He had bought a dozen bao from the grocery house that morning and eaten them all himself. He went to the grocery house often, and that road felt more natural to him than the road to his own home. Down the street, turn left at the third flag. He remembered to duck when the men singing Liuyang He—Liuyang River—walked by in their uniforms.
Brush past the fourth flag. Second alleyway. Knock on the window of the rundown apartment building. The woman there made bao, and he worked for her, cleaning her kitchen, smudging her windows. He earned money there, used most of it to buy food from her. Put the rest in his pocket for later. It was Christmas soon, and he thought he might buy her a present. They were friends. She called him didi, little brother. He called her jie jie, big sister. They called the various other people who came to buy bao wei xian, dangerous. He didn’t really know why.
He had gone to school after breakfast, wearing his red backpack like always. There were at least five books inside, but they were only supposed to use one in class, for quotes and references and images to use in essays. The other kids in his group were good at essays, and they always scored better than he did even though he didn’t think they were very good at writing. He thought it must have been their effort that made the teacher give them such good scores. They did always stay in class at lunch and after school. He knew the teacher liked them because she never punished them, even when they forgot their math homework or had dirt under their fingernails. Their fathers were farmers, like the teacher’s brother and the teacher’s father and the teacher’s sons. His father was dead.
At lunch on this particular day, not all the kids stayed in the classroom with the teacher. Some of them came outside to talk to the other kids. One girl, Lian, came up to him. She handed him a faded red bandana with Hong Wei Bing, Red Guard, embroidered across it.
“Good morning, Yu,” she said. “Take this. It’s for your arm.”
“Yes, you wear it on your arm, unless you have better armband material at home. We already gave out all the other ones.”
“What’s it for?”
“Our society. It’s for solidarity. We’re supposed to stand together.”
“Together? Against what?”
“Evil, I guess,” she said. “My mom tells me the Red Guards are the future. We’re not really fully-fledged members yet, of course. We’re too young. We have to wait until we’re thirteen.”
“Maybe we shouldn’t worry about it then.”
“Red Guards are the future, Yu! Don’t you want to be part of the future?”
“I’m happy with the present.”
Yu refused the armband only because he remembered seeing his father do the same a year or so ago. It was one of his last memories of his father. It was precious to him.
That night, he went back to jie jie’s house and bought a few more bao. He didn’t know what else to eat, didn’t know even where her pork came from, but he was glad when she didn’t ask him anything about his day. They sat close to the wall and ate together, while Yu slipped bits of uneaten bun into his pocket and heard boots crunch by outside the door followed by the low melody of Liuyang He, sung in gravelly voices by people who forgot they were doing it.
Jie jie gave him a book that day. She said it was by his father, and it was about astronomy. She said that sometimes when the rotation of the Earth was just right, you could see Mars from your backyard. You could watch it hang to the left of the North Star for as long as you wanted and know that the little Red Planet blinking like a stoplight or the bleary eye of a dragon would be gone in the morning.
Yu’s father had been an astronomy professor, one of the best in the nation. He had taught Yu to believe in big things, things like supernovas and galaxies and the fact that one day the sun would explode. He had taught Yu that these big things were the most long-lasting things, and they would live longer than he would, and longer than Yu would, and longer than all of Yu’s teacher’s sons would.
Yu thanked jie jie and walked home. There were no singers to dodge on the way, and he didn’t know why until he arrived at his front door. They, along with a group of kids his age, were standing there.
Some of the kids were holding big sticks. One looked on the point of breaking one of the windows. Yu wasn’t sure what they were doing, but he recognized one of them. Lian was there with the others, and they were all wearing the same red armbands and beige coats.
For a moment, Yu hesitated, unsure whether to ask them what they were doing or retreat like his father had once told him to do when confronted with a group of people all in the same uniform. His instinct of curiosity won out, and he stepped forward.
“Lian, what are you doing?”
She and the rest of them turned around.
“We’re looking for your mother. Where is she?”
“My mother? She isn’t home.”
“Where is she?”
Yu didn’t answer immediately. What did it matter to Lian where his mother was? In fact, his mother was helping his grandmother move to Taiwan and would be gone for a few days, but Yu didn’t know the exact locations.
So he said, “I’m not sure.”
“Liar,” said one of the other boys. Yu recognized him from the time his class took a trip to the upper school. This boy was at least six years older than Yu and Lian. “If you don’t know where your mother is, you can come with us instead.”
They pressed in close around him.
“I’m not lying,” said Yu, and he wasn’t, really.
