In the Absence of the Sun
Hui sighed as he stared at the torrential rain outside.
Just like last time, and the time before that…
But for all he cared, the weather could be 'just like last time' if it wanted to. As for himself, he was determined to make things different.
It was not that he did not believe in messages from above, but this he tried to ignore. Like many others whom he would compete against tomorrow, Hui was a hopeful scholar who had spent his entire life working towards this examination. His parents were only two of many who had done everything they could do, investing their hard-earned money to sustain their son's education.
For Hui, failure was much less of an option. Having already attempted twice to break into the ranks of court officials, he was no longer young, and his parents had not the strength they once had. Nor could they support his academic ventures forever. Then it would be his duty as the only son to look after his parents – a duty delayed by so many years for his dreams.
He forced himself to turn another page in his third of many Confucian texts, but the words eluded him and no matter how many times he read over them, nothing registered in his mind. He shook his head and rubbed his eyes, to little effect. As if to mock him, the splashing on the roof suddenly grew louder, and was much more distracting than he liked to admit. The inn's structural supports were also questionable, for Hui thought he could feel impact of the raindrops.
He did not like Chang'an very much. Comparing the people, the weather, the location, everything, his little nameless village was superior by far. And from the behaviour of the city's skies during his three visits here, he could only conclude that China's capital did not like him much either.
I can't afford this now! He pressed his palms firmly against his ears, but it was still insufficient to completely block out the persistent pattering sounds.
Anxiety arose from inside him, and he desperately hoped that the weather was kinder to people back home some many miles away. And if the situation was not so, then at least that his sisters have returned home from the rice fields. They should have, though, as it was close to dinnertime…
…were they having dinner tonight?
He hoped they were. With him away, it was even more likely that they were not. But tonight would be the last night they would ever go hungry again. He would ensure that there would be sufficient food with every meal hereafter. There were other changes which had to be made to the way his family worked as well. His parents should retire soon. And it was about time for his sisters to leave the rice fields, and perhaps receive an education. Considering the change in times, even females might benefit from the ability to read and write.
He sighed again. Or was it a yawn? He could not tell.
Until now, he had not noticed how short the candle had become. Hui tore his eyes from the downpour and moved to shut the window. If he were to pass the imperial examination, he would have to make the most of his last few hours of study.
# # #
I wrinkled my nose as the foul odour drifted into the courtyard. Unfortunately, it was not something I could complain about, because I knew that the smoke from our kitchen also paid visits to our neighbours before ascending. In fact, most city dwellers would not be nearly as sensitive as I was to smell, which had once been a blessing but now was only an inconvenient remnant from my time on the farm.
"Is your brother home yet?"
"No. I'll tell you when he is." My mother seemed to have a funny idea that I would ban my elder brother from the dining room when he returned.
However, she did remind me of my original purpose in the courtyard. I looked up at the sun and saw that it had been an hour since I had been sent outside. Or maybe slightly more – the high walls of our house blocked out most of the sunset.
My hand reflexively jerked backwards before I was aware of what had happened, and only after seeing the bright red line running across my fingertip and the sharp leaves on the decorative bushes before me did I piece together the sequence of events. Even after so long, I had not learnt.
Over the years on the rice fields, I developed a tendency to brush the tops of the plants. And although those days were long gone, I still had not made any noticeable improvement to cease the action. The perfect condition of my clothes offered the only comfort. Unlike the practical cotton shirt I used to have, the wide sleeves of my silk robes were not very resistant to damage.
Time and again, I had criticized these ornamental plants, and proposed to my brother that they be replaced. What good were they? Not only did we have to look after them, but they were not in any way useful, let alone edible.
When my brother first heard my immature antics, he only raised an eyebrow and replied, "Which household do you know grows rice crops in their courtyard? And what will the other families think of us if all they see here is farmland?"
Three years on, I remained void of an answer.
Three years it had been already. Three years it had been since we brushed the rice, smelt the fresh country air, together overlooked the magnificent sunset from the top of the terraces.
"Is your brother home yet?" mother called again. Her voice stayed as calm as ever, but her tenth repetition of the question suggested otherwise to me.
"No he isn't."
The last rays of sunlight disappeared, and I slowly returned to the dinner table. Many years ago, I welcomed this time of day, when our entire family squeezed around the unstable, roughly hand-crafted table and attacked the few plates of food.
Dinner was different now. The dishes remained the same, the chefs remained the same, but the ingredients in the city could not hope to rival our home-grown vegetables. We had enough to eat every day, but while we knew we should be thankful for our food, especially in the current drought, no one really had the appetite.
"Is your brother home?" my mother asked as I entered the dining room. I forced a smile and shook my head as my family members' hopeful expressions turned into those of disappointment.
"He is a court official," I said in a poor attempt to lift their spirits. "We know how much there is to do to organise water distribution. He's probably busy."
There was a pause as my parents and elder sisters exchanged glances. I was not sure what they were thinking, but whatever it was, it did not change the fact that our table was missing one.
My father gestured me to take my seat. "Well…we can't wait for him forever."
Silently, we picked up our chopsticks.