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She saw him walking towards her, along the narrow path between the sunken rice fields. White shirt, smart pants, pale skin. He looked out of place. Observant, she noticed his polished shoes were already scuffed from the soil and felt she was to blame, comparing her dusty feet in worn sandals. The small temple where she waited had been built next to the banyan tree that was now hugging the makeshift building in its deathly embrace. A long time ago, when her family first arrived from FuJian, they had erected this structure, placing the ashes of their ancestors within. The aroma of incense clung to the walls, dark from centuries of prayers and offerings, ghost money swallowed by the flames for the afterlife, rising as dancing black sparks on the upward current and falling as ash.
He stood before her now, as she leaned against the doorway. The air was heavy with water that trickled down her face, her long straight black hair clinging stickily to her neck. She wondered how he always looked cool and well-pressed, even in the afternoon heat and humidity.
“Why?” he asked her. “Why didn't you turn up for the exam?”
She knew she had disappointed him; he had encouraged her, even met with her parents. They had beamed as he had praised their youngest daughter, what a bright student she was, he said, and they listened, proud yet sad. Sad, because her four older siblings had already left the small farm in search of pastures new, university or business or marriage, traveling abroad, returning at odd times, the pretense of dutiful children, itching to leave at the earliest possible opportunity, relieved that their youngest sister was still at home, absolving them from guilt. They would arrive with gifts and bright clothes, pleasing their parents with their presence and laughter and grandchildren, talking about old times, sitting around the table on low stools, uncomfortable. Then as soon as they had convinced themselves that their parents were fine, and anyway they had handed over cash to help out, they would leap up in a flurry of excitement, throw their belongings into the trunk or back seat of a cab, sometimes not even packing, so eager to escape, noisy like the cicadas that sang throughout the wet summer months, then disappearing, the house afterwards still and silent.
She noticed her teacher's quick glance around the tiny dark room where their ancient culture stubbornly persisted, statues of the gods blackened by soot. The thin spiral of rising smoke always conjured up images of death and celebration in her mind, intertwined as if in an infinite loop. He had told his students many times he didn't believe in ghosts, sneered at superstitions, wanted his generation to move forward and away from the crazy old traditions. She had smiled, in awe, had returned to the small farm after class, looking at her parents, wishing they were modern like her teacher with his spotless ironed clothes and clever words.
She faced him as if uncurling from her inferiority complex, no longer intimidated by his knowledge of the world, of which she knew little.
“I changed my mind.” It sounded arrogant, she thought, disrespectful, so she softened her voice, looked at her feet, instead of staring at him boldly in the eye.
“You are the brightest student we've had for years. You could have won a place at National Taiwan University!”
“I'm grateful, for your help. I'm sorry.”
“Why. Why did you change your mind?” He relaxed now It was done. The exam and hopes of university had passed. He had wanted to help her escape this tough life in the rice fields.
She crossed her thin arms and wondered whether to tell him the truth.
Perhaps he would laugh if she told him that one day last week, while sweeping the house, she had felt a hand rest on her shoulder, yet the room was empty. It had been strangely comforting, the hand of her grandfather, she guessed, whom she had been close to when he lived. She could feel his presence, real, beside her. Walking outside, shielding her eyes from the bright sunlight, she saw her parents ankle deep in the water, bending over, small and wiry, brown and wizened from the tough outdoor work, wide-brimmed bamboo hats, moving slowly but purposely through the damp field, taking small steps, unhurried. The flat low-lying land stretched before her to the ridge of rugged mountains in the far distance. Then she sensed the centuries of ancestors, who had slowly and purposely walked through the fields before them. Through poverty, through war, through occupation, they had remained steadfast to the land. She knew, if she left, the last child, the land would probably be sold. Aware now, this responsibility was on her shoulders, this continuity, this fine thread that lay between the living and the dead, the future and the past. There was only this moment in time. She understood, finally, that this was all that mattered.
She looked up at her teacher again.
“I need to help my parents,” was all she said, simply.
He sighed, removing his glasses to wipe his face, and she noticed his wrinkles, his tiredness; saw his humanness for the first time. They watched silently together as a little egret glided close, white with golden slippers, piercing the air with its long slender bill, until the moment was disrupted by his phone, demanding his attention.
He replaced his glasses, no longer vulnerable but brisk.
“There's still next year, don't give up. Think about it, then come and see me.”
She nodded, her arms still folded, “Yes, yes I will.” They both knew she was faking her enthusiasm. He turned to leave, returning along the narrow path to the crumbling road where his scooter was parked, disappearing into the distance, while the egret circled and landed gracefully on a branch of the banyan tree.
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