Monday, August 5, 2013

Prompt: The writing on the wall

Thanks to the UK Daily Express for this intriguing story idea!

Zhen Zhi last saw the small house when he was six years old. He kept looking back while his mother gripped his wrist in her hand, pulling him along the road as she shifted the pack on her back—all they would take with them to the New World, their new lives.

He did not even take his name. His mother gave him a new name while they rode on top of the train to the coast, and she reminded him over and over that he was now Tony Chou from Xianxiang. He whispered his new name with his face pressed against his knees, the wind pulling it from his mouth and carrying it away, all the way until it flew into the corners of the old house and drifted into a corner of a room like the dust that blew in the bare windows.

As it turned out, he did not take his mother either. She fell sick with fever and died on the ship as they crossed the wide, deep ocean. Tony arrived in the New World with nothing but the small pack his mother had once carried from the small house.

At night, his mother stroked his hair and whispered into his ear, “Zhen Zhi, do not forget me, my son. Do not forget our old home, where you were born.” His American mother cried when he said this at breakfast. His American father drove him to school and asked him not to make his new mother cry. He could not stop his old mother’s tears.

Tony studied civil engineering and art history in college. He graduated valedictorian and won a scholarship to graduate school at Stanford. He studied Mandarin and Cantonese online, audited classes unofficially that never showed on his transcript. There was no sign that he held any interest in China.  He graduated, again with honors.

He accepted a job in Beijing the next week, designing development projects in rural China. He never spoke of his old name, his old mother, the small house. Surely it was long gone, torn down, ground to dust, blown away on the wind like his name.

He took a train out into the country, consulted the map on his phone, started hiking. He carried a small pack on his back. He walked for hours along the old, broken road. If he closed his eyes, he could hear voices, people moving, children fussing, babies crying. No car passed him in over four hours.

He stood in front of the old house. The door was gone. The windows had always been bare. He stood there a long time before he walked inside. There was nothing inside, nothing but trash and dirt blown in by the wind. Mud from the rains. Fragments of memories, including his old name, buried in the corners. He picked them up and carefully pressed them on the walls. He pulled out a small roll from the pack and unwrapped a calligraphy brush and inkpots. He began to write.

He wrote until it became too dark to see. Then he lay on the floor with the pack under his head and slept. In the morning, he woke and began to write more. He wrote all day. And again. And again. He covered each wall in the house. He wrote behind doors, and along window frames, and inside the cabinet doors in the kitchen and the bathroom. He wrote in the small bedroom closet. When he reached the final blank wall, his characters became smaller and smaller. He had so much still to say, and so little room remaining.

He finished the last wall, the last open space in the small house. He sat on the floor and closed his eyes, listening to the wind’s whispers quieting as they brushed against the walls and the words, the stories, the memories there. He lay down and slept there one last night. In the morning, he walked back to the train station and took the train to Beijing.

Dogs in house
Houdini, Brindle
Time writing:
35 minutes
August word count:

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