“The wicker basket, with the red stain, please.” Luò Wei handed the stall keeper ¥34, and dropped what he was carrying into its new home.
“Xiè xie!” The young man nodded. “You’re very welcome.” Luò Wei replied, smiling. He was ashamed to think it had been a few years since he’d last visited his home village of Yújìn. It was a historic and quaint town, where everyone knew everyone. The cobble streets were decorated beautifully for the festival. Despite being on an island, the agriculture was booming, and the vendors in town had everything you could ask for to have a lovely ceremony. Luò Wei was thinking about what stall he wanted to visit next, when a faint breeze showered him in light pink petals. Spring had brought the plum blossoms out, and he paused a moment to bask in the pastel rain, breaking off a sprig of flowers to add to his basket.
“All the perks of Shanghai without all the bustle.” His father used to say. And he was right. The food, the lust for other cultures and languages, the bright lust for life in all its inhabitants. Well…most of its inhabitants. He approached a familiar stand, and was met by a short but plump woman. The sleeves of her red and gold robe extended well past her hands. She wore the expression of someone who just took a big bite out of a lemon, accentuating her age quite a bit. But her face softened and broke into a smile when she saw Luò Wei.
“Luò, it’s been too long, my friend.” The old woman said, embracing him. “I almost thought you stopped making your trips up the mountain.”
“I’m sorry, Mei, it has been, hasn’t it?” He agreed, hugging her tightly. “But no, I still like to make the trip when I can. I live with my daughter-in-law and grandson in the city, and these old bones have made the journey difficult. We still meet close to home every year, but it’s not quite the same.” He sighed as shame washed over his face.
“I’m sure he understands Luò, please don’t be hard on yourself. There isn’t a household from here across Shanghai that doesn’t know the pain of the war. I’ll put the Honey Jasmine tea you like so much on to brew. Gather the rest of your basket and it’ll be here, waiting for you.” The kind old woman squeezed his shoulder, and Luò Wei set out for the fruit merchant.
“I’d know that pudgy, bearded mug anywhere! Luò Wei! It’s so good to see you! I almost thought you gave up on these trips. What a shame that would be. I’ll assume you want your usual Lychee bunch?” The man asked. Luò Wei nodded.
“The wife and I so look forward to seeing you every year, and helping you connect with your son. Actually, I believe she has a gift for you. Hold on.” The fruit merchant ducked in his tent, and a petite, radiant, woman appeared with him on his return.
“Luò Wei! It’s so nice to see you again! I know you’re pressed for time, so we won’t keep you, but. A gift.” The woman extended her hands, and in them was a green candle, with a 5¥ bill curled through the wax. “For the offering of fortune and prosperity for your son and you. I make them for the festival, but this is a gift for a friend.” She said, smiling. Luò Wei grinned and bowed to her. “How lovely it is to have such kind friends. Thank you.” He said, and he paid for the lychee bundle, placing both into his basket.
Surely his tea would be ready by now, and he wandered back to Mei’s stand. But in her place stood a little boy, around age 4, playing with toy soldiers on the wooden countertop.
The boy looked up from his game. “Are you Luò Wei?” he asked.
“Hello, little one. Yes, I am. I’ve returned for my tea. Is Mei here?” The old man peered around, somewhat disappointed.
“Gran Gran went home for more tea leaves. She said to tell you your Honey Jasmine was ready and to give you these.” The boy took out two, small, orange cups, with gold filigree, and looked up at Luò Wei, studying his basket carefully before releasing them.
“Are you going somewhere?” He asked. Luò Wei smiled.
“I am.” He pointed toward the grassy mountain top in the distance.
“Oh.” Said the boy, pulling the cups back. “I’m not supposed to play up there. Gran gran says the spirits of our people are resting up there, or something like that. I didn’t even wanna play there anyways.” He gruffs. “The old willow tree is creepy. Anyways, she said to give you two cups. Is someone going with you? You look kinda old to travel alone.” The child peered behind the old man, looking for signs of a companion.
“No worries. I make this journey regularly. I’m meeting my son, for tea. Thank you for being concerned for me.” Luò Wei motioned toward the cups, but the boy pulled them away again, so he could further keep the old man’s attention.
“Your son? Is he little, like me?” His eyes lit up as Luò Wei’s welled.
“No, no. My grandson is a little older than you, but my son is a man, around age 34.” He told the child.
“Oh.” The boy sighed again. “Well, it’s awful rude of him to leave his poor old dad to collect all this stuff and walk so far! Gran gran says…”
“Gran Gran says stop bothering this poor man right now Zhang!” A voice called from across the dirt road. The boy jumped.
“Gran! I was just talking to your friend! He’s going to meet his son and the guy didn’t even come to help his dad! That’s not very kind of him.” He announced matter-of-factly. Mei gave Luò Wei an apologetic look.
The elderly woman picked up the child and sat, putting him on her lap.
“Child, do you remember what we celebrate today?” She asked, cupping the child’s head in her hands.
“Yes Gran Gran!” He said enthusiastically. “Qi..mi…quin…Well, I don’t know how to say it…” He sighed, deflated.
“Qingming.” She corrected. Mei held her grandson close and explained to him the significance of the festival. She told him that Luò Wei’s son was, in fact, traveling a great distance, with much difficulty, to be with him today. “That’s why he’s gathered all these things. To help his son find him. Speaking of, I think we’d better let Luò be on his way, the sun is going down.” She looked to the old man with a smile, and Luò Wei nodded graciously, looking out at the horizon as he took the tea pot from his old friend
“Much appreciated, Mei.” He bowed. “Take care Luò. Give Lò Ten my best.” She hugged him goodbye.
She had been right. By the time Luò Wei stepped on to the mountain path, the sun had stretched across the sky, and was preparing to rest. “A fine idea.” Luò thought to himself, but he continued on. The path was long and winding, and the unevenness of the gravel dug into his sandaled feet, making them sore. He reached the top after a half hour or so, just as the sun was kissing the mountain tops. Twilight was when the veil was most thin, and the perfect time to lay out his gifts.
The man greeted the massive willow tree like an old friend, broke off a small branch, and knelt underneath the hanging vines. The ceremony was done with precision, love, and care. Luò Wei swept debris off the stone with the branch, and thanked the tree for keeping his son safe. He carefully balanced a frame against the willow’s trunk, placing the plum blossom branch so that it wrapped around the picture. It featured a young man with dark, slicked-back hair and warm eyes, and stern expression on his face. He wore an army Captain’s uniform, decorated in corresponding pins, and three stars on each shoulder.
The tea pot rattled from the shaking of Luò Wei’s aged hands as he poured the jasmine blend into each cup, setting a handful of lychees beside them. Finally, he lit the candle the fruit merchant’s wife gave him, and spoke.
“I’m so sorry I haven’t made my journey in several years, my son. You’ll understand, your father is getting old, and these bones don’t move like they used to. But please, don’t ever think you’re forgotten. In our tradition, Qingming is a day to honor the dead and invite them back to you. But my son, as I stare at your grave marker, I’m reminded that you are never truly gone. I feel you in the dawn each morning, giving life to a new day. I feel you when the wind blows, prickling the tiny hairs on my wrinkled arms, giving me that gentle nudge forward. I see you every day in the eyes of your little boy, I hear you in his laughter, and I feel your love in his hugs and your warmth in his smile. It’s been 7 years and I still miss you every day, Lò Ten. I always will.”
Luò Wei hummed his son’s favorite lullaby as he wept, tracing the gold characters on his son’s headstone.
“Captain Lò Ten Szeto, Born 1979-8-15 Died 2013-09-12. You are with us, always”