The mountain road is hard to travel, the sun now slanting down,
In a misty village, a crow lands on a frosted tree.
I'll not arrive before night falls, but that should not concern me,
Once I've drunk three warm cups, I'll feel as if at home.
His mother’s house is quiet when he arrives.
Snow falls softly, fat wet flakes that stick to his shoulders, slow to melt. The sun bleeds through the low clouds, staining everything the watery grey of a winter’s afternoon. The only sign of life is the trail of footprints behind him, already filling up. The car is gone, afterthought of exhaust dissipating in its wake. He is alone.
Silently, he tilts his head up, catching flakes against his lashes. The world softens to cotton and damp. He crosses the yard. Snow muffles everything. It eats up the evidence of his passing.
The door opens unwillingly, creaking along old, disused tracks. The curtains cough dust.
His mother’s house is empty when he arrives. White walls stand bare, pockmarked where pins once held photographs, signs of life, of living. The drapes hang dim and dull. The heavyset stove is black and cold, the kitchen dead and silent. The door that leads to the bedroom is closed. There is dust on the bare shelves built into the wall, on the table that sulks forgotten in the empty room.
Lan Zhan sits in the doorway and tugs his shoes off. He leaves them to puddle under the eaves. The flat, snowy yard stares at him, unconcerned and incurious, as he stands sockfooted upon the stoop.
He slides the door shut behind him, and pulls the curtains wider. The sun glances in, brief, and hides itself behind a cloud.
He lights the stove, coaxing kindling to flame and feeding the round-bellied heater. The wood catches quickly. Orange warmth pools, seeping slowly through the room, and he closes the grate with the edge of his coat, skin going fire-tight. He holds his hands out, fingers prickling after the chill of the snow, and sheds his coat. It is cold, and he lets himself be cold.
In the bedroom, the bedding has been put away in the large trunk, his mother’s trunk. It smells like cedar and time when he pulls it out to air. Beneath there are more linens. Beneath that, memory. He closes the trunk.
He unpacks slowly, setting things away in the kitchen. Groceries, mostly; things he remembered he should buy because his mother’s house would be cold and empty and quiet. Cabbage, scallions, flour, rice. Eggs. Ginger, honey, oil and vinegar. Half a dozen jars of spices, picked for their color, for being something different. New. They sit together on the shelf under the window, bright like spring blossoms, out of season. The pots and pans are where he remembers, where they have always been. He soaks them in water, which warms eventually. Finds soap, washes them. The snowfall stops, and the light through the windows is almost clear, almost bright. He turns the tap off. His mother’s house is still around him as he shreds cabbage, chops garlic, divides peppers from seeds. He cooks on the stovetop, sizzling loud in the silence. He waits for the rice to finish.
He eats at the table in the cold. It is not so bad now. His fingers are only a little stiff. The peppers make his nose sting.
After, he sets his dishes to soak in the sink, dons coat and boots, and shovels snow.
He will need to go into town. It is a long walk from his mother’s house to town. He pauses, leaning heavily on the shovel—it is harder work than he remembers, as though his body has forgotten the give and take of this kind of effort—and regards the yard. The garden hides beneath snowdrifts. The open-face shed gapes at him. The bike is there, only the handlebars visible, tires mired in crunching white. It is not as long a bike ride as it is a walk, at least.
He breathes in frosty air and returns to shoveling.
It is another hour before he finishes, frozen earth cleared from the road to the steps. There had been stones once, a path. He does not find them beneath the snow. Another thing absent from his mother’s house. He returns the shovel to the shed. He collects more firewood from beneath the stairs. He leaves his shoes to drip under the eaves.
The heater has worked in his absence, doing all it can to warm white walls and empty floor. He finds a rag and clears away the dust from the windows, sweeps, beats out the old rug before he lays it down. It is hungry work, clearing his mother’s house. For dinner he makes soup, egg blooming in the broth. His fingers burn when he wraps them around his bowl.
His brother texts him as he eats, seated at the table, a musty blanket draped over his shoulders. Did he arrive safely? Does he need anything? Has he decided how long he will stay? Will he be home for the new year?
I have arrived, Lan Zhan replies. I am fine.
He turns off his phone.
After dinner he washes the dishes and feeds the stove fresh wood and drags the bedding into the main room where it is not quite so cold. The wind sings over the roof in the dark, the night busy with noise. He can almost hear his mother within it, teasing, soft with ghost stories. It is the right sort of night for it.
Lan Zhan curls on his side, fire warm at his back, and sleeps.
In the grey of the morning he folds away the bedding and feeds the stove. He cooks egg, two pairs of socks on his feet, sweater thick and comfortable and dug out of his mother’s trunk. It had been his brother’s once, he thinks. She had knitted it, two hands and needles clicking. Inside had been wrapped a clay-kilned mug, and he drinks from it with breakfast, which he eats standing at the counter. After he washes the plate, and when the sun has crept from grey to yellow he visits the garden.
It is overgrown and half dead beneath the snow, gone to seed many times over without hands to tend it. There are cabbages, most frost-burned but some salvageable, and the thin green stems of winter-grown onions scattered thoughtlessly, and clumping radishes safe under the earth, and the brown bramble of what might have been a tomato plant in warmer, kinder times. Lan Zhan spends the morning in a meager harvest, and then clears away the snow and sets to making sense of disorder. He stops long enough to make himself lunch, bowl hot between his hands as he sits in the doorway and frowns at the clotted mud where it stains the snow. This is a task best left for springtime, when the ground is soft and forgiving.
He finishes lunch and returns to his work. After dark, he lights the stove and makes thin pancakes with green onions and eats sitting in the quiet heat. He washes the dishes in the sink and the work sweat from his body. He sleeps.
On the third day, he goes into town.
He forgoes the bike. The roads are thick with scraped-up snowfall and ice, and one tire is flat, so he leaves it slumped against the shed to germinate in spring. It is a long, crunching trip to make on foot. The fields are blank sheets of paper, trees spindling brushes above them, poised to write. The sky is a blue so cold it pinks his cheeks and his ears. Beneath his coat he wears the old sweater. His feet push through frozen snow, sinking into drifts. No one passes him along the road.
After the perfect stillness of his mother’s house, the town center is a cluttering mess. Muddied snow piles at the edges of the street; people slide from one building to the next; noise and slow-moving trucks pierce the cold. The old farmer’s co-op has grown into a grocer in his time away, and music plays over the radio, tinny and faltering so far from the city, too muddled to make out the song. He buys tea, the kind his mother bought, and soap, and twine and sugar and dried beans, and a bar of chocolate. The owner smiles when she recognizes him. He does not linger.
It is a longer walk back to his mother’s house. Uphill. His bag sits heavy on his back. He walks slowly to keep from slipping, and because there is no reason to hurry.
When he arrives, there is a truck parked at the shoulder of the road, unfamiliar in white. The bed is empty, dirt-stained and barren as the season. Frowning, Lan Zhan skirts it, passing through the gate to stop stock-still at the sight of the guest in the yard, head tilted towards the door. It is a profile he would recognize anywhere.
Wei Ying twists on a patch of ice and catches himself before Lan Zhan can move. His face breaks into a smile, one Lan Zhan has not seen in years. Not since they left for school in the city, and promised to keep in touch, and did not. The warmth of his gaze lances beneath Lan Zhan’s breastbone and settles there.
“Wei Ying,” he says, again. “What are you doing here?”
“I saw the smoke,” he says, finger pointed up towards the chimney. It is too narrow an answer for the question he intended, but Wei Ying has already moved on, shrugging. He has grown into his limbs, coltish energy turned to fluid ease. “I figured it had to be you or your brother. I hoped it’d be you.” He flashes another one of his smiles, and Lan Zhan nudges his feet into movement, crunching through the snow to set his bag down on the stoop. Wei Ying watches him, cheer unfaltering. “When did you get here? You should have told me. I had no idea you were coming back.”
“I’m not staying long,” Lan Zhan says. His hands rest uncertainly at his sides. “I didn’t know you were here.”
“Ah, yeah.” He laughs, rubbing the back of his neck. “I’ve been working on Popo’s farm. City living didn’t agree with me, I guess.”
“Mn.” It has not agreed with him either. Too loud, too busy. The food always tasting wrong. Wei Ying stares at him for a moment before he shrugs.
“Well I just wanted to say hi. See which Lan was moving in.”
“I’m not staying,” Lan Zhan repeats. Wei Ying laughs.
“Visiting, then. Ah, it’s really good to see you, Lan Zhan, you look— You look good. Maybe we’ll get a meal or something while you’re around.” He tucks his hands into his pockets, inching backwards. His attention is a steady weight, slow to shift. “Hey, you can visit me at the farm. When was the last time you were there, huh? Things are quiet right now, mostly, but there’s always the greenhouses! I bet you’d love them. Popo lets me mess around with the back bed, so I’ve been trying this new thing with crossbreeding that’s honestly going pretty well, y’know, although I don’t think—”
“Would you like to stay for lunch?” Lan Zhan interrupts. Wei Ying pauses. His mouth stays open, somewhere between speech and surprise.
“I was going to cook.” Cooking is better with two. Cooking is meant to be shared. That is something his mother always said. “If you’re hungry.” It is past the time for the midday meal. Perhaps Wei Ying has eaten.
“How could I refuse?” Wei Ying asks. His shoes sit on the stoop next to Lan Zhan’s.
Lan Zhan stokes the fire in the stove and unpacks his bag. Wei Ying’s attention drifts over the room, curiosity like an itch. Lan Zhan measures out beans to soak for dinner and considers the thin winter vegetables pulled from the earth. He mixes flour and water in a wide bowl.
“So what’d you come back for? It’s been ages.”
“I was hungry,” Lan Zhan replies. Wei Ying laughs.
“You came all the way back here just because you were hungry?”
Wei Ying laughs again, and shakes his head, and folds himself down at the table. He is unbearably alive within the barren shell of his mother’s house, sun-brushed and energetic, attention darting from one point to the next to the next. Lan Zhan watches him while he kneads the dough. Wei Ying, catching his eye, smiles again. It sweeps through him like brushfire.
“Will you chop the vegetables?”
“Sure.” Wei Ying bounds upright, spring-wound and eager. “How do you want them?”
“Thin,” he says, and Wei Ying takes up the knife without another word, standing on the opposite side of the counter where it carves the kitchen from the living space. His hands are careful as he cuts.
“It’s weird, you know.”
“We both go to the city for school and never see each other, and then here you are, like you never left.”
He works the dough in his hands until it holds its shape, then tips it out onto the counter, rolling it thin and cutting noodles. Wei Ying watches. His hand slows, chopping falling by the wayside. Lan Zhan does not look at his face.
“Where’d you learn that?” Wei Ying asks. There is something particular in his voice.
“Mother,” he answers, and turns to the stove. He heats oil in a wide, flat pan and adds to it Wei Ying’s slightly uneven vegetables and ginger and one of his flower-blossom spices, mild but bright, and lets it all simmer. The noodles cook quickly, fresh and fast to turn. He adds them to the pan, mixes them with a quick-whisked sauce. Wei Ying’s gaze is a steady weight, like a hand at his back.
“Huh,” he says. Lan Zhan readies two portions, hands him a bowl. He slides the brightest of his chilis across the counter. Wei Ying smiles at him.
They eat at the table. It is simple, filling. Wei Ying adds too much spice to his, but he has always done this. He eats too fast as well, and afterwards fills the silence with his own voice. It is warm in the quiet hollow of Lan Zhan’s mother’s house.
“I mean, I did enjoy it, at first,” Wei Ying says of his job in the city, an offer right out of school, the kind of opportunity parents crave for their children—or grandmothers for grandchildren, in the case of Wei Ying. “But I really thought I was going to be, y’know, doing cutting edge science and instead it was mostly just doing sequencing like, ten hours a day seven days a week. I got so bored. And tired. There’re so many, I don’t know, games you have to play, if you want to get anywhere. Kiss the right asses, all of that. So I came back here.”
“Yeah. Who’d have thought, right? But I like it. It’s hard work, but there’s none of that, y’know, posturing. You don’t have to fake it. Dirt doesn’t care. You can’t lie or trick something into growing any faster or better. It’s just the work. Keeps me busy. And Popo likes having me around. Her eyesight isn’t what it was.”
“Her usual reclusive self.” Wei Ying grins again. Lan Zhan collects it alongside all the rest. It warms him as sure as the meal, the fire. “You should come visit sometime. I’ll give you the grand tour, send you home with something good. Or bring you something, I guess. If you’re busy.”
Wei Ying blinks. “Seriously?”
“Oh. Well, okay. You’ll have to cook for me sometime, though.”
“Naturally,” Lan Zhan agrees. Wei Ying smiles. Its edges are uncertain.
“What about you, though? What have you been up to since you left?”
“Studying,” he answers. The degree is in business, postgraduate. His interest, never strong, has waned to apathy. It has affected his exams. His brother is worried. His uncle is furious. He has informed them both he will be spending the holidays at Mother’s house, to gather his thoughts before the spring term. He is a good student. He can, with effort, retain his placement in the program. It is a faltering, not a failing.
