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Lesson in Separation

She was observed by many to be a victim of serial tragedies that claimed the lives of many of her family. Her home, modeled after Beijing’s courtyard house, was a literal interpretation of isolation, a jail that she might have felt comfort in. They all thought that the girl already made up her mind to be closed off from the rest of the world. Perhaps, it was to mourn the tragedies that occurred in her past, or as a self-retribution on being born an unfortunate child. Nobody thought it was her fault, but everyone thought she did herself a strong disservice. In the end, people let go of their attempts to ‘fix’ her, so they simply left her to her own devices.

The girl’s tragedy began when her two elder siblings drowned in the nearby river. She was four or five at that time and her siblings were not much older than her. The villagers remembered that it was during the summer, where none of the village kids had anything better to do than taking a dip in the cool waters. No one knew what happened exactly, except that two boys were dead; their lifeless and naked bodies were taken out by fishing nets from the mayor’s own boat. The mayor, a seasoned swimmer, was proud of his village because it never had any accident-related deaths. So, on that day, he was especially shocked and horrified when he pulled up the bodies. He then quickly made his way over to the boys’ home and told their family the news.

Naturally, the parents took the news harder than everyone else. There were a few people in that home, the mayor knew, but he did not know just who and the exact number. He remembered seeing maybe an elderly or two in there, and a young girl. When he delivered the fatal news, he spotted the girl playing by the well, with a pink and white polka-dotted shirt on and matching shorts. She was oblivious to her parents’ cries and was seemingly lost in her own world. Good, the mayor thought; she was too young to know of this tragedy.

That day, people burned joss papers for the dead kids. The kids’ clothes were also burned so that they wouldn’t get cold in-between their transition to the afterlife. An elderly lady, a neighbor of the family, spent her days making paper money for the kids to take with them.
Some months after the boys’ deaths, the parents moved to Nanking to began a new chapter in their life. The villagers supposed that they wanted to make some money to send to the grandparents and the youngest child. By that time, most of the villagers ceased their visits, because they had other things to worry about. Their eyes were still sharp enough, however, to pick out the activities, or lack of, from that sad place.

For example, they noticed that the grandparents and the little girl rarely stepped foot outside. Especially the little girl, who brought some concern to the villagers. One woman, Old Lady Dai as she was called, just lost her eldest daughter and her husband to a car accident in Beijing. She knew the grandparents’ sadness and struggles, but wasn’t sure why they wouldn’t take their time out to let their granddaughter come and play with the other children. She knocked on the iron doors everyday, and even hollered her lungs out for them to answer. In the end, the neighboring younger women had to come out and convince her to give up for the day.

“What in the heavens are these two doing in there? They are going to perish!” Dai said. From time to time, Dai took some homemade soup for the grandparents and the little girl out of concern that they were not getting enough food. Each time, she was blocked by both the door and silence. However, she knew that there were people in there; she heard them shuffling around.

“Hello? It’s me, Dai Mei Niang!” she yelled and knocked on the iron door repeatedly. If she was her young self, there would be dents on the outer surface. She was once a strong woman with a more formidable personality, unlike now. As always, nobody answered, but Dai swore she heard someone hurriedly enter run across to the other side. Her little raucous caused the other neighbors to come out again; however, they began to chastise the older woman.

“Nothing can bring them out,” one said.

“Just give up and take care of yourself,” said the other.
Dai ended up glaring at them thinking they meant this family was a lost cause, and therefore, ought to be left uncared and unloved by everyone else.

“How heartless you women are! What if they were your grandparents and child?” was her reply every single time. She then huffed and returned home, only to come back the next day and try again.

Tragedy struck once again when it the grandparents died. How they found out was all a coincidence, because on that day, the door was somehow left ajar. Old Lady Dai decided to go in without announcing herself, as was the usual for older women. The inside of the house was in desolation, with barely anything but a well in the central courtyard and three buildings that surrounded it.

At one point, the place looked quite majestic and beautiful, but now everything looked sad and dismal. Dai looked to the building on the left side first and saw, to her horror, the bodies of the grandparents sprawled upon a narrow cement block, with their young granddaughter curled up in-between them. The girl, dressed in a worn out red dress, was bare-foot, skin riddled with tiny bruises and scars, while her hair was unkempt and dry. She stirred and her eyelids fluttered open, and when she saw Dai, a screech like a heron’s shot out of her delicate lips. Dai made a noise of surprise and almost tripped over a ledge that was built under the entrance. Her first reaction was to run out of the house and call every single person in the vicinity.

