Vasant 2024 Stories - Yanping Zhai and Zongyu Qiao

 

The White Roses and the Pinky Swear

By Yanping Zhai and Zongyu Qiao

 

Nestled amidst the coastal scenery, my humble abode stands tall as a three-story structure with a touch of Western elegance. From the vantage point atop the uppermost floor, the shimmering beach comes into view, a mere stone's throw away...


My acquaintances, brimming with envy, marvel at my ability to reside in such a majestic dwelling at a tender age. Little do they know, this land was bequeathed to me by our shared ancestry, left untouched by subsequent generations who lacked the desire to call it home.


Prior to my grandmother's death, she tenderly grasped my hand and whispered, “Dear Charles, allow me to divulge a secret. Have you ever wondered why your great-grandfather passed away at such an early age?”


Drowned in incredulity, I stood bereft of words. She continued, “Your great-grandfather was enthralled with the written words, captivated by a beauty found beyond the pages. But alas, his heart's yearnings remained unfulfilled, and he succumbed to the depths of despondency.”


Her gaze pierced mine, her remaining energy waning, as she silently peered at the ceiling above.


Not long ago, an exotic couple and their cherubic daughter found solace adjacent to my dwelling. Soon after their arrival, white roses blossomed within their yard. Ethereally pristine, these snow-white petals exude an almost sanctified aura, permeating the air with their intoxicating fragrance. Their tranquil beauty imparts vibrancy unto my once-neglected domain, breathing life into the overgrown expanse.


Within my spacious chamber, time stands still, frozen like a photograph conceived a century ago. Only ancient tomes grace the surroundings, bearing witness to a bygone era. One morning, the resonant chime of the doorbell intruded upon the silence. As the door creaked open, my eyes beheld pure-white roses, adorning the innocence that bloomed upon the visage of my young neighbor. A mere five or six years old, she embodied the enchantment of flower petals, radiating beauty akin to a white rose...


Placing the white roses delicately within the idle blue and white porcelain vase, whose origins trace back to the Ming or Qing Dynasty, I observed the misty and rainy scenery of the Yangtze River in Southern China intricately painted upon its surface. The once-vibrant depictions of white clouds and grey hounds had faded over centuries, reduced to a mere fleeting moment. A week transpired, and yet the blossoms remained resplendent, untouched by time's relentless march. As a solitary soul, mired in monotony, I beheld this spectacle with a sense of incredulity, as if divine favor had bestowed this gift upon me.


My days are spent toiling away at a modest, inconspicuous small-scale newspaper, teetering on the precipice of obscurity or potential bankruptcy. Tasked with the arduous responsibility of bridging the gap between stubborn and antiquated authors and their manuscripts, I navigate the tranquil currents of existence.


One fateful day, Anore, rang me with a simple request to accommodate his girlfriend for a few nights. A flush of warmth tinged my cheeks, momentarily seized by hesitation. However, devoid of any plausible excuse to refuse, I swiftly assented. How could I rally against their visit?


For my ancestral dwelling boasted the grandeur and opulence befitting the renowned name which it bore. Every floor held a bedroom, replete with world-renowned bathtubs, meticulously procured by my great-grandfather from the far reaches of the Atlantic! And yet, a pang of premonition tugged at my heart, whispering of the potential cataclysmic impact Anore and his beloved might have upon my emotional equilibrium.


Anore was my comrade during my time as a graduate student. While we attended the same institution, we pursued separate fields of study. In a college with a scarcity of male students, an inexplicable twist of fate brought the two of us together, despite our strikingly different personalities.


Anore stood tall, slender, with a bronzed complexion and physiques defined by taut tendons, while me, on the other hand, maintained a pallid demeanor and suffered from recurrent gastrointestinal ailments. Due to this affliction, there were days when I would subsist solely on watery porridge, causing me to feel almost weightless as I went about my daily routine.


While Anore chose to major in the art of ballroom dancing, I, alas, was the embodiment of stagnation, languishing as I studied the ancient Chinese classics. Anore hailed from a lineage of esteemed local officials, whereas I hailed from humble origins, my pockets devoid of worldly possessions, my garments lapped solely by the gentle caress of fresh air.


Anore scarcely applied himself to any academic tomes, instead dedicating his energy to pursuits of romantic conquests, tobacco, and spirits. Through sheer luck, he unfailingly managed to win the favor of fair maidens and absolve himself of academic responsibilities. Conversely, I found myself immersing in the library, whether compelled by my own determination or coerced by external obligations.


