Chapter 1 — The Childhood of Ballet
Jiang Shen was already past the age when most children start going to school. At the age of seven, he was still at home, helping his family with farm work. They lived in a village situated near a county, and together, the families living there managed a variety of farms, including fisheries. Like him, many of the village’s children only started heading into the city to attend school around eight or nine years old. Before going to school, they were all like wild dogs, running around the place, unrestrained and playing to their hearts’ content. Even with a preschool in the village, there was nothing that could contain them.
The Jiang family was unlike the other villagers. They actively responded to the nation’s call, and only had Jiang Shen, their one son. The true reason, however, was that they were poor, and could only afford to raise one child.
As spring began, Jiang Shen’s mother, Tan Lingling, started thinking about sending Jiang Shen to the city to study, but his father, Jiang Luoshan, was not enthusiastic about it.
“It’ll be time to harvest the wheat after September.” Jiang Luoshan placed a basin of water next to the bed for Tan Lingling to wash her feet. “Shen-zi can help out.”
Tan Lingling was not very happy about this. “I’ll already be thanking my lucky stars if he doesn’t give us trouble. Just look at him; not even the dogs are as wild as him.”
“Don’t you have to deliver the vegetables to the city every week? He’ll be of great help with that.”
Tan Lingling did not respond. She removed her heat-reddened feet from the basin, drying them before getting into bed. Re-using the same water, Jiang Luoshan also soaked his feet for a while, only pouring out the water in the yard after it had cooled completely.
Jiang Luoshan walked past Jiang Shen’s room on his way back. He glanced inside, discovering that the child was still reading comics.
Naturally, Jiang Shen noticed his father as well. Holding the book in his hands, he did not know whether he should hide it or not.
With an icy expression, Jiang Luoshan asked, “Still not going to sleep?”
Jiang Shen nodded hurriedly, carefully putting away the Doraemon comic book that he had spent a week’s allowance renting. He replied obediently, “I’m going to sleep right now.”
Jiang Luoshan harrumphed. “If your mother sees that, she’s going to rip it up.”
Jiang Shen dared not refute, pulling his blanket over himself, shutting his eyes, and pretending to sleep. He only poked his head out from his blanket after his father had headed back to his room. Pondering for a moment, he was still worried, so he hid the comic book under his pillow.
Tan Lingling woke up very early the next morning. She was busy even on the weekends, as she had to pick and deliver fresh vegetables to the city. Jiang Shen knew her schedule, so as soon as he heard the noise outside, he got out of bed quickly, despite how sleepy he was. Entering his room, Tan Lingling saw her son pulling on a sweater with his eyes half-shut, looking as though he could fall back asleep at any moment.
“Don’t wear that one.” Tan Lingling picked out a thicker sweater. “The chill is even fiercer right at the start of spring. It’s freezing out there.”
“Oh, ok,” Jiang Shen responded obediently, changing into the other sweater and heading outside to brush his teeth.
Tan Lingling was still heating up the water. Unable to wait, Jiang Shen made do with cold water. It was fine for brushing teeth, but the cold left him gasping when he washed his face. Shuddering, he finished washing up and went inside to wait for breakfast.
Tan Lingling said, resigned, “Why are you in such a hurry? Don’t get frostbite right when spring’s about to arrive.”
Eating his porridge, Jiang Shen mumbled that he would not. Tan Lingling turned away to grab the small tin of Pechoin moisturizer she frequently used, smearing some across her son’s face.
After tidying up, the two of them prepared to leave. Tan Lingling had picked a lot of vegetables, and Jiang Shen needed to help carry half the load. There was a bus that ran between the village and the city, each trip costing 3RMB a person. This was, of course, calculated into the price of the vegetables, so the trip would still be profitable. Tan Lingling instructed her son not to fall asleep in case he ended up squashing the bamboo shoots. Once they disembarked, she bought a handful of White Rabbit milk candy and tucked them into the pocket of Jiang Shen’s cotton-padded jacket.
“Have some if you’re bored later.” Tan Lingling crossed the street. Further north was the city’s biggest Children’s Center, where children could engage in extracurricular activities. “Don’t run around once you’re there, got it?”
Curling his tongue around the candy, Jiang Shen smiled. “Got it.”
The Children’s Center was very busy during the weekends. Jiang Shen, who had grown up running around in mud and dirt, found everything novel and interesting. Somehow, Tan Lingling had managed to turn some of the teachers there into her regular customers. She ran up and down the building, delivering her produce, and Jiang Shen’s head spun just looking at her.
