***This excerpt is from an advance uncorrected proof***
Copyright © 2015 Penguin Random House LLC
MY SISTER IS IN TROUBLE, and I have only minutes to help her.
She doesn’t see it. She’s having difficulty seeing a lot of things lately, and that’s the problem.
Your brushstrokes are off, I sign to her. The lines are crooked, and you’ve misjudged some of the hues.
Zhang Jing steps back from her canvas. Surprise lights her features for only a moment before despair sets in. This isn’t the first time these mistakes have happened. A nagging instinct tells me it won’t be the last. I make a small gesture, urging her to hand me her brush and paints. She hesitates and glances around the workroom to make sure none of our peers is watching. They’re all deeply engrossed in their own canvases, spurred on by the knowledge that our masters will arrive at any moment to evaluate our work. Their sense of urgency is nearly palpable. I beckon again, more insistently this time, and Zhang Jing yields her tools, stepping away to let me work.
Quick as lightning, I begin going over her canvas, repairing her imperfections. I smooth out the unsteady brushstrokes, thick- en lines that are too thin, and use sand to blot out places where the ink fell too heavily. This calligraphy consumes me, just as art always does. I lose track of the world around me and don’t even really notice what her work says. It’s only when I finish and step back to check my progress that I take in the news she was recording.
Death. Starvation. Blindness. Another grim day in our village.
I can’t focus on that right now, not with our masters about to walk in. Thank you, Fei, Zhang Jing signs to me before taking her tools back. I give a quick nod and then hurry over to my own canvas across the room, just as a rumbling in the floor signifies the entrance of the elders. I take a deep breath, grateful that I have once again saved Zhang Jing from getting into trouble. With that relief comes a terrible knowledge that I can no longer deny: My sister’s sight is fading. Our village came to terms with silence when our ancestors lost their hearing generations ago for unknown reasons, but being plunged into darkness? That’s a fate that scares us all.
I must push those thoughts from my mind and put on a calm face as my master comes strolling down the rows of canvas. There are six elders in the village, and each one oversees at least two apprentices. In most cases, each elder knows who his or her replacement will be—but with the way accidents and sickness happen around here, training a backup is a necessary precaution.
Some apprentices are still competing to be their elder’s replacement, but I have no worries about my position.
Elder Chen comes to me now, and I bow low. His dark eyes, sharp and alert despite his advanced years, look past me to the painting. He wears light blue like the rest of us, but the robe he has on over his pants is longer than the apprentices’. It nearly reaches his ankles and is trimmed in purple silk thread. I always study that embroidery while he’s doing his inspections, and I never grow tired of it. There’s very little color in our daily lives, and that silk thread is one bright, precious spot. Fabric of any kind is a luxury here, where my people struggle daily simply to get food. Studying Elder Chen’s purple thread now, I think of the old stories about kings and nobles who dressed in silk from head to toe. The image dazzles me for a moment, transporting me beyond this workroom until I blink and reluctantly return my focus back to my work.
Elder Chen is very still as he takes in my illustration, his expression unreadable. Whereas Zhang Jing painted dreary news today, my task was to depict our latest food shipment, which included a rare surprise of radishes. At last, he unclasps his hands from in front of him. You captured the imperfections of the radishes’ skin, he signs. Not many others would have noticed such detail.
From him, that is high praise. Thank you, master, I say before bowing again.
He moves on to examine the work of his other apprentice, a girl named Jin Luan. She shoots a look of envy in my direction before also bowing low to our master. There’s never been any question who his favorite student is, and I know it must frustrate her to feel that no matter what she does, she never grasps that top spot. I am one of the best artists in our group, and we all know it. I make no apologies for my success, especially since I’ve given up so much to achieve it.
I look to the far side of the room, where Elder Lian is examining Zhang Jing’s calligraphy. Elder Lian’s face is as unreadable as my master’s as she takes in every detail of my sister’s canvas. I find I’m holding my breath, far more nervous than I was for my own inspection. Beside her, Zhang Jing is pale, and I know my sister and I are both braced for the same thing: Elder Lian calling us out for deceiving them about Zhang Jing’s sight. Elder Lian lingers much longer than Elder Chen did, but at long last, she gives a cursory nod of acceptance and strolls on to her next apprentice. Zhang Jing sags in relief.
We have tricked them again, but I can’t feel bad about that either. Not when Zhang Jing’s future is at stake. If the elders dis- cover her vision is failing, she will almost certainly lose her apprenticeship and be sent to the mines. The very thought makes my chest tighten. In our village, there are really only three jobs: artist, miner, and supplier. Our parents were miners. They died young.
When all the inspections are finished, it is time for our morning announcements. Elder Lian is giving them today, and she steps up on a platform in the room to allow her hands to be visible to all who are gathered are part of an ancient and exalted tradition. Soon we will go out into the village and begin our daily observations. I know things are hard right now. But remember that it is not our place to interfere with them.
She pauses, her gaze traveling around the room to each of us as we nod in acknowledgment at a concept that has been driven into us with as much intensity as our art. Interference leads to distraction, interrupting both the natural order of the village’s life as well as accurate record keeping. We must be impartial observers. Painting the daily news has been a tradition in our village ever since our people lost their hearing centuries ago. I’m told that before then, news was shouted by a town crier or simply passed orally from person to person. But I don’t even really know what “shouting” is.
We observe, and we record, Elder Lian reiterates. It is the sacred duty we have performed for centuries, and to deviate from it does a disservice both to our tasks and to the village. Our people need these records to know what is happening around them. And our descendants need our records so they can understand the way things have always been. Go to breakfast now, and then be a credit to our teachings.
We bow again and then shuffle out of the workroom, heading toward the dining hall. Our school is called the Peacock Court. It’s a name our ancestors brought with them from fairer, faraway parts of Beiguo beyond this mountain, meant to acknowledge the beauty we create within the school’s walls. Every day, we paint the news of our village for our people to read. Even if we are only recording the most basic of information—like a shipment of radishes—our work must still be immaculate and worthy of preservation. Today’s record will soon be put on display in our village’s heart, but first we have this small break.
Zhang Jing and I sit down cross-legged on the floor at a low table to wait for our meal. Servants come by and carefully measure out millet porridge, making sure each apprentice gets an equal amount. We have the same thing for breakfast each day, and while it chases the hunger away, it doesn’t exactly leave me feeling full either. But it’s more than the miners and suppliers get, so we must be grateful.
Zhang Jing pauses in her breakfast. It will not happen again, she signs to me. I mean it.
Hush, I say. It’s a topic she can’t even hint at in this place. And despite her bold words, there’s a fear in her face that tells me she doesn’t believe them anyway. Reports of blindness have been growing in our village for reasons that are just as mysterious as the deafness that fell upon our ancestors. Usually only miners go blind, which makes Zhang Jing’s current plight that much more mysterious.
A flurry of activity in my periphery startles me out of my thoughts. I look up and see that the other apprentices have also stopped eating, their gazes turned toward a door that leads from this dining room to the kitchen. A cluster of servants stands there, door, a boy scurrying in front of her. Cook is an extravagant term for her job, since there’s so little food and not much to be done with it. She also oversees running the Peacock Court’s servants. I flinch when she strikes the boy with a blow so hard that he falls to the floor. I’ve seen him around, usually doing the meanest of cleaning tasks. A frantically signed conversation is taking place between them.
