(The Golden Ratio)
“Jin Zhēn-Zī!” Māmā shouted from the back room over the slam of the door. “I told you not to leave the back door open.” The sharp click of the lock admonished me further.
A pristine sheaf of paper laid in front of me as empty as it was when I first sat down. The chair abraded the wood floor and banged into the wall when I got up too fast. “I’ve been working on sums all morning, Māmā! I haven’t left my desk.” Only the second part was true.
Harsh afternoon light streamed through the shop’s front windows. It bounced off the metal hangers holding the repaired garments along one wall. Bolts of fabric were stacked on tables and piled along the other wall. The new embroidered silk tunics were displayed in the very front, the price tags discreetly hidden in the sleeves. The back room stood dark where the sunlight couldn’t penetrate, the silhouette of my mother blended perfectly into the shadows.
When she appeared — her eyes opened wide like an owl and her mouth a tense slash across her face — all the muscles tightened along my body. Another figure moved behind her, materializing into a man holding a long silver blade in gloved hands against the base of her skull. The brush dropped from my hand, splattering black ink all over the polished wooden floor.
“What happened?” I said, my voice croaked against my tongue. I swallowed and tried again. “Māmā, are you okay?”
She kept her hands outstretched above her shoulders. I knew that pose and curled and readied myself for a fight.
“How do you do it, Fei Yen?” The man pressed the tip of the sword against Māmā’s skin. I couldn’t see if it drew blood, but Māmā winced before her face went as blank as the paper abandoned on my desk.
She stretched up onto her toes. “I don’t know what you’re talking about.” The sword pushed harder into her skin. Under her breath, in the susurrus and sigh of our secret language she said one word over and over again: Run! Run! Run!
Then she turned on one foot, graceful as a grassland stork, and her other slippered foot struck hard and fast against the man’s jaw. His head snapped back and he thumped hard against the ground. Before I could see if he’d rise, Māmā was at my side. She grabbed my hand and pulled me out the door. We flew down Silken Road.
Alleyways and streets passed in a blur. The stench of burning wood and molten metal assaulted my nose as we crossed Fire Road. Hammers clanged and reshaped the burning metal into weapons of war. My fingers itched to hold one. Māmā dashed down another alley, never looking behind her, but never releasing my wrist either. The rough calluses of fingers she had accidentally poked over and over with her tailoring needle scratched against my flesh. She took a sharp left down Water Street. Rice wine being poured into glasses popped and bubbled. The sweetness of yeast and mold starter cakes suffused the air.
Māmā yanked me left onto Market Square. My stomach rumbled as I caught a glimpse of dumplings being plucked from bamboo baskets. The constant movement of workers entering the Square from all the other streets around twisted and turned like a snake. Sweet rice and salty rice balls, plum rice cake and sticky rice, rice dripping with soy sauce and long grain rice steamed up from serving bowls in the shops we passed. We bumped into people, and I constantly said “sorry” at every nudge. Children slurped up noodles without using chopsticks, only stopping to laugh and egg each other on. Men ate delicate mushrooms and grilled eggplant while playing xiàngqí with their free hand.
In the heightened energy of the crowd, I thought Māmā would stop and give us a chance to breathe. My thighs and calves burned with use, my feet blistered in slippers not meant to leave the shop. She ground the bones in my wrist and dragged me past the people milling around the Square. Her eyes darted right and left, searching every face for the man who attacked her. Sweat glistened on her brow, drops streamed down her face. She turned her head and revealed a thin trickle of blood mixed with sweat disappearing under her collar. With my free arm, I wiped my sleeve across my own face. The dense fabric rubbed my skin raw.
I stopped imagining eating a large bowl of fried rice and pork and gazed around the crowd. As if a switch had been flipped, every face looked threatening. Liú xīanshēng ladled broth over a bowl of fish stew for old Hé yīshī. He had delivered me sixteen years ago, but glared at me through thick spectacles before paying. Wèi tàitai chased her 3-year-old twin boys as they ran around Māmā and I. Once she caught them, she clutched them fiercely against herself and backed away, not taking her eyes off us.
From behind a stand of fresh fruit, the man tried to slip into the crowd unaware. I sucked in a breath and pointed him out to Māmā. She didn’t say a word. We flew so fast out of the Square that I clenched my jaw to keep my teeth from clacking against each other.
We had almost reached Wheat Row, flour and sugar wafted on the breeze, when the sky opened like a lotus flower and rain poured down. Pieces of hair stuck to my cheeks, my clothing became weighted and clung to me. I started to look for an eave we could duck under or a shop we could hide inside. Māmā had many friends here among the bakers and sweets makers.
She stopped and looked behind us. I followed her gaze. No dark figures emerged from the misting streets.
“Why is that man chasing us?”
She stared at her mud-splattered legs, her slippers no longer pink silk, but she didn’t say anything for a long time. Finally, she pushed her hair off her forehead and looked down at me.
Using the whispers of the secret tongue, she said, “No matter what happens to me, Zhēng-Zī, remember there’s fire inside you.” Her head whipped up and she squinted. I turned around, but no one was there. “Awaken your fire,” she said, close against my ear. I glanced back at her to get a better explanation.
“I don’t understand,” I said. My body convulsed despite the warm rain that continued to pound us from above.
She opened her lips, but no words sounded. Instead, her mouth mimicked a scream. I knew without turning around that the man had found us again. Māmā didn’t grab my hand. I didn’t need her to because I ran despite the way my feet slipped and slid in the muddy street. Close behind us, the smacks of footsteps followed.
We were nearing the Horse Temple with its two giant stone outposts, when someone grabbed me from behind. We both fell hard against the wet earth. My bones rattled beneath my skin. All the air went from my lungs in one gasping “uhnn”. Māmā shouted now. She hit another man with a closed fist who tackled her. Two more men hauled her upright and pinned her arms to her sides.
They led her, jerking and biting, toward one of the stone towers. A huge stallion statue reared up on his back legs atop it. The other stone tower had a mare on the top kicking her back legs toward the heavens. The man who had grabbed me kept a firm grip on my hands behind my back. He didn’t push me forward or force me to follow my mother. I squirmed until he kneed me hard in the side.
“Move again and I’ll break your neck,” he said through gritted teeth. “Stay still and I’ll let you go … once it’s done.”
“Once what’s —”
Māmā’s scream interrupted me. I saw one man open a door at the base of the temple. The other two shoved her inside. The door swung shut, but three words escaped, “Love you always, Zī,” and then the horse slammed down against the stone with a crack like thunder. The ground rippled like it did during an earthquake, and I couldn’t distinguish between my tears and the rain streaming down my face.
The man who threatened me, dropped my arms as soon as the statue / boulder / hammer destroyed my only family. He joined the other men, and they walked off into the gathering dusk as if nothing had happened.
I fell to the ground, gripping fists so tight that my fingernails bit hard into the flesh of my palms and brought bright drops of blood to the surface. I wailed and wailed until the rain stopped. Until my tears dried. Until I could breathe without hiccupping. Until I had formed a plan to destroy them all.
… to be continued in Part II.