1. Spring festival, 2008
“Wake up, little lazy worm.”
“Please, Grandma, just one more minute…” I buried my head into the quilt and turned over.
“Well, it’s snowing outside and…”
“What?!” I threw the sheets back and jumped out of bed.
“Wait! Put on your coat!”
“Snowing! It’s snowing!” I was already out of the house.
My Grandma lived alone in Chuantouhe, a small village inside Mountain Mou, far from the urban area. One time she came to my home and took care of me when I was a newborn, but after I grew up she insisted on going back to Chuantouhe. I only had the chance to visit her during winter vacation. For a child who grew up in the city, the countryside was fresh and attractive.
I stretched out my tongue to catch a snowflake.
“It’s sweet, Grandma,” I murmured.
I never saw snow in the city. Everything about it excited me.
“Well, look at the mountain top,” Grandma told me.
I raised my head to the direction Grandma pointed, and when my hat fell to the ground I saw the top.
“Isn’t it beautiful?”
The mountain was covered in bright snow, glowing under the sun. “Grandma, it looks like a fairyland.”
Grandma smiled, “Well, it’s because of the mountain we have fresh air and all kinds of vegetables, he is kind and friendly to us.”
Life in the village was pleasant. Neighbors came to visit us since it was the New Year, and Laoyao (the youngest child in a family—me) had come back. Beautiful scenery, the company of cousins, and dishes I had never eaten before made me wish the winter vacation would never end.
Twilight deepened. The cloudless sky turned to a deep blue, then faded to black. Then stars came out and a half-moon rose.
This was the most enjoyable time of the day. After dinner, the children went to the front yard to play with fireworks. Since I was the youngest one, I was only allowed to play with mantianxing (a firework, whose name means “sky full of stars” in Chinese). I held the tiny stick, carefully lit it up and watched it send sparks.
I would lie on the deck chair next to the old tree in the yard, enjoying the vast starry sky. The tree looked like someone who had his head tilted to one side. I gave him the nickname wry neck tree. The gentle light of the moon painted Mountain Mou in silver, and a thousand stars shone overhead. I counted stars while listening to Grandma telling interesting stories about Mountain Mou and Chuantou River. Grandma believed in Buddhism. She always emphasized the importance of being merciful and kind in her stories, which made me believe that the mountain and river held these traits. Sometimes she would sing folk songs, but always forgot the lyrics after “Starry, starry night…”
The day I left Chuantouhe was rushed. Dad received an urgent call from his director and we left for home as soon as possible. I shoved my clothes into my suitcase and when I came downstairs, Grandma was taking a nap in the living room.
“Shall I wake her up?” I asked Mom.
“She is having a rest. I do not want to interrupt her, but we have no time to wait.”
“Don’t worry, I can explain to her, you’ll come back next vacation, right?” Uncle patted my head.
I left Grandma’s home, sadly. After the car had started, I saw Grandma run out of the house.
“Grandma, goodbye!” I shouted through the car window.
But she did not hear me.
2. Spring Festival, 2016
“After the bridge we’ll arrive at Chuantouhe,” Mom murmurs.
I nod. Everyone falls silent.
It seems like a century before mother clears her throat. “This is the street where Grandma used to live.” Her voice trembles.
“Could you please stop here?” I ask. “I want to take a walk by myself. Don’t worry, I’ll come back soon.”
I kiss Mom and get out of the car.
I walk straight. The street is so familiar yet so unfriendly to me. Everything has changed: stone paths are replaced by cement roads, brick houses are superseded by new apartments.
Even the mountain is different. It used to be a merciful place where lovely stories took place, but now it is an enormous killing machine armed with huge rocks and trees. I never felt afraid of the mountain when I was a child, but now as an adult, I fear it.
I walk straight, step by step, as if under my feet there is not road, but time, as if I can walk back to the moment when Grandma and I are lying on the deck chairs, counting stars after dinner.
My parents said it is the street Grandma used to live, but it’s not. Grandma is not here, her house is no longer here, and no one would stop and greet me, Laoyao. I know nothing about this street. I can never go back to the Chuantouhe village that I knew. I walk straight, but I don’t know where I should go. There is no home for me to come back to.
Suddenly I see something familiar. I am unsure, since it is getting dark in the strange village. I get a little closer and slow down. The wry neck tree. Beside the tree there are no buildings, just a small piece of empty land. Faintly, I hear the sound of water floating over rocks, like crying.
I stop a few steps from the tree. It’s strange that I don’t dare to get close to the only familiar thing existing in Chuantouhe.
“Are you waiting for Grandma like I am?” I ask him.
Wind blows, the old tree sighs, a few leaves fall down. I stand still across the street, staring at the old tree. My phone rings. It is Mom.
“I am okay, don’t worry. I found the old wry neck tree. Just give me a while.”
Mom does not reply; I hear her quiet weeping. After a few seconds she hangs up the phone.
I sit down, not noticing there is a stone beneath me. I fell backwards, landing on my back. From there, I see the sky, the starry sky, the same as I saw eight years ago.
“Starry, starry sky…” I close my eyes and hum the tune.
Yes, here is Chuantouhe, the place I spent my wonderful days with Grandma, here is the street I used to play. I can never walk back to the moment when Grandma and I are lying on the chair counting stars, because now I am under the same sky, near the same tree, but all the rest has gone.
My friend once comforted me that even if the earthquake had not happened, Grandma would still leave me one day since death is the law of nature.