The dance studio was located in the central building. While Tan Lingling carried the vegetables in, Jiang Shen waited outside.
He was quite tall, and without having to tiptoe, he could look inside through the window.
All around were little girls even younger than him, dancing to Heroic Little Sisters of the Grasslands. The two leads both had their hair in pigtails, and they were dressed in fitting, Chinese-styled gowns, one red and the other green. They each had a Mongolian headdress on their head, and their skirts swirled around them like blooming flowers. The dance teacher was clapping her hands, calling out the rhythm loudly, “1——2——3! That spin was wrong! Tilt your hips a little more!”
The one in red started spinning once the one in green was done, and the teacher was still not very satisfied. “Open your arms more! Put more strength into your legs! What kind of spin was that?!”
Jiang Shen was entranced, and did not even notice Tan Lingling exiting the studio. He sucked on the candy in his mouth so voraciously that it was audible to others.
Tan Lingling tapped his head. “What are you looking at?”
Jiang Shen was pulled out of his trance, a little embarrassed.
Tan Lingling glanced into the studio. “Look at how hard they’re working, taking dance classes at such a young age.”
Jiang Shen was a little befuddled. “Am I the one working hard or is it them?”
Tan Lingling froze for a moment, then burst into laughter, not caring at all for her son’s dignity. “Why don’t you try doing the splits? We’ll see who works harder.”
Jiang Shen did not understand that his mother was joking, and really went to the door. He poked his head in, peeking. The dance teacher knew Tan Lingling, and greeted her. “Ling-jie.”
Tan Lingling nudged Jiang Shen from behind. “Hello, Miss Lin. This is my son, he’s about to turn eight.”
Miss Lin smiled. “He looks pretty tall.”
Jiang Shen had never seen anyone so pretty before in his life. Her skin was very fair, her figure very good, and she looked just like a fairy in her leotard. Blushing, he wanted to hide behind his mother, only for her to pull him to the front. “Didn’t you want to try doing the splits?”
Jiang Shen stammered, “N-no, not anymore.”
Miss Lin did not mind. “You want to learn to dance? Let’s try out some stretches.”
Jiang Shen did not know what stretches were. Miss Lin pulled a chair over, sat down, and waved at Jiang Shen. “Come here.”
Baffled, Jiang Shen made his way over. Miss Lin made him stand with his back to her. From behind, she held onto the boy, holding his calf in one hand. “Keep your other leg straight, and stand firmly, okay?”
Jiang Shen nodded, and Miss Lin started lifting his leg. He was very obedient. Since Miss Lin had asked him to stand on his other leg firmly, he stood there, keeping his leg very straight. He only started to feel pain when his leg was almost at his shoulders. However, as a boy, he had always been taught that he should not cry, so he gritted his teeth, enduring it. He still did not make a sound, even when the tip of his toes reached above his head.
Miss Lin was a little astonished. She switched to Jiang Shen’s other leg and repeated the same action.
“Does it hurt?” Miss Lin could not help asking, after stretching both his legs.
Jiang Shen thought about it, and decided to answer honestly. “It does.”
Miss Lin chuckled. “Why didn’t you say so?”
Jiang Shen scratched his head. “It wasn’t actually that painful… I could bear it.”
Miss Lin studied him again, then held his hand and went to look for Tan Lingling. She was standing by the studio door, watching the whole thing. For once, she was not laughing at her son.
Jiang Shen did not know what Miss Lin was speaking to his mother about, still rather entranced by the little girls who were watching each other practice their spins. One of them even became unhappy when she noticed him watching, pursing her lips and hiding all the way inside.
Jiang Shen watched as they continued dancing, until Tan Lingling told him they were leaving.
On the way home, she bought him another handful of candies. She did not speak when getting onto the bus, and something seemed to be on her mind. Once the bus started moving, she took her account book out, calculating as her brows furrowed.
Jiang Shen dared not disturb her. His legs swayed along with the rhythm of the bus.
Tan Lingling glanced up at him, asking suddenly, “Do you want to learn to dance?”
“Ah?” Sucking on his candy, Jiang Shen had yet to register what she was saying.
Tan Lingling tapped her book with her pen. “You’ll be going to the dance studio every week, just like what you saw today.”
Jiang Shen asked cautiously, “Would I have to do leg stretches every week?”
Tan Lingling said coolly, “Once you start, you’ll have to do it every day.”
