Well, then. I hope you both have a good day , he says before walking away from us.
Zhang Jing and I continue on our path, and my heart rate slowly returns to normal. You didn’t say much back there , she remarks. Do you disapprove? Do you think he should have let Sheng and his friends take their revenge?
I don’t answer right away. Zhang Jing is a year older than me, and we have been nearly inseparable our entire lives, sharing everything. But there is one secret I have kept from her. When I was six, I climbed an old rotting shed our mother had warned us about many times. The roof collapsed while I was on it, trapping me below with no one in sight. I was stuck there for two hours, frightened and certain I would be there forever.
And then he appeared.
Li Wei was only eight but had just begun working full-time in the mines. When he came to me that day, he was returning from his shift covered in fine, golden dust. As he held out his hand to help me, the late afternoon sunlight caught him just right, making him shine and glitter. Even back then, the striking and beautiful always moved my heart, and I was spellbound as he helped me out of the rubble. His easy smile and sense of humor soon helped me overcome my shyness, beginning a friendship that would span almost ten years and eventually become so much more. . . .
Fei? asks Zhang Jing, truly puzzled now. Are you okay?
I push my memories aside, shaking off the dazzling image of that golden boy. Fine , I lie. I just don’t like to see that kind of violence.
Me neither , she agrees.
We divert to a path that is much narrower than the village’s main thoroughfare but sees enough foot traffic to be well-worn and packed down. It takes us along one of the cliff’s sides, giving us spectacular views of the peaks surrounding us. It’s early enough in the morning that mist still hangs in the air, obscuring the depths below.
Zhang Jing and I come to a halt when we reach the cypress tree. It looks greener and fuller than the last time I saw it, now that summer has fully arrived. I feel a pang in my heart for not having been here more recently. The venerable cypress clings doggedly to its rocky perch, its branches spreading wide and high into the sky. See how it stands proudly, even in such inhospitable conditions? our father used to say. This is how we must always be—strong and resilient, no matter what’s around us. Our family used to go on evening walks together, and this path past the tree was one of our favorites. When our parents died, Zhang Jing and I had their ashes spread here.
She and I stand together now, saying nothing, simply gazing out at the vista before us and enjoying a faint breeze that plays among the needled branches of the tree. In my periphery, I notice her squinting, even here. As much as it hurts, I feel compelled to finally say something. Stepping forward, I turn so that she can better see my hands.
How long has it been going on?
She knows immediately what I’m referring to and answers with a weary face. I don’t know. A while. Months. It wasn’t that bad at first—just occasional hazy spells. Now those spells are more frequent and more intense. On some days, I can still see perfectly. On other days, things are so blurred and distorted I can’t make any sense of them.
It will get better , I tell her staunchly.
She shakes her sadly. What if it doesn’t? What if it’s only a matter of time before I’m like the others? Before everything goes dark? Tears glitter in her eyes, and she obstinately blinks them back. I should tell our masters and give up the apprenticeship now. It’s the honorable thing to do.
No! I tell her. You can’t.
They’ll eventually find out , she insists. Can you imagine the disgrace then, when they throw me out on the streets?
No , I repeat, even though a secret, scared part of me fears she is right. Don’t say anything. I’ll keep covering for you, and we’ll find a way to fix this.
How? The smile she gives me is sweet but also full of sorrow. Some things are beyond even you, Fei .
I look away, fearing my own eyes will fill with tears at the frustration I feel over my sister’s fate.
Come on , she says. We don’t want to be late.
We continue on our way, walking along the cliffside path, and my heart is heavy. I won’t admit it to her, but this might indeed be beyond me. I might dream incredible things and have the skills to paint any vision into reality, but even I can’t restore sight itself. It’s a humbling and depressing thought, one that so consumes me that I don’t even notice the crowd of people until we practically walk into them.
This path that traces the village’s edge goes past the station where the suppliers receive shipments from the township below. It looks as though the first shipment of the day has arrived up the zip line and is about to be distributed. While that’s often a cause for excitement, I rarely see it draw this many people, which makes me think something unusual is happening. Amid the sea of dull brown clothing, I spy a spot of blue and recognize another artist apprentice, Min. This is her observation post.
I tug her sleeve, drawing her attention to me. What’s happening?
They sent a letter to the keeper a few days ago, telling him we need more food, that we cannot survive with the recent cuts , she explains. His response has just arrived with this shipment.
My breath catches. The line keeper. Communication with him is rare. He’s the one our existence depends on, the one who decides what supplies come up the line to us from the township. Without him, we have nothing. Hope surges in me as I join the others to learn the news. The keeper is a great and powerful man. Surely he’ll help us.
I watch with the others as the lead supplier unrolls the letter that came up with the food. The letter was tied with a tiny green ribbon that he clutches as he reads, and for a moment, I’m transfixed by it. I shift my gaze back to the man’s face as his eyes scan the letter. I can tell from his expression that the news isn’t going to be good. A flurry of emotions plays over him, both sad and angry. At last, he gives the letter to an assistant and then stands on a crate so that we can all see his hands as he addresses the crowd.