People flocked in, but quickly the numbers dwindled down as everyone began to run back and forth to spread the words of the deaths, and also of the neglected little girl. Confusion followed and soon, rumors began popping up and down that the grandparents abused the little girl and had wanted to commit murder-suicide. Some even pointed their fingers to Dai, who somehow murdered the grandparents so she could take care of the girl.

“You little scums, shut your mouth!” Dai said, spit hurling across the floor as she lashed out. Nevertheless, she knew she cannot stay mad at them; there was something much more important.

After the bodies of the grandparents were carried out (the accepted consensus by people who knew what they were doing agreed that they had simply died of old age), the little girl was now in the hands of nobody. Nobody wanted to take her home because one, they did not know her, and/or two, they feared that she was some kind of impure creature, tainted by a demonic wickedness that was the result of the sin committed by her parents. Though Dai was superstitious in her own way at one point, she still knew that reason number two was far-fetched, especially when it concerned a little girl.

“Why can’t all of you just shut up and see how terrible this girl’s life is now? She has no siblings, parents who aren’t here, and now her grandparents are dead!” Dai tried to take the girl’s hand when she saw her again, the latter who peeked out from behind her iron door. But, the tiny human only shrank back and squealed in fright. It was at that point that most knew that the girl did not know how to speak, which brought the question as to what happened to her behind those doors. Was she abused and neglected? That was the foreseeable reason, since she had bruises and cuts on her body, and a personality that was shy and scared.

“Someone call her parents,” Mayor Wei said at the next meeting. He, Old Lady Dai, Li Ke the noodle shop owner, and several others had all sat down to discuss what they were to do with the remaining child. While at first, they wanted to see if they could send her to an orphanage, the mayor suddenly remembered the existence of her parents who worked and resided in Nanking.

“Will they accept her? They did flee the house as if they don’t want to be there anymore,” Li Ke said. He was a burly and thickly muscled man who had trained to pull noodles for a decade. He also had a young girl at home, probably about the same age as her. After the appearance of the little girl, Ke took a special interest in her, simply because he was a father. “I would take her in but she isn’t right in the head.” He remembered his first interaction with the girl, who he nicknamed Little Bear. She snarled, growled, and even whimpered, almost as if a dog’s soul was reincarnated into her. For her own safety, Ke decided not to approach her, but the image of Little Bear haunted him.

“We can try, most definitely,” Mayor Wei replied as he took a drag on his cigarette.
This, however, did not sit well with Ke, who slammed a palm upon the glass table and stood up. Dai, who sat beside him, flinched and looked away.

“They don’t want to come, that’s the problem. Why else would they throw away their kid and two elderlies? They gave up on them!” Ke said. His eyes were slightly bloodshot and wet; emotions were getting the best of him.

“If it comes down to it, maybe we can find someone to take care of her while someone else tries to convince the parents to come and pick up their child,” Mayor Wei finally said. “No parents can see their child like that.” He leaned back on his creaking chair and looked up at the ceiling. The two fans hummed and squeaked from where they hung, and outside, a few children were laughing in delight.

Finally, Dai opened her mouth and said, “I can care for the child, please let her be with me.” There was a tone to her sentence which sounded like she was pleading. Mayor Wei noticed it and even Li Ke, who was objectively less sharp, noticed it as well. Both men looked at one another and a silent unanimous decision was made.
“You can try that,” was Ke’s reply.

Thus began the morning rituals Dai quickly grew accustomed to. She would bring the child some food and leave them by the front of her door. At the beginning, she thought that the girl would come out and take the food, but that was not the case. No matter how much things changed, that child still remained inside as if she was groomed to stay within the jail of a home. What Dai also suspected was that the girl knew only the faces of her grandparents and so, she was frightened of new faces.

Every morning, the old lady brought a small bowl of rice congee, fermented duck eggs, and soy milk in a small plastic container. Each and every day she would deliver them by 7AM and come to pick up the bowls by 7:30AM. Sometimes, it took the child longer to take the bowls out. She was at least eating, Dai thought with some relief, and that she knew that the bowls were there to feed her and they belonged to somebody else. Little by little, Dai would attend to the girl every day, wordlessly, until she thought that the girl knew of her presence.

“What is your name?” Her question came one day when she thought the girl was just on the other side of the iron door. She had finished her breakfast and the two small ceramic bowls were laid out upon the ground. Dai, however, was more interested in asking the child questions than moving along.

