No , I won’t tell. I hesitate before continuing on. And you shouldn’t be so hard on him. He’s just trying to do what he’s always done. It’s noble.
Li Wei stares at me incredulously. Noble? He’s going to get himself killed!
He’s providing for others , I insist.
Providing? he asks, still outraged. We slave away, putting our lives at risk and our own dreams aside so that we can feed everyone else. We have the entire village’s hopes and fears resting on our shoulders. If we don’t work, they starve. That’s not providing. That’s certainly not noble. That’s being given no choice. That’s being trapped. You’ve been with the artists so long, you’ve forgotten what it’s like for the rest of us.
That’s not fair , I say, feeling my own anger rise. You know the job we do is vital to the village’s survival. And of course I know what it’s like for the miners! That’s the whole point of my job: observing everyone.
Observing is not the same as experiencing. Li Wei gestures angrily to my stump. You sit there and judge others from a safe distance every day. You assume because you watch us, you understand us. But you don’t. If you did, you never would have—
He can’t finish, so I do. Bettered myself? Accepted a position that raised my sister and me out of that hovel and gave us a place of honor and comfort? One that allowed me to actually use my talents? What is so wrong with wanting to improve my life?
He doesn’t speak for several moments. Then: Did it, Fei? Did it improve your life?
I think back to lazy summer days, lying in the grass with him, our hands linked as we talked about the future. I only ran errands for the artists back then. It wasn’t until I was offered an official apprenticeship that my status in the village changed, raising me up from a miner’s family to Elder Chen’s successor. My parents had just died, and Zhang Jing and I were living in a small, ramshackle place, given the barest of rations while waiting for the results of the testing we’d undergone at the Peacock Court in order to be accepted. The elders so coveted my talents that they took Zhang Jing on as well, though her skills were less than mine. That move gave me everything I could ever have wanted, with one exception: Artists only marry other artists.
Did it improve your life? Li Wei asks again.
In most ways , I say at last, hating the pain I see flash through his eyes. But what could we do? You know I had to take the opportunity. And with it came sacrifices. That’s life, Li Wei. That’s the way it’s always been.
Maybe it’s time things change , he shoots back. He stalks away from me just as other miners begin emerging from the main entrance for lunch. I watch him until the crowd swallows him, wondering what exactly he meant should change. The system that traps Bao and others in the mines? Or the one that has kept Li Wei and me apart? After a moment, I realize that they are one and the same.
As the miners settle down in various clusters, eating and talking, I flit about them as unobtrusively as possible, trying to watch conversations and gather all the information I can—and trying not to think about what Li Wei said. A busy time like this one is when our observing-without-interfering mandate is most important.
When I return to my stump, I do a double take when I discover that someone has taken a knife to its surface. What was previously simply flat and weathered has now been carved up with a chrysanthemum design—a really remarkable one. Carving is not a trade cultivated very much at my school, but my artistic eye can’t help but notice the skill and detail that has gone into every single petal of this king of flowers—a flower I’ve only ever seen in books. These chrysanthemums are beautiful, and the fact that they’ve been created in such a short time makes them even more amazing.
I sigh, knowing where they came from. Throughout our youth, whenever we had a dispute, Li Wei and I would apologize to each other by exchanging gifts. Mine would be in the form of drawings, crudely done with whatever natural supplies I could find. His would always be carvings. There was only one time the exchange didn’t happen, the day I told him I was accepting the apprentice position and would never be able to marry him. We argued then, and after the fact, I painted chrysanthemums outside his door as a peace offering. Nothing ever came in return.
I touch these carved ones now, amazed at how his skill has progressed in the last two years. Bittersweet memories cling to me, and then, reluctantly, I let go of them and continue my observation.
BOTH LI WEI AND HIS FATHER are on my mind that night when Zhang Jing and I return to the school. Seeing her reminds me of Bao and how both of them are trying so desperately to hide their blindness from the rest of the village. How many others are like that? How many other villagers are making a slow descent into darkness?
When we begin our evening work on the record of the day’s events, I have difficulty staying focused. My mind keeps wandering, making it difficult to paint the scenes I need to. Elder Chen notices as he strolls by.
Are you daydreaming again, Fei? he asks, not unkindly. Imagining beautiful colors and wonders that you’d rather be painting?
Yes , I lie, not willing to tell him what’s truly on my mind. I’m sorry, master. There is no excuse.
A mind like yours, one capable of appreciating and imagining beautiful things, is not a detriment, not by any means , he says. But unfortunately, it is not necessarily called for here. This is the fate we have been given.
I bow in acknowledgment. I will not go to bed until this piece is flawless.
The other girls are all asleep when I finally return to our dorm room. Once in bed, I realize I never got a chance to go over and check Zhang Jing’s work. By the time I finished with mine, I was so tired I probably wouldn’t have been much help anyway. We still have more work to do on the record in the morning, and I make a mental note to check her portion of it then. Sleep consumes me quickly, but I don’t find peace.