Blackbirdan online journal of literature and the artsFall 2020  Vol. 19 No. 2
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A Good Girl

I would soon move to America and see things differently. But in 1988, I was a model student at Beijing University (BU) High. A member of the Communist Youth League. A librarian’s daughter. A good girl.

At the start of our second year, Fox arrived as a transfer student. On her first day, she stomped in wearing a long flowery dress, a floppy summer hat, and a pair of black combat boots, none of which were permitted by our dress code. But none of that mattered much once we got a whiff of her body odor.

It changed the room. And turned it inside out by its rigid, square little corners.

I covered my nose, for she had decided to sit down at an empty seat next to me. The rest of the class soon exploded into nervous whispers. One boy screeched from the back, “What’s that smell! Do we have a fox in the house?”

Fox didn’t stir, her eyes fixated on a tattered old book, her face serene, her breath lifting strands of stray hair that had fallen out of her long braid. There was a slight tremble in her fingers, but the rest of her remained stoic, undisturbed.

I looked around. Fox had taken the last empty seat.

Giggles. The boy who yelled earlier jumped out of his seat to open several windows. Teacher Bai walked in then. She frowned at the commotion but quickly wrinkled her nose and swept the room with her eyes. She spotted Fox quickly but made no move to acknowledge her. For the rest of the class, she trained her eyes on the back of the room, her helmet-shaped bob refusing to flicker. We settled down and sank into the day’s lecture, somehow skipping an official introduction for the new student.

In a few weeks, the weekly exam scores posted along the corridors would prove Fox a top student, among the sea of top students gathered in that school. The murmurs around her body odor faded along with a departing autumn, as afternoon heat gave way to winter chill.

But no one befriended her. We would learn and relearn Fox’s real name but forget it quickly, persistently. By midterm, even some of the teachers called her Fox. She always answered with a nonchalant “ay.” No slumped shoulders. Nor downcast eyes.


I bumped into her at the school library once. It was the start of winter holidays so I felt compelled to say hello.

“Aren’t you going home for the break?” I said.

The library was warm. And she wore a long green sweater that reached her knees. But she shivered, her hair moving in a bundle of loose waves. She looked pale in the late afternoon sun, a splash of freckles across one cheek ruining and improving her complexion. She shook off my question.

The dorms offered a minimum heating schedule those days as most students had gone home. And the cafeteria served only one meal a day. “Could the food get any worse?” I said. “I bet pigs have it better out in the country where they have fresher leftovers!”

She ignored me as another shiver ran through her. I wondered if she was ashamed of being from a remote province. The local students at BU had all known each other since kindergarten and occasionally we could seem stuck up to the others. “Plans for Spring Festival eve?” I leaned forward this time, making sure there was no mistake I was talking to her.

“No. You?” Fox said.

“Going to my poor, old, lonely dad. He loves books and visitors so I humor him from time to time. We live near WongFujing. It’s a cool place to walk around. My friends and I used to—”

“You mean by The Library.” She started breezy and nonchalant, but the lift in her brow betrayed her interest. “How lucky,” she said. “I’d be there all the—”

“And be among those smelly old rags? Ha, kidding. Yeah, I was too, growing up. You know, cause . . . my dad, he works there. So it’s not like I had a choice, but—”

Her eyes popped.

I bit my lips.

She leaned close. “No! Your dad? He works there?” she whisper-shouted.

I nodded carefully.

She pulled me out the door, her fingers making little white marks on my skin. Once outside, we screamed hushed little screams. Her excitement. My pain. We stared at each other. “Want to tag along?” I said, finally. She was saying something at the same time, more or less the same words. We nodded, both a bit flushed with excitement and surprise. Fox was not at all her aloof self then. It made me curious, the way one grew mesmerized by the opening and shutting motions of mechanical teeth, or the glassy-still surfaces of a jungle cat’s eyes.

Besides. Dad was always telling me to break out of my tiny circles and make new friends.


