Sweet. Mum even put fresh sheets on the bed. I like the feel of new sheets on my skin. Wriggling my legs around to mess up the bed. I don’t like them tight. It’s like I’m choking. Whoo. That’s better. Yeah. Still got sand in my hair. She was choice today. Spoilt me for a change. So she should ‘cos it’s my eleventh birthday.
The sun made me squint all day, a tinfoil shine off the sand and sea. Bet my eyes are bloodshot tomorrow. Like mum’s when she’s been drinking. But none of that today. They all tried to make it special. Even my brother Manu. Well, almost. He had to duck me, push me under when I didn’t expect it. He can be a real idiot sometimes. Wish I was older than him, then I could dish up the same stuff to him.
And I saw some eagle stingrays when I used the snorkel and mask Koro got me for my birthday. OK. So granddad could only afford a cheapy from the Warehouse. But it didn’t leak and I could see everything under the water. Those eagle rays skittered away in a cloud of stirred up sand whenever I tried to dive down and see them up real close. I could feel my heart thumping as I held my breath for the longest time ever. Wish I had some fins on my feet. I could have got much further under water with them. Maybe I can get Koro to give it to me for Xmas. It’s only a month away.
Manu thinks I’m a sissy girl but those stingrays didn’t scare me. And when the dolphins came into the bay I swam straight out to meet them. I sort of heard mum shouting from the beach to come back but that was never going to happen. Even Manu stayed in the sea treading water and watching. All alone, just me and those amazing animals. Fast. One second they were in front of me and the next they swam past me before I could reach out to touch them. Looked like a mother and her calf. The little one right by its mum. They seemed bonded. Bet it doesn’t have to deal with the same rubbish I live with.
Mum told me I was crazy for doing it. Ha! That’s a good one coming from her. Then she just hugged me tight until her jeans and T-shirt were wet from my togs.
We all sat on the beach, me digging my toes in the sand as we ate fish n chips. And I got the biggest piece of fish. Manu made up for it by stealing some of my chips. I didn’t care. He was only jealous. He’s always hungry and getting big now. I’m still scrawny, skinny armed with legs like foal. All bone, no fat.
But I can run. Manu and me. We raced to the end of the beach. OK. He beat me. But not as much as last year. One day I’m going to thrash him. I can’t wait to see his face then. He won’t be smiling then. I love him though. He looks out for me at school and around.
And going home he didn’t even fun fight with me. He let me chill out and enjoy the perfect ending to my birthday. Dried salt on my skin, sand on my feet and the taste of fish batter and tomato sauce in my mouth. Tomorrow won’t be like this though. Gotta get some sleep. I’ll dream of floating on the sea, rising up and down with the swell of the incoming tide. Me and my dolphins.
I nearly fell into the river down by the whirlpool today. I was so angry at Koro for making me search for mum. Throwing rocks into the river, I shouted my frustration at the dark licorice current when my foot slipped on the mud. I screamed, grabbing at the flax bushes but they were slick with rain. The last clump of long grass saved me and I held onto it fearful it would give way and I would twirl in the current as it sucked me under.
Please don’t let mum be down there I silently cried as I struggled to regain the dry ground above. Safely back on firm ground I shivered from the cold water that had drenched me up to my waist. Now my best jeans were a mud stained mess. It’s so unfair. Auntie would have left for town by now with my cousins. We were going to have fun looking in the shops and eating ice cream. But, as if she wanted to ruin my life, mum goes walkabout again.
I hate this river with all its untold secrets. Mum keeps coming down here to talk to it. Mum and her blasted Taniwha. There’s not such thing, it’s a myth. Everyone knows that. Except mum. Oh yeah, she really believes it talks to her. The only thing in this river is rubbish dumped upstream. And all those plastic bottles won’t fed a Taniwha. No way.
I walked for an hour down to the bridge, too scared to look under it. If she was there I didn’t want to find her. She wouldn’t be so stupid I kept telling myself on the long walk home. I hoped Manu had found her, or maybe my cousins in town. When I got home, there she was. Sitting at the table with a cup of tea that Koro had made her. I ranted and raved at her for ruining my day out and my best jeans. She just looked sad and pulled me to her whispering into my ear that one day I would understand. If understanding is being like her, then no thanks. I don’t want any of it.
The mirror reflected an ugly sight. My left eye was purple and closed. Dried blood caked my nostrils and my bottom lip was swollen. I watched my face wince with pain when I moved. The ribs on my left side shot daggers of pain through my chest in protest. I think they cracked one of them. Ohh. Bad. Real bad. Manu saved me from a worse beating. He pulled the girls away from me, curled up on the ground as they put the boot into me. My exposed left side took most of the kicks.
I’m sick and tired of the teasing. The insults and laughing at me at school. I try to ignore them. But almost every day someone tells me that my mum is crazy and should be in the nut house. Today I snapped and lost my temper. Koro keeps telling me to close my ears and let the words disappear in the air. And I do. I really do.
