Chapter 2 — The First Meeting of Youth
Past the unseasonably cold April and May, followed by a few rainfalls, the temperature started rising faster than the sprouts and seedlings. Through the village was a main road made of asphalt, and lining both sides were the luxuriant greenery of trees and shrubs. Right after the winter break, Goumao’s family bought him a scooter, and wanting to show it off, he would insist on driving over twenty kilometers home every weekend. Passing by the fields, he purposefully stopped to shout at Jiang Shen, who was busy planting shoots, “Shen-zi! Gege will drive you back!”
Jiang Shen looked up, wearing a lady’s sunhat that was a little too big for him. His calves were buried in the mud as he waved at Goumao.
Goumao was unable to get down into the fields, so Jiang Shen could only wade over slowly. “I have to work, and my feet are dirty. Your scooter is new, isn’t it?”
“Why didn’t you guys ask to borrow our seeding machine? I’ll go home and ask my dad!”
Jiang Shen pursed his lips. “What if your mom doesn’t agree?”
Goumao fell silent. After a period of contemplation, he decided to park his scooter by the road, removing his shoes and rolling up his trousers. “Come, I’ll help you with the planting.”
Jiang Shen stopped him in a hurry. “Better not. If my dad sees you, I’ll get scolded.”
Having already taken off his shoes, Goumao didn’t want to put them back on, so he sat down by the edge of the field, talking to Jiang Shen. “Are you going to the Children’s Center later?”
Jiang Shen nodded. “I can go once I’m done with my chores.”
Goumao frowned. “Why are you learning all sorts of nonsense too… Exactly what classes are you attending?”
Hemming and hawing, Jiang Shen refused to answer, and Goumao did not push him either. Swaying his bare legs, goosebumps appeared on his skin, likely from the chilly wind. He suddenly suggested, “Why don’t you borrow a seeding machine from Shubao’s family?”
In regards to the seeding machine, although Jiang Luoshan was a stubborn man who liked to tough things out, he did borrow from the other families a few times when he had back issues two years ago.
Goumao’s mother, Miao Hua’er, was famous throughout the area for being a shrew. Back when she married Chen Laoshi, during the brazier kicking part of the ceremony, she nearly sent the whole thing flying. Normally, the women in the village had no recreational hobbies other than farming, so whenever they had nothing to do, they all liked to show their skills off on the card table. Both Miao Hua’er’s cards and tongue were vicious while the card game was going on, but after teaming up with her enough times, the others had gotten used to it.
Tan Lingling would only join them occasionally. She had played with Miao Hua’er a few times, and they could be considered friends. The seeding machine they had borrowed two years ago was from the Chen family.
Their falling apart was rather complicated, and it was related to Shubao’s mother, Li Zhuo.
Unlike the locals, Li Zhou was a total city woman. Although she had married into the village, she worked for a large enterprise in the city as their finance director, and it was rumored that she even owned some of the company’s stocks. Even if Shubao’s father did not have a good harvest for the year, Li Zhuo earned enough money alone to look after their entire family.
Li Zhuo was not close to any of the villagers, and she never participated in the card games of the women or tried bonding with them. Miao Hua’er had always disliked her, as she felt that people from the city were pretentious and looked down on others. During the card games, she would always prattle on about her.
Once during a game, Tan Lingling had heard her talk about Li Zhuo like that again, and couldn’t help herself. “Shubao’s mom isn’t like that,” she had rebutted, “don’t say that anymore, Hua’er-jie.”
Miao Hua’er had been too used to getting her way, and this was the first time someone had spoken against her, daring to refute her. She had immediately exploded, but of course Tan Lingling was not easily bullied either, so she no longer participated in the card games, even returning the seeding machine to the Chen family.
In truth, once Miao Hua’er had calmed down, she instantly regretted it. Despite her bad temper, she was still a reasonable person, and upon seeing that the seeding machine had been returned, she felt even worse. However, she was unable to put aside her pride, and throughout the New Year, she had been feeling conflicted over the incident. Seeing that it was now May again, and thinking about the circumstances of Tan Lingling’s family and Jiang Luoshan’s back, Miao Hua’er could no longer sit still.
She tidied up her place, and went over to visit the Jiang family after lunch. Entering the yard, she called out in an extremely sonorous voice, “Ling-mei!”
Tony the chicken crowed back, and was shooed away by her rudely.
Again, she called out ‘Ling-mei’ loudly, walking into the living room confidently. However, instead of Tan Lingling, she saw Li Zhuo sitting there calmly. As Li Zhuo sipped her tea, she smiled at Miao Hua’er politely. Miao Hua’er’s nature was truly formidable. She had already come all the way here, so she could only grit her teeth and sit down as well.
Tan Lingling happened to come out at that moment, having put away her laundry. Seeing Miao Hua’er, she was a little astonished. “Hua’er-jie, why are you here?”
Tan Lingling hadn’t taken what happened during the card game to heart at all. She had only returned the seeding machine because she was worried Miao Hua’er would mind. Besides, borrowing things from others was a favor owed, as well as a trouble to them, and the Jiangs had been planning on buying a seeding machine anyway.
“Come sit. I’ll make you a cup of tea,” Tan Lingling said warmly. She topped up Li Zhuo’s cup, explaining, “Zhuo-jie just got here. She wants to lend us her seeding machine, and we’re just discussing it.”
Miao Hua’er glanced at Li Zhuo a little uncomfortably. “Oh, Shubao’s mother has already agreed to lend it…?” she asked awkwardly.