—think you wouldn’t get caught? the cook demands. What were you thinking, taking more than your share?
It wasn’t for me! the boy tells her. It was for my sister’s family. They’re hungry.
We’re all hungry, the cook snaps back. That’s no excuse for stealing.
I give a sharp intake of breath as I realize what has happened. Food theft is one of the greatest crimes we have around here. The fact that it would occur among our servants, who are generally fed better than other villagers, is particularly shocking. The boy manages to get to his feet and bravely face the cook’s wrath.
They’re a mining family, and they’ve been sick, the boy says. The miners already get less food than we do, and they had their rations cut while not working. I was trying to make things fair.
The hard set of the cook’s face tells us she is unmoved. Well, now you can join them in the mines. We have no place here forthieves. I want you gone before we clear the breakfast dishes.
The boy falters at this, desperation filling his features. Please. Don’t send me to work with them. I’m sorry. I’ll give up my rations to make up for what I took. It won’t ever happen again.
I know it won’t happen again, the cook replies pointedly. She gives a curt nod to two of the burlier servants, and they each take one of the boy’s arms, hauling him out of the dining room. He tries to free himself and protest but can’t fight against both of them. The cook watches impassively while the rest of us gape. When he’s out of sight, she and the other servants not working our breakfast service disappear back into the kitchen. Zhang Jing and I exchange glances, too shocked for words. In his moment of weakness, that servant has just made his life significantly more difficult—and dangerous.
When we finish breakfast and head to the workroom, the theft is all anyone can talk about. Can you believe it? someone asks me. How dare he give our food to a miner!
The speaker’s name is Sheng. Like me, he is one of the top artists at the Peacock Court. Unlike me, he is descended from a family of artists and elders. I think he forgets sometimes that Zhang Jing and I are the first in our family to achieve this rank.
It is certainly a terrible thing, I respond neutrally. I don’t dare express my true feelings: that I have doubts about whether the food distribution is fair. I learned long ago that to keep my position in the Peacock Court, I must give up all sympathies to the miners and simply view them as our village’s workforce. Nothing more.
I see a few others walking near us nod in agreement. He lifts his head proudly at their regard, showing off fine, high cheekbones. Most of the girls around here would also agree he’s the most attractive boy in the school, but he’s never had much of an effect on me.
I hope that changes soon, as we are expected to marry someday.
Boldly, knowing I’m probably making a mistake, I ask, You don’t think the circumstances played a role in his actions? Wanting to help his sick family?
That’s no excuse, Sheng states. Everyone earns what they deserve around here—no more, no less. That’s balance. If you can’t fulfill your duty, you shouldn’t expect to be fed for it. Don’t you agree?
My heart aches at his words. I can’t help but give a quick glance at Zhang Jing, walking on my other side, before turning back to Sheng. Yes, I say bleakly. Yes, of course, I agree.
We apprentices begin gathering up our canvases to take them out for the other villagers to view. Some are still wet and require extra caution. As we step outside, the sun is well above the horizon, promising a warm and clear day to come. It shines on the green leaves of the trees among our village. Their branches create a canopy that shades much of the walkway to the village’s center. I watch the patterns the light creates on the ground when it’s filtered through the trees. I’ve often thought about painting that dappled light, if only I had the opportunity. But I never do.
I’d love to paint the mountains too. We are surrounded by them, and our village sits on top of one of the highest. It creates breathtaking views but also a number of difficulties for us. This peak is surrounded on three sides by steep cliffs. Our ancestors migrated here centuries ago along a pass on the mountain’s opposite side that was flanked by fertile valleys perfect for growing food. Around the time hearing disappeared, severe avalanches blocked the pass, filling it up with boulders and stones far taller than any man. It trapped our people up here and cut us off from growing crops anymore.
That was when our people worked out an arrangement with a township at the mountain’s base. Each day, most of our villagers work in the mines up here, hauling out loads of precious metals. Our suppliers send those metals to the township along a zip line that runs down the mountain. In return for the metal, the township sends us shipments of food since we can’t produce our own. The arrangement was working well until some of our miners began losing their sight and could no longer work. When the metals going down slowed, so did the food coming back up.
As my group moves closer to the center of the village, I see miners getting ready for the day’s work, dressed in their dull clothing with lines of weariness etched on their faces. Even children help out in the mines. They walk beside their parents and, in some cases, grandparents together and waiting for the day’s handouts. They sit immobile with their bowls, deprived of the ability to communicate, only able to wait for the feel of vibrations in the ground to let them know that people are approaching and that they might receive some kind of sustenance. I watch as a supplier comes by and puts half a bun in each beggar’s bowl. I remember reading about those buns in the record when they arrived a couple of days ago. They were already subpar then, most of them showing mold. But we can’t afford to throw away any food. That half bun is all the beggars will get until nightfall unless someone is kind enough to share from their own rations. The scene makes my stomach turn, and I avert my gaze from them as we walk toward the central stage where workers are already removing yesterday’s record.
A flash of bright color catches my eye, and I see a blue rock thrush land on the branch of a tree near the clearing. Much like Elder Chen’s silk trim, that brilliance draws me in. As I’m admiring the sheen of the bird’s azure feathers, he opens his mouth for a few seconds and then looks around expectantly. Not long after that, a duller female flies in and lands near him. I stare in wonder, trying to understand what just took place. How did he draw her to him? What could he have done that conveyed so much, even though she hadn’t seen him? I know from reading that something happened when he opened his mouth, that he “sang” to her and somehow brought her, even though she wasn’t nearby.
A nudge at my shoulder tells me it’s time to stop daydreaming.
Our group has reached the dais in the village’s center, and most of the villagers have gathered to see our work. We climb the steps to the platform and hang our paintings. We’ve done this many times, and everyone knows their roles. What was a series of illustrations and calligraphy in the workshop now fits together as one coherent mural, presenting a thorough depiction of all that happened in the village yesterday to those gathered below. When I’ve hung my radishes, I shuffle back down with the other apprentices and watch the faces of the rest of the crowd as they read the record. I see furrowed brows and dark glances as they take in the latest reports of blindness and hunger. The radishes are no consolation. The art might be perfect, but it’s lost on my people in its bearing of such dreary news.
Some of them make the sign against evil, a gesture meant to chase away bad luck. It seems ineffectual to me, but the miners are extremely superstitious. They believe lost spirits roam the village at midnight, that the mist surrounding our mountain is the breath of the gods. One of their most popular stories is that our ancestors lost their hearing when magical creatures called pixius went into a deep slumber and wanted silence on the mountain. I grew up believing those tales too, but my education in the Pea- cock Court has given me a more practical view of the world.
Slowly, the miners and suppliers turn from the record and begin the treks to their jobs. Elder Chen signs to us apprentices: Go to your posts. Remember, observe. Don’t interfere.
I start to follow the others, and then I catch sight of Elder
Lian taking the steps back up to the dais where the record is painstakingly studying each character. Such scrutiny isn’t part of the normal routine. The other apprentices have left, but I can’t move, not until I know what she’s doing.
She stands there a little longer, and when she finally turns away, her gaze meets mine. A moment later, her eyes fall on some- thing behind me. I turn around and see Zhang Jing is standing there, hands clenched together nervously. Elder Lian descends the stairs. Go to your posts, she signs. The silk thread that edges her robe is red, and it flashes in the light as she walks past.
