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Sep 2010
I was born a sickly, screeching baby, two months earlier than expected. The doctor and midwife did everything they could to keep my little limbs moving and to keep my tiny heart beating, fluttering like the wings of butterfly.
“Is it a boy?” my mother whispered through her pale lips, as they bathed my naked body in hot water.
“No, ma’am, it’s a girl” The midwife struggled to add on something that would make the wailing creature seem more desirable. “With exquisitely shaped feet, so perfectly miniature”
She let out a croak of conflicting emotions: the joy and pride of a newly-founded motherly love, the fear of presenting a girl as a first-born, the relief that the hours of agony in childbirth were over and the dread of facing her husband once he found out about me.

My mother was not healthy after my birth for a long time; and when I was only one and two months old she fell dangerously ill, and the house whispered footsteps running to her room late at night and muffled voices of different doctors. Mercifully, she survived but was left barren and forever unfertile.
I can not imagine my father’s fury. He believed in having sons to carry on his old last name of thirty-one generations; it was his religion and had I been a son, I would have been worshipped as a god. I can imagine how my mother prayed and thanked her ancestors that her dowry was of a large one.

He could barely tolerate being in the same room as me during my toddler years. Every time he entered a room I was playing in, nurse would sweep me to our garden out side; answering to my startled queries, “Be an obedient daughter, don’t bother your father and don’t ask questions”
My body had been born frail, but my natural spirit was as healthy as could be, full of inquiries, wonders of the world around me and everyday I would learn something new just wandering around the neighborhood observing things, with my nurse trailing with a worried eye behind me muttering, “Girls are not supposed to be exposed to this” she spoke the words as if they were sour, “you should be sitting at home and accompanying your mother.”

Every day at dinner, the two females of the house, me and my mother, were silent while my father ranted on and on. My appetite being very delicate, I often just sat there as still as I possibly could and listened to my father talking about politics, jobs, money. Things he called ‘men business’. I longed to ask questions about these ‘men business’, especially ‘university’ for I had an inquisitive sort-of nature but was refrained with a sharp, piercing look from my mother every time I opened my mouth and sometimes, she pinched me under the table leaving purple splotches which flashed, “Don’t question your father”
Sometimes, he would talk about the future he had decided for me, “You will marry off, sixteen at the latest, to some one rich and beneficial to our family. You will do as I say till I marry you off, and then you will do as your husband tells you.”
“Yes father, for I should repay everything you have done for me” I replied as sweetly as I could.
“Yes, you’re a good daughter. Bear lots of sons for him and your house will be one of happiness.”
I was proud that he had given me a compliment. “Yes father, for it will make you joyful as I always wish to make you so”
My childish heart did not understand why my mother turned her head down while her left eyebrow twitched, and why that night, as she tucked me into bed, I thought I saw a tear roll down her cheek and why as she kissed me that night she whispered, “Do not love me so; love your father. The men in your life are your gods.”

My physical health would constantly limit the desires of my free spirit. I could not to do what others who were as free of spirit as I was could do, and couldn’t socialize with them and the rest of the children in my neighborhood had their siblings to mingle with, causing me to become the pitiful outcast.
I saw children around my age, around seven or eight, climbing trees and wanted to do so as well, but my white feet did not have grip enough to grasp onto the fat branches.
Father caught me once trying to propel myself up a tree and his expression was both of a resigned anger and sadness before he turned him and his face away and back into the house without a word.
That night, mother told me not to climb trees ever again. I noticed a faint bruise on her cheek bone that had been covered with white powder.

