The teacher told us they had moved to the warm south last month where there would be plenty of food and warm shelter for them.

In this dead of winter most kids wore rough homemade cotton jackets made with cheap yardages from the corner store and even cheaper cotton stuffing sold in the street by farmers carrying them on the back of their bicycles.  Our hands were often so dry that the skin cracked and bled, our lips chapped beyond repair.  But no one looked as dirty and disheveled as Yun did that day.

I heard whispers behind me.

"She has triangular shaped eyes. That's what we should call her..."
"What a pretty name - clouds - too bad it's all wasted on her..."
"What's that on her face?"

My ears burned and the heat traveled to my cheeks.  I wanted to turn around and shush them but I couldn't move or open my mount or even raise my head. Instead I hunched over my desk, pretending to read my books. 

"Jade, Yun will sit by you so you can help her catch up on homework and lectures until she get used to our new school."

I shifted my weight and turned my face away from her.

*     *     *

Saturday, October 6, 2012

Champagne Brunch

Fog draped all around her that morning, like thick curtains.  She drove onto the highway overpass and glanced to her right.  The hills seemed asleep under the fog cover, dreaming of soaring pine trees and crashing waves.  She wished for a moment that she didn't have this early morning class, so she could revisit the familiar trails on that hill, count the blooms that had faded and the leaves that had changed, and catch a glimpse of dolphins playing in the ocean just below. 

She sighed as the car took her away from all that and into the depth of the morning city traffic.  A sea of red lights, and a sea of silent thoughts.  No horns.  No sounds of nature either.  Just gliding pass time, stepping, breaking and repeating the morose code of commute.

*   *   *

There was no sign of people at this hour on the street. Except for an occasional car gliding through the single lane on the opposite side.  The fog followed her off the highway like a persistent stalker, blurring outlines of trees, buildings and bends farther down the street.  She stopped at a light, her mind stilling to the silent and timeless scene.  Radio seemed too loud, and phones just didn't belong.  So she took a good look around her.

Uncle Leo's restaurant sat on that corner, occupying one of the largest lot between the laundry mat and Best Sushi.  The door was closed and parking lot deserted, so she could see the tiny faded red and green facade clearly.  An once orange banner hung above the crumbling windows on the right.  "Champagne Brunch", it said in large black cursive.  How many of those had she have?  Dozens if not more, always with her group of friends at a chic restaurant near their fancy neighborhood by the ocean.  Never at a place like this though.  Red and green?  What were they thinking?   She looked again.  The lot ended where the bench began, the bench for the number 23 bus, that is.  He sat on the bench with his legs crossed, reading a tattered paper.  Even from across the street, she could see his bones protruding under his loose fitting T, forest green at one point, now dingy greenish brown.  His long beard shook as he read, as if murmuring. Then she saw his hands and arms shook too, rustling the paper involuntarily.   She couldn't see what he was reading, but she imagined it was something about food.  She realized then with a twist of irony that that's what she would do whenever she felt hopelessly hungry, like when she had to sit through one of those three hour evening classes. She would read about food, to allow herself to imagine, and to give herself hope.

Or perhaps he wasn't really hungry, there was something relaxed and, ..., content about him. The way he crossed his legs while leaning his back against the bench reminded her of those people she knew who were content with little, like her father.  The tanned and deeply lined face, the silvery gray strands escaping from the brim of his knit cap spoke to her as signs of worldly experience and a certain sense of grace.  She closed her eyes, and opened them again.  He was still there, reading, relaxing and shaking all at once..., hungry, yet content, perhaps.  She'd never know.

She checked her watch, it was still hours away from the time any restaurants would open.  Her class on the other hand would begin in ten minutes and the prof had a zero tolerance policy on late arrivals.  She moved on, promising herself that she would check on him tonight after class.  She had seen him standing at the road divider begging before.  She hadn't had any change then.  She never had any change, nor time, nor courage, nor power of decisions ("to give or not to give?") to open the window and make a connection.  But she would that night.  She looked again just before she drove pass the intersection, at the old man, and at the sign that said "Champagne Brunch".  Plans ballooned in her head then, perhaps she could buy him a whole meal, can soups for later, crackers and sodas in case he needed something soothing sometimes,... perhaps.

Perhaps... , she dreamed. 

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