Biting into his candy, Jiang Shen could not help but suck loudly on it again.
He did not tell Tan Lingling if he wanted to attend the classes or not. The first thing he did when he got back home was run off, returning the Doraemon comic book he had rented. When the deposit was returned to him, he even counted it through carefully.
The boss of the rental bookstore was a little old man. He had an old-fashioned pipe in his mouth, and his reading glasses were very old as well. They hung off the bridge of his nose, looking as though they could fall at any moment.
“Do you want to rent another one?” This little bookstore was the only one in the village, and the old man was familiar with all the children who came by.
Jiang Shen tucked his money away carefully. “I won’t be renting any more in the future.”
The old man raised a brow. “Why? Your mother gave you a beating?”
Jiang Shen shook his head. “No, I’m going to start learning to dance.”
The old man choked on his smoke, revealing his yellowed teeth as he laughed. “You’re a boy, what are you learning dancing for?”
“It’s for little girls.”
Jiang Shen was not very happy. The old man looked at him again, then suddenly said, “Hold on.”
Jiang Shen watched as he went back inside, looking for something. The old man rummaged loudly through his boxes and cupboards before stooping, then slowly shifting back around.
“Here.” He shoved a book into Jiang Shen’s hands. “A gift for you.”
It was an extremely old, worn book, its title page missing. Flipping through it, there weren’t many words inside; it mostly contained pencil drawings of youths in various dance positions.
“You want to learn dancing?” The old man knocked his pipe on the table. “Go, have a look.”
With a pocket full of candy and money, Jiang Shen returned home to see his yard gate wide open. Tan Lingling and Jiang Luoshan were talking, and his father had a rather disapproving expression as he smoked.
Stretching his neck out and peeking at them, Jiang Shen dared not go in. He slipped away, running back to the fields.
The village was very busy in March and April. Jiang Shen’s next door neighbor, Goumao, had a hoe tucked into his waistband as he was digging through the soil with a shovel, planting seeds. Things were different now, and only children did nonsense like this; the adults just used seeding machines.
“Goumao!” Jiang Shen called out to him. “Where’s Qingling-zi?”
Goumao straightened up. Due to the cold weather, he was wrapped up like a ball, and even bending down took effort. “What’s that in your mouth?!”
Jiang Shen ran over. “Candy. You want one?”
Goumao opened his mouth. “Unwrap one for me.”
Jiang Shen did, and Goumao sucked on it happily. “You went to the city?”
Jiang Shen only ever had candy when he went to the city.
Jiang Shen nodded. “Where’s your younger sister?”
“She went to the city too, to learn to draw or something. I don’t get it. Isn’t it good to be as free as us? Why must she torture herself like this?”
Jiang Shen was too embarrassed to say that he wanted to learn to dance. He did not want Goumao to tell him that he was torturing himself.
“Want to go look for eggs?” Other than the busy farm work, the wild chickens and ducks were also laying their eggs during this period, and the rowdy children all liked to take this opportunity to make trouble. “I’ve invited Shubao and the others too. After this weekend, they’ll be heading back to the city for school. There aren’t many days of fun left for them.”
“They’re much older, and they’re always bullying me.”
Goumao threw an arm over his shoulders. “This time, I’ll be around. What’s there to be afraid of? Let’s compete with them. If we win, Shubao’s new phone will be mine for this semester.”
Jiang Shen did not care much about the phone. Perhaps due to his young age, he was happy with just reading Doraemon comic books during his spare time. In the current era, children learned enough vocabulary in preschool, so even though he had never gone to school in the city, he was still able to read simple comic books like Doraemon.
As for phones, he had heard about how some children in the city were even more proficient with them than he was, despite being younger.
Goumao and the others were all three or four years older than him, and to them, a phone was a treasured possession. For the children in the village, many of their belongings were things to be shared. Shubao’s family had money, so when his parents bought him a phone, Goumao and his friends were all very envious.
Egg hunting was a game the children had started playing from a very young age. As Jiang Shen was the youngest, he was designated as the referee. Wrapped up tightly in layers, he sat on a tree stump at the edge of the woods. In front of him were two bags, and he waited for both Shubao’s and Goumao’s teams to bring the eggs out.
With his eyes on the phone, Goumao gave it his all, even daring to steal eggs from right under the chickens. Despite being outside, Jiang Shen could still hear the sharp cries of chickens coming from within the woods. Very quickly, Goumao came sprinting over wildly, carrying a jacket bulging with eggs. Chasing after him was a gigantic, wild chicken, its tail a glorious riot of colors. With its wings spread out, its wingspan was as wide as a child was tall. Its screeches seemed to be imbued with thunder, and upon stretching its neck out, it leapt up, pecking at Goumao’s head.
