My two sisters, too old to volunteer to perform for the troupe, pushed to the front of the crowd. As the official looked over us again, I prayed to the Chairman, asking him to grant me the opportunity to serve. The people's republic had been born the same year as me, and we were both still testing our limits, still ricocheting between extremes as we figured out who we would grow up to be.
Besides performing revolutionary songs, I could dig a ditch, spin wool, and demonstrate other skills that our leaders might want to review. I imagined the Chairman beaming, his hand outstretched, and mine reaching up to meet his. My looks didn't matter, only my courage.
Female heroes were few but vivid in the tales we learned at school: A teenage spy beheaded after she rallied villagers against enemy soldiers. A factory worker burned to death after she stopped a huge fire. A peasant killed when she held together a collapsing kiln. I wanted the official to pick me for this duty and to separate me from the rest of the girls in the village, from everyone here. I wanted to live like a hero.
If the official didn't select me, in a year I might get married. In time, I would have a baby, then another and another. I had to act now; it might be my only chance. Catching Headman Song's eye, I floated my hands in a gesture only he would understand. I swiveled my head over the length of the crowd as if to say, I will tell everyone. When his mouth twitched, I knew he understood. Headmen elsewhere in Hebei province had been beaten for lesser offenses, for the people hungered to humble the powerful. To listen to their confessions, strip their authority, force them to clean latrines and catch flies in a jar. Even if only some believed the secret I held, the headman's reputation would suffer, for such was the strength of accusation in those days.
The cicadas rose in pitch, a teeming, throbbing sound. Headman Song took the pipe from his mouth, turned to the official, and they spoke with their heads bowed.
When Secretary Sun returned and stopped in front of me, resting his hand on my shoulder, I didn't shy away.
* * *
No one else in the village knew what I'd seen. Two years ago, a traveling musician had sought shelter here. Although he wore the same rough clothes as the rest of us, his pale skin glowed, and his high haunting voice silenced us in a performance fit for the Chairman. He sang of heroes, of a mischievous monkey king who rebelled against the heavens, while he plucked at a pipa, the melody spooling from his fingers. Every family volunteered to house the musician that night, for we'd never had such a remarkable visitor. Headman Song prevailed, and he moved his wife and four children to his brother's home to provide quiet for his guest.
In the middle of the night, I slipped out and crept to the headman's house in the hopes of another song. Instead I heard grunts, and through a crack in the front door, I saw their shadows on the wall come together and apart, flickering in the firelight. I moved away, but then peeked back in. The musician kneeled on all fours, the headman behind him. Their hands reached, touched, twined. As the headman let out a low moan, their rocking mesmerized me until both men had shuddered and gone still. I bumped against a stack of baskets. Though I caught them in time to keep the baskets from toppling over, the headman burst through the door, naked. His nipples, large and flat, were startling, an unblinking pair of eyes. Scowling, he gripped my wrists, and his body was heavy with a thick soapy smell. I didn't scream, and after a long moment, he released me. He must have known I would keep his secret—until today, when I floated my hands as the traveling musician once did over the strings. Over the headman.
* * *
That night, Ba gave me the biggest portion of millet porridge, the one reserved for him. Our family sat cross-legged at the low table that rested upon the raised brick bed. When the nights chilled, we'd stoke fires in the hearth beneath the bed to keep us warm. My sisters watched, their faces pinched with hunger, with jealousy, as he plucked mushrooms drizzled with soy sauce from his own bowl and dropped them into my porridge. I inhaled the scent. Our village was famed for its soy sauce, its dark fermented flavors redeeming our bland, insubstantial meals. We fermented the sauce in giant urns, pungent proof that the simplest ingredients could be transformed with time. I pushed the mushrooms to the side of the bowl, saving them for last.
"Our Mei Xiang," he said. Fragrant Plum Blossom.
I looked up. He almost never called me by my name. In our family—like all the families in our village—we referred to one another by our titles, by our roles: Ma and Ba, First, Second, and Third Daughters.