Enclosed within the dormitory walls, sounds of commotion would often echo through the halls, alternating with periods of profound silence, only to be disrupted by a gentle knock at the door. After an interminable duration, Anore would eventually answer the call, emerging from within with a disheveled-haired maiden ensconced in his embrace, her cheeks ablaze with a fervent flush. Embarrassment would invariably overcome my senses, compelling me to conceal myself by the corridor window, akin to a misbehaving grade school pupil enduring a penitent period of reflection.


During such moments, I would inevitably cast my gaze toward the street corner, where a few delicate blossoms clung defiantly to the trees under the gentle sway of dimly illuminated street lamps. A turning point arrived when fate, in its compassion, allowed a senior resident from the adjacent dormitory to graduate, thereby presenting an opportune moment for me to swiftly relocate.


By consequence, Anore finally gained the much-coveted taste of solitude, becoming the solitary inhabitant he had long yearned to be. As I entered my third year of graduate studies, camaraderie among my classmates burgeoned exponentially, likely precipitated by the impending culmination of our academic journeys, which served to set us apart. We exchanged toasts, reveling in the libations until intoxication befell us. Amongst the attendees, it was Anore with whom I held the most familiarity, given that we had shared quarters for two years. He, in all his magnanimity, refrained from imbibing for the sake of my volatile temperament, ultimately cementing our bond as steadfast confidants.


On one fateful afternoon, as I swayed in inebriation, Anore kindly reminded me of the appointment I had made with my high school comrades at the local karaoke establishment. He had caught wind of our rendezvous during a phone conversation and had meticulously retained this piece of information in his memory. Many of my high school acquaintances were female, individuals I had not laid eyes upon for an extended period of time.


Several had undoubtedly wed, others had wholeheartedly embraced their respective careers or pursued graduate studies resiliently. Anore, fervently, demanded that I allow him to accompany me to this reunion. While I harbored reservations, I could not bear to thwart his inexorable persistence, and thus, reluctantly consented. His voice, rich, untamed, resonates within me as I ponder his request. Being a bon vivant, he was anxious to seize this opportunity to revel in the mirth of a karaoke performance, displaying his remarkable vocal prowess.


I said, "Let us return to the dormitory to rest for a while." Weary from the day's events, I collapsed onto the bed and slipped into a deep slumber. However, at 9:30 in the evening, Anore's urgent knocking roused me from my sleep. In a panic, I realized that the party was scheduled for nine o'clock. Hurriedly, Anore and I hailed a taxi and embarked on a swift journey. By the time we arrived at the KTV, it was nearly ten o'clock. The grand hall pulsated with a vibrant crowd, adorned with resplendent legs, which left me, a mere student still beholden to academia, feeling somewhat disoriented.


The private room's door swung open, and we saw Rose pouring her heart into a passionate rendition of Don't Let My Tears Stay with Me All Night. While our classmates exchanged warm pleasantries with me, Rose simply waved and continued singing, her voice quivering and her eyes brimming with tears, as if she were recounting profound inner anguish. Every fiber of her being exuded the grace of a fully matured woman.


As she sang, “Don't let my tears stay with me all night,” she was momentarily choked, delicately covering her eyes with the back of her hand... which I noticed was slightly damp. At that precise moment, a rich and resonant male voice resonated from inside the room, proclaiming, “Don't let your kiss leave an aftertaste.” Their harmonious duet filled the air, and I caught a glimpse of the flicker of intensity as Rose and Anore locked eyes.


For three years at high school, Rose's eyes, filled with affection and conversation, had accompanied me. Witnessing her radiant smile and the raising of her glass to Anore, my heart, felt a tinge of sourness accompanied by an inexplicable ache in my stomach.


As Rose and I sat in the corner of the classroom, we were the epitome of ordinary amidst a sea of exceptional students. In this realm of elite private schools, where opulence and privilege reign supreme, academic performance seems to pale in comparison. After all, the majority of these students will set sail for foreign shores upon graduation. The only ones who bear the weight of diligence are children like us, hailing from humble backgrounds.


Rose's cascading black tresses often cascaded onto my dictionary, veiling her stunning, doe-like eyes. Through this veil, I struggled to discern her true emotions, whether she resided in a realm of bliss or sorrow. My outgoing nature had earned me a certain level of infamy within the class, as my incessant chatter and laughter with Rose often disrupted the solemnity of our lessons, prompting the teacher to call me out on numerous occasions.


In her final year of high school, Rose expressed her desire to travel to the south. She was tired of the snow in the north and its freezing temperatures. In response, I conveyed my own longing to explore foreign lands and experience the captivating allure of Charles Bridge and Lake Trionen. Regrettably, Rose explained that her responsibilities towards her mother and sister made it impossible to venture too far away. Disheartened, I confided that my personal salvation beckoned from a distant corner of the world.