Li Zhuo took a sip of tea. Unlike the other women of the village, her skin was fair and smooth, and she looked very gentle and scholarly, with an air of extreme reserve.
“We only have a small one.” Her voice was very soft, and even the breath she exhaled seemed fragile and delicate. “If you’re willing to lend the bigger one your family has, Hua’er-jie, our family won’t have to bring ours out and embarrass ourselves.”
This was the first time Miao Hua’er had heard Li Zhuo speak. To be shown such admiration, Miao Hua’er’s entire body heated up, her face flushing. It was unclear if it was due to shame or guilt. “I’ll lend ours! I’ll lend ours!“ she said hurriedly. “This is such a small matter. Ling-mei, you should have told me earlier.”
Tan Lingling’s gaze bounced between the two, then laughed. “You both have the kindness of Buddha, why are you guys being so courteous to each other?”
Miao Hua’er was no longer blushing. She had always been very straightforward and direct. Pretending to slap herself on the mouth a few times, she told Li Zhuo, “Ah, I’ve always talked too much. Zhuo-mei, please don’t take it to heart.”
Li Zhuo smiled, still looking very gentle and delicate. “I don’t know anything,” she replied, blinking innocently.
As soon as she said that, she began laughing. Seeing her laugh, Tan Lingling joined in as well, even teasing Miao Hua’er, “Zhuo-jie’s very good at cards! Next time, I’ll bring her to your game. Remember to bring more money with you!”
“Aiyoh, as if I’ll definitely lose!” Now that the topic had turned to cards, Miao Hua’er’s confidence was back, and she no longer acted so courteously. “Watch out, or I’ll make you two lose your pants!”
When returning, Jiang Shen was a little confused upon hearing all the laughter inside the house. He had a dance class later in the afternoon, and when his father had brought him his lunch at noon, he gobbled everything down quickly. To save time, he had casually rinsed his feet with the hose in the field, then hurried home with Goumao on his scooter.
With sharp eyes, Tan Lingling saw her son. “Greet your aunties… your shoes are in your room!”
Jiang Shen greeted the women obediently. He did not have time to wonder why they were at his house, and rushed into his room to grab his ballet shoes. Hanging them around his neck, he soon made his way back outside.
Chasing after him, Tan Lingling shouted, “Take some money with you!”
He had no choice but to return and grab a handful of coins.
Miao Hua’er was puzzled. “Where is he going?”
Walking back to the table, Tan Lingling replied, “We’ve signed him up for dance classes at the Children’s Center. He’s going to class now.”
Even Li Zhuo was a little surprised. “Shen-zi knows how to dance?”
Tan Lingling waved her hand unconcernedly. “He’s learning!”
With his ballet shoes swinging around his neck, Jiang Shen sprinted along the path between the fields, running past farms and canals. The owner of the rental bookstore tidied up the newspapers that had been ruffled into a mess by the wind with his pipe in his mouth. Looking up, he saw Jiang Shen shooting past, and yelled after him, “Slow down!”
Jiang Shen turned around, waving at him, the sunlight and breeze fluttering through his fringe.
The bus heading to the city was about to drive off. Chasing after it, he shouted, “Wait, wait!”
The driver stopped, and Jiang Shen bounded up the steps.
“Be careful, don’t trip!” the driver scolded laughingly.
Panting, Jiang Shen thanked him. He packed away the shoes hanging around his neck, obediently moving to the back row and taking a seat there.
In the end, he was still a little late arriving at the Children’s Center. Miss Lin did not say anything, simply letting him go and change.
There were around a dozen girls in the class, and Jiang Shen was the only boy. He wore a singlet and shorts that Tan Lingling had modified. There was no heating in the corridor going from the changing room to the dance studio, and he jogged back while hugging himself, shivering. When Miss Lin introduced him to the class, the other girls were all gathered together, looking at him curiously.
In all his years of life, Jiang Shen had never been stared at by so many girls before. Without realizing it, he blushed.
“He’s so tanned,” a girl in the front row whispered.
Another said, “Because he’s a boy.”
Jiang Shen did not know where to place his hands and feet.
“You can stand in front,” Miss Lin said kindly. Clapping her hands, she continued, “We’ll do our warmups now.”
The girls scattered immediately, forming groups of twos and threes to do their stretches. Jiang Shen stood to the side blankly, before finally remembering the backbend and splits he had learned previously, and started doing them like how he had been taught. Just as he was doing the backbend, a girl looked over at him.
“Do you know how to do the splits?” She took the initiative to talk to him.
He nodded. “Yes.” As though afraid that she would not believe him, he swiftly performed a vertical split.
The girl did a horizontal split. “What about this?”
Jiang Shen copied her accordingly. She stood up, moving behind him. “I’ll help you press your back down.”
Jiang Shen felt a weight on his back. In an instant, the entire upper half of his body was plastered onto the floor.
“Wow.” The girl was a little startled. “You’re so flexible.”
Just as she finished speaking, all the other girls gathered around them. There were even some who kneeled down next to him, crouching down to see if he really was lying flat on the ground.
“This is the first time I’ve seen a boy this flexible,” a slightly older girl said.
Jiang Shen was baffled. “There are other boys too?”
“You’re the only one here, but there’s a boxing gym next door, and there are only boys over there.”
They were like little birds, tugging him up and running next door in a cluster. A class happened to be going on there as well, and around a dozen boys were standing in two rows. They stood there at attention, arms behind their backs.
“They can’t even do the splits,” the girl said, gloating, “do you see that boy there? He seems to be around your age.”
Jiang Shen looked in the direction she was pointing at, and a boy standing at the end of the first row suddenly looked over.