Swallowing, I take Zhang Jing’s elbow and steer her away from the village’s center, away from the blind beggars. Most of them are old and former miners, I remind myself. She isn’t like them. She isn’t like them at all. I squeeze her hand as we walk.
She will get better, I tell myself. I will not let her become one of them.
I repeat the words over and over in my mind as we move past the beggars, but saying them to myself can’t erase the image of those cavernous faces and blank, hopeless stares.
WE SOON NEAR A SMALL PATH branching from the main track through the village, and I nod at it. Zhang Jing nods back, turning toward the fork.
Before we get very far, a group emerges unexpectedly from a nearby wooded area. It is Sheng with two boys dressed in suppliers’ attire. They’re dragging someone between them, and I recognize the servant from our school, the one who was caught stealing. New bruises and welts accompany the one the cook gave him, and from the gleeful look on the faces of the others, they have more planned. I can understand their outrage at what he did, but the enjoyment they take in doling out such pain sickens me. Zhang Jing cringes back in fear, not wanting to get involved in any altercation. I know I should do the same, but I can’t. I step forward, ready to speak my mind.
Before I can, I am knocked to the side by yet another person rushing past. He wears the dull clothes of a miner and strides right up to Sheng and the others, blocking their way. When I realize who this newcomer is, my breath catches, and I feel as though the very ground beneath my feet has shifted, knocking me off-balance.
It is Li Wei.
What do you think you’re doing? he demands.
Sheng regards him with a sneer. Teaching him a lesson. Look at him, Li Wei says. He’s learned his lesson. He can barely stand anymore.
That’s not good enough, one of Sheng’s supplier friends says. Are you saying he should be let off easy? You think it’s okay for him to steal food?
No, Li Wei replies. But I think he’s been punished enough. Between your “lesson” and losing his job at the school, he’s more than paid for the crime of trying to help his family. All you’re doing is hurting his ability to help us in the mines. We can’t afford that right now. It’s time to let him go.
We’ll say when it’s time to let him go, Sheng says. Li Wei takes a menacing step forward. Then say it.
Sheng and the suppliers hesitate. Although the numbers are in their favor, Li Wei is unquestionably one of the biggest and strongest in our village. Muscles gained from long hours of grueling work in the mines cover his arms, and he towers over them by nearly a head. He stands straight and tall, his tough body braced and ready for a fight. He doesn’t fear three-to-one odds. He wouldn’t fear ten-to-one odds.
After several tense moments, Sheng gives a shrug and smirks as though this is all one big joke. We have work to do, he says far too casually. He deserves worse, but I don’t have time for it. Let’s go.
The supplier holding the servant releases him, and Sheng and the others begin sauntering away. Seeing me, Sheng asks, Are you coming?
We’re going a different way today, I say, nodding toward the path.
Suit yourself, he replies.
When they are gone, Li Wei reaches out a helping hand to the servant, whose face is filled with terror. The boy backs up and then scurries away, fear having given him a burst of energy, despite his pain. Li Wei watches him go and then turns in our direction, looking surprised to see us still there. He bows in deference to our higher station, having noticed our blue robes, and then stiffens slightly when he looks up and sees my face.
It’s the only outward indication of his surprise. Everything else about him is perfectly respectful and proper. Forgive me, apprentices, he says. I was in such a hurry to help, I’m afraid I jostled you earlier. I hope you aren’t injured.
Although he is addressing both of us, his eyes are locked on me. His gaze is so piercing, I feel as though it will knock me over. Or maybe that’s just the earlier dizziness I felt from being near him. Regardless, standing there before him, I find myself unable to move or speak.
Zhang Jing, unaware I am reeling, smiles gently. It’s okay. We’re fine.
I’m glad, he says. He starts to turn from us and then pauses, his expression both curious and hesitant. I hope you don’t think I was wrong to help that boy.
It was very kind of you, Zhang Jing says politely.
Although she has answered for us, Li Wei’s gaze lingers on me as though he hopes I will add something. But I can’t. It’s been too long since I’ve seen him, and this sudden, unexpected confrontation has caught me unprepared. After several awkward moments, Li Wei nods.
Well, then. I hope you both have a good day, he says before walking away from us.
Zhang Jing and I continue on our path, and my heart rate slowly returns to normal. You didn’t say much back there, she remarks. Do you disapprove? Do you think he should have let Sheng and his friends take their revenge?
I don’t answer right away. Zhang Jing is a year older than me, and we have been nearly inseparable our entire lives, sharing everything. But there is one secret I have kept from her. When I was six, I climbed an old rotting shed our mother had warned us about many times. The roof collapsed while I was on it, trapping me below with no one in sight. I was stuck there for two hours, frightened and certain I would be there forever.
And then he appeared.
Li Wei was only eight but had just begun working full-time in the mines. When he came to me that day, he was returning from his shift covered in fine, golden dust. As he held out his hand to help me, the late afternoon sunlight caught him just right, making him shine and glitter. Even back then, the striking and beautiful always moved my heart, and I was spellbound as he helped me out of the rubble. His easy smile and sense of humor soon helped
me overcome my shyness, beginning a friendship that would span almost ten years and eventually become so much more. . . .
Fei? asks Zhang Jing, truly puzzled now. Are you okay?
I push my memories aside, shaking off the dazzling image of that golden boy. Fine, I lie. I just don’t like to see that kind of violence.
Me neither, she agrees.
We divert to a path that is much narrower than the village’s main thoroughfare but sees enough foot traffic to be well-worn and packed down. It takes us along one of the cliff’s sides, giv- ing us spectacular views of the peaks surrounding us. It’s early enough in the morning that mist still hangs in the air, obscuring the depths below.
Zhang Jing and I come to a halt when we reach the cypress tree. It looks greener and fuller than the last time I saw it, now that summer has fully arrived. I feel a pang in my heart for not having been here more recently. The venerable cypress clings doggedly to its rocky perch, its branches spreading wide and high into the sky. See how it stands proudly, even in such inhospitable conditions? our father used to say. This is how we must always be—strong and resilient, no matter what’s around us. Our family used to go on evening walks together, and this path past the tree was one of our favorites. When our parents died, Zhang Jing and I had their ashes spread here.
She and I stand together now, saying nothing, simply gazing out at the vista before us and enjoying a faint breeze that plays among the needled branches of the tree. In my periphery, I notice her squinting, even here. As much as it hurts, I feel compelled to finally say something. Stepping forward, I turn so that she can better see my hands.
How long has it been going on?
She knows immediately what I’m referring to and answers with a weary face. I don’t know. A while. Months. It wasn’t that bad at first—just occasional hazy spells. Now those spells are more frequent and more intense. On some days, I can still see perfectly. On other days, things are so blurred and distorted I can’t make any sense of them.
It will get better, I tell her staunchly.
She shakes her sadly. What if it doesn’t? What if it’s only a matter of time before I’m like the others? Before everything goes dark? Tears glitter in her eyes, and she obstinately blinks them back. I should tell our masters and give up the apprenticeship now. It’s the honorable thing to do.
No! I tell her. You can’t.
They’ll eventually find out, she insists. Can you imagine the disgrace then, when they throw me out on the streets?
No, I repeat, even though a secret, scared part of me fears she is right. Don’t say anything. I’ll keep covering for you, and we’ll find a way to fix this.
How? The smile she gives me is sweet but also full of sorrow. Some things are beyond even you, Fei.