When I was eleven or twelve, and was allowed to wander further out into the neighborhood with my nurse I saw the boys fishing in the nearby pond and wanted to do so as well. Starting that day, every week I pocketed the three coins mother gave me until I could buy the best fishing rod in the little store and ran as fast as my skinny, weak legs could carry me to the pond. I mimicked the way the boys flung the fishing rod out over the water but the metal pole was too heavy for my pale, shaking arms. I tried over and over again as my nurse watched, biting her lip in anxiety. I held the fishing rod with trembling sore arms till  I felt a bite; I pumped my small arms to reel it in, but they were so tired and I was far too slow, losing the fish I had spent half the day trying to catch. “Ah, just bad luck, don’t worry! It was a smart fish, I tell you!” nurse exclaimed, though her eyes flashed a look of pity and I knew she knew it wasn’t just bad luck or a smart fish.
In anger, I sold the fishing rod to one of the boys for two-thirds of the price I had bought it for. He was delighted with the bargain and I watched with a lump in my throat as he caught three fish with the tug of his healthy, muscular arm within fifteen minutes. “This is a beautiful rod, and the pond is just filled with fish today, Little Sister!”
Wanting to spend the money jingling inside my pocket, money that to me was just a reminder of a painful memory, I headed off to the collection of little shops close to my house where I was guaranteed distraction. Nurse, sweating and complaining of the heat, followed me.
An ageing man with a bunch of filthy hair working away on a piece of thick, rough paper with wondrous colors inside a shop caught my eye as I peered inside the window. He turned the picture upside down and continued blending in the dark colors of the shape to create a shadow along the curve of it. I entered the shop. “What is that?” I asked of him.
“A face” he replied back absentmindedly.
“Doesn’t look like one to me” I confessed with my honesty.
He looked up at me, “No, it does not to you, and maybe, neither will it at the end. To me, it looks like an angle of a faded face. But slowly, with time, it will become clearer and clearer, yet only to me, and as it does, I will be able to choose more colors to make it yet more beautiful. The outcome of this painting is entirely up to me.”
I felt my challenging self rising up. “But what if you imagined a certain color in your head but couldn’t find it or be able to mix it to your mind’s perfection?”
“Then I would create my own paint color.”
“You know how?”
“No, but if I could not find the paint color already made I would make it myself, and no matter what, would learn how to. So far I have always been able to compromise and mix different colors to please me.”
“You do an awful lot of shadowing light colors with dark colors”
“Why do you think I do so?” he questioned me this time, with bright eyes.
I pondered for a moment to give as good an answer as he had given me and then told him my answer.
He nodded with impress, “Yes, yes, absolutely right. I never thought I’d hear that from a child” and looked at me with his head cocked in curiosity.
“What would you like to buy from here, Little Sister?”
Still deeply interested in our conversation I pulled out the coins I had in my pocket. “How much stuff can I buy with all this money? I’d like those crayons, I’ve tried them once before and they are so creamy and smooth.”
“Oil pastels?” he asked, a little confusedly.
Feeling ashamed of my ignorance, I nodded. The tutor father hired evidently bent to father’s strict rules of what should be taught and what would not be taught. Father disapproved of women painting, and would’ve dismissed nurse had he known that instead of taking me out for a little walk to smell the blooming daffodils, she in fact let me explore the environment around me to the best of my ability even in disgruntle.
The man gave my red-patched cheeks and undeveloped translucent frame a sympathetic look and when he spoke, his voice was gentle. “Little Sister, I’ve a whole basket of oil paints that I’ve used but rarely and so are still in perfect condition. Would you like to carry the whole basket home for all the money you have in your pockets?”
I handed him all my golden coins, “But first I must see if I like it.”
“You won’t be disappointed” he chuckled and walked with an imbalanced limp to the back of the store. I noticed a wooden stump protruding from the bottom of his long, black pants. My heart throbbed achingly; he was ****** limited too. I turned to his painting and smiled from deep inside, a smile I rarely wore.
He came back tugging a huge brown basket filled to the brim with sticks of oil pastels, some longer or thicker than others. He lifted an orange one up and showed the tip of it to me, which was stained with a black mark. “Sometimes when you blend colors this will happen, but it’s easy to rid off. Just softly, and patiently rub it off on a cloth until it disappears.” He demonstrated upon his black pants.
“Thank you. It’s kind of you. But...I can’t carry this home myself. It’s heavy.”
I turned to nurse and smiled my best pleading smile.

