Lin Yu had no memory of the storm, though its sabotage left a hole in their roof that leaked for a month. The first night without Ma, Ba, her brother, and she slept around an old basin. Woken by a soft plop from her dream, Lin Yu saw the white basin filled to the brim with trapped rain. A pallid moon on the verge of explosion. Ma had soaked a towel in this basin and wiped Lin Yu’s face the same morning. The cold towel covered her nose and mouth; when she began to struggle for air, Ma took her hand off.
The search lasted three days. Their relatives came to help since other villagers were busy saving the remains of the wheat. Lin Yu trudged behind the adults with a certitude that Ma had gone forever. During a respite, Ba told Popo that they’d been harvesting in the field when the tornado descended across the river. He had shouted “run,” but Ma stared at the storm with a smile that frightened him. Popo stroked her leg and sighed, “I told you not to marry her, remember? The fortune-teller said she had a lightweight soul. Easy to be lured by the evil power.”
Lin Yu couldn’t imagine Ma captivated by anything. The heavy work made her harsh and irritable, giving only commands or curses. Only once, when Lin Yu first read a character on a banner, Ma smiled and patted her head. For that reason, Lin Yu was eager to go to school.
When Popo suggested Ba remarry, Lin Yu pinched her little brother, and he wailed so hard that Ba promised they would never have a stepmother. Later, she sneaked a rock sugar into Brother’s mouth as a reward. Absence didn’t equal nonexistence, but some could only perceive what they could see.
At age seven, therefore, Lin Yu mothered her younger brother. She fed and washed him, held him in her arms, and seated him near the field when she did farm work. After school, she worked from afternoon to night and grew thick fingers like Ma. Her skin peeled off from sunburn, giving her the illusion that her inside had expanded. When she bent to transplant seedlings in the waterlogged soil, the rice field seemed to stretch on forever, a muddy sea. Brother giggled as she scraped the mud and leeches off her legs with a grimace, not knowing he would accept his share of the hardship soon. Lin Yu could hardly straighten her back after bending for long hours. Sometimes lying in bed, she wondered if death was the only way to end her exhaustion.
Lin Yu felt Ma dwell in her body – she folded clothes, cooked dishes, and julienned white radishes for mussel soup, though it took a longer time with her childish hands. She did chores exactly the way Ma did them. Except that she stayed quiet when Ba got drunk and began to swear and throw things. Ma used to rave at him, and their fights startled the neighboring dogs. But Lin Yu knew his tempest would subside and, in their poverty, Ba never picked up anything fragile. Wire hangers. Wooden stool. Straw hat. She told her weeping brother that Ma would return when they grew up.
Their half-orphaned state gave them extra freedom while inviting entitled adults to pity them and kids to tease them. From the former, they gathered every bit of information about Ma; to the latter, they responded with hisses and fists. Walking across the village, Lin Yu strained her ears to catch gossip. “The Old Lin’s wife just stood there watching. Like a stone.” “Must have been enchanted by the tornado.” “Don’t be superstitious! She just ran off with another man.” “With whom? Who could tame that tigress?” Laughter boomed. “Heartless woman. Left her children wandering like stray dogs.” Then Lin Yu would sneeze and cough from a distance and walk past them. In vulgar jokes, evaded gazes, and suddenly hushed voices, she reconfirmed that Ma was not her mere imagination. She could barely recall Ma’s face. Even when Ma was at home, her mind was away from them. A shadow swirling from home to the backyard to the fields, working nonstop.
At times, Lin Yu felt she should stop longing for Ma. She had abandoned them. But one image of Ma kept gnawing at her. The morning before she left, Ma stared at Lin Yu after removing the towel from her face. Her eyes glinted like two cold fires, as if she was in agony and joy at the same time. What those eyes said, Lin Yu wanted to know.
Unlike many of her peers, Lin Yu enjoyed studying at school, an escape from farm work and chores. However, at the age of thirteen, as she stood up from her seat one day, her classmates cackled. Confused, she followed their gazes and saw that her pants were stained with blood – the raging arrival of her womanhood. Terrified by the prospect of a creature growing inside her, she sat in her wet pants and wept.
When she turned fifteen, a matchmaker visited their house. She scrutinized her face, hands, feet, and the width of her waist, and spoke in a low voice with Ba. Lin Yu knew they were discussing potential candidates for her future husband. Ba boasted that his girl was so hardworking that she washed their laundry even when her hands bled after weeding, turning the water red. Ba had beaten her that time for falling asleep while washing clothes.
For the first time after finishing the heavy work, Lin Yu couldn’t fall asleep. Outside, the dark plain dream-talked. A dog barked, incurring waves of barking. A man beat his wife, and the woman wailed; their neighbors knocked to remind them of the time. Brother chuckled in his sleep. For a moment, she wanted to smash that sweet innocence. He would continue his study to high school and get all the support if he could make it to college. She was so used to giving, out of love and habit, until she was vanishing. One by one, those big and little heartbreaks dashed against her. Lin Yu didn’t realize she remembered them all.
Brother turned towards her. She pulled the blanket and buried his face under the soft darkness. Then she heard him breathing, breathing, until his body gave an involuntary shudder. She lifted a corner of the blanket, watched him sleep for a while, and finally pressed her face against his.
