Fiction / June 2013 (Issue 21)

Rising River

by Sim Wai Chew

When the river rises, my village will be submerged. Like a tribe vanquished by bloodthirsty foes, it will disappear from the annals of history. Flotsam will drift on the surface above the highest roofs and smoke stacks. Fish will swim in and out of the rooms we live in. Riverweed and fanwort will grow in our seed plots, and perhaps crustaceans will make a home of the rookery in our back garden.

Perhaps in dreams we will see the sun rise pale gold over the reed beds, the tidal sandbars, the curve of the bank where they dock the fishing boats, mend the nets and spread out the day's catch. Otherwise, we have only some photographs which already seem dated. We have little mementos, little keepsakes, and, of course, we have our memories.

For weeks now, dinner has become a ritual, something to be rushed through, although the fare remains the same: a large tureen of soup made from fish meat and stock, seasonal vegetables and bean curd garnished with garden greens—all accompanied by huge bowls of steamed rice. But unlike in the past, we gobble it down quickly, we race through the evening meal. More often than not, father goes out for a smoke. He picks a piece of straw from the bundle we keep by the hearth, sticks the tip into the smouldering coals and plods heavily to the back door.

By the time he comes back our next-door neighbours—Madam Yuen and her husband—and also old Tang from the next lane will have finished dinner as well. They'll come over to visit us with some pastries and melon seeds. Occasionally, old Tang, a notorious miser all his life, brings over a small bottle of rice liquor.

The dishes are cleared, everyone gathers round the dinner table made from a piece of old gnarled teak father brought back one year from Chongqing.

There is an embarrassed silence because it is childish, grown-ups getting maudlin like this.

And then perhaps Madam Yuen will say, "Do you remember when Chu's son broke his leg, and around the same time they caught a dolphin in the nets? Fancy that—a dolphin coming so far upriver!"

Mother says, "Yes, I remember the haul was poor that year, but after catching and releasing the dolphin the nets bulged with fish for weeks on end. The fracture you're talking about happened much later, I'm sure about that."

Father says, "Chu got the biggest catch that year, but the following year his son couldn't join us because of that double fracture, you mean? He was always cursing his bad luck, that poor man."

Madam Yuen adds, "I wonder what happened to that dolphin?" closing her eyes as if listening to a talk show on the radio.

And we'll fall to reminiscing about the times when the village bustled with life, when it rang with merriment and hope. Far into the evening we trade stories and gossip. We tally up a lifetime of experience. We itemise losses and victories.

Old Tang doesn't join in when we talk. Sometimes, he grunts and nods his head or gives a little smile, his eyes rheumy and unfocused because of his cataracts. His son and daughter went to the city five years back. Since his wife died last year, he has grown morose and withdrawn. He drinks a lot, not in front of us, I know, but at home when he's alone.

I worry about him—several of our elders succumb to depression every year.

I suppose, I know, they all worry about me.

My village is called Chun Bao in the ordinary tongue. Depending on whom you speak to, it means either the guardian or the guarantor of spring. For my county, which is one of the poorest in a poor province, it is not very distinguished. If you approach the village from the south, you have to alight the bus at the tenth mile marker on the main trunk road and walk the last thirty minutes, most of it through an ancient bamboo grove. The verdant hue falls away at a turn in the path, and suddenly a muddle of low-lying structures will swim into view, about sixty in all, half of them occupied.

The records in the ancestral hall announce that Chun Bao has seen continuous habitation for two hundred and fifty years, not a long time by the standards of many places. Its surroundings house no buried treasures, no archaeological sites or imperial burial grounds, so its loss will cause no outcry, no howls of protest.

To my mind, nevertheless, it is a pretty place, perched halfway up a promontory overlooking a bend in the upper Yangtze. My favourite view is from the hilltop lookout where you can see the entire village nestled in a shallow basin on the leeward side of the headland. On winter mornings before the mist clears, the smoke from the hearth fires lingering in the air, the wind bracing on one's face, the sky the deepest indigo blue, that's the time I love best.

I love this view because on a clear day you can see the trails in the surrounding hills and ridges like veins on a leaf. They snake away in all directions, some wide enough for a small cart to drive through, some barely passable even for a single man.

These pathways and routes are where I first started my running. Running is incidentally how I make a living, and also the reason why I've returned, why I came back to hide, to seek deep shelter from the world.

