Our farm animals were almost as free, housed in a shed under a giant elm tree in a corner of the courtyard. To me, the shed was like a small zoo. Two white rabbits with big red eyes lived there, as well as a rooster with glistening golden feathers, and four chickens - two white and two brown. Lao Lao had handpicked each animal from street vendors. The rabbits were my favorites, so warm and soft to the touch. Sometimes I even lured them into my bedroom with a carrot so that I could cuddle them.
Early that summer when I was four, Baba took Di Di and me to visit his youngest sister, who lived by the sea. When we returned in the fall, I could hardly believe my eyes - our courtyard was strewn with bricks, holes, and scrap metal! An ugly brick furnace, almost as tall as Baba, stood right in the center. I was in shock.
This is to make iron and steel for the Great Leap Forward, Baba said. Our country needs strong construction materials. That Great Leap again, I thought, remembering Babas globe with its colorful dots and splashes. I stepped gingerly around my shattered yard, dodging the busy grownups who, shovels in hand, were too preoccupied to pay me the usual attention. Even Lao Lao joined their efforts. Isnt it wonderful? She beamed, holding me up in her arms. We are helping our country. Yes, I know. We are going to catch up with that small dot before I grow up, I grumbled. Looking at what this Great Leap had done to my playground, I found it hard to share their excitement. Soon my freedom, together with that of our rabbits and rooster, was restricted. Under Lao Laos order, we were to stay in the garden behind the bamboo fence. Outside the fence, the world was pouring into our yard, day and night. Excited neighbors, scores of them, brought in firewood by the cartload and piled it up next to the furnace, ample fuel for the fire that crackled and roared. Some of the wood had been freshly split from old benches and chairs, with peeling paint and pointy nails still sticking out. The furnace,my enemy number one, was built with layers and layers of red bricks. On top of them sat a shiny metal hat with spurts of smoke, sometimes even red sparks, bursting out from under it. Fascinated but scared, I stared at the burning furnace, hugging my favorite rabbit for comfort.
None of this seemed to bother the grownups. They filed into our courtyard with their metal pots and pans - anything they could find and everything they could spare - to be melted into steel. People did not have much in those days, but the odds and ends soon looked like a small mountain next to the woodpile. As I watched, the tailors wife stepped out of her house with a frying pan. She hesitated, flipping the pan in her hands and wiping it again and again with her handkerchief. She seemed to be saying goodbye to an old friend.
Slowly, she walked up to the metal pile and gently laid her frying pan, now gleaming in the sun, on top of the little mountain. She stared at it for a few moments, then suddenly turned and walked away, never looking back.
Da Jiu (oldest maternal uncle), a math professor home on sick leave, was in charge of quality control. Stooping down from his slender height, he inspected the pile, separating the usable pieces from the junk. Picking up a wok cover, he examined it, tapped on it lightly, and then tossed it onto a smaller pile of rejects. He nodded at the mountain of metal that was growing larger by the hour.
My favorite neighbor, Uncle Liu, the electrician, tall and broad-shouldered, stood by the furnace like a warrior, shoveling logs and broken chairs into its mouth. Gripping a long steel pole with both hands, he used its tip to hook open the hinges of the furnace door. He prodded the burning wood and then slapped the door shut when the wood started to crackle. It looked to me as if he was feeding a roaring dragon. The clerk, short and dark but equally solemn, used a large iron ladle to channel the red burning liquid into a mold, while our third neighbor, his face glowing from the heat of the flames, inspected the fruit of their labors with a tailors precision.
Excerpt from SNOW FALLING IN SPRING by Moying Li. Copyright © 2008 by Moying Li. Reproduced with permission of Farrar, Straus and Giroux, LLC, in 2008. All rights reserved.
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