Goumao wanted to shield his head with his hands, but was afraid that the eggs would crack. He yelled as he ran for his life, but the chicken was very stubborn, refusing to let him go. Seeing Goumao running towards him, Jiang Shen also turned and ran. From behind, Goumao shouted, “Brat, what are you running for?!”
Jiang Shen yelled, “The chicken is coming here!”
Goumao gasped for air. “You’re afraid of a fucking chicken?!”
“Why are you running, then?!”
Goumao was speechless.
In the end, Goumao persevered, unyielding despite the pressure, and did not return the eggs. Later, the chicken likely forgot about the eggs, only feeling rather proud of itself. Haughtily, it paraded in front of Jiang Shen and Goumao for over half an hour, and wherever Goumao went to look for eggs, it would follow, pecking his head periodically.
Poor Goumao did not have much hair to begin with, and now, half of it had been pecked off.
Jiang Shen had wanted to tell him that it wasn’t worth it to become bald for a phone, but seeing how Goumao was giving it his all, he held his words back, not wanting to rain on his parade.
When Shubao came out of the woods, the chicken also gave him a shock. He joked, “Look at how clingy it is. You should just raise it.”
Having won the phone, Goumao was currently in bliss. “Raise it? We might as well kill it and eat it. Shen-zi, what do you think?”
Jiang Shen responded, “My dad says we can’t eat any wild animals, as they’re all protected.”
Goumao clicked his tongue. “How annoying.”
He found a flexible willow branch, twisting it into a circle and tying it around the chicken’s neck. The chicken bowed its head, pecking at it a few times, but after seeing that it would not come off, it no longer cared. Striding forth, it followed behind Goumao.
“I’ll take it home and let Qingling-zi raise it.” Goumao was very pleased. He handed over the entire bag of eggs to Jiang Shen. “Let’s go over to your place tonight to eat eggs.”
Of course Jiang Shen had no objections. Goumao said he was going to take the chicken home and have Qingling-zi raise it, but it was actually more of a free-range situation. Each household lived very close to each other; even their dogs were shared with each other, nevermind a chicken.
The rest of the group dispersed, leaving Goumao, Shubao, and Jiang Shen behind, along with a wild chicken with colorful plumage. The woods were a distance away from where they lived, so the three boys and chicken flagged down a tractor driving by and hitched a ride home.
The day was getting late, and the winds were strong. Thin, yellow dust swirled up from the dirt road, billowing through the air, and throughout the entire journey, it fell upon them like rain, neverending. Looking down at the thick sweater he had just changed into today, a sense of dread immediately crept up upon Jiang Shen as soon as he imagined Tan Lingling’s face. It seemed like the chicken was getting cold as well, no longer having the energy to screech. Jiang Shen hugged it in his arms, while Goumao and Shubao sat on either side of him. The three of them looked both comical and wretched.
When they reached the residential area, Jiang Luoshan was already out looking for them.
Carrying the chicken and covered in dust, Jiang Shen called out to his father apprehensively.
After seeing Goumao and Shubao who were also in the same condition, Jiang Luoshan looked up at the sky and sighed. He did not even have the energy to scold them.
Upon arriving home, the first thing they did was shower. Meanwhile, the chicken had it better than them. Jiang Shen’s family had raised poultry before, so they already had a feeding trough. Tan Lingling filled it with feed and made some small repairs to the fence. Having its fill of food and water, the chicken nestled in the hay and took a nap.
After cleaning up, Jiang Shen came out to see that Shubao and Goumao had already changed as well. They were sitting in his living room, waiting for Jiang Luoshan to fry the eggs.
“You boys sure are mischievous,” Tan Lingling started scolding them as soon as she entered the house after feeding the chicken. “Now that spring has come, you can’t help but go around and stir up trouble, huh?”
Fortunately, Goumao still had a conscience. “It was Shubao and I who wanted to do it. Shen-zi only accompanied us.”
Tan Lingling shot her son a glare.
Jiang Shen buried his face in his egg obediently.
Tan Lingling said, “Qingling-zi is back. She was waiting here for quite some time, and only just left.”
As though showing off a treasure, Goumao took his newly acquired phone out. “I’ll call her to come.”