Before Jiang Shen could get a clear view, the girls pressed down on his head, forcing him to duck. “He looked over!”
“He’s so fierce! He even glared at me…”
After some struggling, Jiang Shen finally managed to extricate himself out of their hands.
“You can’t be like them,” the girls said sternly, and with great earnestness as they gathered around him, “they’re always dirty and smelly. They’re so gross.”
Bai Jinyi only turned his head back to the front unwillingly after his coach called him by name. He had a pair of upturned eyes, and his eyebrows were dark and thick, giving him a grave, serious air. Considering his age, his features had yet to fully develop, but that did not affect how he seemed to always be looking down on others.
“What are you looking at?!” the coach yelled.
Bai Jinyi did not speak, but the boy next to him laughed mockingly. “He’s looking at those little swans.”
The rest of the group burst into laughter, and none of it sounded friendly.
“What are you laughing at?!” the coach asked sternly. “Those who are laughing, go do jump squats around the room!”
Bai Jinyi did not move, while the other boys dispersed unwillingly. Some even bumped into his shoulder rudely when walking past him. “What’s with the arrogance? So what if you’re rich?” they grumbled quietly.
The boy still looked as though he could not be bothered to speak. He went to the side, sitting down and wrapping his hands. When he looked out again, the group of little swans had already run off.
The girls clustered around Jiang Shen, chattering away as they returned to the dance studio. With her arms crossed, Miss Lin was standing by the door, frowning. “Going out to stir up trouble again? Have you all finished your warmups?”
The oldest girl in the group was called Song Xin, and she sounded just like an adult when she spoke. “We did. Jiang Shen’s body is really flexible. Miss Lin, what will he be dancing?”
Upon hearing his name, Jiang Shen was extremely nervous. He stood up straight, not even daring to move his hands and feet. Miss Lin chuckled, giving it some thought. “With a boy, we can dance Sleeping Beauty and The Moon’s Reflection on the Second Spring.”
Jiang Shen didn’t know what to say. He had absolutely no knowledge of these two dances, and it seemed like no one was bothering to ask him if he knew them either. On their own accord, the girls stood in a row next to the bar in front of the mirror, and Song Xin called out to him, “Come here, Jiang Shen.”
He could only obey, moving to stand behind her. Miss Lin put the music on, and called out the rhythm while clapping to the beat, “1—2— Lift your hands! Deep breaths! Tuck in your tummy! Point your toes firmly when tapping the floor! Straighten, and bend.”
Jiang Shen dared not slack off in the slightest. He copied Song Xin closely, following in confusion. Miss Lin walked over to him, placing her palm on the back of his waist. “Straighten up, don’t let your head hang down loosely.”
He listened and obeyed, toes pointed with all his might. He had paused halfway through the move, not daring to put his foot back down on the ground.
Miss Lin looked up from his feet. “Can you continue holding this position?”
He nodded firmly. “I can.”
She laughed. “What a good boy.”
Each class was only a little more than two hours, and Jiang Shen could not remain in the studio afterwards to continue practicing. For one, he dared not do so, and two, he was about to miss the last bus home.
The girls took a long time in the changing room, so taking advantage of every moment he could, he practiced everything he had learned today. After changing, Miss Lin came in to see him lying on his front, legs swaying in the air as he recorded something in his notebook.
Approaching him, she asked, “What are you writing?”
It was too late for him to even think about hiding his notebook. He stood up, face pink. “Uhh, The Moon’s Reflection on the Second Spring, and Sleeping Beauty…”
Miss Lin understood. “How about I bring my computer tomorrow, and play them for you?”
His eyes shone brightly. “Really?”
“Of course.” She wanted to laugh.
Song Xin was done changing, and happened to come in at that moment. Seeing that Jiang Shen was still around, she asked happily, “Want to tidy up the studio with me?”
Jiang Shen was naturally more than eager to do so. He glanced at the clock, changed quickly, and went to the storeroom to grab a broom and mop. As he walked down the corridor with a bucket, the door of the boxing gym across the hall opened suddenly, and someone walked out.
Bai Jinyi was covered in sweat. It looked like he had only just removed his headgear — his damp hair was flat in some places and sticking up in others. He had yet to take his boxing gloves off, and he looked up to see Jiang Shen in front of him.
He did not say a word.
Jiang Shen cowered a little, then mustered up his courage to greet him. “H-hello.”
Bai Jinyi frowned. “Who are you?”
“I’m a dance student from next door,” Jiang Shen replied honestly.
The other raised a thick, dark brow. “You’re a little swan?”
Jiang Shen blinked.
“There are little boy swans?”
Jiang Shen did not know how to answer the question. With both of his hands around the bucket handle, he looked into the eyes of the other boy feebly.
Someone’s voice rang out from within the boxing gym. “Yo, who’s Richie Rich Bai speaking to?”
Bai Jinyi’s expression frosted over. He turned around, shielding Jiang Shen behind him entirely. “You still want a fight?” he asked in a sneering tone.
Then, he turned back to look at Jiang Shen, speaking impatiently, “Why are you still standing here?”
Jiang Shen did not want to cause any trouble. Hunching over, he carried his bucket and ran off. After Bai Jinyi was completely out of sight, he started worrying about how he had forgotten to thank the boy.
“What are you doing?” Holding a rag, Song Xin looked at him. “Who did you run into?”
Jiang Shen thought about it, then decided to share the incident with her. “I saw someone from the boxing gym.”
“Which one?” she asked curiously.
He gestured around his head, comparing the boy’s height to his own. “He’s around my height, and he’s called… Rich… Richie Rich Bai?”