It started when I won the four hundred metres at a regional schools sports meet. I was eleven. A spotter from the provincial capital was there. Two days after the race, he came to see my parents.

"Your daughter has talent, strength and endurance," the spotter said. "But she is already a little old to be starting on such an enterprise. The ideal age is nine. Anyway, get her to train properly for the event. Next year, I will come back. I will decide then if she merits joining the state athletics school in the capital."

Father took me aside soon after that and told me that this was my chance to rise above a hardscrabble existence. "We're poor people, Hsiao Pei," he said, his eyes brimming with tears. "Your mother and I try our best, but we cannot provide many things for you. If you get accepted, we will not see you for months on end, but it will be better for you."

I had never seen him cry. He put his rough, callused palm against my cheek, and my heart grew heavy and full. I grabbed his hand and lowered my head so that he would not see the tears stream down my face. My body shook with sobs.

"I know, father, I know. I will try my best."

So I started my training. My physical education teacher, Madam Zhang, agreed to supervise me. Under her guidance, I started a little regime.

Every morning, I woke up at five and did twenty minutes of callisthenics and ran three miles. In the afternoon, I ran another three miles. In the evenings, I did squats and circuit training to strengthen my thighs and quadriceps. From three miles, I progressed to four, then five. Before the year was out, I knew every bend and curve of the trails around my village. I knew their tiniest details, their varied moods and dispositions, like a favourite movie. I could repeat line by line all the speaking parts.

A year later, the spotter came to watch me race at the sports meet. His eyes widened as he studied his stopwatch. He double-checked the time just to be sure.

"If she keeps this up she will compete at the national level," he told Madam Zhang. "She will bring glory to your county and village. In thirty years of talent spotting, I say this truthfully, she is the best I have seen."

So began my journey from country to city and onwards to bigger cities. My journey is not atypical, I know. Millions in this blighted land flock to urban areas to find work every year. When the river rises, I will see my home village only as an interior vision, as an article of remembrance, but for many years that is exactly what I've done. Many a time coming back, I've sprinted through the bamboo grove abutting my village, struggling to contain my excitement, my elder brother telling me, Hsiao Pei, please slow down, step carefully before you break a leg, his voice a mixture of apprehension and pride.

Home is racing through a speckled green sea, wind sighing through leafy stems, sunlight penetrating forest canopy.

The smell of good clean earth.

Home is my brother warning me to slow down, father's mahogany hands etched with wrinkles, mother combing my hair the evening before I left.

Why do they worry about me? They worry because I share so little of my stories from the capital. I laugh and join the chit chat, but I also keep something back.

Three months ago, my coach pulled me aside and told me the truth about the supplements I had been taking. He said I should continue to take them, one vial a day for a fortnight. Once it entered the blood stream, it became detectable anyway. I should make the most of it.

"Go home for a few months," he said. "Nobody will suspect anything because your area is scheduled for flooding. Go help your family relocate to the new town. When you come back, no test in the world will register, well, the thing, the supplement."

I wanted to slap this man who knew no shame, to run screaming down the street, to kick over the stove furnace and slice the air with a cleaver. I wanted to do something, anything, to prove that I was alive. But it seemed so futile, ranting and emoting.

I knew and I didn't know––what else is there to say?

So I've returned. This is my longest spell at home since I left aged twelve years, three months and seven days.

I can feel small changes coming over me. My voice has deepened. I've grown more hirsute. My vulva sits higher on my body. My clit is distended and sensitive. Each night when I go to sleep, I die. Something else takes over my body.

Naturally, I keep myself busy with the packing. We're getting ready for our Long March, I tell mother.

She smiles though her eyes flash with indignation.

"Well, we're not moving to Shaanxi, I can tell you that!"

Because everyone keeps up a brave front it is easier for me. At least I have that.

Six months after the march, they'll pour in the last batch of cement, complete the dam and operate the sluice gates. The water, rising over a hundred metres in many locations, will envelop hundreds of villages, towns and homesteads like a bath.

Perhaps in dreams we will see the sun rise over the reed beds, the tidal sandbars, the curve of the bank where they dock the fishing boats, mend the nets and spread out the day's catch. Again we will see the world turn incandescent with meaning. Otherwise, we have only some photographs which already seem dated. We have little mementos, little keepsakes.

We also have our memories.

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