At the moment, he has elected not to think of such things.
“Oh, yeah, A-Sang said you were still at, uh, what is it, that really fancy business school. Must be nice to get away from it all for a bit.”
“Do you have plans for the new year? Nobody comes home for it anymore, not really. Will Huan-ge be stopping by?”
“No. I have no plans.”
“Ah, Lan Zhan, that’s so sad. It’s bad luck to start the year alone, you know. You’ll have to come home with me. Popo won’t mind. She’ll be glad to have you.”
Lan Zhan finishes his meal. He puts their bowls in the sink. He makes them tea, which Wei Ying accepts with grudging gratitude and does not finish.
“Alright,” he agrees. Wei Ying grins.
“Great. I’ll see you, then. And I’ll bring you something to cook with. I had no idea you were so good at it.”
Wei Ying grins and hugs him, lightning quick. Lan Zhan does not have the time to return the embrace before he minnows out of it, face pink in the cold.
“I’m glad you came to visit. It’s good to see you again.”
Lan Zhan watches him get back into his truck, engine turning over and over before it starts. Wei Ying waves out the window until he disappears around the bend.
He cleans the shed. The house. The yard. The ground is too hard for planting. He goes into the wild-grown woods and forages for crabapples, winter berries, watercress and wild parsnip. Things he once did with his mother, with his brother, now tasks completed alone. He brings his bounty home and discovers ways to cook them, old ways to cook them. He plucks his mother’s recipes from the bounds of his memory and gives them life, makes them warm and filling in her quiet, empty home. When he is hungry, he eats. His hunger is different, these days.
Wei Ying brings him food. Wei Ying brings him a basket of tomatoes, fresh and plump from the winter greenhouse, and they eat them together at the table. Wei Ying takes the smallest and tosses them to catch in his mouth, and manages most of them. Lan Zhan watches, warm.
“I don’t think this counts as cooking, you know,” Wei Ying informs him, wiping tomato juice from his cheekbone where he has missed his mouth. A single fleck of a seed lands on the floor. Lan Zhan does not mind the mess.
“Mh. Bring me something else.”
Wei Ying does.
There are books in his mother’s trunk. Poetry. Novels. Music, marked with pencil in her handwriting. He unwraps them, one by one. Cleans the dust. Sets them on the bare shelves in the main room. In his memory, they brim with her books, with his brother’s, with his own. Now, they make the house a little less empty.
He selects one at random, narrow, yellowed. When he opens it, he hears his mother’s cadence. The times are hard: a year of famine—
He returns it to the shelf.
The eve of the new year, Lan Zhan packs steamed buns tightly together and carries the box beneath his arm to make the trek from his mother’s house to Baoshan-popo’s farm. He passes the paddies, the barren fields, the orchard with its twisted boughs all dusted in white. The farm sleeps for the winter, save for the greenhouses. The greenhouses shine. When he left there had been one; now there are three, gleaming through winter-frosted glass.
Baoshan-popo’s home looks as it always has: lived-in, loved, alight. Ever in a state of change, yard messy, chickens loud. It is larger than Mother’s house, has been here as long as the town and, as Baoshan-popo likes to say, will be here long after they have all returned to the earth.
Wei Ying greets him at the door.
“You made it! Ah, did you bring something? Lan Zhan, you shouldn’t have. We’ll have way too much food. You’re just going to have to carry it all back with you later.”
“Mm,” Lan Zhan accepts, and he hands Wei Ying the buns while he removes his shoes. Baoshan-popo’s home is warm, cozy with clutter, and smells of spice and cooking food. It wards off the chill of the journey. Wei Ying closes the door behind him, winter wind left firmly outside. Wei Ying passes him the buns and takes his coat. It takes a minute to make space on the full coat rack. Lan Zhan stands in the entrance.
“Is that little Zhanzhan?” Baoshan-popo’s voice drifts through the open doorway. “Come in here and let me get a look at you. My eyesight isn’t what it was.”
He enters, box still under one arm. Age has caught up with Wei Ying’s grandmother. She sits before the heater, blanket across her legs, peering at him behind thick glasses, and beckons him closer.
“Look at you,” she says warmly, old farmer’s fingers hovering to frame his face, not quite touching. He must bend down to greet her properly. “Ah, you look just like your mother.”
“Happy New Year,” he says. He has to swallow to say it. “I brought baozi.”
“We’ll eat well tonight,” she laughs. “Help me to the table. A-Xing can finish up in the kitchen.”
“It’ll be just a minute!” calls Wei Ying’s uncle. Xiao-ge is only a few years their senior, quiet and smiling. Something sizzles on the stove, and he swears. Baoshan-popo laughs. There has always been laughter in this house.
Lan Zhan offers his arm. She wraps a hand around it, grip firm, and walks with him to the round table. Dishes crowd it already. Steam curls into the air. She eases into her seat and gestures for him to set down his offering. “Put them anywhere,” she says. He finds space. Wei Ying reappears.
“Are we good? Is everything ready?”
“Almost,” calls Xiao-ge. He says something else, muffled. A moment later, a man steps out of the kitchen, bowl in hand. Lan Zhan doesn’t know him.
“Ah, Song-ge, let me get that, you sit down.” Wei Ying swoops in, collecting the still-steaming bowl. “Lan Zhan, this is Song Lan. Song-ge, this is my friend, Lan Zhan. We grew up together.”
“It’s nice to meet you,” says Lan Zhan. Song Lan nods, polite. After a moment, his hands move. Wei Ying hums. He sets the bowl down.
“He’s asking if you’re a farmer too.”
Oh. Wei Ying gestures, and he sits. “No. I’m only staying for the holiday.”
“Lan Zhan’s studying in the city,” Wei Ying adds, and Song Lan nods. “He’s gonna make lots of money and not have to come back and see us any more.”
Lan Zhan frowns. Wei Ying laughs.
“I’m teasing. Of course you’ll come to visit when you’re all rich and successful. We’ll expect you every year. It’ll be tradition.”
“A-Zhan’s mother kept the most beautiful gardens,” says Baoshan-popo. Lan Zhan ducks his head. Wei Ying sits next to him, knees knocking under the too-small table.
Xiao-ge appears from the kitchen, balancing a plate in one hand and a tray in the other. Wei Ying leaps up to help him. It nearly upsets his plate. Lan Zhan steadies it. On his other side, Baoshan-popo shakes her head.
“Some things,” she says, “never change.”
She smiles with the same light as Wei Ying. Xiao-ge joins them at the table.
“A toast,” she says when they are all seated, and wine is poured. “To friends new and old.”
Even Lan Zhan drinks, a little. He refrains from refilling his cup. There is no point to tempting fate. He has not seen Wei Ying’s family since he left. He would not like to make a poor impression now.
In any case, he does not need wine for warmth to seep through him. They are bright, Wei Ying’s family, and they envelop him. They trade laughter and teasing. It is easy to sit with them and let the cheer of the night carry him on its shoulders. It is unlike the still, quiet dinners at his uncle’s home, and unlike his own silent meals in his apartment near the university. Despite the dark and the cold, everything is gleaming, alive in the coldest part of the season.
The snow begins as they eat, swirling thick. Beyond the bounds of the house, the last night of the old year closes in.
“You can’t possibly walk home in this,” Baoshan-popo declares as the meal drifts to its end. “You’ll have to stay for the night.”
“I don’t mean to impose.”
“Nonsense. A-Ying, go fetch the extra blankets.”
“Going!” Wei Ying’s chair scrapes across the floor as he stands. He grins down at Lan Zhan. Lan Zhan watches him until he leaves the room, and settles his fingers against the table before him. Baoshan-popo tuts comfortingly.
“I’d never send you out alone in this. What would your mother say, hm?”
There is a lump in his throat. “Thank you.”
Wei Ying returns. His arms are full of bedding piled so high it nearly hides his face. He must turn his head to speak.
“Where do you want me to put this, Popo? The main room, or—?”
“No, no, it’ll be much too cold. He’ll stay with you.”
Lan Zhan’s ears warm. “There is no need.”
Xiao-ge shakes his head. “She’s right. It gets drafty in here. You’re better off with A-Ying. Unless you want to room with Yimu.”
Baoshan-popo winks at him through thick, round lenses. Lan Zhan ducks his head over his bowl. Wei Ying laughs.
“Absolutely not. Lan Zhan, stay with me. I’ll protect you from Popo.”
“Mh,” he allows. They are laughing again, all of them. He flushes. It is not wholly unpleasant, this teasing.
“Go drop that off, A-Ying, and then fetch dessert from the kitchen will you?”
“It’s always work,” Wei Ying complains with undimmed cheer. He drops the bedding in his room and fetches dessert from the kitchen. He sits next to Lan Zhan, their knees bumping. After, they stand on the porch and send cracking fireworks out into the sky where they spark, flurries among flurries. Wei Ying darts through the uncovered yard, sparklers in hand, and returns snow-laden and pink-nosed and laughing louder than the popping fireworks.
“Are we supposed to let you back in the house like this?” asks Xiao-ge, ruffling his hair and dusting snow all across the porch. Wei Ying splutters and grins and shines, a better ward against the night than any firecracker. In his glow, Lan Zhan forgets to be cold.
Wei Ying’s room is small. Cluttered. He shoves piles of books aside with his foot to lay out the extra bedding. Lan Zhan catches a handful of titles. The mix is eclectic: old comics, novels, biochemistry, medical ethics, native birds.
“Sorry there’s not more space,” Wei Ying says. “It’ll be just like a sleepover, huh.”
Lan Zhan cannot recall the last time he had something in the shape of a sleepover. He and his brother lying together in their mother’s empty house, perhaps. It has been some time.
“Here,” says Wei Ying. He spreads the bedding out. “Your baozi were really good by the way. You’re a really good cook. I had no idea you could cook like that, honestly.”
“Thank you.” The heater hums in the corner. Wei Ying peels off his snow-soaked jeans and pulls on pajamas. Lan Zhan studiously observes the books.
“Ah, here, you can borrow mine,” Wei Ying says, and opens the cabinet against the far wall. He hands Lan Zhan a pair of pants. Soft cotton, worn, a little cold. Lan Zhan turns away to change. Wei Ying moves around the room with the energy he carries everywhere he goes. Lan Zhan folds his pants. Removes his sweater. He slides under the blankets. Wei Ying turns off the lights and lies beneath his own quilt. From elsewhere in the house, there is laughter.
He lies next to Wei Ying, shoulders nearly touching. He is warm. The whole house is warm, glowing gently with the ease that comes from family under one roof. But Wei Ying especially.
The laughter comes again, and frantic hushing after. Lan Zhan closes his eyes.
“Sorry about them,” Wei Ying says. “They like to tease.”
Wei Ying likes to tease. It is to be expected. “It’s nice.”
Wei Ying turns to him. Rustles in the dark. “You think so?”
“I didn’t think you’d like it. You always got mad at me when we were kids.”
He has had a second cup of wine to end the night, to welcome in the new year. It is late. He is tired. His limbs feel heavy. “I didn’t know how to react.”
“It only made me want to tease you more, you know.”
Yes. He knows. “I didn’t mind when you did it.”
Wei Ying laughs. “Ah, so I’m allowed.”
“Yes.” The heater is warm. Wei Ying is warmer. “You made it feel kind.”
He snorts. “Kind?”
Yes. No. He does not have the words. “You teased me about what I did. Not who I was.”
“Oh.” He shifts slightly. “I like who you are.”
“Ah, Lan Zhan. You’re not supposed to thank me for that. You’re supposed to tell me what a little shit I was when we were growing up.”
“You were my friend.”
Wei Ying is quiet for a minute.
“Yeah,” he says. “You were mine too.”
“You still are,” Lan Zhan says. Wei Ying laughs. It is mostly air.
“It’s too bad you’re leaving so soon. You’ll miss the spring.”
Wei Ying lies warm, and close, shoulders nearly touching. If Lan Zhan shifts only a little, they will meet.
He falls asleep like that: the nearness of Wei Ying, the fullness of the house, the snow falling outside, welcoming to new year fresh and unblemished.
Wei Ying is correct: he is sent home with more food than he arrived with. Baoshan-popo insists he should return whenever he desires, should tend the garden, should stay until the season changes. Xiao-ge and Song-ge sit at the table, braced against each other, still dressed for sleep. They smile the same smile, like a shared secret. There is a bruise high on Xiao-ge’s neck.
Lan Zhan collects his things and leaves.
It snows again, burying the garden, the yard. He shovels it. He sets dough by the stove to rise. He opens his books, the books for his studies, and closes them again. Puts them away. He checks the dough, steams mantou, shovels snow. The days pass in gusting drifts. He does not think of city slush, of his closed books.
His brother texts him. I am well, he replies. He is hungry. He eats.
“Lan Zhan,” says Wei Ying when he comes by, his white truck parked on the road. Sometimes, on clear and bright days, he walks. Lan Zhan fixes the straw spread over the fragile green tufts of his mother’s overgrown garden in the hopes that what slumbers beneath will survive the winter.