“You can explain that to Hong Lao Shi,” said another girl. Teacher Hong. Teacher Hong was his homeroom teacher, the one who graded Lian and her friends so leniently on the essays. He thought maybe she would listen to him, so when the singers and the kids swarmed around him and pushed him down the street, he didn’t resist.
They came eventually to the school again, where Hong Lao Shi was sitting at her desk. She looked up when they came in, and Lian briefly explained the situation.
“His mother had her own business for years. Never paid the government. Fled with his grandmother.”
The teacher frowned. “Yu, is this true?”
Yu could only nod.
“Do you know that this is wrong?”
Yu said nothing.
The teacher said, “You are the son of Lan Ping, yes?”
“Yes,” said Yu.
“Your father did bad things, but I’m not going to judge you based on them.”
Yu said nothing.
“Have you ever earned money yourself?”
“—No.” He wasn’t sure why he lied. Maybe it was because it was unsettling, the way they were all crowded around him, watching him answer questions. Because the way she phrased this question reminded him of his mother’s voice when she asked him if he’d gotten home before the neighbor claimed he heard the window break.
“Are you sure?” said the teacher. “They say they saw you coming back from the alleyway behind your house. Why were you there, if not to conduct some private business?”
Lian cut in here. “Hua street? That’s where my older sister lives!”
The teacher ignored her. “Turn out your pockets,” she said to Yu, and he couldn’t hear his mother in her voice anymore.
Yu turned out his pockets, and the edges of the bao and the small coins that he had put in them at dinner fell out on the floor, clustering around his toes like fat silverfish.
“What’s this?” said the teacher, picking up a coin. “Your mother isn’t here. Why do you have spending money if you don’t work?” She pushed her chair back, glanced at the tall boy standing behind Yu.
“I found it,” said Yu. “On the ground.”
The teacher got up from her desk. The boy shifted his stick from his left hand to his right hand. The teacher bent down and picked up a piece of the bao.
“What,” she said, “is this? The fruits of your labor?”
She was towering over him now, and the others were too. He felt as though they were one wall pressing in around him, the beige of their jackets blending together like sand, unable to obscure the armbands like the Red Planet blinking through a window in the dead of night.
“It’s my breakfast,” he said, shifting his eyes from the teacher to Lian to the boy with the stick to the others, driven and righteous, bigger than Yu.
“Is this pork?” said one of them, bringing one of the pieces up to his eyes and rubbing it between his fingers.
“The market has been out of pork for months,” said the teacher. “It couldn’t possibly be pork.” But she didn’t seem to believe it, and Yu knew that, knew that the look she gave him was meant to tell him that.
He didn’t know what to say. He didn’t want to tell her where he had gotten it, and he didn’t exactly know why except that this was not jie jie, not his father, not his mother. Maybe it was their synchronization that unsettled him, their way of making him feel simultaneously smaller than they were and big enough to fit in their coats if he wanted to.
“What were you doing in Hua Street, Yu?”
“I—it’s not pork, it’s—”
The boy behind the teacher suddenly lunged forward, swung, hit Yu in the jaw. He dropped. Lian and several of the others stumbled away from him, eyes wide, staring at the teacher.
“What were you doing in Hua Street, Yu?”
Yu, shaking, sitting on his ankles in an expanse of empty tile, reached out to try to grab a crust of bun, to shove it in his pocket, do anything with it. Crush it. Eat it? He couldn’t think straight. Images of his father, outside, glimpsed through the branches of the tree, at his desk, diagrams of Mars, the teacher at her desk, Lian’s face, mouth open, wide eyes the same color as jie jie’s in the light filtering through the window to him, crouched on the tiled floor.
“Yu!” said the teacher. “I just want to know where you got this!”
Yu stared at the teacher, and at the tall boy beside her, and at Lian, who shifted her eyes away from his. He swallowed hard, imagining that he was at dinner with jie jie, talking about new songs and his father’s books and big things, and his eyes swam but he knew they were all standing there above him as though he were one of their shadows, or a painting one of them had done that needed to be fixed. He stood up and backed towards Lian, away from the teacher.
“This is—the same thing you eat,” he said, opening his fist so they all could see the crumbs in his palm.
“What is it, then?” said the teacher softly. “I have never tolerated lying.”
No, she had never tolerated lying, and neither had his father. There was no lying with astronomy, his father had told him once, but he didn’t have to hear his father say it now. There is truth and there is change, and Yu, small in the shadows of the teacher and Mars, had never known so little as he did now, never been so afraid, never been so bold.
“It’s nothing,” he said. “Just a repurposed star.”
Found in Volume XIV (2015-2016)