As was expected, the child said nothing at all. There was some kind of knocking noise and a few scraps of cloth on something and a bunch of other sounds she could not make out. The child was doing something behind the door, but whether if it was her own way of talking to her was unknown.

“Alright, do you want to know about me then?” Dai then asked, seating herself on the floor. She was getting too old for this, for it took her some struggle to go down without accidentally toppling over. She was always close to breaking her back and calling for her daughter before she remembered that she wasn’t here anymore. “ My name is Dai Mei Niang, but everyone refers to me as Old Lady Dai. I have five children, my eldest is in Beijing with her husband. The other four are scattered everywhere else,” she paused and thought about what her children’s faces looked like. “They are my children, but most of them feels so foreign to me.” She began to slap her knees with her hands. “The younger four always asked me for money and they had the audacity to ask me if I can give them my house after my death! Not Xiao Chun though, she is a good girl.” Dai smiled and looked to the ground, fondly recalling her eldest daughter’s wedding day in the capital city. That was also the first time Dai left the area to a city that was important to China. She leaned herself against the iron door and hoped that the child on the other side was still around. Even if that girl could not speak properly, and acted like a feral animal, Dai was certain that she at least knew her spoken words. She was also human, so human emotions
are in there as well. Or, she could just be hoping that her single audience behind the door would understand all of these things.

Days turned into months and months turned into a year. For one year Old Lady Dai visited and talked to the nameless orphan girl. For one year she brought the girl breakfast, lunch, and dinner. From time to time, Mayor Wei came to check up on the girl and to reassure her (whether if she listened or not, or was even within earshot was unknown) that he was trying to find her parents and that the police in town were on it as well. However, a little part of him felt that it would be useless now, as he was fairly certain the parents had thrown away the child. Sympathy rose in him and soon, he too began to visit the girl often. On one occasion, he sent the girl breakfast in place of Dai.

“I can’t cook as well as Dai or anyone else, so I bought some stuff from you. Hurry and eat it before it gets cold,” he said, setting down the vegetable pancakes down upon a plate. He was on one knee, fingers picking at his skin absentmindedly as he took his time. “Do you know what happened to Old Lady Dai? She is sick, but she will get better.” He felt the need to say that just so the girl wouldn’t worry. He wasn’t sure if there were any connections between the girl or not.
“Also, may I refer to you as Little Bear? Unless you tell us your name we won’t have anything to call you,” Wei then added. Ke kept referring to her as Little Bear and slowly, other villagers started doing the same thing. The nickname was better than calling her ‘the child’ or ‘the girl’ even if it sounded a bit boyish.

No reply. Wei sighed and looked at the pancakes, hoping that at least Little Bear would take the plate and eat the food on it. Dai told him that she was very shy and hard to trust others. Before Wei left, he turned his head and glanced at the black iron door. “Don’t worry about your future, me and the kind lady Dai will take care of you as much as we can.” When he walked along the dirt path back to his house, he wondered why he made such a comment. The fortunate thing was that it wasn’t a promise, more or less. He still had doubts about Little Bear and her future, because he could not see her in normal society. What he truly wanted for her was her parents’ return and her happiness. Wei wasn’t sure if that happiness could be given by two people who were not even blood-related.

Through some kind of fortune and sheer luck, several years passed. In-between these years, Dai and Wei split work among themselves to take care of Little Bear. They accumulated donations of clothing and other useful products for the girl to use, but they were not sure if she knew how to use them. At one point, Dai tried to coach Little Bear, thinking that she didn’t know how to put on pants. This assumption was brought on by the rumor that neither the grandparents or parents taught the girl how to live like a proper human being. That rumor stemmed from the first and only ever glimpse anyone had back after the death of Little Bear’s grandparents. If both had to estimate, they thought that the girl should be in her late teens to early twenties. The years did go by quickly and in that time, they saw themselves getting older.

“You take care of yourself; I will go and feed Little Bear,” Wei said. There was an incident where Dai walked out of her own home during the middle of the night and got lost in the village she spent her childhood in. A couple of neighbors saw her and called for Ke and Wei to come and bring her to her house.

“I can watch Dai while you go,” Ke said. He sat beside the old lady on a rickety bamboo seat that strained slightly under his weight. Dai looked lost and confused as if neither of the younger men’s faces were people she knew.