Next to him, Shubao’s eyes were about to roll out of his head. “Can you be any more shameless??”
When Qingling-zi arrived, Jiang Shen and the rest had each received a fragrant fried egg. Young girls around seven or eight were a lot more sensible and mature than boys of the same age. Seeing how her brother was gobbling his egg down, there was an extreme look of judgement on her face.
Their family pampered and doted on this daughter of theirs much more than they did Goumao. With spring having just arrived, Qingling-zi was wearing a new dress and cotton-padded jacket. The little girl was carrying a drawing board, as she called out in a sweet, childish voice, “Shen-zi.”
Jiang Shen lifted his head up from his egg. “Hey.”
Qingling-zi squeezed over to his side, and Shubao had no choice but to pick up his plate and make space. When the little girl sat down, she did not forget to smooth out her new dress, and raise her chin very properly. “I finished a drawing today.”
Jiang Shen wiped his mouth. “Let me see.”
She had been waiting for him to ask, and carefully took out the drawing board she had hidden behind her back. Glancing at it, Goumao chewed on his egg as he said disdainfully, “It’s not like it’s a treasure or something. Just look at how anxious you are over it.”
Qingling-zi had always butted heads with her brother. Although Goumao was not a bully like other children, and did not have the guts to throw away her paints or tear up her canvases, he was boorish — that’s right, boorish.
She could not stand seeing him always climbing trees and digging dirt. There was never a day where he managed to keep his clothes clean, and his shoes only needed a week to look disgusting. He also did not care about his studies, always the last in his class, and whenever he recited from his textbooks, he had a heavy, rural village accent. In the past, when they were in preschool together, Qingling-zi always tried to avoid Goumao as much as possible. Having a brother like that was an embarrassment to her.
Among the children in the village, the only one that Qingling-zi approved of was Jiang Shen.
The girl treasured her sketchbook greatly, so Jiang Shen was always very careful picking it up and putting it back down. Qingling-zi said that the topic of today’s drawing was ‘Busy Spring’. Jiang Shen did not really understand how to appreciate art; when he said he would take a look, he really was only just looking at it.
Qingling-zi asked him, “Do you like it?”
Jiang Shen nodded. “It’s beautiful.”
Qingling-zi was delighted. Her brother leaned over, wanting to see as well, only to be rebuffed by a palm to his face.
Goumao was angry. “Your new paints were bought with my allowance last month!”
Qingling-zi punched him. “I secretly bought you a new pair when you tore your old shoes. You paid me back with those paints!”
Goumao grumbled, “You’re so petty.”
Qingling-zi put her drawing away. She stuck her tongue out at Goumao, then made her way out of the Jiang family’s home at a leisurely pace.
Looking at Qingling-zi’s back, Shubao laughed. “That cheeky girl. Why do you dote on her so much?”
“Do I have a choice?” Goumao’s mouth was still stuffed with egg, and his voice was loud. “In our family, she’s the only baby girl, and gets to learn whatever she wants. Shen-zi, you don’t even know how expensive those paints were. When I bought them, I felt like I needed to kill another five hundred chickens to earn that money back.”
Things were fine before Goumao had mentioned any chickens, but once he did, the wild one in Jiang Shen’s yard had woken up at some point, and started to screech vigorously in its coop.
“Oh hell, that scared me.” Goumao pressed a hand against his chest, asking fearfully, “Does it recognize me now or something? Is it going to keep pecking me whenever it sees me?”
Shubao dissed him, “You’re even stupider than the chicken. Just eat your egg.”
Compared to the other families around them who were better off, the Jiang’s had a first generation seeding machine. It was small and slow, and while other people’s machines only needed to run through the fields once, Jiang Luoshan needed to repeat the same area thrice with his.
Every year, during tilling and seeding, Jiang Shen would stand on the ridges between the fields, a hoe tied around his waist and a shovel in his hand. However, this was not for play; their machine was too old, and occasionally, there would be sections that had not been tilled properly, so Jiang Shen would need to fix those spots manually.
Running back and forth so frequently, the soles of Jiang Shen’s shoes were quickly crusted with mud. Jiang Luoshan stopped the machine, waving him over.
“Are you tired?” Jiang Luoshan picked up his son and seated him on the enormous wheel, grabbing a brush and brushing off the mud from his shoes.
Jiang Shen beamed, grinning widely. “No, I’m not.”
Jiang Luoshan smiled back. He was actually not that old, not even forty, but since he worked daily, bowing over the fields with his back towards the sun, the passage of time was etched into his face clearly.