“Lan Zhan,” says Wei Ying, sitting on the steps, smiling warm, “you’ll have the sweetest onions in the spring.” He pauses. Catches himself with a wince. “Ah. I mean.”
“You can have them,” he says. “They shouldn’t go to waste.”
“They won’t.” He cannot read the expression on Wei Ying’s face, but it comforts him nonetheless. “I’ll be here, don’t you worry.”
After dinner, Lan Zhan stares at the shelf, his mother’s books. He picks up a music book, skimming the staff, her notes in the margins. In his mother’s trunk, in the very bottom, beneath linens and knitting and books and the small, delicate things too precious to move, is her guqin. He has not touched it. It sits wrapped in white cloth, ghostly. He returns the music book, selects another. Poetry.
He sits on the floor, on his spread-out, slow-warming bedding, and sips his tea. He turns to the first page. The stove is warm, the night quiet. Snow settles, muffling the world. He reads.
He finishes the book.
He begins another.
He contacts the university from outside the grocer, picking up the faltering signal to send an email informing the administration of his requests for a semester’s leave. It is granted in the time it takes him to purchase cheesecloth and coffee, because Wei Ying does not like tea. They encourage him to take time to consider his degree. They look forward to seeing him in the fall, prepared to prove his dedication. His semester’s tuition they can only partially refund. They are certain he understands.
He puts his phone away.
It is evening when his brother calls. He sits before the fire with the book of poetry in hand. He cannot recall the last time he read for his own pleasure. He keeps his finger between the pages to mark his place.
Lan Huan is worried. Lan Zhan assures his brother he is well. He announces his decision to spend the spring at Mother’s house. His thumb strokes the soft cover of his book, which he wishes to be reading, instead of explaining himself to his brother, who is concerned because he loves him, and because he does not understand.
“The full term? A-Zhan, are you sure?”
His brother is quiet for a long minute.
“Will you tell Uncle?”
Lan Huan is quiet for a longer moment. “If you’d like.”
Lan Zhan wets his lips. “Please,” he requests. Lan Huan sighs.
“Take care of yourself, A-Zhan. If you need anything—”
“I will say,” he allows. “Thank you.”
The kind thing about his brother is that even in his concern and confusion, he trusts Lan Zhan to make this decision. He is grateful for that, at least.
When the call ends, he turns his phone off. He opens his book and returns to his poems. When he is tired, he marks his place with a scrap of ribbon, and rolls the bedding out before the fire, and sleeps.
The season turns. He stays.
Red peaches everywhere the colour of spring;
jade willows by every house gleam in the moonlight.
A freshly made-up woman waits upstairs for nightfall;
another sits lonely in her room, filled with love.
Beneath the moon, fish are playing among the lotuses;
from a distant rainbow, the sound of sparrows chirping.
Human life—a dream of joy and sorrow mingled;
why is it that, gaining one, the other also comes?
The onions come up. He pulls them from their unsteady line, bulbs breaking through dirt. Many are frost-burned. Those that are not are sweeter for weathering the winter. He cooks them the way his mother did: patiently roasted, stuffed with mushrooms and butter and herbs. He burns the roof of his mouth eating too soon out of the oven and feels the numbness of it against his tongue.
After dinner he takes the trash out to the back, peelings thrown to the compost. The sky is clear. He considers the stars for a moment. He has never seen this many stars in the city.
The night is black and soft and murmuring. The air is chill; his fingers go stiff, his nose cold. The last of the snow collects where the shadows do not fade, packed up against the side of the house, amongst the roots. It glimmers ghostly in the moonlight. Cold air burns his lungs. He fills himself with it.
It smells like refuse. He laughs and his breath comes ghostlike too.
Inside, his fingers prickle when he makes tea.
The world wakes like the cracking of frost. The first day it warms for it, he plants potatoes like instinct, like clockwork, inevitable. His mother’s voice whispers in his ear. Potatoes first, and then the rest. They take the longest, sure and sturdy. Patient. When they sprout, that’s how you know spring has come to stay.
Wei Ying finds him in the garden, sun bright on his neck, dirt thick on his knees. He pauses at the gate, observing trowel and fresh-turned earth and Lan Zhan. Lan Zhan watches him. He wears his collar up against the wind. The lingering chill turns his nose pink.
He stirs to action like waking. Like he too is cracking frost.
“Look at you, already busy,” he teases, step light. Lan Zhan carves a fresh hole in the ground, drops half a potato, covers it again. “Always an early start for Lan Zhan, huh.”
Wei Ying crouches next to him. He dips his fingers in the dirt for a moment, dusts his hands on his knees. He looks very much at home, observing bare rows of turned-up earth with a critical eye.
“What are you going to grow?” he asks. He does not mention that it is weeks past the time for leaving. That planting suggests he means to stay.
Lan Zhan shrugs. He has decided not to care. It is unlike him. It is a surprising relief. “There’s seed in the shed. I’ll plant that.”
The jars had been buried right where he remembers, deep in the cool ground, each full and meticulously labeled in his mother’s handwriting. It had been an old bruise, that familiar script. Now they are in the shed, kept out of the elements, waiting for the potatoes to sprout.
“Ah, that’s good,” says Wei Ying. “It’s so strange to see you out here like this, you know. Like you never left.”
“No, no, it’s a good thing! It suits you.”
Lan Zhan wipes sweat from the back of his neck and feels the grit where the dirt sticks. Wei Ying grins at him.
Gratitude pierces him sideways, sharper than it has any right to be. He swallows and returns to his work. Wei Ying’s gaze sits heavy on his back, sure as a hand upon his shoulder.
“I’m almost done,” he says. “If you want to come inside.”
“No, it’s fine, I don’t mean to interrupt.”
“You aren’t.” He is always glad to see Wei Ying.
Wei Ying laughs. “In that case I do mean to interrupt. Here, give me the bucket, I’ll start the other end.”
He takes the bucket and the hand plow and the far end of the row. It is neither race nor competition, but Wei Ying still eggs him on, a steady stream of prodding, teasing, noise. They meet halfway.
When the planting is done, he makes tea and coffee, and they drink in the open doorway, staring out over the newly turned earth of the garden, Wei Ying’s shoulder pressed to his. Despite the cold, he is warm.
There is a market in town once the weather clears enough for it. Old trucks park on the side of the road, planting their stalls in the street. All morning, the other cars detour around it. There is laughter, bartering, bright colors, fresh food.
Lan Zhan uncovers the old bicycle pump, cobwebbed at the back of the shed. The snow melts, patchy white and cold brown earth. He bikes to town.
He arrives early to a market half-grown: bare tables, unpitched tents, cars coughing exhaust into the pale morning. Slush sits thick underfoot. He stops his bike, boot planted in the mud, and watches. His breath clouds before his face. The air stings in his lungs.
There is a white truck parked with the rest, familiar. Xiao-ge hauls boxes from the bed, passes them down to Song-ge. When his hands are not full, Song-ge speaks. When his hands are full, Xiao-ge laughs. His smile is gentle. Xiao-ge leaps down from the truck, and Song-ge steadies him.
Lan Zhan’s chest aches.
The market wakes piecemeal. The wheels of his bicycle tick steadily as he walks it down the road. He considers greens of many varieties, buys hard cheese and carrots and fresh buns for breakfast.
Xiao-ge smiles when he arrives at their stall. The sun is small and struggling with the spring.
“Good morning,” he says. “You’re out early.”
“Mn,” Lan Zhan agrees. He buys a melon, a head of cabbage, a jar of pickled radish. Song-ge counts out his change while Xiao-ge places them in a bag, crinkling and cold.
“Weren’t you going back to the city?” he asks with his hands busy.
“I’m caring for the house.” It is and is not an answer. “It’s old,” he adds, slightly helpless.
Song-ge asks Xiao-ge a question.
“You’re not selling it, are you?”
“No.” The thought of losing it is a slippery cube of ice in the pit of his stomach. “I’m not.”
Xiao-ge smiles again. It’s a nice smile. Not as bright or teasing as Wei Ying’s smile, but nice. Steady. “Well, it’s good that you can stay a little longer. I know A-Ying’s happy you’re here. He was worried you’d disappear without saying goodbye.”
“I would not.”
Song-ge says something. Xiao-ge laughs.
“I told you so,” he translates. “Not you, A-Ying.”
Song-ge rolls his eyes and adds something more. Xiao-ge nods sagely, amused in the way of elder siblings. He’s not much older than da-ge.
“He’s been moping.”
Song-ge hands him his change. Xiao-ge hands him his bag. “He left a lot of friends in the city. It’s good that he has someone to spend some time with besides us.”
Lan Zhan understands. Wei Ying is a social creature by nature. He must be sometimes lonely here, with all their old yearmates gone away.
He places the bag in the bike’s front basket. “Thank you.”
“Our pleasure,” returns Xiao-ge. Song-ge smiles.
He bikes home again, uphill, sweating despite the chill of the morning. He eats breakfast and chops firewood until it is not so early and after goes on a long walk past Baoshan-popo’s fields. They are still empty. The orchard is still bare.
In the back greenhouse, a figure moves, shadow on the wall, and even from the road there is the faint sound of whistling. The air smells like snowmelt and springtime. Lan Zhan stands for a long minute, listening to the tune, familiar from their childhood. The lyrics, if memory serves, are Wei Ying’s creation, and incredibly rude.
Smiling, he tucks his hands in his pockets and returns home.
Near the bottom of his mother’s trunk are her records.
The discovery surprises him. He had thought them all sold, or passed on to others, the handing-off of belongings no longer needed. But here they are, carefully packed in a pair of wide, shallow boxes beneath the towels and old curtains he has not bothered to hang, favoring the light that seeps in, shifting patterns with the passing day.
He pulls them out and closes the trunk behind. The jackets are dusty, but the records inside clean. He holds them up to the light, marvels at the myriad grooves that spell out music.
The record player is gone. It lives in his uncle’s apartment in the city, where it is treated with care, treasured. A parting gift. If he closes his eyes he can paint the picture of his uncle and his mother sitting together. Quiet, always, murmuring voices too low for two boys to pick out. But content. Even after Father left, there was his uncle, come to visit. Tea and music, long beard and long frown and a sternness that meant love.
He opens his eyes and the memory runs like watercolor. He returns the records to their sleeves and places them upon the shelf. He calls his uncle.
Lan Qiren is well. Lan Qiren disapproves of this whim of his, running back to his mother’s house instead of staying in the city to complete his studies. Lan Qiren, in that stern way of his, is glad he has called. Afterwards, Lan Zhan feels both light and heavy.
There is a man, he finds on the internet, who lives two towns over, who will sell him an old record player. He can pick it up in one week, if he wants it.
He decides that he does.
“Xing-ge said you were fixing up the house,” says Wei Ying in lieu of greeting when he comes for dinner, bag over his shoulder.
“No one has been taking care of it.”
“Then it’s a good thing you’re here,” says Wei Ying. His voice is warm with something Lan Zhan cannot pick apart.
“Mh.” It is ridiculous to blush over this. He cannot recall the last time anyone was so glad for his company. He thinks perhaps it was in this house, with his mother.
Wei Ying laughs, balance unsteady as he unlaces his boots, first one then the other. “So what are you making?”
“I hadn’t decided,” he replies. “What did you bring?’ Wei Ying closes the door behind him. It rattles in its track, edging out the cool of the evening. Through the windows, sunset stains the world red.
“Dessert,” he answers, setting his bag down on the counter. Lan Zhan takes a sieve out of a cabinet. He pauses long enough to raise an eyebrow.
“It’s the last of them,” Wei Ying continues, pulling forth two jars of candied chestnuts to place against the wall. “I had to fight Popo for them, so you should be grateful.”
“I’m surprised you won.”
“Lan Zhan!” A flash of teeth like a camera bulb. Lan Zhan tucks his smile into his chest and returns to the sink, considering dinner. “Actually, she only agreed when I said they were for you. Apparently you’re too skinny.”
“So you’re very fortunate I’m here to feed you.”
“I am,” he agrees, even though he is the one collecting cabbage and carrots and garlic and the last of his sweet spring onions. “Thank you.”
“Pft,” says Wei Ying. He picks up the book left out upon the table, thumbs through it while Lan Zhan washes the vegetables, chops them. The chestnuts are blackcurrant dark and gleam in the jar.
They are quiet as he works, but it is an incomplete quiet, full with small noises. Pages rustle as Wei Ying reads. Water runs. The knife cuts through the vegetables with a faint hiss.
“Lan Zhan,” says Wei Ying. He lies on his back on the floor, ankle resting on one raised knee, book held in the air high above his nose. He squints at the text. “Is this what you’ve been reading?”
Lan Zhan looks up. The light from the stove catches against the edges of his face, the line of his wrists, his hands as they lower the book.
“Lan Zhan, it’s so sad. How can you read it?”
“I enjoy it.” He considers. “It’s comforting.”