But not today. It felt good to get that first punch in. I hit her right on the nose. Serves her right to have blood spout all over her face. I was stupid though. I stood and laughed at her pain. Her friends rushed me from behind and then I was on the ground with the bitches kicking me. If Manu hadn’t been close by, I don’t know when they would have stopped. He told me I was a fool but I can still see her shock at my punch to her nose. It was worth it.
Manu promised to teach me to fight. Every day since they beat me up, he has given me tips on how to box and wrestle. Koro found us at the back of the house with a punch bag made from a sack filled with sand. Manu roped it from a tree branch and my fists are sore from hitting it. Koro asked us why was a girl fighting and when he heard the truth about how I got beat up he went quiet for a while and stared up into the sky for ages. We waited until he seemed to have made a decision. Without a word he went back into the house and returned with two taiaha. Beautiful polished carved spears with a fighting club at one end. He told us it was time we both learnt how to use them. I’m not supposed to use it because I’m a girl but Koro wants me to be able to protect myself. I love having that weapon in my hands.
I want to be an astronaut and be rocketed up into space to explore the moon and the planets. I read about Mars. My ambition is to be the first female to step foot on the red planet. I want to discover something important for humankind. Who knows what I could find there?
I drew the trajectories of my spacecraft on a map of the solar system that I bothered mother to buy for me. She scolds me for wasting my time on childish imaginings. But she relented and now I can track my space flight alone in my small room. The desk is too small for the size of the map and the outer solar system droops over the edge. But I don’t think I will get that far anyway. Mars is my goal.
My teacher is proud of my progress in mathematics. He says that I must work harder to master calculus. I will need all these skills on my flight to Mars. I know it amuses him to hear my impertinence. How could a girl from a fishing village in Taiwan ever be chosen to train as an astronaut? He smiles when I reply that I must start training now because even he does not know the future. Things can change and I want to be ready to take my place on a rocket when the opportunity arises.
I don’t have any close friends. The other students in my class also think I am strange. They have different ambitions. Mother calls them drones. They are worker bees without a future. She tells me that I am special and not to let their teasing divert me from my plans.
We live alone in a small ground floor apartment. Mother keeps to herself and her life revolves around making sure I do my school homework. She is strict with me and seldom do I see her relax. She is always aware of everything around us. The noises in the stairway, the traffic in the street. People may not notice her but she assesses them as we walk into the village to do our shopping. I ask why is she so afraid and she scoffs. Bah! She is not afraid of them. She is aware she explains quietly showIng me her observations as we walk. Soon I begin to copy her and realise that most people drift along in ignorance of their surroundings. It becomes a game for me. Anticipating what they will do next. The boys playing by the side of the road, kicking stones at the passing car tyres. Then running away when the shopkeeper threatens them with his broom. I will need these skills of observation when I am on Mars.
My sweat stung eyes blurred the vision of the dusty path as I gasped ragged breaths. I tried to imitate mother’s easy stride uphill ahead of me. She lithely danced short steps over rocks and whenever the path smoothed, she jogged at a faster pace. This was the third day that she had bought me here. Immune to my pained groans as aching muscles protested the rigorous routine, she snapped orders back to me, forcing me to mentally overcome exhaustion and drive my legs ever uphill.
At the summit, I saw mother standing with her back to me. Yet I knew from yesterday not to take her relaxed stance for granted. Despite burning lungs and no energy in reserve, I approached her cautiously using my peripheral vision to scan the ground around her. Anticipating her trick, I dived for the wooden rod in the dust some metres away. Pain shot up my thigh as she delivered a blow with the rod she had concealed in front of her. Rolling away I grasped the rod on the ground and parried her next blow before leaping to my feet in a defensive stance. I knew this would continue every day of the summer until she failed to beat me. Only then would she show me what she said I must see.
The green tiles of our apartment floor were deliciously cold. I flopped down on them and lay prostrate with my cheek against the refreshing ceramic. Yow! Cold water drenched me. Mother laughed at my stupidity. Never trust others around you. Even your own mother. Be on guard always she lectured. I dragged myself up and forgetting the cold water, heated fury coursed through me. Mother didn’t move, challenging me to try as she swung the half empty bucket. My shoulders slumped. I knew she would better me if I sought revenge by grabbing the bucket to return the favour. I protested with bunched fists and shouted insults but she simply laughed, enjoying the moment. The day I drenched her would be the day she would respect my growing ability to fight.
Until then I would endure her discipline because she is my mother and she knows best.
The squirming boy’s scratching chair disturbed my concentration. I glanced quickly at him with a frown of disapproval. He squinted defiance and he made his chair legs scrawtch loudly on the wooden floor. Teacher rapped his ruler on his desk at the front of the examination room. Head down I read the question again. It confuses me, leading towards the wrong answer. I decide its a trick. The examiner wants us to clinically dissect his words and discard the obvious. Hidden in the question is the answer under a layer of deception. Ha! I have it! Now I see into his thoughts. I know the answer.