I look away, fearing my own eyes will fill with tears at the frustration I feel over my sister’s fate.
Come on, she says. We don’t want to be late.
We continue on our way, walking along the cliffside path, and my heart is heavy. I won’t admit it to her, but this might indeed be beyond me. I might dream incredible things and have the skills to paint any vision into reality, but even I can’t restore sight itself. It’s a humbling and depressing thought, one that so consumes me that I don’t even notice the crowd of people until we practically walk into them.
This path that traces the village’s edge goes past the station where the suppliers receive shipments from the township below. It looks as though the first shipment of the day has arrived up the zip line and is about to be distributed. While that’s often a cause for excitement, I rarely see it draw this many people, which makes me think something unusual is happening. Amid the sea of dull brown clothing, I spy a spot of blue and recognize another artist apprentice, Min. This is her observation post.
I tug her sleeve, drawing her attention to me. What’s happening?
They sent a letter to the keeper a few days ago, telling him we need more food, that we cannot survive with the recent cuts, she explains. His response has just arrived with this shipment.
My breath catches. The line keeper. Communication with him is rare. He’s the one our existence depends on, the one who decides what supplies come up the line to us from the township. Without him, we have nothing. Hope surges in me as I join the others to learn the news. The keeper is a great and powerful man. Surely he’ll help us.
I watch with the others as the lead supplier unrolls the letter that came up with the food. The letter was tied with a tiny green ribbon that he clutches as he reads, and for a moment, I’m trans- fixed by it. I shift my gaze back to the man’s face as his eyes scan the letter. I can tell from his expression that the news isn’t going to be good. A flurry of emotions plays over him, both sad and angry. At last, he gives the letter to an assistant and then stands on a crate so that we can all see his hands as he addresses the crowd.
The keeper says: “You receive less food because you send less metal. If you want more food, send more metal. That is balance. That is honor. That is harmony in the universe.”
The lead supplier pauses, but there is a tension in the way he stands, the way he holds his hands up, that tells us there is more to the message. After several seconds, he continues sharing the rest of the letter, though it’s obviously with reluctance: “What you have suggested is an insult to the generosity we have shown you these long years. As punishment, rations will be reduced for the next week. Perhaps then you will better understand balance.”
I feel my jaw drop, and chaos breaks out. Shock and outrage fill everyone’s faces, and hands sign so fast that I can only catch snippets of conversation:
Reduced? We can’t survive on what we have—
How can we get more metals? Our miners are going blind and—
It’s not our fault we can’t mine as much! Why should we be punished for—
I can’t follow much more than that. The crowd turns on the lead supplier with angry faces, striding right up to where he stands on his makeshift perch.
This is unacceptable! one woman signs furiously. We won’t tolerate it!
The lead supplier regards them wearily. There’s an air of resignation around him. He doesn’t like the way things have turned out either, but how is he supposed to change them? What do you suggest we do? he retorts. When no immediate response comes, he adds, Everyone needs to get back to work. That’s the only way we’re going to survive. It’s like he says: If we want more food, we need more metal. Standing around and complaining won’t accomplish that.
This enrages one of the men standing near the podium. He wears a miner’s dirty clothes. I’ll go down there! he insists, face flushed red. I’ll make the keeper give us food.
Others in the crowd, caught up in the heat of the moment, nod in agreement. The lead supplier, however, remains calm in the face of rising hostility. How? he asks. How will you go down there? On the line? He pauses to make a great show of studying the other man from head to toe. Everyone knows the zip line can only hold about thirty kilos. It will fray and snap under your weight, and then we will have nothing. Your son might be able to make the trip. Perhaps you could send him to negotiate. He’s, what, eight years old now? That earns a glare from the miner, who’s very protective of his young son, but the supplier remains unfazed. Well, if you don’t want to risk yourself or your loved ones in the basket, you could always just climb down instead.
The lead supplier takes a rock the size of his hand and throws it off the edge, hurling it toward a bend in the cliff. We all watch as it hits the mountainside and is momentarily followed by a small avalanche of other stones, some of which are significantly larger than the original rock. They kick up dust as they fall down to depths we cannot see. The unstable nature of the cliffside is well-known throughout the village and has been documented in records for years. Some of our ancestors who could hear would attempt the climb, supposedly because their hearing aided them in knowing when avalanches were coming. But even they were wary about the cliffs.
Of course, then you face the risk of being crushed by falling rocks before you even get the chance to express yourself to the keeper. Anyone still want to go down there? asks the lead sup- plier, looking around. Unsurprisingly, no one responds. Return to your work. Get more metals so that we can restore the balance, as the line keeper said.
Slowly, the crowd disperses and everyone goes off to their assigned tasks, including Zhang Jing and me. As we walk, I think about what was said about balance and how we have no choice but to do what the keeper asks. We’re at his mercy—his and the line’s. Is that truly balance? Or is it extortion?
Zhang Jing and I arrive at the mines, and it is there we finally part ways. She waves farewell before disappearing into the darkness of the cavernous entrance, and I watch her go with a pang. This has been her post for a while now—going deep with- in the mines to observe the workers at their daily labors. Even though she stays well away from any situation that might be dangerous, I still worry about her. Accidents happen, even with the best of intentions. I’d switch places with her if I could, but the elders would never allow it.
I was recently assigned a post just outside the mine. With in- creased accidents and discontent over the food situation, the elders wanted another set of eyes to observe. My job is to keep track of the miners’ morale and any incidents that happen, as well as note the amount of metal being unearthed. My last post was in the center of the village, and this is usually a calm one by comparison.
I perch on an old tree stump off to the side of the entrance. It’s comfortable and gives me a good view of both the mine and the forested trail Zhang Jing and I took earlier. Near the trail, I notice a cluster of pink-veined white mountain orchids that are finally blooming. They’re cup-shaped and make a pretty spot of color among the mostly green and brown foliage surrounding the trail. Flowers rarely bloom up here, and I pass much of my day studying and memorizing the orchids, going over ways I’d depict them if only given the luxury to do so. Sometimes I dream up even more fantastical visions to paint, like fields and fields of orchids stretching out into a carpet of pink.
A blur of movement near the mine’s entrance draws my attention back to the real world. For a moment, I wonder if I’ve truly lost track of time and if the miners are coming out for lunch. That’s when my assignment is busiest. But no—it’s not quite midday yet, and only two men emerge from the entrance, one young and one old. Neither of them notices me, sitting out of the way on my stump.
One of them is Li Wei, and I’m astonished to encounter him twice in one day. Our lives have taken such different directions that I rarely see him anymore. The older man with him is his father, Bao. He shows the signs of having worked in the mine his entire life: a strength of body and character that’s let him survive all these years but that’s also taken its toll. He doesn’t stand as straight as he once did, and there’s an exhaustion in him that’s almost palpable, despite the resolute look in his dark eyes.
Studying the two together, I can see how Li Wei serves as a reminder of what Bao must have looked like in his youth. Li Wei still shows all the strength and none of the wear. His black hair is pulled into the same neat topknot the other miners have, though a few strands have escaped and now cling to his face, which is damp with perspiration. Fine gold dust from the mine glitters across his skin and clothing, almost as it did on that day long ago in my childhood. The light plays over him now, and I feel an ache in my chest.
