Prose Staff Feature: Lily of the Red River Valley - Chiu-yi Rachel Ngai

They say to never start a story with ‘once upon a time’, but how else would you start one like this? Once upon a time, it was a dark and stormy night, and the roses were crying rainwater tears. Once upon a time, children ran and played their way through and across these woods. Once upon a time, there was an empty city, and once upon a time, there was life.

His first memory was of running—through trees, grass that reached his hips, a wasp hoard of people in the opposite direction shoving against him. He fell into dreams lonely and long, chasm voids in his memory, blocking out watermelon smiles and pressed wine eyes. Visions of snakes curling around trees, an apple held in death white hands, this gift of wretched shame and intellect. Once upon a time, there was a boy, and once upon a time, light could be found in shadows.

You can trust a child with anything and nothing at all. You can feed your words, your thoughts, your heart and soul into the unerring ears of a secret keeper who cannot repeat them with ill intent.

The boy liked to pick at crystals and snow, white flower petals and blunted shards of grass. He liked to press them against the sky and see the way blunted light flickered and passed through. Many wet summer days were spent waiting for the rain to thin, just to grasp a glimpse of colour on the whitewashed walls. In his still wonder-filled eyes and mind preserved in the golden amber of childhood, he lay on brittle stone and dreamed his explanations for the universe.

The sky is blue because it’s the colour of my sister’s eyes, and she makes me patterns in the clouds when I ask nicely enough. Cold water tastes sharp because that’s where the ice is. Hot water is round because round is the opposite of sharp. We have ceilings to catch balloons when we let go accidentally, and we have drawers to hide candy in, and we have carpet so we can pretend it’s grass when the weather is bad and we can’t go outside.

As the boy grew into his gangly limbs and his glasses too big for his face, he stopped dreaming. His sleep was deep and restless, the only thing he could do to keep from collapsing in the middle of soccer practice. He grew to hate grass, and flowers, and dirt, all his favourite things reduced to things that stained his knees when he tripped and fell. He was the first to leave his hometown in the middle of nowhere, the first of many, the trendsetter. A few decades later, the older folk would mutter his name with disdain: the one who left those who raised him and never looked back, a pied piper dragging children away from home with empty contemporary promises.

The boy, the man now, spilled his hometown secrets like a leaky pot on a stove, extinguishing the fire below it. By the time he was empty, the fires were still burning, burning and charring and deadly. So like a child who scraped their knees on a soccer field, he went home on shaky feet, searching for comfort and a warm drink. He returned to barren walls crumbling a little more with each tiny gust of wind. The boy stood in the middle of the dying light and watched the last amber rays flicker into shadow.

An ending like the deadly immortalization of grass in winter, its final moments preserved in clear ice, casting rainbows of light on concrete ground.

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