“No, you don’t understand, I must go save my daughter,” she mumbled under her breath. Her body began to rock back and forth while her arms were wrapped around her knees. Dai somehow got back on the cement floor again, before she was slowly hoisted up by Ke. “Please, I need to see her, she just got off from school.” Teary-eyed, she looked at Ke and then back to Wei with a pleading face. Both men could not return her gaze, which made tears actually roll down the woman’s face.

“She’s going to get better later, right?” Ke asked, with an uncertainty that clouded his words. He tried to stop Dai from moving too much, but he also dared not to touch such a fragile person. At this point, he was lost himself.

Wei, however, was in a dilemma. He should go and get food for Little Bear, but he should also fetch the town doctor. The latter would be a one-mile walk so he wouldn’t be able to get back in time. Ke could go, but that would mean leaving Dai all to herself. In normal circumstances, he would leave her with some neighbors. But, Dai’s reputation deteriorated among the rest of the village for a reason he knew not of; he couldn’t risk the woman being verbally abused when her mind was already in a fragile state.

“Go and get food for Little Bear, won’t you?” Wei said to Ke. “I will take care of Dai.” The other man did not even object and left without a word, not even bothering to ask Wei’s decision on why the role was switched.

Ke was able to get some leftover noodles and fry them before sending them over to the girl’s residence. He wasn’t sure if she would eat the food he made since it seemed like Dai would always bring the same breakfast over everyday. Maybe, if he didn’t utter a sound, the girl would think he was Dai. Thus, the man placed the bowl of hot food before the door and was about to leave when suddenly, he heard a faint cough from the other side. His heartstrings tugged suddenly, as he remembered the face of Little Bear years ago. He turned around, facing the door, and breathed in.

“Hey, Little Bear, do you know Old Lady Dai? The woman who fed you everyday? She’s sick right now, so I am going to take care of you until she’s well,” Ke said, slowly.

Just like he thought, not a single movement nor noise from behind that door. He wondered if there were even somebody there. What if Little Bear had died in there at some point? Ke began to really worry a minute later when silence remained, urged on by the fact that this village would have yet another tragedy in its midst. He put one hand against the iron door and pushed. Much to his surprise, the door opened as if it was nothing, so he stepped in and looked around. The courtyard was bereft of people, or the semblance of a once peaceful family home. The quietness did not go on for too long, however, when a sudden noise in the middle building caught the man’s attention. What sounded like a screeching noise pierced out and forced Ke to cover his ears as he made his way over.

“Little Bear?” he called. The screeching continued; the noise sounded like it was made by a bird or something, and certainly not a human being. After he entered the building, he noticed a tall and lanky figure sat huddled against the peeling wall. Little Bear, now somewhere around her teens, looked even more horrible than before. Her face was caked in dirt, lacerated with wounds that were possibly inflicted by nails. The clothing on her body was in shreds and was barely hanging on. Black hair, thick and dry and horribly unkempt, looked more like a cocoon than hair. From her mouth came the same screeching Ke heard a minute ago; he couldn’t see her eyes, though, but he assumed they would look terrified.

“Hey, I’m a good person!” he said and stooped low. He then began to shush her while carefully inching his body forward. Ke had a broad build that was used in his tactics to intimidate customers who wouldn’t tip and never, ever, had he tried to soften his body to soothe someone. The screeching briefly paused when Ke was about an arm length’s away, but when he reached out to Little Bear, the girl bolted as quick as a cat. She raced out, and incredulously, exited the entrance. Ke ran after her, but it was too late, Little Bear’s form had already disappeared somewhere.

“Fuck this, fuck, fuck, fuck!” Ke said under his breath as he started banging on the doors of every household. The people came out one by one as Ke began shouting at them to look for Little Bear. Some shrugged their shoulders, said it wasn’t their responsibilities, and went back in. Others said they would stay and keep an eye out; a few decided to actually go and look for her. The little group Ke assembled were mostly middle-aged women and one young man. They decided to spread out while Ke went to look for Mayor Wei.

He made quick long strides to the house which Wei lived in, but before he could open his mouth, he noticed a familiar figured huddled before Old Lady Dai.

“Little Bear!” Ke said, shocked. However, Wei appeared and shushed him, before nodding towards the pair besides him. Old Lady Dai sat upon a chair, still as if she was made of wax, vacant dark eyes staring forward. Little Bear was crouched in front of her, two small hands placed on the old woman’s lap. The girl chirped, akin to little bird noises.

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