No, that’s different, I thought for a while before I spoke again. “If I knew that was the last chance to see her, I would have hugged her and said goodbye.”
4. May 12th, 2008
I was preparing for the first class in the afternoon. I felt something strange. I wasn’t sure what happened. I remember the building was shaking as if it would fall apart. The next moment, I remember students rushing out, crying and screaming. I remember the lamp fell off the shelf and the stairs cracked.
That night, teachers told us to carry our quilts to the playground and stay away from the buildings. I couldn’t sleep. Aftershocks kept coming. It was a chilly, dark night, unlike spring, more like autumn. I lay on my straw mat, looking at the sky. The wind howled and the clouds blew in from the right, hiding the stars and the moon.
I couldn’t get in touch with my family and had no idea where they were. Rain fell on my face, the pure darkness swallowed the last star. My classmates lay next to me. I felt as though the world was holding its breath. Night touched me with cold fingers. I closed my eyes and quivered inside the quilt.
When I woke up, there was a line of light in the east. Wisps of pale mist covered the land. I heard the wind blowing, otherwise the morning was still. Not even a cricket could be heard.
It might have been the longest day in my life. I waited on the playground, looking around and trying to find anyone who looked like my family. I saw my classmates picked up by their parents, one after another, and from their chatting, I knew that a horrible disaster had happened.
Near dawn, I became desperate. Most students had left school with their parents. Only four classmates still remained on the playground. One of them borrowed a marker pen from the teacher, and began to write his personal information on his arms.
“Why are you doing that?” one girl asked him.
“If I die, I want to let the rescue team know who I am,” he answered calmly. The girl started to cry.
“Please give me the marker after you’re finished,” I asked the boy.
I heard someone calling my name. I thought it was my imagination, until I saw my cousin. His eyes were red and his clothes were messy.
This was the first thing he told me: “Your parents are safe.”
“How about Grandma? Is she all right?”
He patted my head, but did not answer my question.
Three days after the earthquake, my parents and uncle finally reached Chuantouhe. Cars were unable to enter the village, so they walked with the rescue team for a whole day.
“I have never seen heaven in my life, but I have seen hell that day in Chuantouhe,” Uncle said to me.
Mountain Mou had collapsed and buried roads and houses. The whole village had been smashed. Everything was destroyed, including the street where Grandma lived,. The only guidepost to find Grandma was the wry neck tree. He survived.
“You’ll never want to see Chuantouhe again,” Mom said, many years after the earthquake. When she talked about what she saw that day, she still cannot hold her tears.
The whole village lay in ruin. Grandma’s house lay in ruin, too. Rescue machinery couldn’t reach the damaged area, so they had to dig by hand.
Uncle dropped to his knees and begged the rescue team to save Grandma. He told me, “I heard my mother crying for help.”
Everyone knew it was impossible. Still, the rescue team tried their best to help.
They couldn’t find a coffin. Everything was in short supply, especially coffins. I didn’t know where Grandma slept. I refused to know.
4. Spring Festival, 2016
Several kids run around, playing with fireworks. I see pure joy on their faces. I envy them a little.
“Xiao Kai! Come back, dinner is ready!” A woman in her forties comes over and shouts, “You naughty kids!”
I stand up, since it might be strange to see someone sitting by the roadside alone at dinnertime.
The woman sees me. I can tell from her face that she is a little confused.
“Aunt Liu!” I call her name out of reflex. She used to be Grandma’s neighbor; she is much thinner now, but still energetic.
“You are, you are…Laoyao?”
We hugged each other.
“Oh my god, you came back?”
“With my parents, I just want to have a look at Chuantouhe.”
“Come here, kids! These are my two children.”
She stops for a moment, “You know, my husband passed away in the earthquake, so did my daughters. I got married again, gave birth to the twins. Life has to continue.”
Two kids run to us, fireworks lighting up their faces.
“Share your mantianxing with Sister,” Aunt Liu says.
The little girl hesitates for a second and hands a firework to me.
“Thank you!” I ignite the mantianxing, watching it burn, lighting up the smiling face of Aunt Liu.
She holds the small hands of her children as we walk back.
“I had already lost my family once, so now I hold them tightly.” She takes a deep breath. “We are unwilling to leave Chuantouhe; this is the place where we were born and we grew. There is no other place in the world I can call home. The government agreed to help us rebuild our house.”
I see light come through the windows of every house on the street. They flicker to life, glimmering like fallen stars. The lights burn brighter than the stars and do not twinkle. Red lanterns hanging from the roofs inform me of the coming new year. If you had never seen it, Chuantouhe looks just like a newly built village, peaceful and warm under the starry night.
“You see. People have begun their new life here.”
The traces of the disaster have disappeared.
Something falls on my face. I raise my head, hearing the cheer of kids, “It’s snowing! It’s snowing!”
I wave goodbye to Aunt Liu and walk alone to our car. At the end of the road, I see Mom waiting for me.
The wind was blowing briskly as we left. For the last time, I look back to the streets of Chuantouhe. Under the starry sky I stretch out my tongue, and gently catch a snowflake.
Li Weijia is currently an undergraduate student majoring in English in the School of Foreign Languages, Sun Yat-sen University. She participated in 2016 SYSU International Writers’ Residency as a volunteer. Now she focuses on creative writing as well as the oral history of Tibetan cadres in the 1960s, and plans to further study English-Chinese translation in the UK.