Wei Ying rolls over a little, watches him steadily as he works. A frown tugs at the corners of his mouth. Lan Zhan slides the vegetables into a bowl. “To be sad?”
No. Yes. It is difficult to explain. “To share it.”
Wei Ying’s face does not clear. Lan Zhan sets the bowl down and selects bottles from the shelf above the sink with studied precision. They sit in a neat row next to the stove, patient.
“It is from my mother’s collection,” he says after a long minute. He moves around the counter to Wei Ying, pulls the book from his unresisting fingers. Briefly, he catches the poem he has turned to. I’ll sing no more of pines with laden limbs. He closes the book, sets it back on the table. Wei Ying watches him.
“I didn’t know your mom liked poetry.”
“These books are hers.” He indicates the shelves, crowded with poets and musicians, novelists hidden between. A few hold ribbons, marking a passage or a turn of phrase struck him so deeply he could not bear to let it go without some sign of remembrance. Something to mark the pages where his mother’s handwriting, faint in faded pencil, speaks of her mind.
It is not like having her here. It is something like being haunted.
Lan Zhan returns to the kitchen. It is easier to stir a sauce together than weather the weight of Wei Ying’s gaze.
“Popo says my mom liked to listen to old records,” Wei Ying says after a moment. “Especially comedy ones, you know, with the taped routines and stuff. She liked laughing.”
Lan Zhan believes it. He had not known Wei Ying’s mother, but he has heard more than once that Wei Ying is very like her. Uncle speaks of her with stern exasperation, which means fondness. Baoshan-popo speaks of her with smiles. Mother had spoken of her with quiet warmth.
Wei Ying speaks of her with sorrow. Fondness too, and smiles, and warmth. But mostly sorrow.
Lan Zhan understands sorrow.
“I am buying a record player,” he says. He does not mean to say it, but there it is, spoken. “A man who lives in the area is selling his. I meant to ask if I could borrow your truck.”
“Oh,” says Wei Ying. He frowns. “Um. She’s kind of finicky.”
Lan Zhan hears the hesitation. He lights the stove, burner clicking before it catches. “I understand.”
“No, no, I just mean—” Wei Ying huffs and sits upright. His gaze is heavy. His voice is light. “Seriously, she’s one bad day from a breakdown. I don’t want to strand you out in the middle of nowhere all alone trying to run an errand.”
“It is no trouble.” He will speak to the man with the record player. It is not a loss, because it is not something he has to lose.
“Lan Zhan.” Wei Ying huffs. “I’m trying to say, you don’t need to borrow it. I can take you. That way if something goes wrong, I can fix it.”
“She’s a pain in the ass but she always listens to me eventually.”
Lan Zhan was not aware his truck had so much personality.
“Yeah, of course. Lan Zhan, come on, of course I’ll help you out. What are friends for?”
He does not know. He has grown unused to companionship. He drops the vegetables into the pan. The house fills with the smell of cooking food. It is a different sort of fullness.
After the meal, Wei Ying pries open a jar of autumn-dark chestnuts, smooth and rich and sweeter for weathering the winter. His smile is sticky with them. Like the sweetness, it lingers after he leaves.
His mother kept tomato seeds in her jars. Cucumber too. Melon. Cabbage and mustard and squash. He sits in the shed and runs his fingers over old labels. Her handwriting is faded, but not gone.
He sits with glass and metal and the bare kernels of life for too long a time, and then he rises and sweeps the yard, drags out the trash, opens all the windows. The day is temperate and bright, a high and trembling note of clarity.
He folds himself in the open doorway with a steaming cup of tea and his mother’s poetry. There is a hole worn in his sweater, just at the collar, and the breeze is cool against his skin. He reads.
“Do you recall the name of the musician she liked? The one she went to see?” They had spent the night with their uncle so she could attend a performance in the city. Lan Zhan remembers toffee candies and rustling beneath the blankets, unable to sleep with the city noises loud out the window, and his mother’s hair ticking his face when she returned late, kissing their foreheads.
Lan Huan is silent at the end of the line.
“A-Zhan,” he says. “Is everything alright?”
“Yes,” he says. He is impatient, today. The weather is springtime warm and it brings with it a strange mood. “I’m fine. Do you recall?”
He does not answer. Lan Zhan waits.
“No,” he says finally. He is heavy, so heavy.
Lan Zhan does not remember either. It is why he asked.
“Should I come visit?” Lan Huan asks.
“No,” he says. He considers the edges of his mood, runs fingers across it like he might the strings of her guqin . “You’re busy.”
“Not that busy.”
Lan Huan has not returned to his mother’s house since she passed. Lan Huan still visits their father, sometimes, in his silent, sickly home.
“No,” he says again. His mood drains like water, spiralling away from him. “I’m fine.”
“I will speak with you later.”
Lan Huan does not hide his sigh. “Take care of yourself, didi.”
He is trying. It is amusing, almost, that his brother does not see that.
The sky is low and grey on the day Wei Ying takes him to pick up the record player. The truck appears from the fog like a ghost, and Wei Ying leans across the passenger seat to open the door for him, precariously balanced over the gear shift. The seat is cracked leather, peeling strips covered by a faded blanket folded fourcorner.
The drive is easy. There are few people on the road. The fog burns away and leaves a pristine springtime sky in its wake. Wei Ying speaks, and Lan Zhan listens. It is not unpleasant.
Wei Ying teaches him a road trip game. Wei Ying despairs that he has not learned any before, on all those long trips to visit his father, but he teaches him now.
“Better late than never, Lan Zhan,” he says. Lan Zhan is not certain he agrees. Some things come so late they can only be never. He puts it out of mind and listens to Wei Ying’s winding explanations of games played over long car trips with his parents, and then his uncle and cousins, and then his grandmother.
Lan Zhan likes the game with the idioms the most. Wei Ying is clever with words, turning them in ways they should not go and making them fit seamlessly. Lan Zhan stretches the bounds of his memory to keep up. They are an even match.
In the end, they call it a tie. Lan Zhan would not mind losing outright, if it meant one more of Wei Ying’s smiles.
“Been in the family for years,” says the old man when Lan Zhan greets him. They are outside his home, which is old too. Even the record player is old, its condition good in spite of its age. Everything here is aged, well-kept and weathered. Wei Ying waits in the truck, engine idling. “Had to pass it along sooner or later.”
“I will take good care of it,” promises Lan Zhan.
“I can tell,” says the old man. He is missing teeth, and his smile is kind.
He takes the money, crisp new bills crunched in his palm. Lan Zhan takes the record player.
Some books must be moved front the bottom shelf to make room. They sit in stacks around the table, waiting to be rehomed. Wei Ying props his hands on his hips and rolls out his neck.
“Are you going to test it?”
Lan Zhan crouches, feeding the cord through the back of the bookshelves, checking and double checking that it has not been harmed in the transfer.
“You know,” Wei YIng continues, crouching next to him. He bounces slightly on the balls of his feet. “To see if it works.”
“Mn.” He turns it on, picks up the record closest to him to slide from its sleeve and set in the player. The needle lifts smoothly, settling in the groove. He adjusts the volume as it crackles for a snow-staticky moment, and then the sound clears. Music plays.
The noise is large within the quiet of his mother’s house. Wei Ying grins.
“If you have her records,” Lan Zhan says, sudden and nonsensical, “we can play them.”
“If I have—? Oh.” Wei Ying’s grin falters. He doesn’t stop smiling entirely, only does it in a different way. The sorrow creeps in. “Yeah, I’ll, um. I guess I could ask Popo.”
“They might be gone, though.”
“That’s okay. I only meant we can listen, if you want.”
Wei Ying blinks at him. “Yeah,” he says. “Alright.”
The music plays.
“What if I end up finding something else, though?” He settles into teasing as though it is a refuge. “What if I bring something you don’t like at all? Will my record privileges be revoked?”
“No,” Lan Zhan says. It is an alien thought to imagine he would deny Wei Ying anything. “Bring whatever you’d like.”
Wei Ying laughs. This is like refuge too.
“Okay, okay. I’ll look, then. We’ll listen together. I’ll show you some good music, Lan Zhan, I bet you don’t get a lot of time to listen to good music at school.”
He does not. Like reading, he has not indulged in anything beyond his studies in some years. He looks forward to the opportunity. The anticipation surprises him.
“Mn,” he agrees. His knees ache, slightly, from crouching so long, but if he straightens he will have to leave Wei Ying, and he does not want to do that just yet.
They kneel there until the song ends. The record spins and fuzzes. Lan Zhan picks up the needle before the next one can begin, returning it to its cradle. He turns off the record player.
Wei Ying rises first.
“Guess it works, then.”
Lan Zhan joins him. “Thank you.”
“No, no, don’t thank me, ugh. You’re not allowed to thank me, Lan Zhan. I’m allergic.”
He is not. Wei Ying has no allergies. There is nothing in the world that does not love Wei Ying.
He hikes up into the hills and picks bracken. He dries it and does not think too hard on how it is an autumn task to ready greens for winter. He eats the last of the chestnuts and returns the jars to Baoshan-popo, who laughs and calls him Zhanzhan and insists he stay to help Xiao-ge and Song-ge with the seedlings.
“You really don’t have to,” Xiao-ge says when he arrives. Lan Zhan shrugs, shedding his jacket. The greenhouse is hot under the sun.
“I don’t mind.”
“You should take some trays, then,” Xiao-ge returns. “It’s only fair, if you’re preparing them.”
He has land for it. It is his mother’s land, fields long barren, unneeded. “I wouldn’t want to impose.”
“You aren’t,” promises Xiao-ge. Song-ge smiles with his eyes, quiet and steady. “We’d be happy to have you around. You can borrow the transplanter too, once A-Ying fixes it.”
“Alright,” Lan Zhan agrees, to save the trouble of an argument. The insistence that he participate curls comfortably over his shoulders as they lay out the nursery bed. It is an unanticipated belonging, and it softens the aches and cramps of hard work. The fertilizer stinks, and his neck itches where sweat gathers behind his ears, and there will be no salvaging this shirt, and he finds he enjoys it very much.
Wei Ying arrives as the sun begins to set, pouring thick and golden through the greenhouse walls. He leans in the open doorway watching them pull up the last of the frames, oil streaked at his jaw, hair pushed back, sleeves of his t-shirt rolled all the way up to his shoulders and damp with sweat.
“Popo says you should wash up and come eat,” he declares, smile gleaming. Lan Zhan looks at him and must immediately look away. He busies himself with propping the frame against the wall, mouth dusty dry. “Oh, Lan Zhan! I didn’t realize you were here! You really can’t let them use you like this. They’ll take advantage if you let them.”
Song-ge says something rude. Lan Zhan can tell because it makes Xiao-ge snort and Wei Ying splutter in protest.
“I don’t mind,” Lan Zhan says, because he does not. It is truer than many things have been, these past years.
Wei Ying laughs. Because Lan Zhan is not looking at him, he sees Song-ge nudge Xiao-ge, teasing. Song-ge says something else. Xiao-ge smiles and looks at Lan Zhan.
“You’ll stay for dinner, won’t you?” he asks. It is more statement than request. Lan Zhan does not think they would accept his refusal, and he does not want to give it.
Baoshan-popo, in the hours they have been busy, has cooked soft greens and noodles and broth and eggs. She sends them to wash and ladles second helpings into their bowls, and thirds when Wei Ying requests them. After, she packs Lan Zhan too many leftovers and refuses to hear a word against it.
Behind his grandmother, Wei Ying makes a face and shrugs, exaggerated. He is not fast enough to clear it away when she turns around.
“Of course I’ll see him out,” Wei Ying interjects before she can say anything more. He takes the last bag from her hands and drops a darting kiss on her cheek and winks at Lan Zhan. “Come along, Lan Zhan.”
“Tstch,” huffs his grandmother. “Get home safe, A-Zhan.”
“I will,” Lan Zhan says. Her smile is knowing as Wei Ying tugs him away.
Wei Ying walks him all the way home, night mild, chattering comfortably. They pass the fields, empty, and the orchard, thick in bloom. The air smells of flowers and fresh earth. Lan Zhan places his feet carefully upon the shoulder of the road. Every few steps, Wei Ying’s arm bumps his.
“I’m glad you came by,” he says when they reach the gate. The yard is dark and cool beyond. “I always worry about you being all alone out here. It must get so lonely. You shouldn’t— Oh! Yu-xiaojie had kittens, I’ll bring you one.”
“It is not necessary.” There is a bright, warm thing in his chest as he says it. He is scoffed at and does not mind.
“Not everything has to be necessary, Lan Zhan. How boring would that be, if we only did things because they were necessary?”
Lan Zhan thinks of his schoolwork, abandoned. He thinks of routine and obligation. He thinks of the city, and his mother’s poetry, and music. Of spring, and all the things that return from the dead.
Wei Ying smiles. It is a sliver of light in the dark, and does nothing to douse the glow gleaming between his ribs.
