In Nature, There Are Unexpected Storms, and in Life Unpredictable Vicissitudes
The shout rang out across the peaceful embankment.
Sitting on a wooden bench, Lotus stared at the grayish-yellow sea. There were no ships in sight. The tickling hands of the wind made ripples on the water, and clouds floated in a slate-blue sky like massive cotton flowers. In the vast space between the heavens and the waves, seagulls circled around freely, squealing in glee. Closer to the shore, white egrets and colorfully feathered ducks played among the rocks.
“Wei, you!” the shout thundered again.
Startled, she looked up into the broad face of a young policeman. His narrowed eyes glared at her.
Lotus looked around. A young couple, both in suits, were leaning against the seawall at the edge of the promenade, also gazing out to the sea, their heads touching, arms crossed behind their backs. Nearby, a grandma was chasing a little boy who toddled away from her, giggling, his bare bottom wiggling in his split pants. An old man was walking his birds, carrying them in a bamboo cage.
“Me?” Lotus asked.
“Yes, you!” he barked. “Show me your Three Documents.”
She glanced up at the policeman. The shining badge on his hat gleamed officiously.
“Don’t pretend you didn’t hear me. Show me your documents: ID card, resident’s permit, and work permit.”
Lotus saw stars, as if his words had clubbed her. Biting her lower lip, she searched in her fake leather bag and fished out her resident permit, which she had obtained by sleeping with the district security officer. As for her ID card, knowing its importance, she never carried it with her, in case she lost it.
The policeman snatched the resident permit from her hand. “How about the other documents?”
“I, er…” she began, aware of the drumming of her heart. Fingering the jade beads of her bracelet, she took a quick calming breath. “I left them at home.”
“Where is your home?”
After a moment’s hesitation, she replied: “One hundred ten East Station Road.”
The policeman let out a laugh, loud and dry like a wild duck quacking. “East Station Road, indeed! Come off it. Besides, no decent girl would dress up like this in the morning.”
Lotus looked down at her sleeveless black fishnet top and short skirt. This morning, she had simply thrown a cardigan over last night’s outfit. She buttoned it up.
“What are you doing here? Offering a massage?” he asked with an arch smile.
“Nothing,” she said resentfully. “I’m just resting.”
He grabbed her wrist. “Come on,” he snapped. “Don’t sit here like a Buddha.”
Lotus instinctively held on to the bench but the officer’s iron claw pulled her up. He dragged her toward a pickup truck parked farther up on the embankment.
A crowd started to gather, obviously enjoying the spectacle. Lotus could make out the young lovers, the toddler, his grandmother, and the old man holding his birdcage. Their stares pierced her flesh. She hated them for watching her, and she wished for a crack in the ground she could disappear into.
Out of the corner of her eye, Lotus saw an older policeman, standing by the truck.
“Now, now, silly girl,” he chided in a hoarse smoker’s voice. “This is no place to hustle. Our provincial governor is coming here for the millennium gala this afternoon. Didn’t you know?”
Lotus moved her dry lips, but no words came out. What could she say? Argue that she wasn’t trying to hustle or explain that she never read the papers?
“Get into the truck. Squat there, hands on your head,” the young policeman ordered as he pushed Lotus into the vehicle.
She stumbled and fell flat on the metal floor. Her tongue caught between her teeth. She tasted blood. The truck was already filled with three young women, most likely working girls, in scanty dresses, their made-up faces spoiled by tears and sweat; an old beggar in a tattered jacket with matted hair; and four oily-haired thugs. They all squatted against the sides of the truck, their hands on the backs of their heads.
Lotus picked herself up, wiping her mouth clean with one hand. A girl, her eyes as red as her body-hugging dress, moved aside to make room for her. Lotus nodded gratefully and leaned heavily against the side of the truck. Fleetingly she toyed with the idea of escaping, but thought better of it. “Please, Guanyin Buddha, bless me,” she murmured. “Whatever happens, please don’t send me back home! Not like this.”