“Ohh… Bai Jinyi? He’s studying at the international school, and is the one we said was very fierce, always glaring at us. His eyebrows are extremely thick, right?”
Jiang Shen touched his own eyebrows reflexively.
“In the future, just ignore him when you see him.” Song Xin raised her chin proudly. “We’re all little fairies here, understand?”
It was nighttime when Jiang Shen caught the last bus. His ballet shoes hung around his neck, and he was so exhausted that he did not want to move. Sitting in the backseat, he almost slept his way back to the village, only making his way down the bus slowly, rubbing his eyes, after the bus driver had woken him up.
The little village bookstore was still open. Following the shadow cast by the streetlights, Jiang Shen jumped into the store. The old man was smoking his pipe, and he glanced up at him. “You’re back?”
Jiang Shen removed his shoes from his neck. “I’m back. Yeye, do you know The Moon’s Reflection on the Second Spring and Sleeping Beauty?”
“Huh?” The old man’s eyes widened. “One is by the blind man Abing, and the other is a fairy tale. Why are you asking?”
“Not those. I’m talking about the dances.”
The old man sighed. “What nonsense,” he grumbled. After a pause, he continued, “Wait a moment.”
Jiang Shen waited outside obediently.
Rummaging through his cabinets and boxes for some time, the old man returned with a book — The Complete Series of China’s Ballets and Operas.
“Do you want to read this here?” the old man asked.
Jiang Shen was a little troubled. “I haven’t eaten yet…”
The man hurried him off. “Come back after dinner. I’ll keep the book for you.”
Gasping, Jiang Shen said gratefully, “Yeye, you’re the best! I’ll massage your legs for you later!”
The old man knocked his pipe against the table. “Scram, you little brat! I was nearly crippled by your massage the last time!” he said angrily.
Tan Lingling had long since finished preparing dinner, and was waiting for her son. As soon as he got home, Jiang Shen was asked to go wash his hands. Jiang Luoshan was already seated, shucking peanuts and tossing them at Tony, who was standing by the gate of the yard.
The wild chicken was enjoying its snack, holding its wings out in joy and shaking its colorful tail, looking as though it was performing a yangge, a Chinese folk dance. Seeing that, Tan Lingling was amused. “Look, even our chicken is a born dancer.”
Jiang Luoshan could not resist jabbing at his wife. “How can you compare them? Is our son running around like a chicken with its head cut off?”
She rolled her eyes. “How uncultured you are, to say something like that.”
Thinking about the book, Jiang Shen wished that he could just pour his entire dinner into his mouth and be done. Tan Lingling could not continue watching. “Slow down, why are you in such a hurry?”
With his mouth full, Jiang Shen mumbled, “Goin’ to the boo’ shtore to rea’ a boo’.”
Jiang Luoshan frowned. “Didn’t you say you wouldn’t read any more comics? Why are you still going there?”
Finally, Jiang Shen managed to swallow his mouthful of food. “It’s not a comic. It’s a book about ballet.”
“What did you practice today? Was it difficult?” Tan Lingling asked.
“Not difficult.” Jiang Shen put his bowl down, wiping his mouth and wanting to leave immediately. “I’m going now.”
In the end, before he could even step outside his yard, Goumao came over.
“Where are you going?” For some reason, Goumao had recently been influenced by some trend, and staunchly refused to cut his hair. Now, his fringe nearly covered his eyes, and Jiang Shen could barely recognize him in the dark. “Where’s the chicken?”
Jiang Shen pointed at the yard. “Tony!” he shouted.
The wild chicken immediately stretched its neck up, crowing vigorously.
That scared Goumao. “What are you shouting for?! I was only confirming if it was around, I didn’t ask you to call it here!”
“It doesn’t peck people anymore. It’s super obedient now, and it even lets people hug it.”
Goumao sniffed disapprovingly. “You’re crazy, liking a chicken.”
Jiang Shen could not be bothered to argue with him. He was afraid that the old man of the bookstore would not wait for him if he was late, but with Goumao around, he could not go. With no other choice, he suppressed his frustrations and asked, “Why are you here?”
Goumao finally seemed to remember why he had come over. With a toss of his head, his eyes were finally revealed. “Want to watch a movie?”
Of course Jiang Shen did not want to do that. “What about Qingling-zi?”
Goumao snorted. “She’s been kidnapped by Shubao.” He seemed to feel a little unreconciled, continuing resentfully, “Last time, he was still calling her a stupid, little girl. Look at how he’s doting on her now.”
Seeing Goumao like this, Jiang Shen knew he definitely wouldn’t be able to get rid of him tonight. “I’m going to the bookstore. Do you want to come along?” he asked, resigned, with no other choice.
Goumao threw an arm around his shoulders. “Of course I’ll come!” he answered glibly. “Look at how much I’m doting on you!”
Jiang Shen was speechless.
The old man had left a lamp on by the curtain over the entrance of the bookstore, and only stood up to turn on the lights inside when he saw Jiang Shen. However, as soon as he noticed that Guomao was behind him, his expression darkened immediately.
Goumao was rather shameless. “Hello, Yeye.”
“Hello, my ass!” The old man grabbed an old newspaper and threw it at him. “Tell me! How many books do you owe me?! Where are they?!”
Shielding his head, Goumao tried to look pitiful. “It’s not like you don’t know how my mother’s temper is!”
The old man was so angry, his beard swayed from his heavy breathing. “Even Miao Hua’er has to greet me politely whenever she sees me!”
“Yes, yes!” Goumao said perfunctorily. “Can you teach her a lesson on my behalf?”