“Come by again, okay? Don’t let Popo scare you off making you work. Though, I guess you got a pretty good deal out of it.” And he laughs and gestures at Lan Zhan’s laden arms.
“Mh,” Lan Zhan agrees. He has certainly come off the luckier in this exchange.
Wei Ying hands him the bag, fingers warm. “Well, goodnight then. I’ll see you later.”
“Goodnight, Wei Ying.”
And still, they do not move. He stands, hand halfway outstretched and Wei Ying his mirror. Their fingers almost touch. The breeze blows chill and Lan Zhan, frozen, is warm from crown to sole.
Wei Ying laughs again, as though this is somehow a joke, or an almost-joke, and shakes his head. He steps away.
“Ah, I’ll see you,” he echoes. The dark wraps him in spring cool. Lan Zhan nearly calls after him. He stands with his lips parted, words stuck fast to the roof of his mouth as Wei Ying turns into a shadow upon a shadow upon the road, and then he is gone.
Later, when the leftovers have been put away, he considers the quiet. His mother’s house is full with it, shoutingly empty in the aftermath of Wei Ying’s bustling home. Something tender roots in his chest, eggshell delicate. He wishes he had asked Wei Ying to stay. Then his mother’s house would not be so hollow. Here he is, fed and full and still hollow. How can he hold so much space inside him? What is there to fill it?
He wishes Wei Ying had stayed.
He sits on the ground, weave of the rug rough against his ankles where his socks slide down, and thumbs through his mother’s records. He picks one at random, sleeve faded past the point of recognition and worn soft at the corners, and eases vinyl from the cardboard. For a moment the player fuzzes, and then the needle catches. Music curls up, buzzing.
He knows this song. He cannot recall the name, but the familiarity knocks him sideways. He is twelve years young again, adrift; sound washes over him like water, like river rapids, sweeping everything else away. It fills the house and swells, pouring through the loam of him. He sucks in air, drowning, and smells her, a memory pressed into the edges of her home like a meal cooking upon the stove. If he closed his eyes, he thinks, he would see her. In the kitchen, always the kitchen; in his memory she is busy with food, made again and again like love. If he closed his eyes he would turn his head and see her, and she would look at him and she would smile and she would ask, A-Zhan, are you hungry? And he would say—
The cardboard crumples under the force of his grip. So much of her is here. So much, but not the most important part. Not the part he wants. He thinks he might cry and doesn’t. He sits there watching vinyl spin until the record skips and scratches, air rough in his ragged lungs. He sits there until the music ends and sits there longer still in the dark, empty quiet of his mother’s house.
In the morning, he wakes cold and grey before the dawn and stares at the white wash of the ceiling. Whitewashed walls still unscribed. His head hurts. His eyes are gritty, heavy. The house is still and quiet and cold. He rises. He pulls on his sweater with its hole at the neck. His mother’s house is a springtime thing as he rises, awakened from cold death and not yet alive.
He goes outside. He breathes in and the cold is gentle, gentler every day. It smells of earth and damp and summer to come. The first pale brush of sun is rosy across the tiles of the roof, clouding breath faint before him. You dig a pond—a spring emerges. You open a path—grass grows anew.
The potatoes have sprouted. Green shoots stand up from the cool earth, straight and stubborn. Patient.
He makes himself breakfast while the sun rises. When he is fed, he takes his mother’s jars from the shed and row by row, he sets to planting.
Remember the old days
when everyone was sincere
one's word is one's bond
The dawn of the train station
the dark street with no sign of pedestrian
and the steam from the soy-milk stall
The nightfalls used to come late in the past
Everything was slow: the bike, the horse, the post
A lifetime was all but enough to be in love with one
The old-school lock was beautiful
and the key exquisite looking
once locked, the others understood
Wei Ying visits often come summertime.
“To see my child,” he explains, hand held out to Bichen, who humors him with feline patience, sniffing at his fingers and deigning to let him scratch under her chin. “And you, I guess.”
“Mn.” He crouches in the dirt, weeding. Always the weeding, a constant blur of fingers pinching at roots before they can ruin his radishes. Wei Ying perches on the stoop and grins at him, quicksilver and secret. He has cut his hair short for the season and it stands up in half a dozen different directions when he scrubs his finger through it. Lan Zhan itches to set it right, or muss it further. He has yet to decide which. With effort, he puts it out of mind.
“So serious,” teases Wei Ying, still watching him. He has settled near the doorway so that he may take advantage of the fan, old and clicking and the color of dried moss. It helps only a little against the heat, which presses down against the earth with a solid weight, a hand between bent shoulders. Lan Zhan had forgotten that, the heaviness of summer. His meals have grown simple, greens and cream and cold noodles. Wei Ying makes faces across the table and insists there is nothing to drive away heat like hotter food, all spice and sweat.
It is an old argument, well-worn and comfortable. Lan Zhan enjoys the opportunity to try it on again.
“Will you stay for dinner?” he asks, rising, dusting his knees, wiping his face on his shirt. Bichen stretches and takes her leave, leaping up into the rafters of the shed where her tail hangs down, keeping clock-tick time. Wei Ying stands and rolls out his neck, face pulled down in an exaggerated frown.
“Lan Zhan. I can’t believe you’d have to ask. I’d starve if it weren’t for you.”
“You wouldn’t,” Lan Zhan returns, because there is no one who cooks with such ferocious affection as Wei Ying’s grandmother. Wei Ying pouts more.
“You wouldn’t leave me starving out here in the cold.” He considers the slow-setting sun, the thick humidity. “Ah, you know what I mean.”
“I would not leave you starving anywhere,” Lan Zhan assures him, and pride sits like ice on his tongue, sudden and sharp and shocking, when Wei Ying goes the color of sunburn. He presses a smile tight between his lips and makes himself busy in the kitchen. Wei Ying lingers in the doorway, painted in soft shades of orange and pink by the summer sunset.
He unpacks the guqin on a hazy afternoon. It has become a necessity; he has nowhere else to store the winter linens. He kneels in the bedroom, windows open, hair sticking to the back of his neck, and removes the instrument from its resting place, winter-wrapped and shrouded. Dust clings to the cloth, which has been knotted precisely to hold the guqin safe and clean within. Who wrapped it? His uncle, he thinks. He sets his fingers against the knots, careful, and imagines his uncle’s hands, movement precise, expression—
He does not need to imagine his uncle’s expression.
Beneath the instrument lie the last of his mother’s things, derelict: thin, time-battered chapbooks; empty-eyed embroidery hoops; rattling old mothballs rolling like marbles from a child’s game. Bichen catches one that spills out and bats it around the room, tail flicking, eyes sharp.
He cleans the slats of the trunk with a damp cloth, smoothing away the dust. When the lacquer gleams, he packs it again. Coats and heavy linens, lighter linens. The sweater with the hole at the collar, which he has patched. Winter clothing, empty jars, notebooks and texts which will not fit on the shelves and he does not care to read. The trunk fills slowly, tamped down like earth. The guqin rests atop the closed lid. He considers it a long minute, sleek in its funeral whites, before he rises. Like everything in this house, it has learned his mother’s patience. It will not mind if he leaves it a little longer still.
Sometimes he sees Xiao-ge and Song-ge when he visits the rice fields, and they work in a companionable silence, mud sucking around their ankles. Often he sees Wei Ying when he passes the orchards. The trees are full with foliage, frothy white buds yielding to small, green things that will be apples, pink and crisp. Wei Ying waves him over every time, and every time Lan Zhan stops his bike upon the shoulder of the road and follows him through sunlight and shade while Wei Ying tells him about this tree, and this one, and this.
“I guess it’s sort of a pet project,” he admits, flopped on the ground in the seeping midmorning heat, water near at hand. “I mean, the orchard has been here forever, but Popo’s not in any state to go climbing trees so it was pretty much growing wild until I said I’d take care of it.”
Forever, yes. Lan Zhan sits in the shade, knee barely brushing Wei Ying’s outstretched shin, and considers forever, the lurking nostalgia hidden behind every corner and curving road of this town. It creeps up on him more often these days, as though the summer has brought with it a window to the past. He cannot decide if it is the season, the company, or the time. Perhaps it is all three. Perhaps it is only himself.
“It’s funny, y’know. I used to get in so much trouble for picking the apples when I wasn’t supposed to and now I’m the one in charge.”
“You would bring them to school.” The local school had shut down before Wei Ying arrived, not enough children to justify keeping it open, but Lan Zhan recalls long bus rides into the next town, Wei Ying dashing up nearly too late and handing out pink-crisp apples in the fall. Lan Huan had been halfway out of the house already, older and eager to see the rest of the world. Lan Zhan had sat at the back of the bus with a beautiful, strange boy who brought him apples and learned the meaning of the word lonely only in its absence.
“Ha, yeah. And then I would get home and Popo would send me off to work off my debts taking care of the ladies.”
The ladies are Baoshan-popo’s chickens. They are infamously picky. Lan Zhan had liked them before Wei Ying and even more after, when he had known to find Wei Ying in the yard after classes, bowing to them as though they were truly of the gentry.
“Do you miss it?”
Wei Ying does not ask him what he means. He considers, measured.
“Sometimes. I don’t see Jiang Cheng or Yanli-jie much anymore. I miss that. I missed you, when you were gone. I like things now, though. I’m happy.”
He was not always. This is, Lan Zhan knows, a victory, enormous in its simplicity. He traces the edge of a sunlit patch of earth, a dancing shape, impossible to capture.
“What about you?” asks Wei Ying. Lan Zhan’s answer is sunlight. He cannot map the whole of it.
“I missed you as well,” he says. Wei Ying smiles at him then, and it as though he has never left in the first place. As though they have always been here, caught in the softness of a summer afternoon, knee pressed to shin beneath the ever-shifting shade.
He dozes in the slowest and thickest hours of the afternoon, when the air feels like syrup, like he could step out the door and swim. He lies in the open doorway and breathes. Everything smells of heat and dust and the slow, humid weight of growing things. He thinks of things he should do—emails he should send, books he should read, tasks he should begin now that summer is here and autumn will not be so far behind.
But everything is slow, and thinking of what he should do does nothing to stir him to action. Obligation is a distant thing; there are other, pressing matters here. The measure of water and sunlight it takes to tend his mother’s garden. The weeds he must draw up again and again, tenacious things that they are, dug into the dirt. The tender skin at the back of his neck, which burns easily when he forgets to wear a hat, a negligence that would make his younger self smug with judgement. He cannot bring himself to care about figures and facts when the world is only so big as his mother’s garden, and sometimes Wei Ying’s orchard, and sometimes the long bike ride into town for beans and rice and visits to the bank.
He thinks, idle, that he will sit his exams at the end of fall. That a year is not so long to spend here in his mother’s home, remembering what it is to have roots, fed and watered. Then, perhaps, when he returns to the life waiting for him, he will not be quite so hungry. Then he will remember how to be full.
His phone buzzes. He stirs, hazy and half-awake, to Bichen staring at him, languid. She rubs against his outstretched hand as he collects his phone, reads the message. His brother would like to visit, to see him, if that is alright. Lan Zhan reads it flat on his back, shirt sticking to his skin, sun creeping behind the house as the afternoon wears on. It blazes through the kitchen window. He sits up.
“Well?” he says, knuckling under Bichen’s jaw. She rumbles at him, content against his hand, and goes in search of the water bowl. Lan Zhan watches her leave.
He replies to his brother.
The last three records on the shelf belonged to Wei Ying’s mother. One is entirely in English, though Wei Ying can quote it word for word when it plays, cadence and delivery pitch perfect. He has always had a good ear for such things. One is a re-recording of a re-recording, and bumps and clicks at the quarter mark. One is not particularly funny, in Lan Zhan’s opinion, but Wei Ying tells him stories of lying on his mother’s rug as a boy and poring over the sleeve, the details of it, and so he likes it for that, for Wei Ying’s love.
“Ah, really,” says Wei Ying when Lan Zhan protests at their placement, at the end of his shelf. “It’s not like they’ll be played at all at home. You may as well hang onto them. Then I’ll have a reason to visit!”
“Besides my cat.”
So Lan Zhan hoards them, the three records at the end of his shelf. Something of Wei Ying’s in his home. Something to fill the hollow. The laughter is tinny, and different from Wei Ying’s, and he does not always understand the jokes, but they are there nevertheless, a sliver of Wei Ying’s humor, Wei Ying’s heart. It is not such a bad thing to keep care of. He can tend that too, while he stays.
Bread rises well in the heat. He bakes often, even though it turns the whole of the house into an oven and sends him fleeing outdoors for the promise of a breeze. He spends long hours in the garden and the fields and brings fresh loaves to Baoshan-popo when they are done.
“Who’s looking out for whom here?” she asks each time he comes bearing food, smiling the way Wei Ying does, eyes turned to creases like laundry pinched between pegs on the line. He is never allowed to come and leave again; he must sit, must eat something, must help her with the cooking, the laundry, the ladies. She pokes his ribs, calls him too skinny, tells him he works too hard with the same teasing cheer as Wei Ying. She calls him little A-Zhan even though he towers over her. He feels half a child again and he does not mind the youth.