We rode the number eight bus. Fox told me her aunt lived near Beijing but was often sick and had two young children. I waited for more but nothing came. The bus passed Chang’an Avenue then, so we took up two window seats and counted sixty-four carved marble lampposts along the way. The soldiers saluted as we passed their guard posts next to the flagpole. Fox sighed when the Tiananmen Fort leaped into view, before the expansive white marble Square. The Forbidden City loomed as evening lights blinked on, conjuring memories of wars, dynastic churns, buried revolutionaries.

Dad’s Hutong apartment sat under clouds of perfumed air at the end of a long and narrow alley. Behind his little red doors, the scent of chicken stew thickened, laced with ginger, soy, and star anise. Broom marks streaked across the floor. The room looked spare, clean as usual. His dark curls looked freshly cut, slicked back, somehow setting off his strong jawline. The man rarely smiled, my childhood memories warmed with his stern yet kind warnings against the dangers of cars, secret police, and boys.

He smiled when I introduced Fox.

“That’s not her proper name,” he said, side-glancing me. You know better.

I looked at my feet, my face burning.

“We use nicknames ‘cause . . . ” Fox hooked an arm around my shoulder and leaned her head against mine, “we’re buddies. Plus, my name is long and boring. No one remembers it.” She waved the way you’d shoo away a fly.

The stove cracked behind me. Fox caught my father’s gaze and kept up her monologue. “I’ve had others. You know villagers love to nickname kids. I grew up with my grandparents in Yunnan. So, lots of nicknames. I’m used to it. My parents. That’s a long story. Worked for the University.” She smiled, revealing a row of small, uneven teeth. She covered her mouth.

Growing up, I’d learned that only the University meant Beijing University, where Dad once worked. He rarely talked about it, so I kept my head low and my hands busy. Fox sat at the table while I helped my father serve up soup.

For a while I could only hear the sound of slurping, porcelain spoons clinking against our bowls, and satisfied sounds of sighing from Dad and I. Fox ate quietly.

“That’s why you look so familiar . . . ” Dad suddenly looked up, setting down his spoon, his bowl still full. “I used to work at the University too. Do you know Mei Rae? She—”

Fox nodded, her face lowered. “She’s my mother. I’m Mei Lin. My full name is Ling Yu Mei Lin,” Fox said.

“That’s it!” said my father.

We fell back to silence, listening to the sound of fire crackling against the sides of the stove. Outside, the wind had picked up. The newspaper strips sealing the edges of the windows crinkled, threatening to rip.

During those years, Dad had told me since I was a child, the Red Guards had made a bonfire of his precious, foreign books. Books he had carefully curated for years. It was one of the few things that still made him tear up.

“She loves books. Guess it makes sense,” I said of Fox, pointing out Father’s collection stacked along the wall, under his bed.

Fox got up to browse each volume. Dad followed her in lockstep. Their eyes lit up. It occurred to me they looked like what father and daughter should look like, shared curiosity, smart banters, finishing each other’s sentences.

The moon was bright when we said our goodbyes. The sky was a brilliant sapphire, a china bowl full of stars. Dad ran up at the bus station, a stack of books in his hands, mostly, for Fox.

“Give them back whenever you wish. I trust Mei’s daughter,” Dad said at the end of the night, his eyes moist.

I looked away.

Fox tried to bow—so old-fashioned yet so natural the way she leaned askew from the stack of books in her hand, but they kept her from bending too low.


Early spring, bouts of Mongolian sandstorms hit the city between blasts of warm front. Soon, leaf buds unfurled along their knotted runways, chased by an irrepressible longing toward summer. Fox and I partnered up for biology lab, and as part of the course, we examined silkworm production. One afternoon, we carried baskets of baby worms to the grove. Fox’s idea. It had been a dry season, so a layer of soil crumbled underfoot. The worms were pencil thin, small and dark, devouring squiggly lines into mulberry leaves as soon as I set them free. We watched our worms cling to leaf fuzz, their bodies illuminated in the afternoon light. The way they bent into upside down U’s, trailing tenuous paths of lights.

“Thanks for those books. Flaubert reminds me of a favorite writer,” Fox said after a while. She had been reading Madame Bovary.