Bao turns his head, revealing an oozing red gash on his fore- head. Once Li Wei has made sure his father can stand, he begins cleaning the wound with some supplies he removes from a small cloth bag. Li Wei’s hands are quick and efficient, a contrast to his towering strength and size. But his touch is delicate as he helps his father, and soon the older man’s head injury is clean and bandaged.
You can’t let this keep happening, Li Wei tells him when he’s finished. You could’ve been killed.
I wasn’t, Bao signs back obstinately. Everything’s fine.
Li Wei points to his father’s forehead. Everything’s not fine!
If I hadn’t intervened at the last minute, this would’ve been a lot worse. You can’t work in the mines anymore.
Bao remains defiant. I can and I will! I see well enough to do my work. That’s all that matters.
It’s not just about your work. Li Wei looks as though he’s trying very hard to remain calm, but there’s an obvious panic behind his eyes. It’s not even just about your life. It’s about the lives of others. You endanger them by staying down there. Let go of your pride and retire.
Pride is the only thing I have left, says Bao. It’s the only thing any of us have. They’re taking everything else away from us. You heard the news about the food. With rations decreased, they need me more than ever down there. That’s where I’ll be—doing my duty. Not sitting around the village’s center with the other beggars. It is not your place to dictate your father’s actions, boy.
Li Wei gives a reluctant bow, but it’s clear that it’s out of respect, not agreement. With that, Bao turns around and returns to the mine, leaving his son staring.
I hold my breath. Their conversation could have been a mirror to the one I had earlier with Zhang Jing. Bao is yet another villager going blind.
Once his father is out of sight, Li Wei punches a scraggly tree growing near the mine’s entrance. I’ve seen him make impulsive gestures like this since childhood. They’re born out of passion, when his emotions run high, and they’re usually harmless. Except, when his hand makes contact with the tree, blood spurts out, and he jumps back in surprise. Recalling how notices are sometimes hung on the tree, I realize he’s struck one of the old nails. Without thinking twice, I’m on my feet, retrieving the sup- ply bag he brought out for his father.
What are you doing? Li Wei signs, even with blood dripping off his hand. The surprise on his face tells me he didn’t know I was nearby.
Stop talking, I scold. Stay still.
To my astonishment, he complies and stops moving so that I can help him. The cut is on his right hand, which could be catastrophic for a miner. As I clean it, though, I can see it’s actually pretty shallow. It reminds me of the paper cuts I sometimes get back at the Peacock Court, cuts that are barely skin deep but still manage to put out a lot of blood. But there’s something a little bit more sinister about an old nail, and even after I’ve poured water on the cut and wiped away most of the blood, I worry about infection. I hurry over to the stump and return with a small belt pouch, searching through tiny packets of pigment. When I find the one I want—yellow—I sprinkle a little of the powder on his cut before wrapping a clean cloth bandage around it. Once the bandage is secure, I examine his hand one more time, turning it over in my own. His fingers start to entwine with mine, and I abruptly pull back.
What was that? Li Wei asks when I tuck the packet back into my pouch.
It’s pigment for a special type of paint. We make the color from a root that also has medicinal properties. I saw my master use it once on another wound. It will prevent infection. I don’t tell him how valuable the pigment is and that I’m not even sup- posed to be bringing it out with me on my observations. It’ll be a while before our masters do inventory, and I hope I’ll have some reason for explaining why I’m low.
Won’t you get in trouble for interfering? Li Wei asks. With a miner?
His words startle me. Everything happened so fast that I didn’t even really have a chance to think about what I was doing. I just broke our primary commandment, interfering when we’re only supposed to be observing. I’d be in serious trouble if my master or any of the others found out.
If I get in trouble, so be it, I say at last. I make my own decisions.
That’s not what I remember. A moment later, he realizes how mean that was. I’m sorry. His hands waver again before he asks: I suppose you’ll have to tell them about my father? That he’s going blind?
Li Wei is right. Technically, as part of my duty, I should re- port back everything I observed—including their discussion. I can tell that as much as it pains him, Li Wei secretly wants me to report on his father. It will take the burden of responsibility away and finally get Bao removed from the mines and the danger there. I think about the old man’s words, about holding on to his pride. And then I think about Zhang Jing and her own fears of being found out. Slowly, I shake my head.
No, I won’t tell. I hesitate before continuing on. And you shouldn’t be so hard on him. He’s just trying to do what he’s always done. It’s noble.
Li Wei stares at me incredulously. Noble? He’s going to get himself killed!
He’s providing for others, I insist.
Providing? he asks, still outraged. We slave away, putting our lives at risk and our own dreams aside so that we can feed everyone else. We have the entire village’s hopes and fears resting on our shoulders. If we don’t work, they starve. That’s not providing. That’s certainly not noble. That’s being given no choice. That’s being trapped. You’ve been with the artists so long, you’ve forgotten what it’s like for the rest of us.
That’s not fair, I say, feeling my own anger rise. You know the job we do is vital to the village’s survival. And of course I know what it’s like for the miners! That’s the whole point of my job: observing everyone.
Observing is not the same as experiencing. Li Wei gestures angrily to my stump. You sit there and judge others from a safe distance every day. You assume because you watch us, you understand us. But you don’t. If you did, you never would have—
He can’t finish, so I do. Bettered myself? Accepted a position that raised my sister and me out of that hovel and gave us a place of honor and comfort? One that allowed me to actually use my talents? What is so wrong with wanting to improve my life?
He doesn’t speak for several moments. Then: Did it, Fei? Did it improve your life?
I think back to lazy summer days, lying in the grass with him, our hands linked as we talked about the future. I only ran errands for the artists back then. It wasn’t until I was offered an official apprenticeship that my status in the village changed, raising me up from a miner’s family to Elder Chen’s successor. My parents had just died, and Zhang Jing and I were living in a small, ramshackle place, given the barest of rations while waiting for the results of the testing we’d undergone at the Peacock Court in order to be accepted. The elders so coveted my talents that they took Zhang Jing on as well, though her skills were less than mine. That move gave me everything I could ever have wanted, with one exception: Artists only marry other artists.
Did it improve your life? Li Wei asks again.
In most ways, I say at last, hating the pain I see flash through his eyes. But what could we do? You know I had to take the opportunity. And with it came sacrifices. That’s life, Li Wei. That’s the way it’s always been.
Maybe it’s time things change, he shoots back. He stalks away from me just as other miners begin emerging from the main entrance for lunch. I watch him until the crowd swallows him, wondering what exactly he meant should change. The system that traps Bao and others in the mines? Or the one that has kept Li Wei and me apart? After a moment, I realize that they are one and the same.
As the miners settle down in various clusters, eating and talking, I flit about them as unobtrusively as possible, trying to watch conversations and gather all the information I can—and trying not to think about what Li Wei said. A busy time like this one is when our observing-without-interfering mandate is most important.
When I return to my stump, I do a double take when I dis- cover that someone has taken a knife to its surface. What was previously simply flat and weathered has now been carved up with a chrysanthemum design—a really remarkable one. Carving is not a trade cultivated very much at my school, but my artistic eye can’t help but notice the skill and detail that has gone into every single petal of this king of flowers—a flower I’ve only ever seen in books. These chrysanthemums are beautiful, and the fact that they’ve been created in such a short time makes them even more amazing.