“Aiyo,” she says, sitting in the shade while he fixes the wiring of the coop. Her fan is painted with palm leaves. The thin grey hairs at her temples flutter in the breeze. Bichen’s littermate, over-eager Suibian—Wei Ying, he thinks with soft-edged fondness, should not be allowed to name the animals—pounces on loose feathers in the yard and sends the ladies scattering in protest. “It’s good that you’ve stayed, A-Zhan.”
He gives the fencing a final tug and wipes his hands against his thighs, leaving dusty smears. When he looks over his shoulder, Baoshan-popo is watching him, expression shrewd.
“It’s been good for you,” she nods with all the assurance of a grandmother. “I can tell. Your mother must be pleased.”
He feels his face change and cannot say what it does exactly. A question, perhaps, or a shock. Whatever it is, it amuses Baoshan-popo; she laughs bright and open. That too is like Wei Ying.
“You remind me of her very much.”
“Thank you.” The words stick in his throat. Wei Ying’s grandmother tuts and gestures him near. Helpless, he kneels next to her.
“You have deep roots, little A-Zhan. It’s good to tend to them now and then. Don’t forget that, when you go back to the city, hm?” She cups his cheek with one weathered hand, bones frail beneath papery skin, grip strong and sure as the mountains.
“I will not,” he promises. He does not think he would know how to, now. He hopes he would not know how to.
“Good boy.” He is oddly bereft, when she lets go. “Ah, do an old woman one last favor?” She does not wait for his answer. “There’s a lunch bag in the kitchen. Bring it to A-Ying, will you? He’ll forget his own head next, that boy, I swear.”
Head ducked to hide the flush of his ears when she winks at him, Lan Zhan does as she asks. Wei Ying, bare-armed in the rice field, waves in broad strokes when he approaches. Song-ge and Xiao-ge stand apart, heads bent together, rising as one when Wei Ying calls out his greeting. Lan Zhan, lunch carried carefully under one arm, breathes in the smell of humid summer and rich earth and joins them.
Unwrapped from its funeral cloth, the guqin sits dark and shining in the sun-bleached room.
Tuning it is a slow task. The second string must be replaced entirely. He spends the whole of a sweltering afternoon folded before old wood, memories like seedlings rising through the fog of the past: the way his mother’s hands moved through these same actions, guiding him, the way the string wraps around the yanzu, the sound and sensation of silk sliding beneath his fingers. When it is done he plucks them one by one, sol la do re mi sol la, and hears his mother in the changing notes.
He stills the instrument under his palms. The wood is warm. He breathes, feels the pull of it in his shoulders. His mind is quiet. Slow, like growing.
He makes himself dinner, watercress cooked soft and savory with a little garlic, and eats it in the open door as the day cools into night. Bichen presses herself against his knees.
His mother’s garden stirs in the slight breeze. Also slow. Also growing.
Lan Huan visits in the hottest part of the year.
“I couldn’t get away sooner,” he grimaces when Lan Zhan meets his train, standing in the gravel, dust on his shoes and his pants and the hem of his shirt. There is always dust at the train yard. It sticks to Lan Huan as soon as he steps down, turning him into something of the town, of the earth. “Or later. I can’t say I missed this.”
“I understand,” says Lan Zhan. Lan Huan looks at him, an all-over sort of looking, and idly pushes his sleeves up. He is pale, city-bleached, but he smiles the same, warm and honest around the eyes.
“It’s good to see you, A-Zhan,” he says. “You look well.”
Had he not before? Maybe not. It is strange to think of it, that he may have been unwell without realizing it. Another meaning learned only in absence.
“Are you hungry?” he asks.
“I could eat,” his brother says, which means he is not, but he is too polite to say so. Lan Zhan takes his bag, hands sun-worn, and turns to the road. He has not brought the bike, and it is a long walk. Lan Huan has perhaps forgotten. He has not been back in many years, and distance makes forgetting easy.
They do not speak along the road back to their mother’s house. The sun beats down, hotter and heavier as they turn uphill. Lan Huan keeps pace with him without complaint, but he mumbles a brief, breathless, “Thank heavens,” when the house comes into view. He wastes no time in sticking his head entirely into the water barrel in the yard and emerges dripping and laughing and young in a way Lan Zhan had almost forgotten. Distance is not always a physical thing.
“I changed my mind,” Lan Huan decides, wiping water from his eyes, shielding himself from the glare of the sun. He sits on the stoop, panting, grinning. “I am hungry. Has the walk always been that long?”
“Yes,” Lan Zhan assures him, setting the bag down. The heat cracks across the landscape like a blow, but there is respite in the shade of the steps. A hopeful breeze kicks up dust in the yard and rustles the thick, leafy green of the garden. Lan Huan sits in the shade and observes it while Lan Zhan unlocks the door. Bichen dashes out, mewling her protest at being left alone inside, and Lan Huan grins in delight.
“What would you like?” Lan Zhan asks. Lan Huan leans back in the doorway, braced on his hands. He is dripping water on the floor. Strangely, Lan Zhan does not mind.
“Surprise me,” Lan Huan invites, and brings his things inside while Lan Zhan makes a meal of cold noodles and bean sprouts and scallions and cilantro, an almost-scene from a distant time, nearly forgotten. It is imperfect, pieces missing, but there is the kitchen and the cooking and his brother with one of their mother’s books open in his lap, and it is enough on which to grow.
Lan Huan insists on working while he visits, falling back into old habits unprompted. Like riding a bike, he says, nose pink from the sun, and Lan Zhan, who knows the impossibility of winning an argument, lets it go. They rise early and spend their days in the yard, in the sun, in each other’s company. The empty spaces of the house are less obvious with two to fill it, moving in half-familiar tandem. The edges are not so sharp. To brush against them aches only a little. Lying still, one could almost forget them entirely.
It is a strange, not-unpleasant sensation to wake in the morning and forget to flinch. He stares at sunlight printed against the far wall, turned opalescent through the half-pulled curtains, and feels like the summer pond, spring-fed and clear. It has been a long, long time since he has slept late enough to miss the sunrise. He pulls the curtains fully open before he leaves the bedroom.
In the kitchen, Lan Huan stands with a dripping fork in one hand, attempting to ward Bichen away from the bowl full of beaten egg, hair falling in his eyes. Bichen complains pitifully and attempts to duck under his elbow.
“Ah, A-Zhan,” says Lan Huan. He blows at the hair hanging in his face. “Help.”
Lan Zhan observes with a feeling like a river breaking its banks, overfull, and surprises himself by laughing.
Wei Ying comes to visit, unannounced as is his way, and greets Lan Huan with delighted shock.
“You should have said,” he berates Lan Zhan, smile brighter than the red-gold sunset. He kicks his shoes off and runs a hand through his hair so that it sticks up in every direction. “I’d have brought something over! Huan-ge, how are you? How’s city life? Tell me everything. I haven’t seen you in so long!”
Lan Huan laughs. He is sitting on the floor, sorting records. He will bring some with him when he leaves to give to their uncle. Lan Zhan thinks their uncle will like this: the memory, the music. He says nothing about Wei Ying’s records at the end of the row. “It’s good to see you too. Are you staying for dinner?”
“I wouldn’t miss Lan Zhan’s cooking for the world.” He crouches next to Lan Huan and lowers his voice, as though there is a secret to be told. “It’s very good, you know. I don’t know where he learned it.”
“Lan Zhan has always enjoyed cooking with our mother,” Lan Huan says, as though it is easy to speak of it. “He was much better at it than I was.”
“I don’t believe that for a minute,” Wei Ying declares, as if either of them are in the habit of lying. He straightens and pops his back. “You Lans, always so modest. So what’s for dinner? And how can I help?”
He asks, but he is already in motion, taking a familiar place at the counter, pulling cutting board and knife towards him without direction. He smiles all the while, calling cheerfully to Lan Huan, careful balance of the knife at odds with the way he waves his other hand around, his drifting attention. Lan Huan puts on music and answers Wei Ying’s endless questions about the city, his job, his friends, his life. It eats away at the empty space, its blunted edges.
Lan Zhan catches his brother watching him, smile knowing, and that fills the space too.
After they have eaten, Lan Zhan cleans while his brother and Wei Ying sit in the yard. Baijiu has been procured from somewhere, somehow, and Lan Zhan watches through the open door as they tap their glasses together. Laughter wells between them over a joke Lan Zhan has not heard. The light through the open doorway catches the angles of Wei Ying’s face, lovely and open.
Lan Huan hits Wei Ying’s shoulder, his grin wider than Lan Zhan has seen it in many years. Understanding comes easily, then. It is not his brother who has sanded down the jagged edges of his loneliness. In its absence, Lan Zhan realizes what he has missed.
He closes the door behind himself and joins them in the yard.
Lan Huan tells him about their father—how his health is the same, his heart. Lan Huan has come from visiting the man, folding his travels into the narrow window of time his busy schedule allows. It is strange to think he has traveled so much, when Lan Zhan has planted his feet in the dirt of his mother’s home and let his roots dig. It is nice to hear news of the world brought to him by his brother, shared over tea. It has been a long time since they traded stories like this, words coming easily, halfway boys again.
Lan Zhan does not often think of his father. There is little need to; he had been distant before he left, and twice so after. Even their mother’s death had stirred him only a little; they lost each other long before she passed. Perhaps they loved each other once; perhaps they tried. Some seedlings cannot grow in new soil, no matter how carefully one tends them.
His brother does not, at least, ask if Lan Zhan will go to visit. Lan Zhan is grateful for that; it means he will not have to give his answer, which would be the same as it always is. Their uncle calls it a grudge. Their uncle does not visit his brother either, and so has little right to call it anything. Lan Huan is a better man than both of them. Lan Zhan and Lan Qiren agree on this.
“He was glad to hear you’ve come to take care of the house,” Lan Huan says when the tea is only leaves in the bottom of the pot. “He’s glad it isn’t empty.”
“He could have come himself.”
He could not have, of course. That is the trouble with it. He is poorly made for this soil, this sun. In that, they are entirely their mother’s children.
Lan Huan hums, knowing just as well as he does that their father would not come back, not even for the ghosts. He is too much one himself to ever settle here.
“Should I make a fresh pot?” asks Lan Huan, collecting their empty cups, and that is the end of all talk of their father.
“Have you been playing it?” his brother asks the night before he is to leave again. Dinner has come fresh from the garden, cucumbers in rice vinegar and the first of the tomatoes and melon carved and sweet and dripping, and they are fed now, full. Lan Zhan sips his tea and thinks perhaps this is the sort of night that wine is made for, the warmth of it, the ease. Bichen sits at his heel, tail curled around her paws. Through the open door of the bedroom the guqin is visible, dark wood and fresh strings.
“Yes,” he says, and is only a little surprised at how quickly it comes. Lan Huan stares at him, as though he too had not expected the answer, or the ease of it, or both. His face softens, a folding smile.
“She would be glad,” he says. It should hurt. It does hurt, but in a stretching way, stiff muscle remembering motion.
“I cannot take it back with me.” It is forbidden in his lease. How funny, he thinks. All that senseless city noise and still: no music.
“Well,” says Lan Huan in that easy way of his. “You haven’t left yet.”
He has not. Lan Zhan hums and watches the garden rustle quietly in the yard as his brother stands, and bids him goodnight, and readies for bed.
Later, much later, when everything is dark and half-real, Lan Zhan rises, too hot for sleep, and slips into the main room. Lan Huan is a pale figure in the blue glow of his phone screen, elbows braced on his knees. He does not stir when Lan Zhan opens the door wide in hopes of cooler temperatures. He does not move when Lan Zhan lies next to him. The hardwood is cool against his back. The fan clicks.
He closes his eyes. A frail breeze creeps in. Lan Huan moves in the dark. The screen glare blinks off, leaving perfect black in its place, pressed against his eyelids like fingers.
“I keep expecting to see her,” his brother says quietly. Lan Zhan breathes deep and full, holds it in his lungs and lets it go again. Full and empty by turns. “Like I’ll turn around and she’ll be here.”
Lan Zhan does not think that. Lan Zhan knows better than to think that. No matter how he wishes it, he cannot return to the past, and she cannot come to the present, and the space between them is the kind that swallows men whole.
But there is still her garden, her books, her music. The food she taught him to cook. The music she taught him to play. Who is he to say she cannot be here, when she is in everything around them, pressing her dark fingers to his eyes and calling him to rest in the wind through the leaves?
It is like this: her house is haunted, but it is not the cool silence of something dead. It is old roots, long-trimmed, stubborn in their growth. It is weeds, unwilling to cede life, clinging to the loam of his garden. It is old seeds, hidden underground, turned to rows and rows of melon and cabbage and radish. It is like the seasons of planting and harvest. Cycles turned again and again, never quite returning to the exact place one began. It is a spiral, ever-growing, similar and not the same. Growing under uncertain sunlight.
“You should come to visit again,” Lan Zhan says quietly. “When you have the time.”