The old man spat. “You unfilial child!”
Goumao simply behaved as though he had gone deaf, and squeezed into the bookstore. He also liked to read comics, and stooping down, he squirreled all the way inside.
The old man was still panting from rage. Jiang Shen was truly afraid his anger would turn to him instead, so he took the initiative, rolling up his sleeves and preparing to massage the old man’s legs. The latter nearly burst from fury. “Were you boys born to jinx me?!”
Pitifully, Jiang Shen answered with a faltering, “No…”
The old man tossed the book at him. “Go to a corner and read it!”
Jiang Shen immediately took the book and hurried to one side happily.
The old man was at a loss for words.
Because Jiang Shen was worried that Goumao would suddenly pop up and see that he was reading a book about dancing, he deliberately took a comic book to hide the one he was actually reading. With a book inside another book, his deception was barely noticeable. After confirming a few times that, as of right now, Goumao had no time to care about him, Jiang Shen finally started looking through his book in earnest.
After some time, the old man turned to look at the child.
Jiang Shen was currently engrossed in his book. It was unclear what he was looking at, but as he flipped through the pages, he was sniffling, and his eyes had reddened.
Nudging his glasses, the old man chuckled silently. Very carefully, he adjusted the lamp on the wall.
The dim, yellow light lit up half of Jiang Shen’s face, and the shadows of his eyelashes were cast sharply upon the book.
Crawling out of bed early in the morning, Jiang Shen’s eyes were both swollen. He was still rather tired, and groping about, he finished getting dressed right as Tan Lingling entered.
“Wow, what sort of upsetting dreams did you have last night?” She studied her son’s eyes carefully. “I’ll prepare a damp cloth for you.”
He mumbled an acknowledgement. After thinking for a moment, he shoved his feet into his slippers and left his room.
Tan Lingling waited for Jiang Shen to finish brushing his teeth before handing him the towel, telling him to hold it against his eyes.
“Baba went to the fields?” Tilting his head up, Jiang Shen sat on a little stool. Despite his age, he was never careless when it came to helping his family out with the farm work. He was afraid that when things got busy, his father, Jiang Luoshan, would hurt his back again.
Tan Lingling was boiling an egg. Hearing her son, she laughed. “It’s fine now. We borrowed a seeding machine.”
Jiang Shen lifted up a corner of the towel, feeling quite happy about this. “From Shubao’s family?”
“Your Auntie Hua’er lent it.” She cooled the egg, then handed it to her son. “Roll that around your eyes yourself. Once you’re done, eat it. Don’t waste it.”
Tony was sorting out its colourful tail. The weather was great, the sun pleasing and lovely. Not needing to plant any shoots, Jiang Shen did not know what to do with himself. He fed Tony some peanuts while rolling the egg over his eyes. The chicken had a very good relationship with him, and when it was finally full, it leaned against him, taking a nap.
He only bit into the egg once his eyes were no longer swollen. Tony woke up, coming to peck at the last bits of yolk in his hand.
“Hey!” He raised his arm up. “How can you eat your own offspring?!”
Inside the house, Tan Lingling heard him and guffawed loudly. “It’s male, it can’t lay eggs.”
Jiang Shen looked at what was left of his egg sorrowfully.
Having changed, Tan Lingling was about to head into the fields to take a look. At the door, she turned towards her son. “Are you still going to the bookstore today?”
“No, I finished the book last night.” Thinking about The Moon’s Reflection on the Second Spring, he became sad again, and rubbed his face. “I need to do my stretches.”
“Aiyoh.” Tan Lingling bent down, kissing her son. “Our Shenshen is so hardworking.”
Their house was not a dance studio, so it did not have wood flooring, and the floor in Jiang Shen’s small room was made of cement. He pulled out the straw mat that he slept on in the summer, laid it across the ground, then changed into his ballet shoes and pants.
He was now very familiar with practicing his backbends and splits. Silently counting the beats, his legs were extended away from each other in a mostly straight line, and his belly and chest were pressed right against the mat.
In the dance studio, the older girls like Song Xin were already very good at standing en pointe, and she could even perform a small dance segment quite well on her toes. As such, Song Xin usually played the role of the female lead in Miss Lin’s choreography.
Jiang Shen stared at the tips of his toes for a while. Unable to resist, he stood up, and placed his toes on the floor, ready to go en pointe.
A while ago, their family’s full-length mirror had been moved into his room. With his arms on his hips, and one of his legs bent, he seemed to be pondering over how exactly to go en pointe. He glanced at the mirror, recalling how Song Xin looked on her toes. Summoning all of his effort, he spread his arms out, but right as he placed his weight on his toes, Tony suddenly gave a vigorous crow from the yard.
“Shen-zi! Quick, come out and chase this chicken away!” Goumao yelled from the gate.
No response came from Jiang Shen.
Jiang Shen curled his hands around the tips of his toes. He was in so much pain that tears were about to roll down his cheeks, and with no other choice, he could only remove his shoes and shove them under his bed. He took a quick look at his toes; they appeared to be fine, so he put on his slippers and limped outside.
Goumao was trying his best to shield his head, running around everywhere, dodging. Ever since Tony the chicken had come to Jiang Shen’s place, it had put on a lot of weight due to the excellent food. Its size did not seem to affect its valiant spirit though. Its colourful tail drew an arc in the air, spreading its wings and practically flying. Jumping up, it pecked fiercely at the back of Goumao’s neck.
“Oww!” he screamed. “Jiang Shen! Quick, make it go away!”