I sigh, knowing where they came from. Throughout our youth, whenever we had a dispute, Li Wei and I would apologize to each other by exchanging gifts. Mine would be in the form of drawings, crudely done with whatever natural supplies I could find. His would always be carvings. There was only one time the exchange didn’t happen, the day I told him I was accepting the apprentice position and would never be able to marry him. We argued then, and after the fact, I painted chrysanthemums out- side his door as a peace offering. Nothing ever came in return.
I touch these carved ones now, amazed at how his skill has progressed in the last two years. Bittersweet memories cling to me, and then, reluctantly, I let go of them and continue my observation.
BOTH LI WEI AND HIS FATHER are on my mind that night when Zhang Jing and I return to the school. Seeing her reminds me of Bao and how both of them are trying so desperately to hide their blindness from the rest of the village. How many others are like that? How many other villagers are making a slow descent into darkness?
When we begin our evening work on the record of the day’s events, I have difficulty staying focused. My mind keeps wandering, making it difficult to paint the scenes I need to. Elder Chen notices as he strolls by.
Are you daydreaming again, Fei? he asks, not unkindly. Imagining beautiful colors and wonders that you’d rather be painting?
Yes, I lie, not willing to tell him what’s truly on my mind. I’m sorry, master. There is no excuse.
A mind like yours, one capable of appreciating and imagining beautiful things, is not a detriment, not by any means, he says. But unfortunately, it is not necessarily called for here. This is the fate we have been given.
I bow in acknowledgment. I will not go to bed until this piece is flawless.
The other girls are all asleep when I finally return to our dorm room. Once in bed, I realize I never got a chance to go over and check Zhang Jing’s work. By the time I finished with mine, I was so tired I probably wouldn’t have been much help anyway. We still have more work to do on the record in the morning, and I make a mental note to check her portion of it then. Sleep con- sumes me quickly, but I don’t find peace.
I dream I am walking in a field of pink orchids, just like I imagined earlier. They transform into chrysanthemums, and the richness of their petals is intoxicating, making me run my fingers through them. Soon I find myself walking out of the flower field and onto the path that runs by the cliff’s edge. It takes me to the supply line, where the crowd gathered this morning. They are here again, waiting for some important news. Only this time it’s me who stands on the crate, forced to deliver a terrible message to my fellow villagers. My hands move quickly as I sign the news, and I barely process what it is I’m telling them, only that it signifies a bleak future of worse conditions and no hope. When I finish, I find the courage to look out at the faces of the crowd, and I gasp at what I see.
All of them gaze up at me with blank eyes, their irises gone white. And even though their faces are lifted in my direction, it’s clear none of them can see me. Everyone around me is blind. Only I have been left with all my senses. Despair fills the villagers’ features, and they all open their mouths at the same time.
What happens next is like nothing I’ve ever experienced be- fore, a sensation that’s almost like a vibration and yet something more. It seems to reach a part of my brain I didn’t even know existed. I have no words for it, no way to articulate this experience. The villagers open their mouths wider, and the sensation grows more intense, pulsing in my ears. My head begins to ache. Then, as one, they all shut their mouths. The sensation abruptly stops, and all is still. I feel a pull in my chest, as though I am reaching out to someone or something far away.
And then my own vision goes black.
Panic fills me until I realize I’ve simply awakened and am looking around the girls’ bedroom of the dormitory. I sit up in bed, gasping, peering around me and waiting for my eyes to ad- just to the darkness. Faint moonlight trickles in from behind the window blinds, and eventually I can see well enough to make out my surroundings. Zhang Jing sleeps peacefully in the bed beside mine, and beyond her, the other girls are asleep as well.
But something is different. Something strange tugs at the edges of my senses as I search and take in the darkened room. I’m experiencing it again—that same sensation from the dream, that thing that’s almost like a vibration but not. Only it’s much less intense. It doesn’t make my head hurt, and it’s fleeting, coming and going. As I look down at Zhang Jing, I notice that the sensation I’m perceiving seems to be timed with her breathing. I study her for a while, watching and trying to understand what I’m experiencing.
I have no answers, only the nagging thought that I must be overtired. Finally, I snuggle back into bed and pull the covers over my head to block out the moonlight. The sensation diminishes. On impulse, I take my pillow and put it over my head, covering my ears, and the sensation fades so much that I’m finally able to ignore it enough to fall asleep. This time, I have no dreams.
Morning comes, and we are awakened in the usual way: by a servant standing in the hall, turning a crank connected to a device that makes our headboards shake. But something is different today. Accompanying the usual vibration is more of that strange sensation, which I find shocking. It’s still with me. What I perceive now, as my bed frame taps against the wall, has a different quality to it. This is sharp and short compared to the long, drawn-out phenomenon created when the crowd opened their mouths. I kneel down, studying the shaking frame, trying to understand how it’s creating this other effect. Zhang Jing taps my arm, and I jump in surprise.
What are you doing? she signs.
What is that? I ask, gesturing to the bed. She looks at me, puzzled, and I notice the servants have stopped turning the crank. Gingerly, I shake the frame so that it hits the wall. To my surprise, I recreate the effect to a lesser extent and immediately look to Zhang Jing for explanation. What is that? I repeat.
What is what? she asks, completely baffled.
I strike the wall with more force from the bed, making the effect more intense. But Zhang Jing doesn’t seem to notice. She only looks more and more confused.
You don’t notice it? I ask.
She frowns. Is the bed broken?
The other girls have dressed, and some are already on their way to breakfast. Zhang Jing and I hurry to follow suit, carefully checking each other over to make sure our robes are straight and hair is pinned in place. We have the same fine, black hair, and it often escapes its pins. She can tell I’m still troubled and asks me if I’m okay as we walk to the dining room, but all I can do is shake my head by way of answer. Part of it is because I have no way to explain what I’m feeling. And the other part is that I very quickly become too overwhelmed to talk anymore.
Everywhere we go, everything we do that morning, the foreign sensations follow me. They are caused by all sorts of things and come in all different forms. Two china cups hitting each other. The sliding of the door when the servants come through. Porridge splashing into bowls. Feet hitting the floor. People coughing. At first, I’m curious about what new sensation will come next, riveted as I watch cause and effect happening all around me. But soon my head is hurting again, and I’m lost in a sea of stimuli. I can’t process it all, and for once, I can barely eat. Only the conditioned knowledge of the importance of food drives me to finish my porridge.
When we go to the workroom, there are fewer sensations hitting me, but they’re still present as we all finish up yesterday’s record. Even my calligraphy brush touching canvas creates an effect, just barely perceptible. As I’m finishing up, a much more intense, more jarring sensation occurs—one that sets my teeth on
edge and causes me to look up in alarm. I quickly find its source: Another apprentice has dropped a ceramic pot of paint, making a terrible mess of both paint and shattered pieces. I’m the only one in the room, aside from those working immediately beside him, whose attention is drawn to the accident.
Increasingly agitated, I remember how covering my ears with the pillow last night reduced the stimuli. I put my hands over my ears now, and to my amazement, things mercifully fade once more. Even though the reprieve is welcome, my heart races as the implications slam into me. What I’m perceiving when two objects hit each other, the way my ears respond . . . it’s almost like the way the old writings describe . . .
. . . sound.
I immediately shake my head for even considering such a ridiculous thought. It’s ludicrous and impossible. Growing wings would be only slightly more farfetched.
You are unwell? Elder Chen’s hands sign in front of me.