“Yes,” replies his brother. “I would like that.”
In the morning Lan Zhan walks his brother to the dusty train yard, sky a blistering blue, promising a burning afternoon.
“Will you go back in the fall?”
Lan Zhan shrugs, small and tilting. “Yes.” It is the height of summer. Like all things, it must end.
His brother gives him a long look. “Alright,” he says. Only that: Alright.
And then, half aboard, hand wrapped around the rail and feet braced on the steep stairs of the carriage car—it is a brief stop the train makes here, in this little town that was once his home—Lan Huan says, “I meant to tell you—your garden is beautiful, A-Zhan.”
The train whistle calls, woodwind-shrill, and the great iron beast takes his brother away again.
(Here, another memory, nostalgia tucked into the corners of this town: standing in the dusty gravel of the station, watching his da-ge leave for the city with his mother’s hand upon his shoulder, both of them waving, his mother already ill in a way they could not see or know. Even after the train had left, her hand had stayed on his shoulder, light as the summer breeze and sure as forever.
Like the summer, it too ended.)
“It was nice to see him,” says Wei Ying, up to his calves in pond water, fingers idly weaving reeds together to keep busy. The sun fragments over his bare shoulders and turns him to living tile, a mosaic of skin and shadow. Lan Zhan sits in the shade of the tree, drying quickly in the afternoon heat, and watches his hands twist and tie.
“Yes,” he agrees. “It was.”
Lan Zhan hums, a rough sound in the shape of a question. Wei Ying shrugs, shoulders hunching up, and studies his weaving.
“I just figured it must’ve been kinda strange, y’know? Both of you being there? Cause you haven’t, right, not since— I mean, not since you left.”
“Since my mother died,” says Lan Zhan. It tastes strange on his tongue. It is years old, this grief; its flavor has changed.
Wei Ying’s eyes dart up to meet him, face a muddle of understanding and embarrassment. “Yeah.”
“It was strange,” He allows. Strange to see his brother in the dirt, strange to turn around to scenes of the past playing before his eyes. “Not bad, though.”
“I thought you might leave with him,” Wei Ying says. He has left off his weaving; he watches Lan Zhan with an expression thrown into shadow by the shifting branches above.
“I,” he answers, and cannot find the words to follow, cannot fit his feelings into anything resembling sense. He shrugs, struggling. “I don’t need to go just yet.” He has not scheduled his exams. He has been busy with the garden, which should not go to waste. The food, the work, the time—it should not be abandoned so thoughtlessly. Not again.
It is not wasted, says his mother’s voice in the shush of the reeds and the lapping of the water and the buzz of the cicadas. Effort is effort no matter the outcome.
“Ah, well,” says Wei Ying. His face is difficult to read in the motion of light and shadow. He smiles. “That’s good.”
“Yes.” Yes, it is good to stay a while longer. And then— and then. And then the train will take him away too, back to the city to pick up the threads of his life. To study, complete his degree, find a good job and everything that comes after. But that is for after. After what? He does not need to think about it now. Now it is enough that it is good to stay.
“We’ll make it count,” Wei Ying promises him. He falls backwards still smiling, and sunlight cuts through each and every droplet that sprays up. Lan Zhan closes his eyes and breathes slowly, and counts out each second as they fall around him like splashing water.
Then you continually suspect you’ve missed something.
What on earth has watched over you,
Have you waited for, so many years?
Even if you walk back in your own footprints
You can never return to the same place.
The rice ripens, sheafs growing heavy and golden. From afar, the fields billow and dance in the wind like rolls of silk. He sets himself to the harvest of his mother’s garden, pickling the excess with a quiet mind. He does not think of readying for the winter. He does his best not to think of anything.
His success is limited.
Mornings become difficult. He wakes before the dawn, but it is an uneasy waking, edges prickling with shoulds and musts , and in the still-cold hours he lies beneath the blankets and shivers his way through worry and obligation until he can piece himself together enough to rise, to feed himself, to sit in the open doorway with the chill of the morning and watch the geese fly overhead.
He plays the guqin more these days. In the mornings, the evenings; he recovers old melodies by ear, pages through his mother’s music books. Spends long hours lingering over her handwriting in the margins, notes on timbre and tone and the day-to-day rhythm of life. Legato, new strings. Milk flour tea sugar. A-Huan concert 2pm.
The writing has worn down to transparency, a filter laid over the living world. He rises late. He picks fresh vegetables. He plays. He thinks around endings and the weight of the future sat like the sun on the horizon: inescapable, uncertain, blinding.
He bikes into town, emails the university from outside the grocer with a bag of chips at his elbow. They are the kind his mother would let them buy if they were good, or celebrating, or simply wanted them. He crunches them slowly, scheduling his exams, confirming his registration, wading through a headache of bureaucracy he has let himself forget with time and distance. After he feels no better for taking care of the task. He buys flour and tea and soap and does not realize until he returns home that Wen-ayi has tucked a bag of chips at the bottom of his bag. He holds it, plastic crinkling, catching Bichen’s attention. She gnaws at it, intrigued, and he does not push her away.
For dinner, when he manages to gather the scattered fragments of his focus enough to rise and make a meal for himself, he cooks old noodles, dices mushrooms and leafy greens and scallions and simmers it together in a wide pot. It tastes like rainy weekend afternoons and nights busy with schoolwork. He saves the chips.
When Mid-Autumn comes, he spends it at Wei Ying’s home, elbows knocking together in the too-small kitchen, around the too-small table. It is not that the space is not ample enough; it is merely that Wei Ying’s family unfurls within it, and so they are a tangle of laughter and limbs. Lan Zhan catches Song-ge’s eye over the frying mooncakes and knows he is not the only one overwhelmed and still glad for it.
“Swap?” Song-ge asks him, hands circling. Lan Zhan nods, steps away from the stove. He finds space to breathe in the yard. The ladies flutter around his feet, hopeful and then uninterested when he has nothing for them. The moon has not yet risen, last light of the day the color of a faded bruise on the horizon. Xiao-ge finds him with a glass of juice, condensation beading between his fingers. Lan Zhan accepts it.
“Yes.” He is; he is always most alright weathering the chaos of Wei Ying’s home. He will miss it terribly.
The thought chokes him. He pulls air in through his nose, slow, and out again. He sips the juice. It is pear.
“You and Song-ge,” he says, surprised to hear himself ask it. “How did you meet?”
Xiao-ge blinks at him. Confusion is easy to read in the fading light. It turns to fondness almost immediately, memory folding in around him.
“I was in the city,” he says. “A long time ago, before Yimu retired.” He makes a face like it is a joke. Lan Zhan understands; Wei Ying’s grandmother will cease her work when she passes from this world and no sooner. “I had— well, no idea what I was doing, really.” He laughs, chiming. “It was at a bus stop. I asked— I don’t remember. For directions, I think. He told me I was waiting for the wrong bus, that it would be faster if I took a different route. I said... I didn’t care how long the ride would take. I was eager to see the city.”
For a long moment after that he stays quiet. Lan Zhan understands. He waits. The moon appears on the horizon, making its ponderous rise into the heavens.
“He thought I was a fool,” Xiao-ge says, lost to the memory. “But he rode with me to my stop. The kindest stranger I had met. I was excited when I saw him at the stop again, later. He taught me a great deal.”
“About the city?” asks Lan Zhan, not looking at him, knowing the answer already. Xiao-ge hums.
Lan Zhan does not pry further. Behind them, the door slides open, Wei Ying’s voice drifting out.
“Xing-ge, Popo’s looking for you. Do you know where the side table went? I could have sworn it was in the shed but Song-ge says it isn’t there and honestly I don’t know where else it would be.”
“I’ll find it,” Xiao-ge says, amused, and then he is gone and Wei Ying stands in his place.
“Can I have a sip?” he asks, already reaching for the glass in his hand. Lan Zhan passes it to him without a word. The moon winks down at them, a perfect silver disk in the indigo sky. He thinks of festivals when he was young, his mother’s voice, Do you see the rabbit?
“You doing okay?” asks Wei Ying, knocking his shoulder. Lan Zhan hums. “Too much? I know it can get pretty hectic around here.”
“No,” he says. “I like your family.”
“Ah, Lan Zhan,” says Wei Ying. “You’re welcome any time, you know.”
Wei Ying is looking at him; he can feel the steady weight of his gaze. After a moment, he turns back towards the moon.
“Okay,” he says. “Good.”
He doesn’t say anything more, but Lan Zhan has nothing to add that will not spoil the silver-disk perfection of the moment, so he leaves the silence to bloom. They watch the moon rise, pressed shoulder to shoulder looking up at a rabbit made of mutton fat jade, until they are called inside to eat.
Lan Zhan likes autumn, in spite of its endings He likes the easing of the heat, the sudden color, the wild geese. The rush of the harvest, the tang of winter on cool-crisp mornings, the chestnuts.
He goes up into the hills to find them, cracks their thick casings underfoot and fishes them from the leaf mulch. He candies them following his mother’s recipe, boiled and strained and peeled and sweetened. The taste is not quite right. Sweet, yes, but not in the way he remembers, an almost-perfection warped with the weft of time. He eats them in the yard, Bichen dozing in the sunlight, until his stomach aches. The juice runs a thick autumn red.
The second time he tries, he forgoes his mother’s recipe entirely. He imagines her voice as he boils them, strains the juice, simmers them in syrup. And now? And now? As though he is showing her something new. How often has he brought her something, brimming with a young boy’s fascination? A bug plucked from a leaf, a book pulled from her shelf, and she always curious, always interested, no matter how many novelties he brought, no matter how foolish. And now? Now he tries something different.
“These are good,” says Wei Ying when he brings a jar for Baoshan-popo. “Is this your mom’s recipe?”
“It’s mine,” he answers.
Wei Ying’s smile is sweeter than the syrup.
Xiao-ge lends him the harvester. Is less lending and more the blurring of lines; he puts himself to work in Baoshan-popo’s fields and in return the trio of her disciples flock and flit around him, insisting on making themselves useful. At the week’s end, when the rice has been bundled and stacked to dry, Song-ge takes them to fish in lao-Wang’s pond and they eat roast fish and drink weak beer in the cooling air, and Lan Zhan thinks of forevers and memory and the steady surety of time, the cycles it makes, the points to which it always returns. The spiral of it all. How many times they have come here to drink and eat and rest after their work is done; how many times they will do so again. It’s eternity in the blink of an eye.
He watches Xiao-ge and Song-ge speak over their meal while Wei Ying crouches by the firepit. They are all hands and quirking mouths and half-finished sentences.That is a marvel too: to find oneself at the right place at the right time and have such a chance, hands and quirking mouths and shared thoughts.
He walks home in the chill of the autumn under clear skies, waving off the offers for company, to stay the night. The stars make a quilt above him, delicate silver stitching shining down. The orchard, when he passes it, is heavy with fruit.
The walk home is long, made woolen by the single thin beer he has nursed all night. He stumbles his way out of his pants and drinks a glass of lukewarm water with his legs stretched in front of him, shins tan from months outdoors. His toes curl and uncurl against the hardwood floor, and he thinks of the earth. He thinks of his mother. He thinks of nothing at all.
When he falls into bed, he dreams of endless rows of grain that swallow his footprints, so that he cannot tell where he has been, where he is going. He walks senseless circles and wakes exhausted from his wanderings with a headache and a cold nose to sunlight pouring through windows he has forgotten to close in the night.
“Did you get my email?” his uncle asks.
“When are you coming back?”
Silence, then, bars of rest. His fingers pluck imaginary strings against his leg. It is not uncomfortable, the wait. This has often been their way: the weighing of words, of meaning, of intention. His trimmed nails scratch at the fabric of his pants.
“Thank you for the records,” says his uncle.
“I hope you’ve enjoyed them,” replies Lan Zhan.
“I have.” And then, with a sternness that means love, “I have more of hers here. Come by to pick them up when you get back.”
He sits in his open door and watches clouds roll in, low and heavy, the promise of rain. He considers his stay, his intention, the taffy stretch of time, the familiarity of the steps, like an old song half-remembered. It feels like hiding. It feels like a caught breath. It feels like falling backwards, like he will land flat on his back in the rain-damp soil and look up to find his mother leaning over him, smiling between rows of tomato and melon. And now? Do you see? A-Zhan, are you hungry?
Yes. He is hungry.
He is in the kitchen when the rain starts, considering lunch while he waits for the bai tang gao batter to ready. It begins soft, the plink plink plink of droplets upon the roof, and then the skies open wide and the seeping grey light of midday is overtaken entirely by the thrumming drum of rain, so loud he is not immediately certain if the pounding at his door is water, stranger, or his own mind.
Ah. It is none of them.
Wei Ying appears out of the sheeting grey world, standing soaked and shivering under the eaves. The temperature has dropped with the weather, a true autumn storm. The tomatoes, Lan Zhan thinks with a pang of regret, will not survive the wet.
“I got caught halfway,” says Wei Ying, rueful, hair plastered to his forehead. “Can I come in?”
