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Ying Chang Compestine excerpt

Ying Chang Compestine excerpt


Shopping with Mother

All summer, the baby doctor's vacant face haunted me. In my dreams, she walked toward me with a white rope around her neck, carrying a baby in her arms. As I stretched my hand to take the baby, she faded away. I often woke in a cold sweat and couldn't fall back to sleep. I lingered over the fear of what Mother planned to do with the rope under her bed. I wanted to take it away from her, but when I went to look for it, it was gone.

I couldn’t stop thinking about the two boys and the grandmother. I never saw them again after that horrible day.
Was the older boy able to recover from the beating? I had seen him around the hospital compound many times before. Except for the mole on his face, I thought he was handsome, especially his double-lidded eyes. When we had passed by each other in the courtyard, he’d look down, avoiding eye contact with me. I had sensed a sadness in him, which made me curious. Was he sad because he lost his father? Did he love his father as much as I loved mine? How I wished I'd had the courage to talk to him and get to know him. Deep down, I hoped I could be as brave as him when the time came to defend Mother.

I learned to do many chores. Mother hadn’t talked about going away again, but the thought of her rope still cast a dark shadow over me. I feared any misbehavior would make her leave me. I had grown tall and skinny.  Would Father recognize me if he saw me in my patched up Mao's jacket?   

When the fall rain turned to sleet, crusting the ground with ice, I learned from the newspaper that workers at the water plant only worked half days, using the rest of the time to study Mao's teachings. When they were at work, they didn’t do a good job. The faucet in our kitchen only dripped sandy water at night. I wrapped two layers of surgical pads over the spout and in a day or two they filled with sand.

We kept our enamel wash basin under the faucet to catch drops at night. By morning, it was often only half-full and covered with a thin skin of ice. I broke the ice with a metal spatula. On the bottom of the basin was a drawing of the sun surrounded by lines of words in red paint: "Long Live Chairman Mao! Long Live Chairman Mao!" One "Long" had faded off. I doubted Mao had to wash his face with cold, sandy water.

I learned to save water by first washing my face, then clothes, and last, mopping the floor.

I had become skilled at using a washboard — a wooden board carved with lines of deep grooves. I pressed and rolled the clothes up and down on it. My hands grew numb in the icy water and the small pieces of soap slipped out of my swollen fingers.

Many times, I promised myself that when I grew up, if bars of soap were no longer rationed, I would buy a large box of them, and only use the large pieces. If Mother still thought someone should use the small pieces, I'd save them for her. Then she would know how hard it was.

One chore Mother hadn't asked me to do was shop in the market. She said I was still too young to fight for food. I couldn’t imagine how bad it might be. The days when she came home with an empty basket, I wished she had taken me with her. I would have bought anything edible to stop the hunger.

Finally, one Sunday in early February, she woke me.

"Hurry! There is meat today. I'll show you how to shop."

I opened my eyes. It was still dark outside.

“Now? What time is it?”

“Three-thirty in the morning,” Mother answered in her tired voice. I reached for my coat on top of my cotton blankets. The chill forced me to pull my hand back under the warm blanket. But the thought of Mother believing I was old enough to shop in the market drove me to sit up. I took a deep breath and slipped on my ice-cold jacket.

Outside, thick fog swallowed us. The air felt damp. The streetlights gave out a soft yellow glow. Torn posters snapped in the chilly breeze. I couldn't help shivering. My ears ached. Under layers of clothes, I couldn't reach my itchy back. It had been weeks since my last bath. I dreamed of soaking in hot water and scrubbing off the grimy smell from my body. To keep my frostbitten hands warm, I tried to tuck them into opposite sleeves, but only the tips of my swollen fingers fit in.

The market was on the way to school. I'd never been there so early. Mother often shopped after her night shift. During the day, the shelves were empty. Occasionally, a line of cardboard boxes sat on the sales counters with notes on top. Once, when no one was in the shop, I went in to look. Names were written on the notes. Inside were clean vegetables, eggs, and chunks of meat. One of them was addressed to Comrade Li.

The fat saleslady rushed from behind and yelled at me, "Get away! No more food today."

I shot her a disgusted look and ran. What did she mean no food? Were those boxes only for powerful people?

I had never seen so many people near the shop as there were this morning. A long, twisted line started two blocks away. It was no wonder that Mother rarely brought meat home.

"Any meat today?" Mother asked the last person in line. He was wrapped up in a gray scarf, only showing his eyes.

"Who knows? I saw them unload a rickshaw of meat half an hour ago. But this snake line hasn't moved." He stamped his feet to keep warm. "I suppose it depends on whether or not they have enough for the back door." His voice cracked with anger. People sat on the concrete street, asleep under big coats. One old man snored and wheezed like a bicycle pump. Empty baskets and big rocks sat in the line between them.

"What are those for, Momma?" I whispered and pointed to a big rock.

"People came last night and used the rocks and baskets to hold places for themselves. Everyone will come back by seven, when the shop opens," Mother explained.

I could sense angry glares following us as we moved toward the front of the line. My body tensed up.

"Ah. Here's our basket." Mother pointed to a familiar bamboo basket beside a woman. "Say ‘hello’ to Aunt Wu.” 

"Good morning, Aunt Wu."

