-- by Reya Panchmatia (11 years old)
Inspired by Patrick Yee's Cherry Blossoms Bloom and true accounts of children left behind in rural towns of the People's Republic of China, Reya writes about the agony of Mei and Kwan as they longed for the return of their parents. The fizzling and relighting of hope, the mixed feelings and layers of confusing emotions, as the siblings finally meet their parents again after a long wait of many months.
Mei sighed as she stroked her cat Snow’s soft and fluffy fur.
As she gazed at the delicate pink cherry blossoms on the branches, in came a gust of wind, and some flowers drifted down like pink snowflakes. She inhaled the faint, sweet fragrance of the cherry blossoms as a few drifted past her. Reaching up, she caught hold of one as it fell off a long branch extended over her head.
Leaning against the wall of her house, she examined the beautiful paper-thin petals. Cherry blossoms symbolized hope, she thought. Well, at that moment, it seemed as though Mei was running out of hope.
Every year, her parents would leave their home for extensive periods, leaving Mei and her brother at home to fend for their own. For work in the city, they said, and for a better life, a better life for Mei and her brother, Kwan.
Papa and mama usually only returned after a few months, sometimes after almost a year. Both their departure and arrival seemed like well-kept secrets, often unannounced.
Mei brushed her silky black hair out of her eyes and stood up. She couldn’t just sit there staring blankly at this beautiful spectacle, she had things to do. Reluctant, she headed down and began to cook dinner, her stomach rumbling as she imagined the meal she was about to prepare.
It was to be a hot meal of the family’s favourite foods, freshly dug potatoes with carrot stew, stir fried hand-plucked leafy greens, and a bowl of piping hot tomato egg-drop soup.
Adept at cooking by now, Mei swiftly whipped up the meal for herself and her brother, upon which, the two cold and hungry children wolfed down hungrily.
Life at the rural village where Mei and Kwan lived was simple to a tee. There was farming to do, a village school an hour’s walk away to attend, then some housework and tending of farm animals. The night sky, however, was a daily magnificent display of stars and their constellations, offering Mei and Kwan much solace from their mundane life.
Later that night, Mei climbed back up to the roof and sat down, gazing up at the stars. The tiny pinpricks of light were peppered all across the sky. She sat, perched on the roof, wondering when her parents would return. She had not seen them for almost ten months now, she thought, as she gazed dreamily at the stars.
Life continued as usual for the next few weeks. The two children would occasionally go to their grandparent’s house, staying there for a day or two before returning home.
About a month passed, before something out of the ordinary happened. Mei was again on the roof with Snow gazing at the sunset, when something jerked her out of her thoughts.
She noticed two figures, walking up the winding path that led up to their small, rickety house. She could just barely make out their faces, but that was enough to tell who they were.
She leapt inside, so eager that she forgot that Snow was sitting on her lap. He yowled indignantly as he nearly fell off the roof, abandoned in Mei’s haste.
Mei made her way to the door, barely pausing and almost tripping over a stray bowl while she was at it. She ran outside to get a look at the two figures, silhouetted against the magnificent orange and pink sunset.
Her parents had arrived.
Laden with bags and looking exhausted and dishevelled, they stood at the doorway, shuffling their feet and shifting the bags from hand to hand.
Now that her parents were finally in front of her, Mei’s enthusiasm suddenly turned cold. She had no idea how to react. Should she hug them? Yell at them? Give them the silent treatment?
She stood there, hands hanging limply at her sides with no idea what to do with them. She stood facing them, a little awkwardly, until someone broke the silence.
Her mother cleared her throat, shifting her position a little and almost dropping one of the countless heavy bags she was carrying. Her voice cracked a little as she asked Mei, “So…, Mei, how have you been?”
All the life seemed to go out of Mei at that point. There was no energy left to hug her or to yell at her. All she could do was just stand there and stare.
