He’s still upset but works to calm himself. Your life has changed, but I wouldn’t say it’s been turned upside down—not yet , he says. And that’s what no one seems to realize, Fei. Everyone knows things are bad, but everyone thinks if we just go forward like we always have, it will all be okay. Instead, we’re just moving toward darkness and ruin. Can’t you see that?
I start to reply, but then a sound I’ve never heard before catches my attention. It’s incredible, and I want desperately to hear it again. Unable to help myself, I immediately turn my head toward its source, and I see a flash of blue. It’s a thrush, just like the one I spotted the other day. It’s perched on the branch of a tree, and it opens its mouth, producing that exquisite sound . . . a song? I long for the bird to sing again, but it takes flight and disappears out of sight.
I stare after it, awestruck, and then quickly turn back to Li Wei in embarrassment. He stares at me, understandably confused, and then shakes his head. Clearly, this isn’t a discussion you care about.
No, wait. I do care , I say. But he’s already turned from me. I reach out to grab his arm, and as my fingertips touch his bare skin, he tenses and glances back at me. Something of my heart must be in my eyes, because his expression softens. My hand still rests on his arm, and I am dizzyingly aware that there are only a few scant inches between us. I’m also suddenly reminded that no matter how often we held hands or dreamed of the future, we’ve never actually kissed. There’d always been a spark between us, one we were both hesitant to acknowledge until the day we realized we were being torn apart.
I quickly snatch my hand away and take a step back, hoping my thoughts aren’t obvious. What is your plan then? I ask him. What do you think we should do to save ourselves from darkness and ruin?
He studies me intently for a few more moments, and I’m breathless as that gaze wraps around me. We start by ending this line system , he says at last. It’s what’s enslaving us, what has put us in this miserable situation.
I can’t hide my shock, and for a moment our history is forgotten. And how would we end the line system?
Li Wei points over the cliff’s edge. By going to the line keeper. By getting to the bottom of everything. Either he is a reasonable man who will understand our plight, or he’s a tyrant who must be overthrown.
He isn’t the first person I’ve met who wants to go talk to the line keeper, but as I stare into Li Wei’s eyes, I realize he might be the first person I’ve met who’s truly serious about doing it. And the thought of that suddenly terrifies me. I may have willingly walked away from him when I joined the apprentices, but at least I knew he was still alive and safe in our village—not attempting some impossibly dangerous stunt.
How would you do that? I demand. By climbing down?
Yes, he says, crossing his arms defiantly.
That’s suicide! The climb is too dangerous by hand. No one has done that in centuries! Not since our ancestors stopped being able to hear the falling rocks—
I cut myself off, my hands dropping to my side. The implications of what I’ve just stated hit me like a slap to the face, sending me reeling. For my entire life, my village has accepted that no one can climb down the mountain. It’s too dangerous, both because of the unstable nature of the cliff face and the difficulties of not being able to hear the rocks. Others have stated this fact over and over. I’ve even said it myself, parroting it as an unfortunate truth. And yet . . . here I stand, suddenly realizing it’s not the truth anymore. Someone can hear the rocks now. Me. But what does that even mean? And is it enough to truly make a difference?
Li Wei, not knowing what I’m thinking, assumes I’m simply too afraid and too shocked at his proposition in general.
And that’s why nothing changes, he states imperiously. Everyone clings to the way things have always been. And those ways are killing us. If we’re going to die one way or another, then I’ll face my death trying to make a difference—trying to save myself and others. Just getting by one more day isn’t good enough anymore. There must be more to life, more to hope for.
I don’t answer, and again he reads that as disapproval and fear. I’m normally so quick with a response, but too much has happened this past couple of days. Even if I could trust Li Wei enough to explain how I’m feeling, I don’t know if I really would be able to articulate it correctly. It’s all so strange and new, so I continue standing there, stunned.
A group of miners appears on the trail, and Li Wei stiffens before giving me a formal bow for their benefit. Thank you for your condolences, apprentice , he states properly, and then he turns away and leaves me.
THE REST OF THE DAY, I move around like someone in a dream. I do all the correct things. I return to my post until the miners’ shift ends, then take my notes back to the school so that I can paint the record. To any outward observer, I look the same as ever. But on the inside, everything about me has changed. My whole world has changed, and I don’t know how to come to terms with it.
My sister is no longer at my side. Until this day, it’s never truly struck me how much I took her presence for granted. Everything I do feels incomplete now. At dinner, another student sits beside me in Zhang Jing’s usual spot. In our room, her bed remains empty and stripped of all its covers. But it’s in the workroom where I feel her loss the most keenly. As I dutifully paint my portion of the record, I find myself constantly looking to the spot where she used to work. Each time I see it vacant, the pain hits me all over again.