Two days later, a classmate led Lin Yu to a haystack and said he liked her. His tanned face exuded sincerity. She listened and looked at her black cloth shoes. The tips were almost broken. She always poked a hole through the top of her shoes as if her toes refused to be confined.
It made no difference whether she liked someone or not. To love could be a curse. Ba once said Ma was the smartest girl in her class but quit at fourteen to marry him. Girls disappeared from the classroom one by one; several had given birth to their first babies. In the end, she would become someone’s wife and work in another field, do chores in another room, and have children. Even the talk of sex, which made other girls giggle and blush, felt stale to her. A dog mounted another dog, a frog topped another frog, a man pinned a woman to the ground among the waving wheat stems. Life repeated itself. She kissed the boy on the cheek and walked away.
The engagement was settled in May, and the wedding was scheduled to take place in December, on the young man’s 22nd birthday. Han lived in a neighboring village and worked at a chemical plant. Lin Yu had only met him once before their engagement party with the impression that he had straight teeth. Han’s three sisters, who sat across from them at the round table, seemed more amiable to Lin Yu than Han appeared—the oldest sister was short and sallow due to malnutrition, the second sister was stout and dark from working in the fields, while the lengthy labor in a textile factory paled the third sister. Lin Yu scrutinized their cordial faces, wondering if they held any grudges to compromise their dreams for their brother’s, but she could only see the deep or shallow wrinkles on their faces that bore the marks of time.
Ba reveled in the ample bride price, drinking cup after cup of liquor. Brother had never seen so many plates of snacks and candies that he couldn’t stop chewing during the feast. Amidst the crimson and golden trappings of happiness and prosperity, Lin Yu felt herself an expensive appliance purchased by Han’s family.
“Although you are motherless, I raised you up and found you a good husband,” Ba babbled on their way home, “When your brother gets married and gives me a grandson, my life will be complete.” He then burped and vomited into a nearby bush.
Lin Yu responded with a wry smile. She wished she could be as easily satisfied as Ba, but deep inside, she yearned for something unknown. Something yet to have a shape or a name. Her heart ached for the fullness of that emptiness.
After helping Ba lie down in bed, Lin Yu stepped outside and took a deep breath. The damp air ascended slowly from the soil. The fluffy catkins from poplar and willow trees had stopped wafting. Coreopsis spread their golden flowers along river banks. The chard in the yard was thriving with fat green leaves. Frogs croaked in a crescendo as the night was drawing on. On this deep spring night, while nature was lush with life, she felt herself sinking to the bottom of a swamp.
On a damp and sultry afternoon at the end of June, they heard the first thunder while harvesting wheat and stopped to look at the sky. The harvester driver said they would have to leave when it began to rain. Ba looked sullen. If they had to sell the wet wheat for animal feed, they wouldn’t have enough money for the next year. More gray clouds were gathering, and half of the sky was getting darker. Every now and then, a flash of purple lightning struck the ground violently, soon accompanied by deafening thunderclaps.
The driver headed to the barn while Ba pulled her and Brother, running towards their home, but she couldn’t help watching the storm.
In a few minutes, the sky became as dark as night. Thick clouds circled around, and the air currents raised puffs of yellow dust and wheat stubble. She stopped, eyes widening, but Ba clutched her shoulder and dragged her away.
People were screaming and running. From the enormous quilt of clouds first descended a stubby tail, then it separated into two swathes of clouds, rotating faster and faster like two lovers spiraling toward each other. The dense wind muffled her nose and mouth. Suffocating.
When the funnel clouds touched the ground, a tornado took shape. The sky poured rain so heavily that Lin Yu could only see white streams falling down, and soon hailstones followed. They held their heads in their hands and rushed into the door.
Ba swore as she watched the storm from the window of their house. The quick-spread ice pellets were bouncing on the ground. Trees were whipped back and forth and blown down by the wind. The solid village was rattling, shaking, falling apart, giving her the sinister pleasure of a prisoner.
In the recesses of the room, Ba shielded her brother with his arms and shouted at her, his face tensed up in fear, but she couldn’t hear a word nor move from the window. The gray whirlpool absorbed all her attention. The entangling and destructive power sucked the dark sea of clouds into its core, turning them into lightning, wind, and rain. A square of the sky was like a flame resurging in the ashes. The vehement beauty seemed to seduce her into joining it that she opened her arms to embrace the turbulence.
The tornado was moving closer. Suddenly, the window in front of her made a loud crack and broke into hundreds of pieces. Wind and rain crashed her. She closed her eyes. With a sharp prick on her right cheek, hot fluid streamed down her face.
In the darkness, she saw Ma’s eyes again, the intensity of love and hatred in her gaze, and it dawned on her that Ma had wanted to kill her that morning. A solution and salvation out of desperation. The epiphany brought waves of tenderness and pain. In their shared captivity, she loved Ma more than ever.
The old world was torn apart. In its opening wound, she saw the immense possibilities of life. She wanted to live, to breathe, to devour. She would depart in the unappeased chaos and follow the path of the tornado. When she left, there would be tales of another woman lured by the storm.
Yan Pu is a Chinese writer and editor who currently lives in Seattle. She received her MFA in fiction from the University of Pittsburgh after earning a BA in Trade Economics. Her nonfiction has appeared in China30s, Southern Metropolis Daily, and elsewhere. She is a 2023 Periplus Fellow.
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