I ran through a mental list of famous writers. “Is it Pu Songling?” I asked. He wrote Strange Stories from a Chinese Studio, a collection of stories that made a mythical fox its powerful protagonist.

Fox laughed. “A good guess, but no.” She pulled a notebook out of her bag.

The pages had yellowed with age. I eased open the cover and saw no title or author names. Words were hand-copied on both sides, blue ink bleeding through, blurring the pages. Still, I recognized the opening line as from Golden Lotus, a yellow (erotic) novel. Something that could get both of us in trouble. My hands shook as a baby silkworm unwrapped itself from the tip of my finger to crawl onto a leaf.

“Is . . . is this?” I mumbled.

Fox nodded. “Look. Don’t judge until you try it. It’s really good—a classic—and, I think, better than Madame Bovary.” She tapped the pages.

I was too embarrassed to tell her that I hadn’t read either. The track team, the youth league, and classwork had kept me plenty busy.

Besides, what was wrong with “staying pure?” The words of The Teague echoed in my ears. Lately they had dropped hints of my candidacy for The Party. A coveted invitation that would add precious qualifying points to my BU application.

The afternoon light shifted, sifting through branches and throwing shadows.

Fox looked puzzled as I backed away. “Damn,” I said, “I got to run. Late for track practice, again!”


The new English teacher wore a China blue shirt that highlighted his golden hair. “Call me Paul,” he said, in a buttery lilt. We had been straining to parse the hard consonants dotting British cassette tapes in our previous year. His voice made our backs straighten with ease. Ironically, he slouched like a big kid, as he strolled the classroom aisles. Still, there was no denying his lanky six-foot frame, his carved profile, his intense blue eyes. One girl flipped through her art history book to Michelangelo’s David as she glanced at Paul, fingers tracing the page. Imperceptible grins.

I felt Paul’s gaze on me and my cheeks burned.

“Don’t recite. Read, listen, converse,” Paul said, not knowing we’d been reciting language texts since kindergarten. “Speak,” he said, eyes scanning the room, searching. “Don’t worry, I will laugh at you. Get used to it. Lao Zhong (old Chinese)!”

When we chuckled, he hopped backward. “You laughing at me? Now you are mine. Come on.” His eyes flashed, his jaw clenching. The boys in the back started to howl again. But soon, a quiet fell.

The afternoon sun streamed through a bank of windows facing the campus, revealing columns of dust. But I had the sensation of watching an avalanche advance from a distance.

Speak? Without being called? What should we say?

Prior to Paul’s arrival, several teachers had warned us, “To this foreigner, you will be a symbol of Mother China. So make her proud!”

I’d nodded at this challenge, determined to do my best.

Paul said, “Let’s start with hello?”

I looked down and worked a layer of dust with my feet. My stomach lurched when I heard his steps approach.

Paul took a step back, inadvertently putting his face under the magnificent four leaders’ posters—Marx, Engels, Lenin and Mao—hung above the blackboard. He watched us watching him, breathing in anxiety from the room, breathing out calm.

Sure. We’d mouthed English words to ourselves in bathroom mirrors. Occasionally, a teacher called on Jun, our class president, to read a sentence and lead the class into a passage framed by our texts, netted in each other’s voices.

Silence grew, as he waited, into a wall we couldn’t climb.

Then, Fox said, “Hello.” Her voice small but clear, a tiny bright portal.

I jumped in, loud as I could. She turned and flashed a smile. We sat taller and others followed. As more joined in, our voices merged, becoming a collective again.


At Paul’s patient, persistent urging, we spoke more freely. Fox proved an invaluable study partner. We talked to our silkworms, listened to tapes and read stories provided by Paul. We found a reasonable vocabulary hidden inside us from years of memorization. During those weeks, it slowly unearthed itself, bubbling into our open discussions with Paul.

It felt strange, this elation, this day by day excavation of ourselves into words.