Lan Zhan steps back.
Wei Ying puddles across the floor, waterlogged down to his socks. Lan Zhan finds a towel and dry clothes. He mops up the worst of the water while he changes, and fetches wood for the stove. Wei Ying returns dressed in Lan Zhan’s sweatpants and a t-shirt too loose for his lean shoulders, toweling his hair dry. It has grown out, curling around his ears, and he ties it back in a stubby tail that falls to pieces around his face. Lan Zhan closes the stove door, all of him pulled tight in the heat.
“I brought you a present,” says Wei Ying.
“In this weather?”
“Well, I was most of the way here before it started raining properly, and then it was just easier than going home again, y’know? Anyway, these are for you.”
They are apples, pink and crisp and picked early, as is his way. Lan Zhan takes them with a raised eyebrow and a sweeping understanding in his gut. Wei Ying shrugs.
“Who’s going to get me in trouble?” he asks, rhetorical, kneeling to pet Bichen when she runs to greet him. “Me?”
“I cannot imagine,” Lan Zhan says, just to watch Wei Ying smile over it. There are few things so gratifying as Wei Ying’s smile. Pink-picked apples eaten in the crisp cool of an autumn day might compare, if only just.
“So, what were you up to before this unfortunate interruption?”
“Not unfortunate,” says Lan Zhan. “I’m making lunch. Are you hungry?”
“If you’re cooking? Absolutely.” Wei Ying’s grin does not disappear, only changes shape. “Do you need help?”
He does not. Wei Ying shrugs and sits at the table, insisting Lan Zhan notify him the moment he is needed, as though his presence is not satisfaction enough.
This is his mistake: he has left one of his exam reviews on the table. It is unfinished, too many questions unanswered, uncertainties bare upon blank paper. Wei Ying slides it from beneath a book of poetry with a brief, curious hum, and then it is there between them. Shame creeps up the back of Lan Zhan’s neck. He turns his attention to the meal.
“Back at it, huh?”
The pages rustle as Wei Ying thumbs through them. Something makes him laugh. Lan Zhan cuts peppers, slices them thin and even to give himself something to do with his hands, and because Wei Ying will appreciate it. He sets them to simmer.
“This is what you’ve been studying? I don’t even know what half these things mean.”
“Ah, Lan Zhan.” There is a breath, the edge of a sigh or perhaps a laugh; Lan Zhan does not look at him and cannot tell. “I really can’t imagine you at a desk job, y’know? You’d be so bored.”
He feels as though he is drowning. He shrugs, focus fixed blindly on the meal before him, the constituent parts of it blurred together. He is not entirely certain what he is making; his hands move of their own accord, slicing vegetables, measuring oil. “It won’t be that bad.”
Wei Ying does not answer immediately. The pan sizzles.
“What are you doing here, Lan Zhan?” It is the shape of a question, but there is something beneath, folded into the query of it. Expectation, perhaps. Something sharp like a knife, heavy as earth. It hangs on him like river stones in his pockets. It pins him in place.
“Cooking,” he says. It is an answer Wei Ying would give, thin and obfuscating and obscuring nothing. He drags a spoon across the bottom of his pan, watches a thick sauce part around the wood. When he turns the stove off, the sudden quiet rings louder for the rainfall. He scrapes it into a bowl. Scoops rice. He does not look at Wei Ying.
Wei Ying, when he places the food on the table, looks at him, gaze bright. Pinning. The wings of him stretch open, leave him nowhere to hide.
He takes a bite. It is altogether too spicy; he spends a long minute coughing. Wei Ying moves, disappears through the haze of his tears, and returns with a glass of water. Lan Zhan takes it.
He is grateful for this brief, ridiculous reprieve.
Rain rattles on the roof, a comfortable din. The heater radiates a dry warmth, at odds with the wet outside. Wei Ying watches him, not touching his own food, concern pressed into the corners of his mouth. The timer on the counter, shaped like a tomato, ticks down the time until he must steam the rice cake.
That, of all things, stirs him. The familiarity of a kitchen timer. Like everything it had been his mother’s once, and now it is his because it has nowhere else to go. He had not expected, when he returned, to make a home here. But it had been here, and it had been home, and what could he do but live in it?
“Alright?” asks Wei Ying. Lan Zhan nods, and shakes his head, and finds neither sufficient. He drinks the water. It helps. The book of poetry is still open on the table, obscured by his unfinished coursework. The rain shuttles down. I recall two wet feet, the muddy road. What is it that puts its paws on your back?
Lan Zhan takes a breath, hopeless or helpless or simply less, an absence of personhood, of being.
“Ah,” says Wei Ying, chopsticks in hand, and oh, he has tried the food set before him. “Wow. You really outdid yourself here, damn.”
Lan Zhan does not understand how he can do that. The ease of turning away, of letting things pass by. His fingers have dug into the past and he does not know how to unclench his fists.
“I thought,” he says, and coughs at the afterthought of burning on his tongue. “I thought it would be easier to leave.”
“Yeah,” Wei Ying says. His face unfolds, an unbearable openness. “I know what you mean.”
“I miss her,” he says. It is nearly too big to speak. It gets caught in his throat, slides out rough and bloodied, and the prickling of his eyes has nothing to do with the spice. Wei Ying moves closer, hazy at the edges, brushed in the faint glow of the stovelight, hair falling into his eyes. His eyes are glossy.
“I know,” he says. His hand finds Lan Zhan’s curled fist across the table, palm pressed to knuckles. “I know, Lan Zhan.”
He does not decide to set his head down; one moment he is staring at Wei Ying, tear-blurred, and the next the wood is cool against his skin, his hand clenched vice-tight around the back of his neck. His chest aches as though he has been buried in soil, the earth itself pressing down upon him, crushing him.
“Ah,” says Wei Ying, impossibly distant. There is a hand against the back of his head, gentle. That is distant too; he is all salt and weight and water. “Ah, Lan Zhan. I know. I know, I’m sorry. It’s okay.”
He cannot say how long he cries. It is an ugly, shaking thing, uprooting, vicious and violent. When the heart of him is finally hollowed out, his throat aches and his head hurts and the rain still pounds down. He takes a deep breath, shuddering. His hand untangles from his hair. He wipes his eyes on the cuffs of his sweater, the one his mother made, once, with its hole patched at the collar.
Wei Ying smiles at him. Uncertain around the edges, mouth red, eyes dark. They are a little red, too.
“Hi,” he says.
“I don’t know what I’m supposed to do,” Lan Zhan tells him.
“Drink some water,” Wei Ying suggests, like a joke but not. Lan Zhan accepts the glass. It helps, a little, with his headache.
“I have to go back,” Lan Zhan says. His voice is small, swallowed by the rain. Wei Ying watches him, all firelight and patience.
“Okay,” he says. His hand is warm atop Lan Zhan’s own, a strange contrast to the condensation and cool of the water glass. “Okay, if you have to.”
There is space after it. But, or or, an invitation left open. He does not need to say it for Lan Zhan to hear it. He takes a breath, shaky. Everything is too big in his mouth. He cannot make the words come.
“It’s okay,” Wei Ying says. His kindness is terrible. It burns beneath his breastbone.
On the counter, the timer rings. The batter is ready. It is time to steam the cake.
Yes. He can do that much; he can cook this sweet thing. Water and heat and time turned to nourishment.
Wei Ying follows when he rises, stands at the counter and watches him ready the basket, the batter, the pan. When the water boils, he sets the cake to steaming. Twists the timer to mark out another perfect slice of time. Wei Ying stands with his arms folded in front, eyes dark, watching. He wears this face often when Lan Zhan cooks, as though there is a magic to meal-making and he is glad for the chance to see it.
Lan Zhan takes a breath, deep and rattling, and washes his hands. The rain shuttles down around them, water falling like pebbles over the roof, the yard. Bichen sits on the table, tail flicking, sniffing their forgotten bowls. Her ear twitches as she pulls back.
“It’s okay if you want to go back,” Wei Ying says, patient and easy. The timer ticks. The rain falls. Everything is muffled, a grey quiet. Lan Zhan takes another breath. “Or if you want to stay. Really, it is. But you have to choose, Lan Zhan. You can’t just keep living in between forever. You have to choose. That’s part of it too.”
“How did you do it?” he asks. Wei Ying shrugs.
“I tried it the other way and I wasn’t happy. What’s the point of all of that, if I’m not happy?”
“You make it sound easy.”
“It isn’t.” Wei Ying’s smile curls. “It isn’t at all. But it’s worth it, because I’m happy. You see?”
“What if I don’t know?”
“That’s okay. But you have to mean it, when you try. So you can really find out, y’know?”
Yes. He knows. It is not the knowing or the not-knowing. It is the fear: that he will choose it wrong.
“You can’t keep living in the past, Lan Zhan. That’s no way to move on.”
Lan Zhan sits, knees folded to his chest, back against the cabinets. Wei Ying sits next to him, legs neatly crossed.
“I don’t know how to let go.”
“Here,” says Wei Ying. Wei Ying takes his hand, the fist of it clenched tight. He turns it over and cups it gently in one hand and finger by finger, unfurls it like a flower. Lan Zhan lets him do so, loosens his grip so that Wei Ying can coax him open, so that his hand lies lax upon Wei Ying’s. His calluses scrape at Lan Zhan’s knuckles, strange and imperfect and real. Wei Ying’s bare feet and knobby ankles poke out of his overlarge pants. Lan Zhan makes himself breathe, and breathe, and breathe until holding his hand open in Wei Ying’s palm is not an effort.
“Yeah,” says Wei Ying, lacing his fingers between Lan Zhan’s own. “Yeah, there you go. See? You can do it.”
“I might forget.”
“I’ll remind you.”
“Wei Ying.” He breathes, shuddering, and closes his fingers again. Not tight, not unrelenting. Just folding over Wei Ying’s where they slot between his own.
“Ah, Lan Zhan. Yeah. Aren’t I always?”
He is. He is, and Lan Zhan is— There are not words for this gratitude.
“It’s okay,” Wei Ying says, kissing the point where his palm meets his wrist, lips warm. Lan Zhan shudders. “You’re gonna be okay. I promise.”
“Wei Ying,” he says. “Thank you.”
“Ah, no, no thank yous,” says Wei Ying, laughing, always laughing. “No, no, I just— I know. I get it.”
He is so good. He is good and he is deserving of this thanks, but Lan Zhan will push that point later, when he is not red-nosed and exhausted with weeping and sitting on the kitchen floor with Wei Ying wearing his borrowed clothes and holding him like a lost child. He is good and he is here, staring at him with such eyes, eyes he has known since he was a boy. Had Wei Ying been like this, then? Holding too tight to something already gone? He cannot imagine. Wei Ying has always been so much better at everything than Lan Zhan has ever been, the good and the bad. The joy and the grief. At each turn, he has taken Lan Zhan by the hand and shown him: Here, here, look. Do you see?
Lan Zhan sees.
“Really,” Wei Ying continues, softer. “You don’t need to thank me for this.”
“I’m glad you’re here.”
“Ah, Lan Zhan.” His fingers squeeze. “I’m glad you’re here too. I really was happy when you came back. No matter how long you stay, I’m glad I got to see you like this.”
Lan Zhan looks at him, red-nosed and and wet-eyed and scraped out inside and Wei Ying laughs and shakes his head.
“Home,” he clarifies, and with that, at least, Lan Zhan cannot argue.
“Home,” he echoes, all gratitude and love and relief. It is such a little thing, then, to turn to him. Such a little thing to lean forward, sheltered by the rain and the warmth and the kitchen, the beating heart of his mother’s house, which is his home, which will be his home as long as he wishes it.
Wei Ying meets him halfway.
His mouth is soft. Soft and warm and wet, more than he expects. Wanting and wanted both. The rain rushes around them, feeding the earth. Cycles upon cycles, spiralling out.
When the timer rings they eat sugar-spun sponge cake like that, sitting on the floor, fingers laced together, until they are full.
He goes to the post office, goes to the bank, goes to the city. He takes his exams, passes, graduates with no fanfare. He sees his brother, his uncle. It is a long, slow January of paperwork and preparations. And then, when the weather first begins to turn, snow warmed to slush and the city a thick, sodden streak of icemelt, cherry buds knobbing over fractal branches, he puts his bag on his back and takes the train to a once-dusty station yard to crunch miles uphill in the imperfect stillness of the fading winter. Sunlight scatters amidst snowdrifts, and the trees stand up like paintbrushes across barren fields like blank pages. The orchard lies quiet, dusted white. Birds wheel overhead, black and soaring in the blinding sky.
Outside: a white truck with a dirty bed parked at the road’s shoulder. In the yard: tufting green onion shoots, sheltered by the earth and carefully cleared of snow, sweeter for the waiting. The paving stones have been replaced, sweeping past the garden to the door, where heavy drapes hang open to welcome wilted winter sunlight. Smoke curls from the chimney.
Lan Zhan tips his head back and breathes in cold air. He kicks snow from his boots.
He goes home.