No one noticed the green metal machinery was calling her name. The women in their blue tunics were still bent over their work stations. The grey cinder block walls stood unmoved. The soot-smudged windows still looked out at Building Six where other women in other blue tunics were bent over something else.
The machines were making candles shaped like tiny blue lighthouses. Formed and polished, they toddled along the conveyor belts, like fat little children in a nursery school line. The women scratched their heads at these things they made for the “Cherokee County Candle Company.” Not so Mr. Jiang, the man who was in charge.
When their bosses weren’t looking, the women laughed and whispered jokes that Shuchun’s husband, Gao, would be shocked to know his wife even understood.
Her days at the factory were long. Each day before dawn, she walked through the streets of Mianyang, over the bridge, past the squat workers’ apartments, past the China Academy of Engineering Physics.
Each day, she worked beside her friend, Shihong.
Shuchun, Shihong; Mr. Jiang had trouble keeping them straight.
Shuchun’s name meant “goodness and purity.” Shihong’s name meant “the world is red.” Every morning it was a contest to see where that colour would appear on her person. Sometimes her socks; sometimes her underclothes. Sometimes, she tied a bright red ribbon around her arm just high enough that it could not be seen. Red dye is not hard to come by in the PRC, she said.
Shihong told most of the jokes that Gao would not like Shuchun to hear.
When Shuchun returned home, it was her son, Arigio, who told jokes. Silly boyish jokes he’d learned at school.
Gao supervised Arigio while he did his homework each night. He had a plan for the boy: Work hard, study long and thereby be considered worthy. Gao wanted Arigio to be a doctor, to bring honour to their family. Gao is very focused when there is something that he wants. He makes lists, the way they say Chairman Mao used to do. Firm of purpose, Gao is like an arrow shot through the air.
He would not approve of the way Shihong talked about her elderly husband or the way she criticized the government or imitated the party officials as she walked home with Shuchun over the HanWang bridge.
These talks with Shihong made Shuchun think: about her life at the factory, about Gao’s important job, about Arigio’s enrollment at the superior school, about Mei Xing, her daughter, lost to her, for the good of the state.
On the days when she walked home alone, she always passed by the orphanage where children are taken still. An ugly beige rectangle of a building with two rows of windows lined up in perfect order like soldiers on parade. It has not changed since Gao brought Mei Xing there, almost 14 years ago.
“Mei Xing,” she would whisper as she passed by, “I am Shuchun, your mother. I will find you one day.” It is the same thing she said to her daughter the last time she held her in her arms, breasts aching underneath the cotton bandages, bound tight to stop her milk from coming in.
Shuchun had argued with Gao that there were many families with more than one child. But he recited a long list: This family and that who worked hard but got nowhere because the government did not smile upon them.
She knew that she was not the only woman who lingered at the orphanage gate. Once, she found a poem held down by a stone. It spoke of waterfalls and a sorrow that comes at midnight. It was written by a poetess from long ago.
She wondered if Gao ever thought about their daughter and what became of her. Has he ever ached for Mei Xing the way she does?
Shuchun, Shuchun. The green metal machinery kept calling her name.
“I saw you yesterday,” Shihong said as they walked toward the dining hall at lunch break. “I was with my mother. You were at the orphanage; you had your hand upon the gate.”
Schuchun thought of many explanations but in the end, as they took their seats, she took a breath and said, “I had a daughter.”
“I too had a daughter,” Shihong sighed.
Voices rose around them as the other workers poured in.
Shuchun looked deep into her friend’s eyes, tears glistening in the bright sun. She reached into her pocket and pulled out the poem.
Shihong looked at the ragged paper, “I have these dreams of falling water.”
“I also,” Shuchun said, “water falling over great jagged pieces of rock.”
“Maybe they are the tears that we have shed for our lost daughters.”
As the tables around them began to fill with workers, each tucked the story of her daughter away, like a treasure in a hidden pocket.
After lunch, Shuchun pushed the button to start the first run of the afternoon. She was looking out across the women as they bent over their work when she saw the lights briefly flicker, then heard the machinery hiccup then start up again. The ground began to tremble beneath her feet. Across the floor, Shihong was staring, her wide eyes silently asking, “What was that?” She gestured toward the hallway that led out to the factory’s main door. Shuchun shook her head and looked in the direction of Mr. Jiang’s office. If they left and it was nothing, they would be listed in his report.