Jiang Shen had no choice but to shoo Tony away. “Why are you here again?”
Goumao stood far away from Jiang Shen, afraid that the chicken would start chasing after him once more. “I’m here to take you to the fields to see that huge seeding machine of ours!”
“What’s there to see about a seeding machine?”
“What are you doing at home, then?” He looked down, frowning. “What happened to your foot?”
“I accidentally bumped into something,” Jiang Shen answered, unbothered.
“Hah, as if.” Goumao pushed him to take a seat in the yard. “You’re bleeding!”
It was only then that Jiang Shen realized that the nail of one of his big toes seemed to have split a little. There wasn’t that much blood, and Jiang Shen was able to wipe it clean quite quickly. It was not very painful, and after massaging his toes, he didn’t feel that there was anything wrong with them.
“Get me a nail clipper,” he instructed Goumao.
Goumao was clearly used to being ordered around at home by Qingling-zi. With no sense of superiority that was expected of someone older, he went inside the house dutifully and retrieved a nail clipper for Jiang Shen.
Taking advantage of the sunlight, Jiang Shen clipped all ten of his toenails. While clipping, he asked Goumao, “My father’s driving the seeding machine?”
The other laughed. “He’s a good driver. At first, Chen Laoshi still wanted to help him, but now he’s not needed at all.”
Jiang Shen was rather disapproving. “How can you call your father by his name?”
Goumao pursed his lips. “In my family, it’s my mom who towers above all. Chen Laoshi’s status can’t even be compared to me or Qingling-zi.”
He raised his hand, stuck his fingers out, and tapped them one by one with a frank expression. “It’s my mother, then my sister, then our French bulldog… then me, then Chen Laoshi.”
Jiang Shen laughed so hard, he nearly dropped his nail clippers. Seeing that he was now more joyful, Goumao sighed with relief. “With the way you were crying yesterday, I really thought that something had happened to you.”
Jiang Shen threw the nail clippers at him. “I was crying because of the book!”
“Do you have a problem?” the other asked scornfully. “A boy crying while reading a comic for girls?”
Jiang Shen had no response to that.
After lunch, he was heading to the Children’s Center again. Tan Lingling specially prepared two eggs for him to bring along. “Have them when you’re hungry. You got your shoes?”
Crouching on the floor of his room, he grabbed the ribbons under his bed and pulled them out. “Got them.”
He put on a backpack, shoved his clothes and shoes inside, then tucked the eggs in too. “I’m going!”
“Money!” Tan Lingling reminded him. “Be careful on the road.”
Jiang Shen ran all the way to the bus stop. Passing by the village bookstore, he saw the old man by the curtains, his head bent down as he read his newspaper.
“Yeye!” Jiang Shen called out to him.
From behind his reading glasses, the old man shifted his gaze upwards lazily. Upon seeing that it was Jiang Shen, he waved his hand somewhat impatiently.
Jiang Shen tidied up his hair. With a solemn expression, he held his arms out and spun three hundred and sixty degrees on one leg, ending it with a bow, as though he was taking a curtain call.
The old man was surprised for a moment, then could not help but scold him with a laugh. “You brat! How annoying!”
Jiang Shen grinned so hard, his eyes almost disappearing. Again, he waved his hand at the old man, then hurried off for the bus.
Once it reached April and May, the weather warmed up quickly. Entering the dance studio, he saw colors strewn all over the room; ballet skirts and shoes were everywhere, and under the rays of the sun, they were as pretty as butterflies.
Song Xin was the first to see him. “Why are you even more tanned now?” she grumbled a little unhappily.
He looked at his arms, feeling somewhat embarrassed. “I have to help out at home. We’re always outdoors.”
“You won’t look good if your skin is tanned,” another girl said. “You need to apply sunscreen.”
He did not understand. “What’s sunscreen?”
Song Xin hurried him off to change. “I’ll apply some for you later!”
Miss Lin walked into the studio to see Jiang Shen sitting cross-legged in one corner, a group of girls surrounding him and applying all sorts of things to his face. The adolescent girls had no makeup products other than the lipsticks they had stolen from their mothers — not only were his lips and cheeks painted, there was also a red dot between his brows.
Miss Lin wanted to laugh. “Don’t bully Jiang Shen, he’s a boy.”
“But he’s too dark, just like those boys next door,” the girls all clamored.
Miss Lin tugged Jiang Shen up. It was unknown what brand of sunscreen had been smeared onto him, but the skin of his face and neck were two separate colors.
“Go wash up.” She took out a bottle of makeup remover and some cotton pads from her bag. “Pour some onto the cotton pad and wipe slowly. Once your face is clean, rinse again with water.”
Jiang Shen had never used something so stylish before, and had never even seen something like this on his mother’s dressing table. While walking to the washroom, he earnestly memorized the instructions Miss Lin had given him, only to see someone already by the sink when he arrived.
Bai Jinyi was again covered in sweat. Pushing his head under the tap, he let the water splash onto his face. Jiang Shen drew closer, then realized that the other boy was actually a little shorter than him by about half the length of a segment of his finger.
The other wiped off his face, straightening up. His thick, dark brows were tightly furrowed.
For some reason, Jiang Shen was a little fearful of him. He took the initiative to explain. “I came to wash my face…”
“Who drew all that?” Bai Jinyi asked.
“The girls,” Jiang Shen answered slowly.
The boy snorted. “How girly.”
Jiang Shen gave him a look, slightly unhappy, and turned on the tap silently.
Bai Jinyi did not leave, and Jiang Shen ignored him. Clumsily, he followed the instructions Miss Lin had given him, pouring the makeup remover onto the cotton pad. As there was no mirror at the sink, he could only wipe at his face randomly.
