When Ba came back inside to find my sister sniggering, he raised his hand as if to strike her. We all returned to slurping our porridge. No one wanted to set him off, to cower under one of his backhand slaps or shoves against the wall.
Soon after, a knock at the door rattled the gourds on the roof. Headman Song entered, ducking beneath a string of red chilies. He set down a polished wooden box, asked for a bowl of water, into which he plunged his hands, and told me to do the same. We dried our hands on a clean rag, and he opened the lid to reveal a palm-sized book, a copy of the Chairman's writings and a gift from the Party official to the village.
"I'm told his words bring blessings." The headman explained that I would study the Chairman's teachings to prepare for my duties in the capital.
"Am I joining a cultural work troupe?" I asked.
The headman frowned. "You'll do as you're told." Then he added, "You'll leave in three days."
First Daughter dropped her smirk.
Three days. Three days! Knowing when I'd leave filled me with lightness again, made the prospect real, even if I didn't have the details. It seemed the Party would only tell me what I needed to know—when I needed to know—and nothing more.
He handed the book to me. I was the only one in my family who could read, and First Daughter hated me for it. My sisters were born too soon, too old for school after the Communist victory.
Ma lit an oil lamp, setting it beside me, and Headman Song placed the book into my hands. It fit into my palm, small enough to slip into my pocket, under my pillow, just the right size, just the right weight. The cover was red, shiny, and flexible, the material like nothing I'd ever held, embedded with a portrait of the Chairman no bigger than a walnut. Here he looked to be my father's age, plump where Ba was gaunt, with full rosy cheeks and parted lips. I ran my thumb along a golden beam radiating from his head, not daring to touch his face.
I knew that as soon as he left, First Daughter would taunt me again. I flipped to a chapter entitled "Women" and looked for familiar words. " 'With the rise of the peasant...' " My voice sounded strange, whining as a mosquito, but when I glanced at my family and the headman, they seemed captivated.
"'The women in many places have begun to organize...'" I said louder, tracing a finger along the characters printed on the rough and speckled page. "'The opportunity has come for them to lift their heads, and the authority of the husband is getting shakier every day.'"
"Shaky men," First Daughter said. She laughed, bold and bright, the kind of reaction I wished I could have kindled in her before now.
"That's enough," Ba said. Until that day, I would have obeyed him, but from now on, I had to be brave and outspoken, a model revolutionary. I continued reading. It was as if the Chairman stood behind me, his hand at my back, urging me on his behalf, and I wanted to hold on to this moment forever. Although I didn't know the next few characters, or most of the next page, I didn't want to lose my audience. I invented what followed. "Women must take their rightful place among men."
I paused, but no one seemed to notice the difference between the Chairman's words and mine. First Daughter had been so gleeful, so sure of what awaited me in the capital. "Feudalism lulls us like an older sister," I said.
First Daughter gasped, and Second Daughter anxiously rubbed her neck. From the time we were small, we'd played games like Beat the Landlord, tackling the person clutching the ball of rags until he gave it up. We hated feudalism like we hated the dirty and scrawny, whose face, whose fate we feared could be our own. Though we didn't know the history behind feudalism, it meant someone backward, stunted, and easily led.
I went on. "Even though feudalism asks for our loyalty, an older sister is incapable of revolution. The youngest child will lead us. Bound feet lead to bound minds, while those with broad feet have broad minds."
First Daughter scowled and yearning shadowed Second Daughter's face. Did she wish for a bigger world, too? I could get away with more, much more, but I held myself back and found another passage to read.
At bedtime, I slipped the book under the blankets with me. I slept on the edge farthest from the stove, the coldest part of the bed, under the window. Sniffing the sour tang of glue, I stroked the pages across my cheek, hoping the Chairman's words would pass into me, like sunshine warming a rock, a heat that would carry me through the deepest chill.
The people of the capital would be as beguiling and talented as the traveling musician, and the buildings would be endless and grand, filled with wonders I couldn't even imagine. And somewhere in the capital, behind the walls of the Lake Palaces, the Chairman dwelled. I knew the name of where he lived and not much more.
He had united the peasants, ten villages, a hundred, a thousand, ten thousand, in the Communist revolution. With hoes and pitchforks, peasants beat back guns. With pipes and bricks, factory workers fought off bombs. Bent in unison, harvesting and threshing, we were mightier than any machine.
I ached to see him as he flicked his pen through the Little Red Book, marking up the pages and filling in my future.
* * *
This excerpt ends on page 18 of the hardcover edition.
Monday we begin the book Her Hidden Genius by Marie Benedict.