Standing at a safe distance, I became transfixed by the scene in front of me and forgot about my fear and my destroyed playground. Then, an idea hit me. I bolted into Lao Laos kitchen, threw open her large cabinet doors, and crawled on hands and knees in search of family treasure. I spotted a big water ladle at one corner of the cabinet and some spoons in a drawer, and threw them all into a bamboo basket next to the stove. I grabbed a large kettle and dropped it into the basket as well. Before darting outside, I surveyed the kitchen one last time and then threw Lao Laos heavy cleaver on top of my prizes. Dragging the basket behind me, I hurried as fast as my feet and the load would allow and dumped everything, basket and all, onto the mound of metal carefully selected by Da Jiu. Thank goodness I had been watching closely and knew which pile was the chosen one! I crept back behind the bamboo fence and slumped down in my little red chair, tired but satisfied. Throughout the day I sat there, spellbound. I shared every sign of triumph - the electrician patting the clerks shoulder, the clerk shaking the tailors hand, and then all of them giving a thumbs-up to Da Jiu. As the sun slowly set, leaving a trail of purple clouds in the crisp autumn sky, Da Jiu pushed his black-rimmed eyeglasses up and beamed.
Suddenly I heard Lao Laos voice. She had just returned home, ready to tackle dinner.
Where is my kettle? she asked, walking over to where I was sitting.
Have you seen my cleaver?
Yes, I helped our country with it, I replied proudly, without removing my eyes from the furnace. Maybe they are burning it now.
Lao Lao rushed over to Da Jiu and his metal pile. Together, they found the kettle and some spoons, but not the big cleaver. The knife had joined its comrades in the burning fire, doing its share for China.
My escapade circulated around the dinner table that night. Choking from chewing and laughing at the same time, Baba turned to me and said,Its good that you want to help, but next time it would be best to check with Lao Lao first.
Our roaring furnace popped and burned day and night for months. Every morning at dawn, our courtyard came alive with clatter and chattering. Then one morning I woke up to silence. Something was different. I ran outside to see.
In the courtyard, Da Jiu and our neighbors sat on the woodpile, their heads bowed like those of defeated soldiers. The fire in the furnace had died, leaving a lingering smell of burnt wood.
What happened, Da Jiu?
The iron and steel we made was not good enough. He sighed. I stared at him in disbelief. We simply did not know enough to make it right, he added.
Now I was sad, too. Climbing up the woodpile to sit next to him, I leaned my head against his shoulder, as crestfallen as he and our neighbors.
But we tried so hard.
Yes, he said. We did.
For days, we all avoided the courtyard. The abandoned red furnace stood in the center, alone and silent, along with a few scattered metal pieces and some half-burnt wood. We all tiptoed around it as if we were visiting a patient in the hospital. From time to time, I would find myself resting my chin against the bamboo fence and staring at my soundless enemy turned old friend, silently wishing him to roar for me one more time. But he only stared back.
For weeks, Lao Lao refused to replace her cleaver and used a small knife instead. It was not the money for a new cleaver that stopped her, even though nobody had much to spare. It was the principle. Our big knife had sacrificed itself for a cause and so should be honored. At least that was my interpretation. The roaring furnace, too, had done his best, even though his best was not good enough.
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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