By the Light of a Lantern
At home, the scent of plump dumplings, hot on the stove, seasoned the air. Mrs. Li stood bent over the sizzling and lightly browned pockets of dough, placing a lid on the skillet to let them steam. She didn’t need the recipe, but she found herself squinting through her thick, black rimmed glasses at the elegant characters on the back of an old receipt.
Her husband’s calligraphy was fondly remembered all throughout the house. It filled recipe books, paperwork, red envelopes, and even secret love letters stashed away in the back closet.
“Mama,” a small girl with long black tresses appeared in the doorframe. “My qipao doesn’t fit anymore. It’s too small.”
The middle aged woman sighed, then frowned, a sad and slow frown. Nearly everything she did or said these days, the girl observed, were sad and slow.
“I told you Mei, you’ve been getting bigger. You’re not skinny like I was at your age,” she rotated back to the stove, removing the steaming dumplings and placing them on a paper towel-lined plate. “You can wear my old dress.”
It was the girl’s turn to frown, but she nodded her head. “Okay, Mama.”
An apprehensive pause passed between the two of them.
“Mama?” Mei began, formulating her idea, then tasting the words on her tongue before speaking them aloud, almost as if she was testing the water to see if it was the right temperature to jump in.
“Mmm?” her mother poured the soy sauce into a bowl of rice vinegar and sesame oil.
“May I go to Susu’s house to decorate my lantern before the festival?” the girl gazed longingly at her mother’s back, hoping just once she would be permitted to do something she wanted to do.
Mrs. Li closed her eyes and took a deep breath. When she opened her eyes again, they were filled with unshed tears.
She muttered something to herself, something like, “Just like your father.”
Mei knew that was a no. Discouraged, she started for her room. She turned her head in her mother’s direction, “Do you need any help?”
“No,” was the firm reply.
Tears clung to the back of Mei’s eyelids. She refused to cry.
Tonight was supposed to be a special night. The Lantern Festival, marking the end of the New Year celebrations. Her father had always taken her to the festival. They would enjoy a night together, staring up at the big, yellow moon and send a decorated lantern into the darkened sky. It was supposed to be the happiest night of her life.
Baba had died eight months ago.
Everything in her house reminded her of him. From the dumplings her mother made to the way she could still sometimes hear the ghost of his fingertips do the waltz on the keys of their baby grand piano that now sat quietly, collecting dust.
With swift resolve, she stood and strode out of her room with a newly found confidence. She passed her mother in the kitchen, whose brow was creased with worry, through the front door, and out of the house.
“Where are you going?” her mother called after her. “I said you can’t go!”
Blissfully ignoring the protest, Mei strolled triumphantly down the street until her mother’s cries were nothing but a voice inside her head.
It felt good to be free.
“Hold on,” her father’s eyes twinkled with excitement. He extended his hand out to hers. “We’re going to fly!”
She accepted his hand, and they released their grip on the lantern. It rose slowly into the air, silently illuminating the world as it climbed higher, dancing among the rooftops.
“We’re really flying, Baba! Look at us! We’re flying!”
“Free as a bird,” the man crouched next to his daughter, marvelling at the sky, speckled with lofty beams of light. “Look at us as we become one with the universe.”
A pang of nostalgia overwhelmed her. The one thing that had connected her with her father and brought them both joy was happening without him. It hurt her even more knowing the festival would continue on every year without him. It felt wrong.
What felt like a century later, Mei found her way back to her doorstep. The lonesome moon hung low in the sky and she could see her mother’s silhouette in the window.
Her face fell when she noticed her mother was weeping. She watched her mother’s shoulders shake soundlessly and felt a sharp stab of guilt. It was her fault her mother was crying.
Tiptoeing cautiously through the front door, she found her mother sitting hunched over in their floral upholstered chair.
Mei stared for a while at the back of her mother’s head and heaving shoulders.
“I was so worried,” her mother spoke finally. “I thought you were gone. Like him.”
Mei edged closer.
“I thought the world had taken you, as it did your father,” she continued. “He was a wonderful man. He didn’t deserve to leave us so early.”
“I know,” Mei replied softly. “I know.”
She scooted next to her mother and took her hand. “I loved him too,” she whispered, afraid if she raised her voice, her mother would shatter.
“I know you did,” the woman choked. “You know, you remind me of him.”
Mei began stroking her mother’s hand. She could feel the bones and tendons beneath the skin of the cold flesh.
They sat there for a while, in each other’s company, but not a word was spoken.
“I love you, too,” Mei’s voice was hardly audible, but she knew she had been heard when she felt her mother’s frail arms wrap around her small figure.
The moon no longer looked so solitary and the night sky had once again been dappled with the glow of a thousand lanterns. A peaceful hush fell over the house, yet something had changed again because the sudden silence was full of comfort and love.
Third Place: Lulu Griffin from La Grange, Illinois, United States, for “By the Light of a Lantern.” Lulu attends Lyons Township High School and is in 12th Grade.
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