I realize my hands are still pressed to my ears, and I quickly lower them. It’s just a headache, I lie. It’s nothing.
His sharp eyes take me in for a few moments and then turn to my work. Even I can see the imperfections. My mortification in- creases when he takes up the brush himself and repairs some of my sloppiness. When he finishes, he tells me, Stay back today and rest.
I feel my eyes widen in astonishment. We’ve been taught that doing one’s duty is crucial. Only the direst of illnesses should keep us in bed. The miners, whose work keeps us alive, never get days off.
Elder Chen smiles. You are clearly not yourself today. It’s written all over you. You are one of the most talented artists I have seen in a long time. I’d rather lose one day of labor than risk a long-term ailment. They will make you tea in the kitchen to help with your headache. Spend the duration of the day in rest and study.
There’s nothing to do but bow at the great act of generosity he is showing me. I’m embarrassed at being singled out but even more relieved not to have to face the blur of village activity.
Thank you, master, I tell him.
Who knows? he asks. Perhaps I will take a walk and keep watch at your post. If not, we still have your sister on watch over there, so that part of the mines won’t go unobserved.
My sister! At his words, a jolt of panic hits me. Master Chen’s presence tells me the other elders must be here as well. I didn’t have a chance to check Zhang Jing’s work last night and promised myself I’d do it this morning. I look across the room, and Elder Lian is strolling around, making her way to Zhang Jing’s canvas. Desperately, I search for some sort of distraction, something that will slow Elder Lian and allow me to save Zhang Jing like I always do. Maybe someone will faint from exhaustion. Maybe a servant will burst in with news of another food theft.
But none of that happens. Elder Lian comes to a stop beside my sister, and I am frozen where I stand, unable to help her. It is an unusual and terrifying role for me to be in. Zhang Jing appears calm, but I can see the fear in her eyes. I think she, like me, is ready for Elder Lian to turn on her in rage, to call her—and me—out for the deception we’ve been furthering. But that doesn’t happen either. Elder Lian sizes up my sister’s work for long, agonizing moments before finally moving on. I nearly fall over in my relief.
Things proceed as usual, and soon the apprentices are carrying the canvases to the village center. They move too quickly for me to get a good look at Zhang Jing’s portion, and I pray it was a good day for her. I wave goodbye to her and then heed Elder Chen’s instructions to go to the kitchen for tea. It’s rare for the elders or apprentices to set foot in there, and the servants scurry and bow to me as I wait. The clothing they wear is stained with grease and smoke, only a little better than what the miners wear. One of the cooks sets an iron kettle down heavily on the counter, and the resulting effect makes me wince and grit my teeth.
At last, an older servant deferentially brings me a cup of medicinal tea. Although she is too intimidated to make much in the way of eye contact, she nonetheless explains that I should drink the tea and go to bed. If my headache isn’t gone in six hours, I can return for more. I thank her and take the tea away, but I don’t go to my room to rest.
Instead, I head toward the school’s library, carefully sipping the tea as I walk. I haven’t been able to shake my earlier suspicions about sound, despite every reasonable part of me knowing it’s impossible. I decide this may be the only chance I have to figure out what’s happening to me, short of asking a person for help. And I know better than to do that. If I described what’s been happening to me, I’d be labeled insane.
I finish the tea as I enter the library. Immediately, I seek out the oldest section. It contains writings from when our people could still hear. I’ve skimmed them before, and there is one author in particular I’m seeking. Her words meant little to me in the past, but now they are perhaps my only hope.
The writer’s name was Feng Jie, and she was one of the last of our people to lose her hearing. Three of her scrolls are in the library, and I settle down with them, pleased that my headache has abated. I begin reading the first one:
I wish I was writing some great wisdom, some understanding of why this great tragedy is happening to us. But there is none.
I pause, contemplating her words. Throughout my life, the loss of our people’s hearing has always been referred to as a tragedy, but I’ve never really seen it that way. I haven’t really thought much about it at all since it’s hard to miss something you’ve never known.
Feng Jie continues: Those wiser than me have long sought answers for why hearing is disappearing, and their ponderings have come to nothing. I don’t expect to achieve what they could not. Instead, it is my intent here to record a memory of sound, for I fear what will happen to future generations if they have no knowledge of it. Already, children born today have no understanding when those few of us who still hear try to explain it. With each passing day, my hearing declines more and more. Sounds become fainter and fainter, softer and softer. Soon what is simply quiet will become silent.
And so I want to describe sound to those who don’t have it, so that the words will not be lost and so that those who will never hear have as close an understanding as they can. And perhaps someday, if sound returns, this will guide those who might have forgotten the words of sound.
Riveted, I feel my breath catch. This was why I sought out this scroll, what I remembered from my long-ago browsing. At the time, it had seemed fanciful, the idea of sound returning. But now . . .
Feng Jie’s writings go on to detail a list of sounds. Reading them is like trying to understand another language. I can’t even follow some of the words she uses to define other words.
When a small bell rings, the sound is high and sweet, clear and often staccato. It is a tinkling, almost like the babbling of a brook. When a large bell rings, the sound is deep and ponderous. It echoes in the soul, causing vibrations you can feel in your entire body.
A whistle is the sound made when you blow air between pursed lips. It is high-pitched and often continuous, unless you start and stop the airflow to create some tune. Whistling is also a primary component in birdsong, and their range far surpasses ours.
My mind struggles to hold on to all these new terms and assign them meaning. Ring. High. Staccato. Tinkling. Babbling. Deep. Echoes. Whistle. Pitch. Tune. Song.
All three of her scrolls are written this way, and I absorb as many new concepts as I can. I think back to what I already observed in this short morning. My bed frame was knocking against the wall. Zhang Jing’s breathing was quiet. The dish crashed loudly in the workroom. And the iron pot on the counter . . . was that a clang? Or a bang? What’s the difference?
As the afternoon wears on, my head is starting to hurt again—and it has nothing to do with sound but rather with the overload of knowledge from the scrolls, which I have now gone through several times in the hopes of memorizing them. Some of the concepts are so hard to understand that memorization is useless. Still, there is comfort in the terminology. It’s a way to reconcile this unknown sense with the ones I do know.
Something startles me from my study—a sound, I tell my- self, trying to use the terminology correctly. It seems neither particularly loud nor quiet, and I wonder if medium is a correct term for volume. Feng Jie didn’t mention it.
The sound came from the library door opening, and I look up to see Elder Chen entering. I quickly put the scroll away and get to my feet so that I can bow to him. He told me to spend the day in study, but I’m nervous he’ll ask what it is I’ve been researching.
You’re feeling better? he asks.
Yes, master, I say. Thank you for this day of rest.
He looks amused, and a soft sound comes from his throat, making me wonder which of Feng Jie’s words apply. Laugh? Chuckle? Giggle?
You didn’t rest much, from what I hear, he replies. The servants say you’ve spent most of the day in here. Even when you have a day off, you still work.
There was pleasure in it, master, I say, hoping to hide my purpose. Not all of it was serious reading. I used to spend much of my free time here too when I was your age. He pulls out a scroll, seemingly at random, and opens it, revealing images of fanciful creatures. He admires it a moment before returning it to its place. Those are the things I would read over and over—I was always off on an adventure with some fantastic beast. Dragons, pixius, phoenixes.
Something he has said stirs a memory, and I ask carefully, Isn’t there a story about pixius and our ancestors losing their hearing?