“In September, you’ll be going to school,” Jiang Luoshan said suddenly, “through some connections, we’ve managed to get you into the third-year class.”
Although Jiang Shen was young, he was not completely unaware of his family’s financial situation. He did not speak, but fiddled with the hoe tied around his waist with a frown.
Jiang Luoshan asked him, “Your mom said that you wanted to learn to dance?”
Jiang Shen dared not say yes. After a bout of silence, he quietly whispered, “Mn.”
Jiang Luoshan sighed. As a father, he understood his son’s nature deeply. Jiang Shen’s reply had been very soft, but in his ears, it was weighty.
“If you want to learn to dance, you can’t read comic books anymore,” Jiang Luoshan threatened jokingly, “you have to save all your allowance to pay for the lessons.”
Once Jiang Luoshan brought that up, Jiang Shen remembered what he had done. Hurriedly, he took out the deposit he had received for returning that book and held it out to his father. After doing this, he seemed to have gained a tiny bit more confidence, saying earnestly, “I’m not reading comic books anymore. Not in the future, either.”
Jiang Luoshan looked down at the coins and notes in his hand. He opened his mouth a few times, but the words were stuck in his throat, unable to be spoken out loud. Silently, he lifted Jiang Shen off of the wheel. With a little bit more force than usual, he ruffled his son’s hair. “Go into the city tomorrow, and ask your mom to buy you a pair of shoes.”
To Jiang Shen, going to the city twice a week was quite a big deal. Like always, Tan Lingling woke up early in the morning, pulled out the good clothes usually reserved for the New Year, and had Jiang Shen change into them. She put on a good quality, cashmere coat as well, carefully applying makeup as she looked in the dressing mirror.
“Go brush your hair properly. Use a little bit of water,” Tan Lingling instructed Jiang Shen while applying lipstick. “Make sure you’re neat and tidy.”
Looking in the mirror, Jiang Shen fought with the cowlicks in his hair. After some time, he finally got it to lay flat obediently.
Tan Lingling came over with a scarf. “Wear that new pair of sneakers.”
“Okay.” Jiang Shen sat on a little stool, tying his shoelaces.
Tan Lingling crouched down. Her cashmere coat was too long, and with no other choice, she could only roll up the excess length, tucking it around her knees.
“Your feet are growing so fast,” she sighed, “you’re growing out of your clothes and shoes so quickly.”
“Can’t we just adjust them to be bigger?” Jiang Shen asked naively.
Tan Lingling did not know whether to laugh or cry. “Who still alters old clothes nowadays? We might not be rich, but we can’t embarrass ourselves like that.”
Jiang Shen could not make the connection between ‘wearing altered clothes’ and ‘being an embarrassment’. With the innocence and ignorance of his age, his mind did not overthink the matter, nor did he think badly of such things.
The wild chicken in their yard had woken up too. Tan Lingling did not close its gate, so it could come out to stroll and relieve itself whenever it wanted. Upon seeing Jiang Shen, it clucked a few times.
“Tony.” Goumao had wanted to be trendy and insisted on giving the chicken an English name, so Jiang Shen followed suit obediently. “We’re going out.”
Tony the chicken shook its head. Tan Lingling was already calling out to Jiang Shen from the yard, so he hurried towards her.
“Aren’t you silly?” she laughed. “Talking to a chicken.”
Tan Lingling often took the bus to the city, and the drivers all knew her. Seeing her today, the driver was pretty surprised. “You’re delivering vegetables again today?”
“No, I’m going to buy some things.” She nudged her son. “Go sit at the back.”
The driver closed the door. “It’s too early. Take a nap, I’ll call you once we’re there.”
Happily, Tan Lingling agreed. She sat down next to Jiang Shen, letting her son lean against her. “Sleepy?”
Jiang Shen was quite excited. “No. Why are we going to the city?”
Tan Lingling patted his head. “You’ll be starting school in September, so I’m taking you to see your new school.”
“Will I be with Goumao and the others?”
“Yes.” Tan Lingling held his hand. “However, Chen Maoxiu and the others are in middle school. You’ll be in the same class as Chen Qingling.”
Jiang Shen was quite happy. “Qingling-zi and I can go to school and come back home together then.”
Tan Lingling tapped his forehead. “You should call them by their actual names outside, especially Goumao. It sounds pretty awful calling him by that nickname at school.”