Upon nearing graduation, a peculiar turn of events unfolded. Despite my previous distaste for rigorous exercise, a miraculous twist of fate placed me second in my class. Meanwhile, Rose, diligently completing exercises from the first page to the last, found little improvement in her grades. Observing the questioning glimmer in her eyes as formulas and principles confronted her, I found myself at a loss for words. However, her unwavering encouragement never wavered, forever sealed with a gentle smile: The intricacies of the Chinese language, I expressed, were not insurmountable; true understanding could be found through sincere appreciation of classical poems and prose.


As the day of the college entrance examination arrived, we bid farewell during our final self-study session and found ourselves separated for the duration of the long summer break. I, not particularly adept in Chinese studies, secured a place in the prestigious ancient Chinese major at a local university. In contrast, Rose, who struggled with mathematics and yearned for a southern adventure, secured admission into an accounting program at a finance and trade school near the Pearl River. In my quest to find her, I journeyed to her residence, only to encounter an empty space devoid of her presence. Swiftly, it seemed that she had quietly vanished from my world. One fateful day, as I chanced upon an opened dictionary, a delicate strand of her hair caught my eye. Concerned for her well-being, doubts began to consume my thoughts...


Suddenly, awakened from my reverie, I found myself alone in a private room, accompanied solely by a male classmate. The absence of Anore and Rose puzzled me. “Oh, they left and went to the bustling bar street, choosing not to disturb us upon witnessing our inebriated state,” the infuriated classmate explained.
Years later, an unexpected call from the south startled me. Instinctively, I surmised that it originated from Anore. Perhaps, Rose would accompany him on this occasion. It was simultaneously my deepest desire and greatest apprehension. I pondered whether her eyes still radiated the same crescent moon smile as before, and if the warmth of the southern sun had remained embedded in her heart. However, an equally resounding feeling made me averse to witnessing her arrival in my courtyard, whereby the man would casually wrap his arm around her shoulders before introducing her as "my Rose."


That night, sleep eluded me for an eternity. In my dreams, within the confines of our classroom, I tenderly presented a small piece of paper to Rose. Blissfully, she smiled and gracefully removed the rosy butterfly hairpin accenting her locks, placing it delicately inside my pencil case. With affectionate eyes, she conveyed softly-spoken sentiments, although their words eluded my memory. Nonetheless, the overwhelming joy etched upon my countenance further intertwined our destinies, sealed by an unbreakable pinky promise...


In the early morning hours, I sprinted down to the subterranean storage room, eagerly searching through the neglected suitcases that lay untouched since my relocation to this place. My intention was to retrieve the cherished pencil case from my high school days, in hopes of discovering the presence of the pink butterfly hairpin that had appeared so vividly in my dream... Dust particles greeted my face, teasing my senses and provoking two consecutive sneezes.
Amongst the stack of certificates, ranging from days of youth to grand accolades, I uncovered my treasured pencil case. Curiosity abounded as I delved into its double-layered compartments. The first tier remained desolate, however, nestled in the depths of the bottom level, two aged movie tickets of The Titanic emerged. A flood of memories overwhelmed me in an instant - a vivid recollection from my final year of high school when I dutifully queued at the crack of dawn, triumphantly securing two coveted tickets.


The grand intention was to invite Rose, who had captured my heart, to partake in this cinematic experience. Alas, fate intervened when my mother intercepted me at the entrance of the cinema, bearing the news of my dying grandmother. Urgency consumed us as we were whisked away to the hospital's emergency room...


Repeatedly, I perused the movie tickets, tenderly caressing and examining them, before ultimately placing them within the hallowed confines of the pencil case. Regrettably, the pink butterfly hairpin eluded my search, but beneath the commemorative tokens of the film lay a solitary strand of Rose's hair. In this moment, her delicate tresses, fine, straight, and tinged with auburn hues, resurfaced within my mind's eye...I returned to the living room, methodically gazing at the timeless beauty of the blue and white porcelain vase.


The milky white roses adorning it had long since withered, but a subtle fragrance wafted through the air, tempting my senses. Succumbing to its allure, I inched closer to the source and glanced out the window. Captivatingly, the neighboring white roses were still blooming, swaying gently with each passing breeze...

 

Yanping Zhai, a distinguished Chinese poet, writer, and playwright, alongside Zongyu Qiao, a seasoned researcher at the National Theatre of China, have crafted a remarkable collection of over 40 captivating fictions and play-scripts. These literary gems have graced the pages of esteemed Chinese publications, enchanting readers with their evocative narratives. Among their recent triumphs are the short stories “The Girl I Crushed on at Four”, “The Long Bridge” and “The Long Wait”.

 

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