As spring days warmed, Fox was the first to put on a dress. Along with it, the giggles and comments on her scent returned. Fox continued to top the exam charts, so no one did it in front of the teachers. One evening, she stood beaming next to Paul near the grove. Her name was whispered under even the best students’ breaths. As students of one of the most prestigious high schools in the country, we wouldn’t just chase after any foreigners like villagers who chased after American tourists on the Square. But Paul was different. Intriguing. Compared to him, boys from our school seemed childish, simpleminded, overeager. As we watched Paul smile at Fox, something curled and seethed inside us. How dare that little fox!

The boys laughed at us. But they too, snarled at Fox. She had grown a few inches over the semester, her skin dewy, and her hair shinier than we remembered. That new spark in her eyes made them less cartoonish, more like Bambi. Her teeth were still crowded, uneven. But besides her stench she could almost pass . . . for beautiful. We bit our lips when he stepped close to her, his eyes curving into smiles as he handed her a colorful plastic tube with a white cap.

Was it some sort of foreign sex device? Half the groups ventured. Good thing none of the teachers saw it. But shouldn’t the teachers know about it? Who would tell?

I couldn’t speak, couldn’t believe my eyes. Scenes like this belonged in books, not in my life. The way Paul’s face softened when he patted Fox’s shoulder, as if tenderness could be a color, magenta or blue, a code, goodness or evil, depending on where you stood.


After a particularly grueling track practice, I found Fox alone, whispering to a cluster of silkworms in the grove. The trees had filled out over the last month, caging her inside a green room. Her features—pointy nose, freckles, reddish-brown hair—looked foreign against that palette of spring.

“What do you think of the English teacher?” she asked.

I wiped nonexistent sweat from my forehead. “Different,” I finally said, “but, what do I know? My English stinks. I prefer biology. Mr. Gan comes up with so many new topics for every class, and I just love listening to him.” I kicked a rock toward the space between two distant trees, as if shooting for a soccer goal.

“Sure, who doesn’t? But Paul . . . ” Fox followed me down the path leading into the heart of the grove. “He is so . . . ”

“Exotic?” I blurted. “Admit it, you are charmed. We all saw your private lesson, and how he gave you that thing.” I tried not to sound bitter while I eyed her book bag, half expecting the gadget to leap out and take shape as some sort of a spirited monkey.

Fox rooted around inside. “You mean this? Gee. I didn’t know there was an audience. It’s just a cream.” She uncapped the top and waved it around. “It’s supposed to keep me from stinking.” She showed me the roll-on applicator, how it dispensed a white film on the back of my hand.

“Does it work?” I took a whiff. It smelled minty and medicinal, not altogether unpleasant.

“If you had to ask . . . ” Fox winked. And I realized she didn’t smell.

“Magical,” I sniffed the air, searching for the part of her that seemed to be missing. “That’s so amazing, so . . . American. Nice and efficient,” I said. There was something very Paul about the whole thing. Succinct, smooth, practical. I worked the roller onto a tree stem to watch it turn clear, wishing for a moment that I too, had BO.

Fox chuckled. Overhead, a silkworm dangled on the edge of a leaf, so she propped it back up with a finger. It crawled back, curving its body over until it reached the underside of the leaf. The caterpillars had turned silvery and fat over the weeks, lazing like babies. “Strange, isn’t it? How well it works. How it seems to know,” Fox said. “Look at these silkworms: They eat and eat, having no idea how their bodies will change and one day all this silk will burst out.”

It took me a minute to digest what Fox was saying. “You mean like us?”

Fox nodded. “We are stuffed with all this knowledge since what, kindergarten? Did anyone ever ask you what you wanted? How you want to use it?”

“To make the exam charts,” I said sheepishly. We were supposed to answer the calls of Mother China, whatever that might be. But to where? We’d followed these pipeline exams, sifted into tiers of schools, from elementary schools to colleges. But what comes after that? No telling if we would wind up in Tibet guarding glaciers, or in a small factory by the South China Sea, far from family and friends. And any signs of romance among students would guarantee the couple to be split up, each posted in a remote spot. I turned to the worms as my head began to hurt. “Silk is a symbol of China’s power. But did you know, to harvest silk, farmers boil the cocoons to kill the worms?”