Mei’s brother seemed to have heard what was going on downstairs and made his way towards the entrance, pausing when he noticed who was standing at the door. Unlike Mei, when he saw the two figures standing at the door, he knew exactly how to react.
The rage in his eyes soon became apparent. Like a matchstick, lit suddenly with no warning, the fire burst alive. His voice shaking with anger as he spoke.
“You have the nerve, after leaving us here for who knows how long, to just waltz in and expect us to be happy about it? Well, you’re wrong.”
With just these few sentences, he turned around and stormed back indoors.
With her brother gone, Mei felt lost. Unsure of what to do, she merely mumbled something about how she was glad to see them and stepped inside, her parents following.
Mei sat, nervously bouncing up and down, perched on a large piece of wood fashioned out of a tree trunk, just the right shape and size to use as a bench. She stared at the cherry blossom trees outside the window. Her parents were laying down the mountains of heavy bags they had brought with them. Kwan was somewhere else. Probably on the roof.
Mei sighed and made her way up to the rooftop, squeezing out of the window onto the stone ledge. And, sure enough, he was perched there, gazing at the cherry blossom branches swaying slowly in the wind. A fluffy white ball, which Mei instinctively knew to be Snow, was snuggled up in his lap.
She spoke softly as she tickled his collar bone, “Come on, they’re waiting.”
Mei hurried towards their parents, with her brother trudging behind her unwillingly. When they reached their parents, they stared at each other awkwardly. The fragile silence was broken by Mei’s father. “Have you been managing well?”
The anger in Kwan’s eyes was relit. He looked as though he was about to explode in anger again any minute.
Mei shot him a look and he sighed, looking a little less angry. The anger had dissolved into what looked more like sadness, or longing.
Mei knew how he felt, for she herself was a bundle of nerves. The anger and sadness she felt within her was bewildering. At the same time, she wanted more than anything to go back to how they used to be as a happy family.
Mei didn’t know why, but she felt she had an obligation to fix this. In an attempt to continue the conversation, Mei asked, “Are you coming home for good or did you just come to visit?”
“Just a few weeks, Mei,” Mama uttered, “there are bills to pay and money to make,” she explained. Upon hearing this, Mei was crestfallen.
Trying to uplift Mei’s and Kwan’s mood, Mei’s mother asked, “We brought some small gifts for you, would you like to take a look at them?”
Mei wanted to try to resolve things with her parents, so she picked up the nearest bag, taking out a small bundle of clothes that had been placed inside. She held the clothes up against herself, sizing them up to see if they would fit. Mei thanked her parents with a smile and sat back down, motioning for Kwan to open one of the bags as well.
Begrudgingly, he picked up a bag and dumped the contents on the floor, picking them up halfheartedly. He sighed, put the items back in the bag and stood up, leaving the room.
Mei carefully placed her clothes back in the bag before following him up to the rooftop, where he sat stroking Snow and glaring at the night sky as though it had somehow wronged him.
Mei sat down next to him and spoke up. “Why don’t you get along with them anymore? I know you want to.”
He sighed. “I’m just angry at them for leaving us here all alone. I know they went to earn money, but it was still really hard for us alone.”
For a moment, neither of them spoke. The only sound came from Snow as she purred softly, nuzzling against the two of them. Then, he spoke. “I guess I’m not really mad at them anymore. I want to apologise, but I don't really know how.”
“Just tell them how you feel,” Mei advised, heading back inside the house.
The next morning, just like it always did, the sun rose and painted the sky in an ocean of vibrant pinks, purples and oranges. Mei sat on the rooftop with Snow, gazing at the magnificent sunrise.
Below, she saw her brother perched on the front steps of the house, talking to Papa and Mama just a little way behind him. She smiled.
Her happiness only further increased as she saw her brother standing up, and her parents pulling him forward into their embrace.
At that very moment, something else caught Mei’s attention. The cherry blossoms, hanging off the long branches extended over her head. As one delicate pink blossom drifted down and landed on her flat palm, she smiled.
Hope was flooding back into her life.