“There’s still some on your left cheek,” Bai Jinyi suddenly said.
Jiang Shen paused. He hesitated for a moment, then obediently wiped at that spot anyway.
“The right. A little more to the right,” Bai Jinyi commanded. He clicked his tongue. “Why are you so stupid?”
Jiang Shen was speechless.
Picking up the bottle of makeup remover, Bai Jinyi poured a little onto a cotton pad. “Come here,” he spoke impatiently, looking at him.
Jiang Shen wasn’t very willing. “I can do it myself…”
The other sneered. He turned his head, pulling off his right boxing glove with his teeth and held it there in his mouth. Then he took his phone out and aimed it at Jiang Shen’s face with no warning, taking a photo. After that, he turned the screen towards Jiang Shen, showing him.
Perhaps Jiang Shen was very photogenic, or perhaps Bai Jinyi’s candid shot had been taken with a much-too-steady hand, because the photo was not blurry at all. Every detail and flaw had been captured sharply, and it showed how the lipstick on Jiang Shen’s face had been smeared everywhere. With his good looks, that red dot between his brows, and his somewhat foolish expression, the image was quite amusing.
Bai Jinyi put his phone away. Not caring at all about Jiang Shen’s reaction, he tossed his gloves to one side, pressing the cotton pad onto Jiang Shen’s face. “Open your mouth.”
Jiang Shen did not know what to say.
The makeup remover was cool, but through the cotton pad, Bai Jinyi’s hand was toasty warm. He actually wasn’t too experienced with removing makeup either, but at the very least, he could see what he was doing, unlike Jiang Shen who had basically smeared the makeup all over his face.
When the cotton pad wiped over the center of his brows, Jiang Shen felt ticklish, and giggled a little.
Bai Jinyi looked at him. “Why are you laughing?”
Jiang Shen was no longer as scared of him as before, and he shrank away a little. “It tickles…”
The other frowned. “Why are you so delicate?”
Jiang Shen did not want to be called delicate again, so he stood still and did not move. He waited for Bai Jinyi to finish cleaning his face with the cotton pad, then gathered up some water in his hands and splashed his own face a couple of times. After washing, he looked up and leaned in close to Bai Jinyi. “Is it clean now?” he asked.
Bai Jinyi had just pulled his boxing gloves back on. Seeing that Jiang Shen’s face was way too close, he pressed a glove against the boy’s cheek, pushing him away lightly. Caught off guard, Jiang Shen’s lips were squashed into a pout.
“…What are you doing?”
Bai Jinyi seemed to think that this was fun, and did not put his glove down. “You’re not going back to class?”
Jiang Shen’s voice came out muffled. “I’ll go once I finish washing my face.”
“How old are you?”
“Traditionally, I’ll be 9 this June.”
Jiang Shen glanced at him. “You’re younger than me?”
“Says who?” Bai Jinyi put his glove down. “I’m also traditionally 9.”
Jiang Shen laughed. Although Bai Jinyi looked very fierce, he was not mean. He waited in the corridor for Jiang Shen to finish tidying up his things, then the two headed back to their studio and gym respectively. Bai Jinyi seemed to be quite curious about his ballet shoes, looking down at them frequently. In the end, he could not help himself from asking, “Doesn’t the front of your shoe hurt your foot?”
Jiang Shen lifted his foot up. “I was a little unused to it before, but after getting used to it, it stopped hurting.”
The other glanced at his shoes again, but did not say a word.
Jiang Shen seemed to want to chat with him a little while more. He was the only boy in the dance studio after all, and was unable to join in on many of the girls’ conversations. Even if he liked dancing, it was still lonely to not have anybody to play with during such a high-spirited age.
Bai Jinyi was rather reticent, just listening to Jiang Shen talk the entire walk back. Upon drawing closer to the gym, someone happened to walk out, and when he saw Bai Jinyi and Jiang Shen together, he froze for a moment.
“Oh? What are you guys up to?” The guy seemed to be much older, and was a head taller than Jiang Shen. “Who is this?”
That question was clearly directed at Bai Jinyi.
“A little swan from next door,” he answered, then looked at Jiang Shen. “You should go back to class now.”
“Oh.” Jiang Shen looked at the boy who was a head taller than him, and the other was looking right back with a disingenuous smile.
“Jiang Shen! Quick, come in!” Song Xin shouted from the door of the dance studio.
He hurried over. “I’m coming!”
As he left, he could not help turning back to look. Bai Jinyi seemed to know he would do so, and raised his eyebrow haughtily.
Song Xin pulled Jiang Shen into the studio, her tone somewhat unhappy. “Didn’t I tell you not to play with them?”
He handed the makeup remover and cotton pads back to Miss Lin. “We just happened to bump into each other. Who’s that very tall boy?”
Song Xin leaned closer to his ear, whispering, “He’s this year’s youth champion of the city’s boxing championship. His name is Lai Song.” After thinking for a moment, she added, “He’s older than all of us, and is either in his second or third year of junior high. Don’t provoke him.”
“Ok,” he answered, then was dragged off to stand in a row with the rest of the girls. Miss Lin gave a few instructions on what they would be learning today, then dismissed them to do their warmups. Calling Jiang Shen to the front, she spoke to him gently, “We’ll start pressing down on your toes today. If it begins to hurt, just tell me.”
Jiang Shen didn’t really understand. “What does that mean?”