Several policemen were standing around behind the pickup truck. She couldn’t see them, but could smell the smoke from their cigarettes and hear their conversations. The older policeman complained about his teenage son spending far too much time playing computer games. Another policeman half complained about and half praised his daughter’s obsession with painting.
Lotus had the urge to turn her head to look but didn’t dare. How could they stand around and talk about such mundane things while her life was being turned upside down?
Today, the first day of the millennium, ought to have been an auspicious day, she thought bitterly. She hadn’t even meant to come here, but after wiring money home from the main post office, she had walked past the dense forest of skyscrapers in the city center and somehow wandered toward the sea, pulled by the faint scent of salt. The view from the embankment delighted her eyes. She found a bench and perched on it, drinking in the unusual luxury of space and quiet.
Even after three years of living in the city, Lotus had never set foot here. Trapped in her massage parlor, day in and day out, she usually forgot that Shenzhen was on the coast.
Lotus had first learned about the city and the sea from watching television at a neighbor’s house back in Mulberry Gully, a village up in the mountains, more than a thousand miles north of Shenzhen. Everyone had been so excited when her neighbor Luo Yijun’s family brought back a magic box called a dianshi—electric screen. The Luos’ yard was packed with enthusiastic viewers craning their necks for a better view of the moving pictures on the box. The unceasing stream of visitors bothered the family so much that they locked up the dianshi after a week and only took it out for public viewing during festivals. But Luo Yijun, her classmate, would invite Lotus to watch it from time to time. Once, they saw a show about Shenzhen, the city just north of Hong Kong. How glorious it looked! Palm trees, buildings clad in shining mirrors soaring into the sky, colorful neon signs that were dazzling to the eye, and large ships docking on blue water in a busy harbor.
How stupid and naïve she was!
It was a cool January morning, yet everyone in the truck was sweating. No one dared to talk. The shadows of the palm trees cast woven patterns on the truck’s metal floor. The crowds on the embankment were dispersing as lunchtime approached.
Lotus saw everything through the eyes of a detached observer. From the back of the truck she could see, on the roadside, a giant poster of Deng Xiaoping, China’s top boss, who had introduced the economic reforms. The old man, one of his eyes larger than the other, waved a hand. Beneath the picture, a slogan blazed in red characters: “The policy of reform will not change for a hundred years.”
The policy had allowed peasants like herself to come to the city to work and make money. Lotus hadn’t needed to wire the money home today. Spring Festival was still five weeks away. As a child, she had lived for the festival, for celebrating the lunar New Year and for the family reunion dinner on New Year’s Eve. It was the only day in the year when their dining table was piled with rare delicacies. After dinner, when the moon climbed over the tips of the Chinese scholar trees, she would go out into the yard to set off firecrackers with the boys while the other girls watched from a safe distance, covering their ears to muffle the noise. Holding her breath, she would light the fuse on a string of firecrackers tied to a long bamboo stick. The string would jump to life, cracking and spitting fire and noise, like a miniature dragon. She was never sure if the deafening roar would really drive away evil spirits, as her grandma claimed, but it definitely drove her all the way up to Ninth Heaven.
Usually, the western New Year wasn’t such a big deal, but last night, fireworks of all sorts had decorated the Shenzhen sky for hours for the millennium celebration. Lotus’s heart was suddenly suffused with a longing for home and a pang of guilt for not being with her family. But she didn’t want to go home before she could win back her face in front of her family and prove that her journey into the city had been worthwhile, not the disaster it had proved to be. Her homesickness had prompted a trip to the post office this morning. The five thousand yuan she had sent home—more than her father could make from several years tilling the land—would ensure a fat New Year for them.
A voice from outside the truck interrupted her thoughts.
“Done, guys, we’re done. Let’s get out of here.”
“Okay then,” said the older policeman.
Lotus heard the coughing of the truck engine. The broad-faced young policeman jumped on the back of the truck with a colleague and slammed the door shut. The vehicle lurched ahead.
Lotus grabbed tightly on to the edge of the truck. She looked back as the sea grew smaller and smaller.
Copyright © 2017 by Lijia Zhang