“What! Why?” Fox said, leaning against a tree.

“Well otherwise, they’d chew through the cocoons and ruin the silk,” I said, giddy for knowing. But prompted by Fox’s reaction, I too, shivered.

Fox murmured, “Killing . . . for silk?”

I tried to remember the rest of the biology text. “Not all the worms get killed. A few are spared and allowed to molt so they make babies for the next . . . batch.” I couldn’t help conjuring up images of babies flying out of me like tiny moths. “Each can have hundreds of worm babies. But they die shortly after that.”

“Nice,” Fox said, her eyes wide, her pupils translucent like tunnels of light. “Die for silk, or for love. Assigned at random, or in the hands of farmers.”

The bell rang, so I didn’t have a chance to say that sometimes it was nice not having to choose. That I still didn’t want to read her hand-copied book even though I’d thought about it these few weeks. That she should know she always had an audience when talking with Paul. These thoughts flickered and faded as our growing silkworms crunched toward their destiny.

Outside the air stirred, smelling like sandy soil, clean sweat and track shoes.


The fickle weather of spring caught me with several surprise cold fronts. One morning, I woke with a fever. After two days, Dad came for a rare visit. He brought soup and cartons of chokecherry juice. A treat. Against a nest of pillows he fashioned, I sat up and sipped through a yellow plastic straw while he tidied up. “How’s . . . Mei Lin?” He mumbled as he looked about and saw there was nothing left to straighten.

“Oh, right. Mei Rae’s daughter, right? We’re studying silkworms together and . . . She loves those books you loaned her.”

“Oh. Good. She seems nice.” He raked a hand through his hair a dozen times and sighed heavily. I worked at the straw. Dad rearranged all my pencils into color-coded stacks facing the east.

A shot of juice tickled me into coughing fits. He sat down and smoothed a hand down my back. I saw an opportunity and said, “What happened to Mei Rae? Did she get in trouble, in those years?”

He bolted up, stepping to the window which looked out to the campus. Spring had finally arrived, an affair that lasted nly days in Beijing. “Was she a spy?” I pressed.

“No. Mei Rae was a literature professor. She was deemed an anti-revolutionary, an enemy of the people . . . Mei Rae killed herself because she was also deemed a rotten shoe (whore). One day, they caught a young male colleague carrying a box of apples for her. A neighbor reported her immediately. She was having an affair! they said. But it’s them whose filthy minds imagined such things. Too many such stories during those years,” Dad said, shaking his head and wiping his glasses with the hem of his shirt.

I felt weak. “What about . . . her dad?”

He stood to pace the room. “He was at a labor camp, which made Mei a target for gossip. After the report, they paraded her down Prosperity Avenue. Red Guards forced her to confess, kneel on bricks. . . . ”

I suppressed my coughs. “What about . . . her friends?”

The room grew quiet. “Her friends were either away being condemned themselves or had turned on her.”

That night I dreamed of Mei crawling up the eleven-story university building and leaping off the roof, the way several professors took their own lives during those years.


As daylight stretched into early evening, we all noticed Paul’s habit of strolling around the campus after dinner. A few girls began to trail him, drawing closer each day, giggling, nodding, before running away, only to return the next day. One evening, I came face-to-face with him when I absently crossed the grove. Paul looked up from a book and stared at me blankly. I fidgeted. “Sorry,” I said. Mei’s story was still on my mind, making me feel more awkward around him. I tried to run off.

He shielded his eyes and said, “Wait, you were one of the first to say hello on my first day. And I wanted to say thank you. So here, thank you.” He smiled, his eyes holding pieces of summer. I kept my mouth clamped and shook my head.

He patted the patch of earth next to him and said, “Hm, didn’t think you were so shy. Well, I was going to ask if you want to practice together. You, English. Me, Chinese. And if you are up for it, I heard you were quite the scholar on ancient poetry.” He pointed to his chest and nodded the way a toddler would, promising his mother that he’d steal no more pieces of cake for having had too many. I couldn’t help but laugh.

