Many of you out there may have heard about or encountered the Beijing Youth Literary Review (BYLR) since their inaugural issue back in April. For the uninitiated, BYLR is a bilingual journal of creative writing and visual art, focusing on making heard the voices of international and Chinese students. We love what they are doing in giving students from a variety of schools here in Beijing a beautiful platform to show off their creative writing skills. What better way, we thought, to help spread this welcomed project than as a part of the Teen Takeover issue of beijingkids.
This selected short story, written by Tina Sang and titled “City Fallen,” puts into words the harrowing and dreamlike experience of surviving a natural disaster. It’s equal parts terrifying in its struggle and magical realism, as she paints a rich picture of the surreal experience of surviving a catastrophe through her poetic imagery. Keep a lookout this month as the next edition of the magazine hits the streets on Sep 1, showing off the current crop of writing talent here in capital.
“Girl. Girl. Wake up.”
A rough shove sends searing pain into my head. Wrenching my eyes open, I see a blurry old woman hovering above me. Her gray-black hair sticks greasily to her head, fingernails dirt-choked as she pries my lips open. I protest, before a stream of warm water is poured into my mouth.
“Come,” she says as she yanks me up by the arm. Every stiff muscle screams in agony.
“Where are we?” I ask as she drags me along a broken road. There is no reply.
Wreckage surrounded us, a shattered city; toppled telephone poles, Swiss-cheese buildings, and sea of cement ruin. We pass a mound of lifeless bodies, piled in a gruesome Mount Everest. The glass and rubble crunch underfoot, and I do my best to suppress the bile creeping up the back of my throat.
I remember the city as it once was; swelling with scents and noises, bustling crowds, busy roads – nothing remains. The silence of the city is tangible. It settles thick in the air, like toxic gas, seeping into my bones, making me weary as we trudge along.
London Bridge is falling down, falling down. The haunting tune plays over and over in my mind. Another city in the clutches of destruction. My brain scrambles to piece things together, to remember anything, but the sun’s harsh glare scorches my memory blank.
Suddenly, the woman ducks into a narrow doorway, and I gag at the putrid stench within. A sea of bodies is packed into what used to be a hospital, some groaning in pain, others so still I wonder if they’re alive. She leads me to the far wall, where a hunched man crouches on a mat. She shoos him, and he glares before scrambling away.
“Here,” she says, her eyes expectant.
“I…I don’t have anything for you.”
She spits on the floor, and stalks away. I’m left alone with my stained, reeking mattress. I’m disgusted, I don’t want to touch it, but then my head spins and I have no choice but to collapse.
The ground shudders. Perplexed, I look down. Did I imagine it? Then it comes again, stronger this time, like a giant waking from slumber.
Someone grabs my arm. “Back to the house, now.”
But it’s too late. The ground gives a feral lurch, coming alive with a roar. The grip on my arm disappears. Further away, I see people hurrying towards me, and I yell at them to get to safety.
Beneath me, the land rocks, bucking wildly as it breaks free. It throws us wildly from side to side. I can’t crawl without losing balance. Splayed out on the dusty ground, I’m helpless as I await the giant’s wrath.
“Meixin!” Someone shouts my name, reaching out towards me. Desperately, I try to grasp their reaching fingers. Just as their fingertips brush the back of my hand, they are wrenched away. The earth gives in with a horrible groan, and I watch as the land split open in a gaping abyss.
“Bailin!” I scream too late. The ground crumbles beneath his feet. He scrambles backwards, trying to find solid footing. I’m terrified for him; every bone screams for him to stay safe. But there’s a small part of me that wants him to make the leap. Risk his life to be by my side. The hot air suffocates me. Everything disappears in a wall of dust.
The smell of dumplings greets me next, the bright linoleum tiles of the kitchen. Bailin smiles at me from the breakfast table, where my mom and dad sit huddled over the newspaper.
“What’s new?” I slide into my chair.
My dad looks up. His eyebrows are knitted together. “Minor tremors in Sichuan, Shanghai, and Hebei. Nobody can figure out what it’s from.”
“I’m sure it’s nothing,” my mom says. Any relief I feel at her words evaporates when Bailin’s eyes meet mine, teeming with unease.