My pen takes on a life of its own, rushing across the blank page. My thoughts are ahead of the pen and I have to slow down my thinking to gather together succinct phrases to express myself. I feel the eyes of the boy beside me and hear the creak of his chair as he leans towards my desk. I move my arm to encircle the gestation of my answer in my exam booklet. I hear his hiss of frustration and glance up at teacher. He is watching the boy intently. I return my pen to the page and finish writing what I hope is the perfect answer.
I hunger for a successful result in this scholarship exam. My initial nervousness has been replaced with an excitement as each question posed is one I had anticipated and studied completely. Page after page of answers fill my booklet. I didn’t dare think of success but the thought kept popping in my mind. Engrossed in the final question, I had relaxed my guarded pose and exposed the page nearest the boy next to me. He leans towards me to read my answers but I was oblivious to his cheating. Crack! Teacher’s ruler came down on the boy’s desk. Startled out of my concentration, I screamed in fright and instinctively leapt out of my chair in a defensive stance. Teacher ordered me to sit down and finish my exam. He then took the boy by his ear and hauled him ignominiously out of the room whilst ordering us to keep working.
We all want to win this scholarship. The competition is fierce and all but one will be disappointed. Some were no doubt thinking that now there was one less competitor but I blanked out my surroundings and focussed selfishly on my own answers. Yes. I am determined to best my classmates. Let them be drones. I want to fly up to the stars.
Outside, the sun was bright and the air hot with summer. I walked briskly towards home, the dust covering my sandals. Away from the school and alone in the street I reviewed my answers in my head. No matter how thorough I am, the self doubt of having made mistakes creeps in. Pain seers my back as the cheating boy runs up behind me and punches me hard. Dropping my school bag I let the force of his attack propel me forwards, rolling in a summersault as mother taught. Regaining my feet, I face my foe who is confused that a mere girl can move so fast and not collapse in tears.
He has conceded the advantage of surprise and the tables are now turned in my favour. He stands ox-like as I dance from foot to foot before delivering a vicious kick to his jaw. His head snaps back as he falls to the ground, howling in pain and humiliation. I look around but the street is still empty. Standing over him, I spit on his face before snatching my bag and sprinting for home.
A classroom has been set aside for the interview. I can feel the spiteful glares of the defeated as I walk deferentially towards the closed door. I don’t know what to expect behind it, other than it is my opportunity for a future beyond the petty jealousies of this village. A moment of panic clutches my throat in a tight grip. I can’t breathe as I realise that failure to pass the interview could mean I am marooned here with my enemies. All my classmates would join together in making my life a misery or as close to it as they can achieve. The grip on my throat relaxes as I resolve to never let that happen. My hand reaches for the door handle to my new life.
Beyond the door sits a refined man in a business suit. He has been given a cup of tea and without turning towards the door to see me, he remains still, contemplating the steam rising from the cup in his hand. Statue-still I wait to be summoned, staring at a pencil shaving on the floor, a hint of red revealing the colour from which it was cut. Will I be scythed down too? A curt order to advance breaks my contemplation.
He asks me many perceptive, probing questions, dissecting my life, experiences, ambitions. He laughs enthusiastically when I tell him I want to be an astronaut. The chances of gaining a place on a space flight are slim he counsels. He likes my attitude and suggest that he can offer something just as good. In fact he insists, better. He has a grand plan to make new discoveries in science. It’s a long term goal and he needs bright young minds dedicated to his cause to join him. Instead of giving me a pass mark like teacher does, he invites me to become one of his team. It will mean many more years of study both here in Taiwan and overseas. I will have to become proficient in English and major in quantum physics. It is up to me to decide, not him. I am taken aback. No-one has ever given me a choice. Not even mother. I like and fear this strange man. Yes, I say too loudly, my voice carrying out the windows into the schoolyard. Has the cheat heard me? I no longer care. I feel propelled upwards off my launchpad on a new, exciting trajectory into an unknown future.
Mother is pleased for my success yet I catch her concerned gaze upon me as I do my chores. Soon I will leave for the city school but for now we have stilted conversations as if there is an emerging wall between us. Is this what growing up is meant to be? I am torn between the elation of be chosen to study in the city and the regret that for the first time in my life I will not be woken in the dark before the dawn by mother’s strong, little hand on my somulant shoulder. Will I miss our morning ritual? The stretching exercises, the running, tumbling acrobatics and strenuous exercise she insists that we both do before the sun rises. Until now she has never given a reason for the physical training that she makes us practise daily. She has started to explain her motivations to me but there is another barrier in our lives. It is the barrier in her mind that hides her secrets. Their revelation seems to be a task to great for her. So when it is time for me to catch the bus all she gives me is a tearful cheek to kiss. It is the only time I have ever seen mother cry.