What could I say? As he said, my English was better than his Chinese.

Knowing I was watched, I sat across from him and pretended we were still in class. Still it struck me, his eyes were the exact shade of sky, and it became impossible to look at him, impossible not to. I fell into a trance, imagining a different life.

Too soon, the night study bell rang, and the spell broke.


The days grew hot as we approached finals week, more students lingered longer outside before resigning to the fate of night studies. One evening, I was the last to get in. The sun had disappeared and left a dark silhouette of treetops scissoring across the sky. The ground was deserted, save for two figures. Fox and Paul. I nearly shouted their names. Were they holding hands? I rubbed my eyes, and they disappeared, their shadows fading behind the dark edges of the woods.

“Where’s Fox?” a teacher asked as I got to my seat.

“I don’t know.” I kept my eyes to my book.

“Didn’t you see her crossing the grounds?”

I shook my head. Behind me, I heard sniggers. Why? And why did the teacher question me? I opened my math book to study but all the numbers flew off, rearranging themselves into Paul’s face, his startlingly blue eyes. I wrote down formula after formula, but solved zero geometry problems despite having memorized all the formulas by heart.

Teacher Bai came to my seat at the end of the night and stared at my worksheets. I broke into a cold sweat. Had I drawn someone’s face on my book or written incriminating verses without thinking? I followed her gaze and saw Fox had left her book bag in the classroom. It was crammed full as usual. A corner of Golden Lotus peeked from a hole on the bottom. The bell rang and I lunged to grab the straps of her book bag.

Teacher Bai was faster. In a clean swoop, the bag was in her hand.

“Her dorm room is on my floor. And we are study partners for—” I pleaded.

She held out a hand and swung the bag away. “It’s OK. I will get this to her,” she said.


That night I couldn’t sleep. The other seven girls in my room chatted until lights out. I tossed and turned, my bed squeaking. When the girl in the bunk above me began to sigh and cough her displeasure, I got up and snuck into the bathroom. The window was open to let in a cool breeze, and I could hear trees whistling in the schoolyard. Across the soccer field, the classroom building stared back, its darkened windowpanes hollowed into eye sockets on a vast and ancient skull. I listened for whispers, but heard instead the night watch teacher’s heavy footsteps.

Mr. Chiu was fidgety and thin, short, but slouched like a taller man. Sometimes he came up to inspect an overflowing toilet or paced the hall to ensure no prowlers loitered in the shadows. Perhaps he was a father too, protective of us girls who could no more than scream at the occasional sight of a dead rat in the middle of the bathroom floor.

That evening he whispered what sounded like reassurance. I eased open the bathroom door to see Fox come up the stairs. Her hair was tangled as if she’d been struggling. Her book bag was empty, hanging loosely down her shoulders. Its buckles made a fast clicking noise that sounded like some kind of secret code. Mr. Chiu, who had kept the heat on for us during winter break, must have heard it too. He whispered, “ . . . keep this quiet, no need to make a fuss . . . ”

Fox bit her lip. Her eyes looked hollow and dark in the dim light. Mr. Chiu turned and saw me standing in front of the lit bathroom. He stepped over and peered inside.

Fox straightened a kink in her strap as I stared at her. My face burned, my lips cold. She leaned in. “Don’t try anything. They’ve got me this time. I’m a goner.”

Mr. Chiu came back and gave me a little shove. “Go back to your room,” he said, pointing at a door behind me.

“Where’s she going?” I asked.

He stepped closer. “None of your concern. Go, go, go!” He kept his voice low and he sounded tired. “Lights have been out for hours. I won’t write you up this time. Be quiet.” He gripped my shoulders and turned me around.

“Where. Is. She. Going?” I turned back. My voice cracked. My body thrummed as Mr. Chiu gave me another hard shove. It tipped my balance and I nearly tripped. I grabbed his hand and gave him a hard kick on the shin. I didn’t know what came over me.