Jiang Shen always listened to his mother. Leaning against her shoulder, he sat there quietly for some time, then could not keep himself from pressing against the window and looking outside. As for Tan Lingling, an hour or so passed by quickly as she napped. Arriving at the station, the bus driver turned around to call for them, and only then did the two disembark.
Tan Lingling first went to the mall, coming out with two cartons of cigarettes. After wrapping them up carefully and tucking them into her shopping bag, she seemed to look a little more at ease.
The school Jiang Shen would be studying at wasn’t considered one of the best, but its primary, middle, and high schools were affiliated, which was very convenient for students who wished to stay in the same school system. The Jiang family had chosen the school because of this, and its tuition was not expensive either. As such, they had sought help from the town mayor to enroll Jiang Shen into the school.
Despite the fact that Jiang Shen had already been accepted, Tan Lingling felt that she should personally go down and thank the school management. She had always been a very decisive person, and although she was frugal, she did not hesitate when it came to the societal expectations of returning favours and maintaining relationships.
“I’m going to the principal’s office.” Tan Lingling bent down, straightening the collar of Jiang Shen’s jacket. “Can you play by yourself?”
The school grounds were relatively safe, and Jiang Shen was not afraid of exploring the place. However, he was preoccupied with something else. “Are we not getting candy today?”
Tan Lingling put on an expression of feigned scorn. “Didn’t you have candy yesterday? We’ve told you before that you can only have candy once a week.”
Jiang Shen mumbled sadly, “Okay.”
Tan Lingling’s heart did not soften. She left Jiang Shen with a few reminders, then went to the office with the cigarettes.
Although the schools all shared the same campus, they each had their own names: Experimental Primary School and No. 6 Middle School. Jiang Shen dared not go over to the high school section, so he poked around the lower grade areas obediently.
There were no classes during the weekend, and the janitors and teachers paid him no attention. He randomly found a few classrooms, and like a puppy patrolling the area, he wandered through them all. Sitting down in the front row of a classroom, then going to the back row and lying down, he felt extremely happy.
In no time, Tan Lingling was done presenting her gifts. She spent a lot of time looking for her son in the huge campus, and in the end, she had to borrow the school’s broadcast system to find him.
“You can disappear even while playing in a school.” Tan Lingling had to laugh out of frustration. “Are you that happy?”
Jiang Shen smiled brightly. “I am.”
“Once you actually start school, I’ll see how happy you’ll be,” she said, raining on his parade.
When the mother and son pair left the school, it was still early. Tan Lingling brought Jiang Shen straight to the Children’s Center, and Miss Lin was already in the studio. “You guys are here!” she said delightedly while removing her down jacket.
Tan Lingling was a lot more courteous towards Miss Lin. “We’re here, we’re here. Miss Lin, you’re looking great today.”
Miss Lin started laughing, responding that Tan Lingling was much too polite, then waved at Jiang Shen to come to her. “Have you bought your shoes yet?” she asked.
Tan Lingling was a little embarrassed. “We haven’t had the time…”
Miss Lin did not say anything, going into the dressing room and bringing a pair of spare shoes out. “I have a pair for bigger girls here. Try them on?”
Jiang Shen removed his shoes hurriedly, preparing to put them on.
Miss Lin was holding a pair of ballet shoes. The size fit quite well, though he did not know how to tie the ribbons. He sat cross-legged on the ground for some time, trying so hard that he broke out in a sweat.
Miss Lin bent down. “Don’t worry, I’ll help you tie them.”
Boys’ ankles were a lot thicker than girls’. The ribbons were a little too short, so she didn’t wrap them around his ankles as many times as usual. Due to the cold weather, Jiang Shen was still wearing his long johns, and they, along with his trousers, were rolled up to his calves.
When he stood up, he appeared quite comical. To any onlooker, he looked just like a little duckling with bare legs. Standing by the door, Tan Lingling could not help but lower her head to hide her laughter.
Jiang Shen did not notice at all. His expression was very solemn, and he stood very straight in front of the mirror.
“We’ll do some warm ups first,” Miss Lin said, “bend backwards, stretch your waist, and reach for the ground. No need to force yourself, just do what you can.”
She bent backwards before the mirror, and Jiang Shen followed along. She then straightened back up, moved behind him, and reached out to guide his back. “Slowly. Reach backwards…”
Both his palms were flat on the ground. She was very satisfied. “Stand up.”
He stood back up.
“Repeat that a few times.” She supported his waist. “Do it slowly.”
Jiang Shen couldn’t help but ask, “What are we doing?”
