When I birthed my second daughter, the doctors insisted I push instead of jumping straight to a C-section as we had done seven years ago with the first. My second daughter’s soft, pliable skull ended up dented, and the dent never went away as she grew older, disguised by thick, curly black hair. If you patted her head, you could feel the concavity like a smooth teacup saucer. We named her Jia which means “good” and “beautiful”, which she is, but she is slow compared to her older sister, Min, who would rise earlier than any of us to practice the reed-pipe. I could hear Min’s playing through the windows, like a clanging of swords, and I’d think of tigers rushing down a mountain, as graceful as birds soaring with the wind. Now Min is a teenager with no time for instruments. By the time I wake, Min has already fed the pigs slop, plucked several ripe winter melons, and left for school.
Jia is too young for school so I carry her in a bamboo basket up the mountains where we unearth potatoes to cook and sell. She plays with the stems we pluck from the ground, tying them into necklaces and wreaths. She tells me to call her princess.
On the way down the mountains, smoke rises from beyond the fields in puffs of gray and black. The skies are mostly blue above our home, but the smoke has only grown since the plastic packaging factory was first established.
“That’s where the rain dragon generates clouds,” I tell Jia. Jia scrunches up her face. She has hated the rain ever since she slipped down a muddy hill and wound up stranded until Min and I found her in the evening. As I make the slow trek down the mountain, Jia coughs. The smoke tends to sink in the winter, weighing down the atmosphere like a thick, wool curtain smothering the grass.
Min returns home from school and stays in her room studying while I cook the leftover tofu, sliced potatoes, and grated ginger for dinner. Jia waits eagerly by my side to eat up any crisped bits that stick to the wok despite my warnings that burnt food is bad for her.
Jia was never supposed to be born, but we wanted a second child and traveled to the city where we could pay unregistered doctors to help with unsanctioned births. Even unregistered doctors wouldn’t look at country bumpkins wearing shoes made of old shirts and bamboo platform soles, so we left Min at the farm with her Ye Ye for six years, trying to earn enough money serving at restaurants in the city in preparation for Jia. After we returned home with Jia bundled in secondhand blankets, Min stopped asking for anything—no extra serving of cured pork during holidays, no relief from cleaning up after the pigs on winter mornings, no fancy school supplies sold by traveling vendors.
Min assembles our chopsticks on the table as I bring over the dishes. Jia grabs at the tofu and strips of potato soaking at the bottom of the dish, and Min remains quiet for a moment.
“I’m going to the city,” she announces.
“Are you crushing on some boy?” I ask. The city boys are sly and will shower you with flowery language and Europe-imported chocolate desserts. Then they abandon you as soon as the first wrinkle around your eyes forms.
“No,” Min says. “I’m joining a research group to turn carbon dioxide into plastic.”
“What use is that? We don’t even use plastic.” I gesture to our bamboo chopsticks, our porcelain bowls, our wood table, our garbage can which is a deep pit in the ground full of compost.
“We can make plastic from aboveground carbon with the right catalysts. The labs can synthesize polyesters that are carbon negative,” Min continues.
I don’t remember ever learning these words. “You can’t leave for the city.”
“The lab recruited me.”
“The city is full of evil. People cheat and lie. We can’t afford it.” Min would hate it. When I was there, people would gargle and spit on my shoes and laugh at my accent. The food numbed my tongue with grease and an overdose of Sichuan peppercorns. I’d lay awake at night, listening to cars honking. My skin roughened and flaked and I felt as though I could only inhale half a gulp of air before choking on the scent of cigarettes. I had been swindled out of several paychecks during my first few weeks as well, duped into buying perfume pouches that vendors claimed I wouldn’t find elsewhere for cheap, and later, a few blocks down the street, I’d find the same thing at half the price.
“The research institute will cover my living expenses.”
“The city!” Jia interrupts, wide-eyed. “That’s where princesses live.” Jia has seen pretty girls modeling facial products in old magazines. I told her they lived in the city where people bought nonsense products. “Nothing is as nutritious as pea shoots plucked with our bare hands,” I’d tell her. But makeup does wonders, and my skin sports sunspots and calluses, so Jia thinks pea shoots are just tough, fibrous weeds she’s forced to eat.
“Take me too!” Jia insists.
“No one is going to the city,” I repeat. Min goes quiet. She hasn’t touched her rice. Instead, she stands, pushes her seat in, stomps to her room, and slams the door. Min doesn’t broach the conversation again.
Three weeks later, on the day of Min’s graduation, I slaughter a pig and braise the meat in dark soy sauce and star anise. I lug out jars of fermented Napa cabbages and decorate the house with red knotting for good luck. We celebrate Min’s first place ranking in the whole school, and I tell her she can use a whole plot of land I’d saved away to grow or raise anything she wanted.
The next day, Min is gone. Only her stuffed elephant I brought from the city as a souvenir remains. I sit on Min’s bed for a long time, even after Jia wakes up hungry and asks me where her bowl of porridge is. Eventually, I grab the red bean-stuffed mantou I’d been saving for this morning as a special breakfast for Min, a meal to mark her passage to adulthood. Jia squeals in delight and devours the bun. She calls our usual congee tasteless no matter how much salt and scallions I dump in. She prefers sweets even though sugar is hard to come by.
I am unable to carry Jia in the basket today. Maybe she has been growing, or I’ve weakened. Even so, Jia insists on following, determined to tie new vine and leaf necklaces she pretends are made from jade and pearls. I can hear her tiny feet crushing leaves and snapping branches. They grow fainter as she lags, her panting louder than her footsteps. The smog from the factory is increasingly dense. I lower the basket to the ground. “Princesses ride carriages,” I say. Jia nods diligently, and I place her in the basket and heave it on my back. The weight drags me into the earth as I listen to Jia’s coughs, trying to hurry.
One week passes, and we receive the first letter from Min. She apologizes about disappearing, but she claims she’s fine and her fancy carbon dioxide research is going well.
After six months, Min returns to visit wearing tight-fitting jeans and a blouse. Her hair has grown past her shoulders and is tied up high in a ponytail. She is still tan and her skin hugs her bones, but Jia thinks Min looks like a princess now. Time and distance have numbed the sharpness of my words. All I can do when she returns is cook the cured pork and work the dough for a new batch of mantou. Jia claims it’s a feast. Min eyes the food and says it has been a while since she ate home cooking.
“Good thing you left,” Jia says in between chews. I can see pieces of white dough through her teeth. “The rain dragon got real ferocious and hasn’t been letting up. The skies are gray even here. It’s only a matter of time until it floods, and we float away.”
Min makes eye contact with me, a disapproving gaze. “It’ll clear up soon,” Min promises. Jia cheers.
When Min and I are alone, I tell her not to tell Jia lies. She tells me the same.
A year later, the smog truly has dwindled and the factory seems to cease operation. Jia breathes easier climbing the mountain, and I no longer need to carry her. We walk side by side—her swinging her arms and singing about jasmine flowers and evil rain dragons so loudly I fear a dragon from the heavens might truly hear. I slow my pace to match her tiny strides.
Lucy Zhang writes, codes, and watches anime. Her work has appeared in Split Lip Magazine, CRAFT, The Spectacle, and elsewhere. She is the author of the chapbooks Hollowed (Thirty West Publishing) and Absorption (Harbor Review). Find her at lucyzhang.tech or on Twitter @Dango_Ramen.