Aunt Wu was a middle-aged woman. Her faded Mao jacket was so tight around her waist it seemed about to burst. Her buckteeth forced her upper lip to pull a little toward the right side of her face. She didn't look at me. Her eyes were fixed on the entrance to the shop.

Mother picked up the basket and took her place in line. “Next month it's our turn to wait in line." She said it loudly, as if she wanted to make sure Aunt Wu heard.

I had never seen Aunt Wu around the hospital. Mother must have met her at the market. As time dragged on, I stamped my feet and blew into my hands to keep them warm. My coat became damp and heavier. How had Aunt Wu stayed out in this cold all night without becoming a block of ice?

Gradually, the whole line grew restless. An old man made horrible grunting noises as he rinsed his mouth with his tea and then spat on the sidewalk. Two young women braided each other’s hair.

"It starts!" yelled Aunt Wu, jutting her neck toward the entrance.

The line broke apart. People rushed toward the door. Mother held the basket in front of her, ducked her head, and pushed forward.

Someone stepped on my left shoe. Struggling to free my foot, I lost my shoe. "My shoe, my shoe!" No one paid attention to me.

Worrying I may lose the other one, I slipped it off and stuffed it into my pocket. Aunt Wu had fallen to the ground next to me.

"Give me your ration ticket and money. Let me help you." I pulled her to her feet, and grabbed her basket and the roll of damp money and tickets from her hand. I pushed myself through the wall of bodies in front of me. More people pushed from behind. The force lifted me off the ground. I saw Mother ahead of me, but still far from the meat counter.

When the crowd brought me back onto the ground, I slipped away to the side and ran toward the back door of the building. Something cold stuck to my socks, but I didn't stop. Soon my socks were soaked and I could no longer feel my toes.

It was much quieter at the back door and the line was short. Only a man in an army uniform and two women stood in front of a long table set outside the shop. Small cardboard boxes sat in a row on the table. I joined the end of the line. A tall salesman in a long brown plastic apron was reading out his list. His yellow rubber gloves were soiled with blood.
"Comrade Sin, two Jin."

“Coming!” I recognized the person who answered, a large uniformed man with thick caterpillar eyebrows. He was Gao's father who had come to our school last week to announce Chairman Mao's new instructions.

Cut down on consuming and be hungry heroes for the sake of the Cultural Revolution.

Comrade Sin took a step forward and handed one bill to the man.

The salesman handed him a small cardboard box.

"Thank you!" Whistling loudly, he walked past me. Meat and eggs peeked at me from his box.

No wonder Gao grew plump while the rest of us turned into matchsticks. At the back door, he didn't even have to use his ration tickets. I wouldn't mind being a hungry hero either if I could eat meat and eggs. A few more customers arrived and stood in line behind me.

"Comrade Fong, one Jin."

"Here!" mumbled a woman through a mouthful of bread.  Her head was wrapped in a thick red scarf. As I watched her handing the salesman one bill, I admired her black nylon gloves. How I wished to have a pair of warm gloves like that.

"Comrade Mong, one Jin."

No one answered.

"Comrade Mong!" He studied the short line.

My head spun. From the front of the store, I heard someone scream, “No more meat! No more today!”

Had Mother ever reached the meat counter? I fumbled as I slipped the small ration ticket from the elastic band and hid it in my pocket.

"Comrade Mong—"

"Here!" I handed the salesman my paper money, focusing on his stained apron.

"Are you Comrade Mong's daughter?" The salesman stared at me.

I held my breath and nodded. My face burned with shame. If Father saw how Mother hopelessly fought in the crowd, would he forgive me for lying?

The salesman wrapped a piece of meat in a dried lotus leaf and dropped it into my basket. The meat felt as heavy as a rock. I tried to move my feet, but they didn't feel like they belonged to me. I told myself, You can't fall. If he notices you're not wearing shoes, he'll be suspicious and take away the meat.

Slowly, I turned and took a couple of steps.

"Come back, come back!" the salesman called from behind.

Should I run? Before I could decide what to do, I felt a gentle tap on my shoulder.

"Your change." The salesman handed me a bill. "Wake up, little girl. Next time send your father."

The crowd broke into laughter. Squeezing out a smile, I put the money in my pocket.

Would they still laugh if they knew I was the daughter of their class enemy?

When I returned to the front of the shop, people were complaining in small groups.

"I got here at eight last night," said an old man wrapped in a dirty blanket.

"Each day they take away more at the back door. We haven't had meat in two months," said a short pregnant woman.

"What's the use of having ration tickets? We still can't get any meat." A young man threw a rock to the side of the street.

"Ling, where have you been?" Mother walked toward me, her basket still empty and her sweaty hair clinging to her face. Three buttons on her now-muddy Mao jacket were missing.

The memory of Mother in her silk dress, dancing with Father, came to mind.

"Mommy, I got meat," I whispered as I held back my tears.

Aunt Wu joined us. "How did you do that?" She took the basket from me. My lost shoe was in her hand.

With a proud smile, I handed her the ration tickets and change. "You don't need tickets at the back door. And meat costs less."

Auntie Wu's face spread out like a crumpled chrysanthemum. "Smart girl!"

With tears in her eyes, Mother pulled me into her arms and hugged me tight. "You are growing up, my dear"

At that moment, I decided I would try harder to be strong and protect her, even if I had to fight or lie.

We divided the meat with Aunt Wu.

Click here to go to Ying Chang Compestine article in the September issue of Diablo magazine.  

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