“In ballet, there’s this thing called ‘en pointe’, but it’s not something that can be done immediately,” she explained, then gestured for Jiang Shen to hold onto the barre and lift one leg. “Straighten your calf… good, point your foot as well.” Her palm wrapped around the top of his foot, and she slowly placed pressure on it, along with his toes. “Continue to point. Hold it. Good.”
Holding his breath, Jiang Shen put all of his efforts into pointing his foot. He was not sure how much time had passed before Miss Lin finally let go.
“Your tolerance level is really high, huh?” She smiled at him. “You can tell me if it hurts.”
He reddened. “It doesn’t…”
She shook her head, gesturing for him to sit down with his legs extended. “Take off your shoes.”
He removed them obediently. “What happened to your big toe?” she exclaimed upon seeing his toes.
“I bumped my foot at home today. It doesn’t hurt.”
Miss Lin sighed, then expressed a rare moment of sternness. “From now on, your toes are your entire life. You must take good care of them.”
Jiang Shen quickly nodded. Following her instructions, he continued pointing his feet, trying his best to curl his toes towards his soles.
“Going forward, you need to practice like this everyday,” Miss Lin said slowly as she held his heels. “At home, eat lots of chicken and beef; boiled, no oil, and don’t add too much salt. Eat more eggs, less candy, and drink milk, too… Can you remember all that?”
He finally caught up to her words. “Huh?”
She laughed. “Forget it, I’ll tell your mother instead.”
Tan Lingling came by in the afternoon to deliver vegetables, and made a special trip to the dance studio to watch her son practice. Miss Lin had brought her laptop, from which she played a dance segment from The Moon’s Reflection on the Second Spring as she taught the children its basic steps.
Jiang Shen was learning very seriously. His arms were flexible yet powerful, and the arc of his spin was beautiful. After a few more tries, he actually kind of looked good. Standing by the window, Tan Lingling watched for a while, and could not help but smile. She went over to the door, softly calling out to Miss Lin a few times. The latter noticed her and walked over.
“We just harvested these vegetables today.” Tan Lingling pushed a few bags at her enthusiastically. “Try them at home, Miss Lin.”
The other felt very sheepish. “Lingling-jie, you always give me so much every time you come. How could I be so unabashed as to accept them all?”
“No, no, there’s no need to feel abashed. Our Shenshen still needs you to take good care of him.”
“Jiang Shen is so obedient, it’s my pleasure.” To make Tan Lingling feel at ease, Miss Lin accepted the vegetables, then told her about Jiang Shen’s dietary needs, astonishing her. “He has to eat that much?”
Miss Lin wanted to laugh. “It’s not that he has to eat that much in one meal, but that these have to be the bulk of his meals from now on.”
Tan Lingling frowned slightly, deep in thought.
“Dancing requires energy too,” Miss Lin persuaded, “boys will only be able to gain energy and muscle by eating those things. He has to stick to this diet as much as possible.”
When the class ended, Jiang Shen once again took the initiative to stay behind and tidy up the room. Everyday, he would use this opportunity to practice his basics one more time, humming a tune as he tapped to the beat. While returning the bucket, he walked past the boxing gym and saw Bai Jinyi again.
Lai Song was there as well. Both of them were in the boxing ring, with Lai Song holding onto a boxing shield. Bai Jinyi’s punches were very fast, and the sounds of his fists hitting the shield were terrifying — as for anything else, Jiang Shen did not understand what he was seeing. Poking his head in, he watched for a little while. Lai Song was the first to notice him.
“Little Swan.” Lai Song’s sharp incisors were revealed whenever he smiled. “Why are you here?”
Bai Jinyi turned, his face covered in sweat once again. Raising his arm, he wiped his face with his sleeve.
“I was cleaning up,” Jiang Shen said. “I’m about to leave.”
Lai Song walked to the edge of the ring. Hanging over the ropes, he waved Jiang Shen over.
Jiang Shen put the bucket down, then slowly made his way towards them.
Drinking from his water bottle, Bai Jinyi asked, “You’re alone?”
Jiang Shen looked at his bottle curiously. “Yes.”
Lai Song laughed. “What are you looking at?”
Embarrassed, Jiang Shen averted his eyes. Lai Song understood implicitly. “You’ve never seen a water bottle like this before, right?” he teased. “Bai Jinyi’s family is really rich. Even his water bottle is branded.”
Bai Jinyi aimed a kick at him. “You’re talking too much.”
Lai Song did not dodge the kick, but scolded him with a laugh. “I’m your senior, you should be more respectful!”
Watching them argue, Jiang Shen was unable to join in the conversation, and stood there mutely. Lai Song suddenly eyed him. “It seems like your family background is so-so, right?”
Jiang Shen’s face warmed a little. He had a distinct accent when he spoke, and his clothes could not be considered good quality. He was well aware of what his family background was like, but had never given it much thought, nor did he feel that being poor was something bad. However, Lai Song bringing it to the spotlight like that… was a different matter entirely.
“You and Bai Jinyi are both pretty strange.” Lai Song pointed at them without any malicious intent. “As the saying goes, ‘a rich man’s son does not box, and a poor man’s son does not dance’, but the opposite goes for the two of you.”
“If he likes to dance, why can’t he?” Bai Jinyi finally spoke up.
“A boy dancing Swan Lake? Have you seen that before?” Lai Song asked.
“Y-yes, I have,” Jiang Shen suddenly stammered out. “I-I’ve looked it up.”
Bai Jinyi and Lai Song exchanged a glance, then settled on Jiang Shen’s face.
The latter blushed again, yet said very solemnly, “In the future, after I learn it, I’ll dance it for the both of you to see.”