“This is a backbend.”
Jiang Shen was looking up, his hands extended beyond his head. He could feel his shirt sliding, exposing his tummy.
“Don’t relax.” Miss Lin used a little force. “Tilt your waist upwards.”
Holding his breath, he put all his might into it. At the same time, he also felt a little shy, his face flushing.
Seeing that, she laughed. “There’s no need to feel shy. Next time, just change into a leotard, and that won’t happen.”
Hesitant, he did not respond. After he was done with the backbend, Miss Lin continued instructing him on how to stretch his body and legs. In the end, while practicing the splits, not even Jiang Shen expected to be able to perform them so easily.
“Very good,” she praised him, “you must remember to practice at home everyday, alright?”
He nodded. After standing up, he felt a little discomfort — his pants were too tight. He hadn’t noticed when he was doing the splits, but now that he was upright, he realized the move made his pants stretch way too snugly around the crotch.
Watching her son covering his crotch as he changed into his shoes awkwardly with his other hand, Tan Lingling finally couldn’t suppress her laughter.
Jiang Shen was left speechless by his mother’s reaction.
“That’s normal for boys. Just wear looser pants next time,” Miss Lin consoled him kindly.
Tan Lingling helped Jiang Shen take off his shoes. Right as she was about to return them, Miss Lin pushed them back towards her. “He can keep these. When you’re home, just swap out the ribbons, and he’ll be able to wear them for a while.”
Tan Lingling knew that she was being kind, so she accepted it. “Boys grow too fast at this age,” she said quietly, a little embarrassed, “we have to keep getting him new shoes…”
They had left early in the morning and returned late at night. When Tan Lingling woke Jiang Shen up, he rubbed his eyes blearily. He had been holding the ballet shoes tightly while he was sleeping, and now their soles looked a little out of shape.
Holding his hand, Tan Lingling asked, “Do your legs hurt?”
He yawned. “Nope.”
“We’re almost home, why are you still holding it in? If it hurts, just say so.”
Jiang Shen thought about it, then answered honestly, “Just a little…”
Chuckling, Tan Lingling laughed gently at her son.
Arriving at home, Jiang Luoshan had already finished cooking dinner. In the yard, Tony was strutting around in circles majestically, and when it saw Jiang Shen and Tan Lingling, it flapped its wings a few times forcefully.
Tan Lingling went inside to get the chicken feed. Glancing at the ballet shoes in his son’s hand, Jiang Luoshan did not say anything.
The family sat down to have dinner. After, while they were clearing the table, Goumao came by to invite Jiang Shen to catch birds. Jiang Luoshan waved them away. “Go, go and play.”
Jiang Shen left with Goumao.
After the dishes were washed, Tan Lingling took out some needle and thread from her room. Pulling out a stool, she sat by the entrance to the yard. Jiang Luoshan carried over a charcoal brazier and placed it by her feet.
The couple chatted idly. Poking at the charcoal, Jiang Luoshan asked, “Have the school fees been paid?”
“Yes.” Holding the needle up, Tan Lingling scratched her head. She found a few ribbons, then removed the old ones from the ballet shoes, slowly sewing new ones onto them. “How much money do we have left?”
Jiang Luoshan watched her sew. “Don’t worry about the money. I’ll work a little harder everyday, and we’ll have a good harvest this September.”
Tan Lingling sighed. She bowed her head, her fingers deft and quick as she sewed the ribbons, yet her voice was tense. “We could have bought a planting machine… Now, you’ll be exhausted again come April and May. Can your waist handle it?”
“I’m a man. What can I not handle?”
She shot him a glare. “Your son is just like you. No matter how much you’re suffering, or how tired or painful something is, you’ll never bring it up.”
Laughing, Jiang Luoshan did not respond. “How’s our son’s dancing?” he asked.
Tan Lingling chuckled. “Classes have yet to start. Today, he was just practicing something called a backbend, some other stretches, and the splits? Ah, I could feel the pain myself just looking at him.”
She paused before continuing, “But Shen-zi likes it.”
Jiang Luoshan’s expression turned complicated. “Say, why would our son suddenly like dancing?” he slowly asked a moment later, “He’s not a girl…”
Tan Lingling rolled her eyes. “What year are we in now? So what if he’s not a girl? For all we know, in the future, we might just have a great dancer in our family.”
Smiling, he listened as his wife fantasized. He poked at the charcoal, and bits of red sparks flew up into the air.
It seemed like they were warming up this cold, early spring night.