The tiny trail that leads away from my grove joins the larger path. I bypass my village entirely, always heading down. Where the path branches, I build a pile of rocks or cut into the bark of a tree. I stop every once in a while to clear my throat three times and rub the hair on my arms and legs. The world knows that spirits are not that clever or brave. They are frightened of saliva and the sounds of human hairs are excruciating to their ears. When Yan-yeh whimpers, I hunker down and bring her to my breast. I lay her on pine needles when I need to relieve myself and change my bloody rags. I eat rice balls as I walk.
Night falls. I wend my way deep into the forest to find what I hope will be a place safe from the worst outside spirits. I strike three trees with my fist. “You be my home! Watch over us.” I roll out my sleeping mat and curl around my daughter. As soon as dawn brightens the sky, I’m up again. I hurt all over and my body screams for more rest, but I have to keep moving if I’m going to give Yan-yeh a chance at life. The mountains are still steep and should be unusable, but tea terraces undulate, following the curves of the hillsides and climbing until they disappear into the morning mists. The farmers have triumphed over nature as I must now conquer my physical pain and weakness.
When the sun is high, the mountain path widens and I start to hear rumbling sounds. I reach a dirt road with a truck going one way, a tractor going the opposite way, and a few people bearing wares trudging in both directions. I need to find this spot when I come home. I can’t leave a pile of rocks by the side of the road, because what if someone or something tips it over? I struggle to find a landmark, but I see nothing different from what I’ve been passing through all morning. I take one of the rags A-ma gave me and tie it to a branch. Please let it be enough for me to find on my return.
I step into the road, not knowing which way to go — left or right. I ask a woman wearing Dai nationality clothes and carrying a basket heaped with corncobs the way to Menghai. “We’re going there too,” she answers. “You can follow us if you’d like.” I feel better to be walking with someone from a hill tribe — a stranger but still familiar — because every step reveals something completely new. The land turns to gentle slopes and what’s planted on them changes. The impossibly towering tea terraces are far behind me now. Instead, trees I don’t recognize rise up in neatly planted rows. Now, when I stop to mark my route with a slash from A-ma’s knife, thick white goo oozes from the trunks like white blood. The Dai woman tells me they’re rubber trees. “Are they for eating?” I ask. She laughs and shakes her head. I begin to see houses, which are unlike any in the mountains — made of stones, clay bricks, and some type of smooth gray material. Then I see my first two-story building. And then the most astounding sight. Way above my head. My first airplane.
“I unwrap my baby and set the tea cake on the ground. I bring her to my breast. My milk hasn’t come in yet, but she sucks and sucks and sucks — my baby is strong, and she’ll need courage to survive what’s coming — while my insides wring and constrict.”
Yan-yeh stirs and squawks in her birdlike way. I say goodbye to the Dai woman and step off the road to find a spot of shade. I unwrap my baby and set the tea cake on the ground. I bring her to my breast. My milk hasn’t come in yet, but she sucks and sucks and sucks — my baby is strong, and she’ll need courage to survive what’s coming — while my insides wring and constrict. I have to bite my lips from the double pain, and yet the way she looks up at me … Her eyes are so clear … When she falls asleep, I wrap her back up, making sure to support her neck as A-ma showed me. Then it’s back to the road.
Two hours later, as darkness falls, we arrive at the city. Dust churns and swirls as cars, trucks, motorcycles, tractors, donkey- and horse-pulled carts, bicycles, and so many people bump along the dirt road. Even in my despair, the sight is amazing, but the first time I hear a horn, I almost faint I’m so scared. Nearly everyone is dressed like Teacher Zhang — in a Mao suit and cap — but some men wear gray pants, white shirts, matching gray jackets, and knit vests. That too looks like a uniform. Here and there, I spot someone like me — a member of a hill tribe, immediately identifiable by our embroidered indigo clothes and the special headdresses that mark us a Bulang, Dai, or Akha.
I recognize things I’ve learned about in school: apartment buildings, petrol stations, dress shops, restaurants. (Restaurants! Imagine going to a store like that, sitting down, telling the man what you want, and then he brings it to you.) But it’s the electric lights that are most alarming and fascinating. White lights. Yellow lights. Orange and red lights. Green lights. Glowing from buildings. Illuminating roadways. Shining like evil eyes from cars.
I stay on the main thoroughfare, afraid that if I turn off it I’ll never find my way home. I don’t know how to locate the orphanage. I’m surrounded by strangers in a place that could never even come to me in a nightmare. I’m hungry. My private parts hurt. I’m weak from giving birth and all the walking. And I absolutely must not be caught, because even for Han majority people what I’m about to do is against the law. I’ve heard of jail, prison, and labor camps — who hasn’t? — but no Akha has ever survived being sent to one. Not that I’ve heard of anyway.
An image of A-ma gazing out over the mountains before she handed me the knife comes to me. The way she set her jaw … Anguish. Courage. Sacrifice. This is mother love. This is what I must find in myself now.
I come to a tiny roadway that divides a block. It’s also unpaved but empty of people and bicycles. I creep into the shadows and sit shielded by a discarded cardboard box with my back against the wall. From here, I can watch the street without being seen. Surely those people will need to sleep. I eat some rice balls, ration my water, and nurse Yan-yeh again. I tell her everything I can about Akha Law, about her a-ma and a-ba, about the lineage, and what it will mean to become a woman one day. How I will always love her. How I will think of her every breathing minute of my life. I whisper endearments into her face, and she looks up at me in that penetrating way of hers. Her tiny hand grips my forefinger, searing my heart and scarring it forever.
I’m awakened later — who knows how much time has passed? — by her mewling. I feel dawn coming in the quiet around me, but for now the night is still murky and dim. I must act now. Already tears pour from my eyes. I make sure her blanket is tight around her and the tea cake secure. I put her in the box. She doesn’t cry.
At the corner, I peer in both directions. To the left, in the distance, two women approach, sweeping the powdery dust from the surface of the dirt road with brooms made of long thatch — slowly from side to side, swish, swish, swish. I step out, turn right, and scuttle forward. I pass over two more streets, both deserted. All the while, I’m whispering, “Your a-ma loves you. I’ll never forget you.” I place the cardboard box on the steps of a building. No more words now. I must run, and I do — to the next corner, right, then right again, and to the next corner, so that I’ve returned to the edge of the main street. The two sweepers come closer — swish, swish, swish. I dart across the road and hide on that side so I can see the abandoned cardboard box. Its sides tremble. My daughter must be moving, realizing I’m gone. And then it comes — a terrible wail that cuts through the darkness.
From “The Tea Girl of Hummingbird Lane” by Lisa See. Copyright © 2017 by Lisa See. Reprinted by permission of Scribner, an Imprint of Simon & Schuster Inc.