She looked up at the ceiling. The lights were starting to sway like willows in the wind. Shuchun took a step back from her station. The floor shook again and the growling noise of an angry dragon came from the centre of the earth. She nodded at Shihong. They started to run. When they reached the hallway, the plaques in the display case were falling off the shelves. Mr. Jiang came out of the office and opened his mouth as if he was about to question them. But instead, he just pushed through the factory’s heavy front doors.
“Get away from the building,” Shihong screamed.
They ran down the middle of the road leaving Mr. Jiang, who was old, panting behind them. The earth was moving from side to side, rising and falling as if they were walking on a storm-tossed sea.
When they reached the large open square they stood arms around each other, watching everything fall apart. The first building to collapse was the agricultural hall, a relic from long ago. A statue crashed to the ground beside them, decapitated in its fall.
Then their factory’s towering smokestack went down. The structures surrounding them were crumbling one by one, the dust filling the air. Shuchun started to choke. Shihong ripped her red undershirt. “Put this over your mouth,” she said.
The sounds of screaming and moaning were like a wall encircling them. Fires exploded as gas mains burst. The tall cement poles that held the power lines lay like broken spears across the streets. People were sobbing. Some lying on the ground, arms outstretched. Clinging to the earth, begging to be spared.
For the first time, it occurred to Shuchun that Gao, who was always in charge of every situation, may not be able to save himself or Arigio. Usually the building where Gao worked stood out in the sky but she could not see its top floors through the smoke and dust. Arigio might be lying, like so many others, silent under piles of schoolhouse bricks. This thought filled her with cold. Cold for Arigio on whose shoulders the weight of Gao’s dreams had been so solemnly placed. She pulled her arms together around her body as the ground continued to shift under her feet.
When the earth stopped shaking, the people in the square all stood staring at the rubble and the smoke. For a long time no one moved. In the distance, Shuchun started to see the orange overalls of the army emergency workers sprouting like summer poppies. “Stay in the square,” the soldiers were shouting. The word “aftershock” hovered in the air, floating just above the smell of death. She looked in the direction of Mianyang Number Three Hospital. It was hanging from the hill on which it sat.
A man cried, “The schools have collapsed.”
“Yang Lo?” Shuchun said running up to him. “On Queng Road?”
“Yes,” he said. “I have just come from there. All are lost. The schools were no good. Their construction was shoddy.”
Schuchun and Shihong started to head toward the Hanwang bridge. Would it still be standing? As they walked along, not sure of their way, people stood guard over bodies wrapped in blankets or sheets or draperies, whatever could be found. Some already burning money and clothes for the dead to use in the afterlife.
Shuchun screamed when she saw the sign for the street that led to the orphanage. When they reached the old stucco building, it was filled with an eerie silence. The front had fallen off and Shuchun could see a row of tiny cribs in one room and small beds in another. White sheets blowing in the wind.
“Where are the babies?” Shihong cried.
Although it was many years since Gao had brought Mei Xing to this door, in her first thoughts, Shuchun feared for her daughter.
“I’m going in,” Shihong said. A staircase still stood, leading up and down.
“It’s too dangerous,” Shuchun said. She heard a siren off in the distance.
“I don’t care,” Shihong said, starting to climb up the rubble toward the stairs.
Shuchun moved closer, uncertain what to do: Should she go in too or stay out where she could run for help? Before she could decide, Shihong was gone then re-appeared on the top floor, waving her arms. “There is no one here,” she said before she disappeared again.
“Shuchun, Shuchun,” Shihong was screaming, this time from the basement.
Shuchun felt a whirling in her stomach. “Have you found some one?” she said. “A child?” She climbed across the chunks of broken walls toward the hole that was open to the lower floor. Shihong was standing below her, her face covered in dust, waving sheets of paper. “It’s the records, I found the records.”
“The record of what happened to our children.”
Shuchun wanted to jump into the hole but instead she carefully picked her way down the staircase. The filing cabinets were underneath it, protected from the falling debris. Many drawers were open, dust and plaster covering the bulging paper files that filled every one.
Shuchun moved along until she saw where they stored the records of people with her last name. She opened the drawer, her fingers walking along the beige folder tops.
Mei Xing, Mei Xing. She could feel Shihong close beside her, her breath like a summer breeze on her cheek. Hands trembling, she pulled out a file. On the inside cover, beside Mei Xing’s name there was another name, an English name and an address in New York City. When she turned around, Shihong too was holding out a file. They read their daughters’ names aloud.
“Earthquake,” Shuchun said.
Tears began to flow, running like a stream, falling like a river, down Shihong’s dusty face.
By Marianne K. Miller