I’m not really interested in imaginary creatures, but my hope is that Elder Chen might say something about sound that could be of use to me. Still smiling at me, he nods.
Yes, just a story. One my mother used to tell me. Legend says the pixius used to roam our village long ago. Then they decided to rest and took away all the sounds on our mountain so that they could sleep in peace.
It’s a silly reason for losing our hearing, but no more outlandish than most. All sorts of stories abound about why hearing went away, many having to do with divine retribution. I hope Elder Chen will say more about sound disappearing, but as his thoughts turn inward, I can see he’s more caught up in the pixius than sound.
I always wanted to paint pixius, he remarks. Like winged lions. Can you even imagine? My master would chastise me for having my head in the clouds.
Seeing my surprise at that admission, he laughs again.
Yes, you aren’t the only one who daydreams. You remind me of myself at your age. He pauses, and that humor fades from his features. That’s why I want you to come with me.
He turns, and I follow quickly, my heart rate picking up. Has he found out about what’s happened to me? Has someone report- ed me? The thought is terrifying as I follow him back through the school. A part of me almost welcomes the chance to unburden this secret. Because while Feng Jie’s writings were full of information about hearing, there was no mention of how or why it might come back after being gone for generations. To my knowledge, no one has ever written about such a thing—because it’s never happened.
Elder Chen brings me to a small room usually reserved exclusively for the elders. There, inside, I see Zhang Jing standing before Elder Lian, with the other elders seated beyond them. One look at my sister tells me this isn’t about me at all.
Elder Lian is surprised by our presence. What is Fei doing here? I thought it appropriate she be present, Elder Chen responds. This has nothing to do with her, Elder Lian insists.
I am the only family she has, I quickly interject, even though
I know it’s impertinent. If she is in trouble, I need to know.
A gleam of triumph shows in Elder Lian’s eyes. You’ve known she has been going blind for some time, haven’t you?
I make no response.
There is no place for blindness among the artists, Elder Lian declares, looking back at Zhang Jing. You’ve lost your apprenticeship. You must gather your things and leave.
Zhang Jing cannot speak. In fact, she goes so pale I’m afraid she’ll pass out. My instinct is to comfort her, but instead I take a bold step toward Elder Lian. She’s not blind yet! I notice some of the other elders are holding up pieces of canvas: samples of Zhang Jing’s past work. Look at those. She still has skill. A blind person couldn’t do that.
They’re imprecise, Elder Lian argues. Flawed. We know you’ve been covering for her. We need perfection in the record, and that requires a perfect set of eyes.
She might get better, I protest. Elder Lian snickers in disbelief. I do not like the sound. It is harsh and ugly.
No one’s sight gets better, Elder Lian says. We all know that. Be grateful her vision is good enough to let her join the miners. At least that way she will be able to contribute. It’s better than begging.
An image of the beggars in the village’s center comes back to me, and I can practically see Zhang Jing among them. It makes me feel sick. But Zhang Jing joining the miners isn’t much better. I think about Li Wei and his father, how dangerous it is to be in the mines with limited vision. I think about how even then, the rations miners receive are smaller than what we get here. It was what drove the servant to steal for his family.
Don’t send her away, I say suddenly, addressing all the elders. There’s an opening among the servants, right? After yesterday’s theft? Let Zhang Jing take it. Please. Her vision is more than adequate to perform those kinds of duties.
I don’t know if that’s true or not. I’ve never thought much about what the servants do. I haven’t had to. But it has to be a better fate than mining or begging. The shock that meets me in Zhang Jing’s eyes suggests she disagrees, but I make a small gesture, urging her not to protest as the others deliberate.
The elders exchange glances, and it is Elder Chen who finally speaks. It’s true that we lost one of the cleaners yesterday. Zhang Jing needs a place, and a place has opened up. It is a fortunate thing. Balance, yes?
Elder Lian looks skeptical for a moment and then shrugs. I will allow it. Behind her hard exterior, I catch a glimpse of regret in her eyes. Maybe her initial decision to kick Zhang Jing out wasn’t born of cruelty so much as necessity.
Elder Lian pities what’s happened to my sister, and somehow that makes all this even worse.
The full impact of what I’ve just brought about hits me. My sister, a servant? Not just any servant—a cleaner? We’ve spent so much time as artist apprentices that I’ve come to take this lifestyle for granted. It’s demanding, but there is a prestige to it. There’s a pride in knowing our craft is what keeps the village orderly, that hundreds of years from now, our descendants will look upon what we’ve created and learn from it. Our art will endure when the rest of us are gone. Others rightly treat us with deference, just as the servants in the kitchen did earlier. I suddenly imagine Zhang Jing groveling as they did, bowing and avoiding eye contact with the other artists. Worse, I imagine her scrubbing the floor or doing some other demeaning task.
I see despair in Zhang Jing’s face, but she is nonetheless quick to give the proper response. She bows three times to Elder Chen. Thank you, master. It is a great honor. I will fulfill my new duties with as much dignity as I fulfilled my previous ones.
My heart sinks. Honor? There is no honor in this, but at least I will be able to sleep easy knowing my sister has a roof over her and food to eat. Elder Chen dismisses us with a small gesture, and after more bowing, we retreat to the hallway and head back to the girls’ dormitory.
Don’t worry, I tell Zhang Jing. Once your vision comes back, they will reinstate you in your apprenticeship.
She comes to a halt and shakes her head sadly. Fei, we both know that’s not going to happen. I must accept this miserable fate now.
Miserable? But you were grateful back there.
Of course, she says. I had to be for the sake of your honor after you pleaded for me. But I would have rather walked away with my dignity and gone to the mines than slink around in the shadows of my former position. As though making her point, a servant comes by pushing a broom, sweeping up dirt tracked in from the apprentices. The noise made by the broom’s bristles is interesting, but my grief and outrage are too great to give it much thought. I can understand Zhang Jing’s disappointment, but how could she prefer to be out on the streets? This is a good place for you, I insist. You’ll be safe here. Fed. Protected.
I suppose that’s something, says Zhang Jing. At least this way I won’t have to lie anymore, and I’ll be able to do tasks around here for a long time, even if my vision gets worse. Then I really will have to find another place.
Don’t say that, I protest, unable to handle the thought.
Everything will be okay as long as we’re together.
I hope so, she tells me, just before pulling me into a hug. When we get back to our room, we find another servant
waiting for us. I’m here to show you to your new quarters, she explains to Zhang Jing. You will sleep with the servants now.
Zhang Jing’s earlier calm turns to embarrassment, and her face reddens. The other girls stop and gawk at this news, and it’s all I can do not to shake my fists or kick something in my rage. I hadn’t expected this when I made my plea. Zhang Jing’s demotion was bad enough, and now she’s also being taken from me. Who will look after her without me by her side? Ever since our parents died, we’ve been inseparable. How can I go on without her, especially in this new and terrifying time? How am I sup- posed to contend with this plague of sounds that’s bombarding me if I don’t have her to rely on?
Zhang Jing holds her head up, mustering every last bit of pride she has as she gathers her few possessions and ignores the covert conversations that are flashing around the room as our peers take in this new development. I want to tell them this is only temporary. . . but I can say and do nothing as the servant escorts her out. Zhang Jing gives me one last sweet smile before she steps out the door, and for the first time in my life, I feel truly alone.