I wake, mouth dry, heartbeat racing, skin twitching with disgust. There was an earthquake. I’ve been separated. My family. Bailin. I remember him now. Bright smile, eyes that are the brown of the earth back home. The boy next door. I breathe in, trying to remember the taste of food, hot mantou, deep-fried dough sticks, and fresh soybean milk. But instead I’m met with a rancid scent. I cough violently, tears stinging my eyes. Nauseated, I head outside for fresh air.
The amateur squeaking of a violin reaches my ear, and I turn towards the sound. Twinkle, twinkle little star…
A ring of people surrounds the source of music, and my feet move me to the front of the crowd. A bearded man plays on a beaten, chipped violin that looks it just barely survived the disaster. When he finishes his playing, I join in on the smattering of applause. Instinctively, I step up to him, hands outreached.
The violin feels foreign in my grip. It’s larger than the one I used to have – bulkier, the strings rusted. But still, it’s a piece of home. Shaky, I raise the bow to the strings and drag out the first note. Hesitantly, a tune flows from the strings, sweet and true, as a memory invades my senses.
I was in the lead, giggling as my legs carried me up and away. Bailin’s short huffs followed closely behind. I squealed, pumping my legs faster. A large shadow came out of nowhere, dashing past both of us.
“Baba!” I screamed, trailing in the laughter he left, big and booming.
My bow flies over the instrument, fast and bright, leaping, jerky, staccato. The music soars, carrying me up the hill, up to my dad, with Bailin right behind me. Each note gifts me a new detail, the warm rays of sunshine, the thrum of cicadas, blades of grass tingling on my bare feet.
When I lower the bow, my heartbeat is erratic, and I find a thick crowd of people all staring. Their eyes are wide, wonder-filled. I stare back, hands shaking. One man shouts, and then everyone erupts into cheers and laughter, and I’m laughing too, impossibly reunited with the taste of joy.
But that night it’s difficult to keep the demons at bay. I’m plagued with half-remembered dreams, fragments of reality that I try to grip onto, but they slip away like wisps of silk. I’m running up a hill, to my family and to Bailin, but the ground keeps slipping, I’m sprinting but moving backwards, then I lose balance and I tumble, tumble downwards. I’m playing a violin, but then it splits in two, and the people dancing on the strings plummet into the chasm.
The next day I wake up to the sound of clamoring. Padding outside, I’m surprised to see a mob of people on the street. When they spot me, they all begin shouting and gesticulating, and before I know it, I’m holding a violin once more.
A slow tune comes alive under my hands, melodious and soft, shaping the wind that whistled through my hair at the top of the hill.
“The beauty doesn’t ever fade, does it?” Bailin smiles at me, eyes alight with awe.
“I couldn’t imagine being so far from everything,” I say.
“You know one day you’ll have to leave your tower, Rapunzel.”
I turn back to see my parents smiling at us, hand in hand.
“I couldn’t imagine it.”
I’m alarmed as I see the wet faces around me, sorrow filling previously excited faces. Abruptly, I stop playing, only to find tears streaking my own cheeks. What have I done? I was supposed to bring joy in a time of sadness, not bring more pain. I feel a hand on my shoulder. The old woman cracks a yellowed smile.
“We’ve all lost someone,” she says. “There’s no shame in crying.”
Something bursts within me. It’s too much. I miss my family. I miss Bailin. I miss everything familiar.
“Hush haizi. We’re here for you.”
I’m racing up a hill. This time it’s completely silent, except my soft footfalls on the grass. My parents and Bailin stand at the top, but I run past them. They wave, as if sending me off. 一路平安. Have a safe journey. The view welcomes me like an old friend. Spread out beneath me, the city is a great mosaic of gray buildings. I spread my arms and fall forward, and the city reaches up to embrace me. The wind rushes in my ears, and faintly, the sweet sound of a violin plays.
About the Author
Tina Sang, 15, is an American-born Chinese who grew up in Michigan and moved to China at age eleven. You can often find her writing half-finished novels, short stories, letters to fictional people, occasional poetry, and alternate endings to books she isn’t satisfied with. She studies at Western Academy of Beijing.
Photos: Kipp Whittaker
Download the digital copy here.