When the stars were at their brightest, Mei rolled out of her bed, which she admitted was exceptionally soft compared to the lump of a mattress she slept on at home. She contemplated stealing the goose-feathered pillow… The night before, she packed a small bag of clothes, a few snacks she stole from the pantry. Farmer Tsu would always wake up before dawn to work the fields, so Mei decided to not sleep. It wasn’t anything she hadn’t done before. She used to stay up all night playing games, whispering with her sisters and brothers. Night was the only time they could spend time together.
She tip-toed across the creaky floorboards. A breeze swept in from the window, animating the curtains. She froze. There were whispers… They didn’t sound like Farmer Tsu’s or Tanya’s. For some reason, she could almost extrapolate meaning from them. A troubled feeling stirred in her as if she foresaw a premonition of pain, a troubled and difficult life.
The heavy scent of incense lingered in the air; the scent of the house was unlike her home’s. It was a mild irritant, but it was something so alien and unacceptable to her. Mei reflected. She and Tanya got along well. Farmer Tsu was even kind to her. He had a vastly bigger house. He gave her her own room with a soft, comfortable bed. She had food to eat every night. Despite all this, there was an insurgence in her; her family’s blood insisted she return.
At the screen door, she watched the stalks of corn sway. If she left, how would Farmer Tsu and Tanya react? She didn’t want to appear thankless. Again, the wind came.
The cool, nighttime air seeped into her lungs, and she breathed in her renewal. Her parents would be convinced by her conviction, by her love for the family. They would welcome her back. Down the endless stretch of country road, Mei ran fast. The world around her zipped by in an elongated blur. It seemed like a dream back then, the stars blinking at her; they would witness her safe return by some sort of providence.
Whenever her feet ached and blistered, she told herself that if she could push on just a little more her parents would receive her with warmth. They’d realize they made a terrible mistake, and they’d all be happier with her in the picture. She was excited to see her brothers and sisters again. It had been a long month with each day feeling like a year. She ran on. Her socks wetted with plasma and blood. Compared to her brother, Don Bei, she knew she was a strong child. He was always sickly. If he worked the farm, he’d collapse in an hour. Mei knew he was meant for education. Her work on the farm allowed him to enter preliminary school. With any luck, he could become the family’s saving grace. Mei believed in him.
A bluing sky greeted her as she eventually rested by a brook. It did not make an impressive sound. But Mei listened to the babble, and imagined that she sat with the familiar frogs, listening to their frog conversations. She didn’t know why she bothered, but she peeled off her socks: purple flesh and tattered skin. She smiled. It was worth the price of family and home.
Her memories flashed like film. She and her mom never seemed to get along. But Mei never questioned their relationship. In the country, family was family. They were the people you stuck with. Each step sent a pang up her legs to her lower back. She began to limp. She saw her mom’s weathered face, her ineffable features of a grump. Had she been a bad daughter? Didn’t she do her best every day to help the farm? These questions slowed her down, so she repressed them deeper into her conscience. What did it matter if they would welcome her back?
The morning dew lifted, and the country road produced a calm in her. She slowed her pace down to savor the tall reeds that billowed in the wind. A rattling of the world around her. She looked to the sky when she thought she heard laughter. No one was around her. But she recognized the two voices of the children, somehow. Their words were incoherent, but a sentiment of relief and happiness burgeoned from her chest. It was the answer to the premonition; somehow it was an assurance that everything would make sense –one day. She began to cry inexplicably. Mei smiled, confident of her choice to return.
Her body ached, her stomach growled, and her vision wavered. “Mei!” She heard her name. She turned and turned when she saw it was Aunt Lu.
Mei ran over. “Hi Aunt Lu!”
“What are you doing back here?” A look of concern hid behind her smile, but Mei didn’t notice.
“I ran back. I want to be with my family.”
“You must be so tired and hungry. Would you like to eat some breakfast?”
“That sounds really good, but I want to see them. I miss my brothers and sisters.”
“Mei…” Aunt Lu reached for Mei’s hand. “Just a quick bite. I know my husband would be happy to see you. The whole village misses you.”
They sat outside at a make-shift table with tattered wood. This made sense to Mei. Everyone had a table like this outside, where families often ate in the summer dusk. The Lu’s peach trees sheltered them. Aunt Lu laid down a complete breakfast: a savory egg pancake with slivered green onions, a savory porridge with mushrooms and leftover pork pieces, and two bisected pastries stuffed with stewed beef. Mei ate the meal quickly, too quickly to savor. She sat back, her stomach stuffed and hurting. Aunt Lu and Farmer Lu looked to one another.
“Mei,” Farmer Lu began, “If you need me to, I can drive you back later. I don’t mind taking a trip. We could all go.”
“Why would I want to go back? I want to be with my family. That’s why I ran down here.”
Aunt Lu then offered, “What if we all go with you to your home?”
Mei didn’t understand why but she agreed.
She sat on her parent’s porch since the door had been locked. She glanced to Aunt Lu and her husband, who stood afar and waved. She tried again, this time more forcibly. Mei’s mom came to the door, squinting. “Mom, I don’t want to live with them. I want to be home.” She looked to her mom through the screen. The door remained locked, and it seemed she wouldn’t open the door anytime soon. Mei tried again. “Can I come in? Please?” But she already knew the answer from her mom’s violent shift in expression. There was no love in those eyes. There wasn’t even pity. There was only a cruel selfishness, a mind for business that superseded any kindness or any warmth.
“What are you doing back here?! You belong to them now. If you do this again, they’ll want their money back.” Her mom opened the door with such force the door slammed against the wall. She grabbed Mei by her wrist and pulled her down the porch. “Your father will be furious to know you escaped. How can you be so selfish? You never think of the family.”
“Hello!” Aunt Lu called. “How are you doing?” Mei turned back, confused. She saw a woman who wished to help her. That much she understood. When she turned to her mom, she didn’t understand anymore –how could her own mom be so cruel? A complete stranger treated her better. Aunt Lu’s husband then interjected, “You don’t have to worry. We’ll help Mei get back to Farmer Tsu. He’ll understand. These things happen. We were all young once!”
“I want to see my brothers and sisters.” Mei said, trying to gather her character.
“I forbid it.” Her mom said, a wall.
“How can you be like this?”
“Get out! Get out of my sight!”
“Come along, Mei.” Aunt Lu guided her away. Mei refused. She turned back.
“Why do you hate me? I always thought about our family.”
“Don’t give me that look!” Her mom brandished her hand. “Don’t you dare!” She raised her hand and struck Mei across the face.
Her flesh burned. It was not the pain, but the betrayal, the hypocrisy, that sent tears down her cheeks. She did not look away; Mei wanted her mom to see her anger. She wanted her to know she would never let go of the hatred that took seed. Her mom stood across her, a monster seething with rage.
The wagon creaked along the country road. Aunt Lu and her husband had told her to rest. But Mei simply couldn’t. She couldn’t accept the terrible reality of her mom’s cruelty. The hours melded together until she arrived back at Farmer Tsu’s. Her heart had been fractured, and from the irreparable pieces, a spell of Madness awakened in her.