Fox gasped. Mr. Chiu doubled over in pain. It scared me to see him like that, even more scared to know I had caused it. But I couldn’t turn myself around. The hallway had darkened, as if someone had turned out all the lights. I felt lost in that forest of darkness, of quiet whispers, of confusing shadows. Fox called my name, her voice thin and stretched. I wanted to cry but my throat was dry. Where are you? I asked, but the words only gurgled in my mind.

Amazingly, Mr. Chiu didn’t hit me back.

I must have looked like a maniac that night.

He took a few steps back, turned on his heel, and raced down the stairs.

Whispers gushed from closed doors along the hall. No light. Fox pulled me, still dazed, into the bathroom and turned on the cold faucet.

“Are you crazy?” she said, and splashed water on my face.

“Sometimes,” I said, my senses cooling. “What happened? Is it your book?”

“Yes. Paul was showing me his translated copy of Golden Lotus. They can buy that in bookstores over there. And no one cares. It’s a real book. Imagine that!”

“You were with Paul?” I backed slowly into a wall. Imagine that. Yes. I tried to. I couldn’t stop imagining he two of them reading that book. Yet I couldn’t conjure a picture. Had I not met Fox, or Paul, this would have been a point of pride. My purity. But that night, I was consumed by envy and shame. “Whore,” I whispered, stunned by the word as it left my mouth. A little flame travelled down my throat, making more burning words that landed on Fox.

She froze, her face now the color of porcelain. Her mouth moved, but I couldn’t hear her, nor my own words. The small flame burned my throat, and I kept fanning it with my mouth.

When it finally died, I was cold as the tile under my feet.

I was alone.

The hallway was filled with a gray light that didn’t seem to belong to a place like that. Instead of returning to my bed, I slipped outside. The mulberry grove was pitch black, save for a handful of stars blinking in and out, the way baby silkworms journeyed across leaves. A breeze gushed through, and every branch curved under the hands of the wind. I sat under the tree I once marked with Fox’s deodorant, watching dawn rinse the horizon, the entire sky in gradient shades of color instead of the sudden beams of pure red light I’d always imagined.

All around me, branches straightened. The air grew still.


The next day, Paul was gone, along with Fox. We received a new English teacher in the following weeks, a small, sweet, trembling Englishman who inspired neither fantasy nor malice.

In a year or so, I’d give up my Party Membership, my BU acceptance and move to America where I too, became exotic and animal-like, a giraffe for my inability to speak, a panda for my unbidden seclusion, an elephant for my stony memories of the past.

Years after settling, I gave myself permission to visit a bookstore where rows of what I once considered dirty books were on display, including The Golden Lotus. No glass casings around them, no clerks guarding their access, no secret alarms that blared. I picked up a copy, and listened as the pristine pages crinkled under my hand. I mouthed each word to push them past the barbed wires guarding my mind, through that small blue flame that burned on the night Fox was taken, until I reached, once again, a green room full of silkworms and mulberries.


The week after Fox left, I realized I was supposed to have boiled our cocoons. The dorm building had emptied as students headed to their home provinces for summer. Alone, I stepped into the mulberry grove. There, overgrown branches had obliterated nearly every sliver of sky. Leaves crisscrossed each other, making my green room dark, cavernous. My eyes adjusted when a scattering of light bounced in from a gap, where the grove ended and the track field began.

One, two, three. The cocoons were small and shiny like pools of snow, powdery strands of sugar arched into domes. They rested in the boughs, dangled between branches. The worms hid, tucked into their wingless sleep as we did on all those study nights, flickers of light blinking on and off among them like ghost sparks. The stench started off faint, but as I scuttled deeper along the dirt path, I looked for Fox, though I knew she was gone. Her smell was instilled into these tiny nests of silk, gathering strength and released by the heat.

Beside me, a cocoon trembled and groaned, shaken by the rhythms of summer. A moth bit open her cage, releasing a musky scent as she pushed her way out into the light. She wiggled and crawled, stretching long under a blinding rush of sun. She fluttered her new wings, making tawny, damp pockets of air flow and lift.  

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