The basket was toiled up as nurse undressed me from my shower and father and mother were otherwise occupied. That night, with my precious basket safely under my bed, I cleaned all the multi-colored oil pastels on an old shirt, and as soon as the house was ringing with silence, I locked my door and flicked on the lamp light, and started pressing the smooth colors into the paper to blend and make a picture of kissing colors on a relatively large piece of white paper. A thrill ran from my finger tips and along my arm, and made my palms tingle as I held the colorful sticks in my hand to the paper. I hid it underneath my bed just as a rosy sun was rising.
*
I was sixteen, and I was thought beautiful: for now, at this age, it was considered beautiful to be so pale of skin, so small of feet and hands, graceful to have tiny limbs and charming to have little strength for it was now considered ‘feminine’.
It was three weeks after I had turned sixteen and for dinner, father had brought over an ugly man with a bulging waist and shiny bald head who continually made ****** jokes at the dinner table while he believed I did not understand them. He was infamous for the two wives he had had (before they died from sickness), and how he not only hit them but kept other lovers too. Yet he was desirable for his vast richness. He leered at me obnoxiously, in an attempt to smile.
Father caught him looking at me, “She’s incredibly silent, never says a word of defiance and will be a most dutiful wife.”
“Yes, she is beautiful”
My heart froze and my brain was stimulated to work twice as fast. Him?! Him?! The man who’s wives were killed through an illness called ‘abuse, neglect and disloyalty?!’
I cast my eyelashes down in order to appear a calm, modest young lady while my heart hammered in fury, disgust and a rising hysterical panic. I shot a look at my mother whose left eyebrow was twitching as she stared down at her dinner plate, and I knew she was having the same thoughts as I.
“I would be glad to have you as my son-in-law. You would have no trouble with her, and would be embraced with open arms into our family.”
They continued this path of talk through dinner while he eyeballed me in a way that made me cringe. I felt his foot nudge mine under the table and in haste tucked it under the chair with a little gasp. His eyes glittered at my gasp and I was furious with myself for letting him feel a rotten triumph. Though I had always felt an extremely strong dislike towards him from what I knew of him and sometimes saw of him with an immoral lady, something pushed in the pit of my tummy, and I knew it was pure hatred.
When mother tucked me in she was being strange. On closing my door she whispered, “I love you… so I wish you to know… don’t ever contradict men”

As I was secretly drawing a picture as I did every night till dawn, I heard my father’s voice roar in the dead of the night. In a sudden, I shoved my portrait under the bed and threw all my oil pastels into the basket, hid it, and switched the light off. I heard his voice roar again, accompanied by a thud. I was wild with fear as I crept to my door and pressed my ear against it, barely even shocked at my own daringness as my instinct, love, took over- my instinct of must knowing what was happening to my mother.
“How dare you say I’m wrong!?” there was another thud, and this time I heard a soft whimper. “She is worthless to me, not a son. And I will marry her off to a rich man who can actually benefit this family.” He roared.
There was a whisper which I strained to hear, “He will **** her”
“From the moment she was born she wasn’t made to live!” he yelled.
A hiss escaped my tongue and I coiled like a serpent, flinching as a thud was heard yet again and an immediate cry of pain escaped from both my lips and my mothers’.
A fire awoke inside me, burning my temples and my whole body and my eyes stung with hot tears; tears that burned my face as they splashed down. My whole body was shaking and my tightly squeezed eyes were going through spasms. I was no longer wild with fear, but with anger.
I turned my light back on and tugged my basket of oil pastels out. I yanked my portrait off from a thick of pile of different pictures I had drawn.
My breath was coming in quick short breaths as I finished my portrait to the utmost perfection, using every oil pastel in the basket. Every time I heard a thud, I colored with more fiery… shadowing my jaw line with the fat black oil pastel, in the crook of my ear, the corner of my mouth… where the light shone upon my fore head, how it reflected in the color of my eye and glowed on my cheeks.
When I was finished, the house was deadly quiet again and dawn was breaking. I looked down upon it and realized something that changed my life.
In frenzy I swatted out all the things I had ever drawn and stared at them in an awakening.
The colors on them were the events of my life, the things that characterized it, the decisions. They were beautiful for they had been chosen and controlled by me … I had chosen the colors I wanted and thought best for my pictures; and spent thought over how to blend different colors to the color I wanted.
And everyday, as I worked into the drawings with time, they became clearer and clearer on what was the right thing to do, and how it should possibly look like in the next stage.
I leaned over and kissed the thin lips of my portrait that didn’t look exactly like me for not even the most skilled artists have complete control over what they draw.

Then I remembered what I had told the one-legged man in the shop a few years go:
“Lights not only illuminate, they also cast shadows. The contrast makes you able to appreciate the power of both.”
Now it was time to truly let the light illuminate my life, and let the shadows let me appreciate the light that shines upon me; I color my own life, and choose my own colors.

To pull out the colors underneath the darkness of my bed…
And spill it to the world outside.
Mymai Yuan
Written by
Mymai Yuan
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