Two girls approach me, each carrying a little heap of yellow mangoes in conical hats that they’ve flipped upside down, the air around them sticky with the nectar-like smell of the ripe fruits. It is the peak of noon, when the sun beams gloriously down and penetrates even the leafiest of branches, and the girls slump down at my feet, their fruits spilling on the ground next to them.
Pulling their hats from under the mangoes, the girls wave them back and forth, fanning themselves and catching their breaths. They were plainly dressed in worn cotton garments, the kind to help them cope with the heat. One has her hair braided into a loose tail, which flutters in the wind from the makeshift fan-hats. The other has woven her long hair into a ribbon and twisted it around the front of her head like a hair band in a much neater style.
“All right,” the one with the braid says, “how do you think we should do this?”
“I don’t know, Yue,” the sensible one replies. “Why don’t you tell me, since you came up with all this?” Barely giving Yue a chance to answer, she adds: “I can’t believe you talked me into this. We don’t even have any joss sticks!”
“Oh come on, you always say it yourself—it’s what’s in the heart that matters.” Yue picks up a golden mango and thrusts it towards her companion. “We collected all of this mango in the dead of noon. In the middle of the summer season! That must make up for the lack of joss sticks. It certainly smells better than joss sticks.”
I watch Yue lean back onto a nearby tree and rhythmically fan herself, her case rested. She does have a point. I do prefer the smell of fresh fruits—it’s hard not to grow tired of the smoke from incense when you’ve been surrounded by it for decades. And while I have never liked fruits, not even when I was alive, they do offer something different, something more colorful than smoke. It used to make me roll my eyes, but at some point, I found myself less annoyed when I got offered fruits. I also found myself less annoyed by people and whatever they thought I wanted from them in general.
“This is ridiculous,” the sensible girl says. “What’s the point? Look at all of this,” she throws an arm around to indicate the lychees, the watermelons, the rambutans at my feet. “She has so many good, perfect, evenly-looking fruits bought from the market offered to her. Why should she take our uneven, spotted, ugly mangoes?”
Dearest child, your mangoes are the only thing I could really enjoy. I have stopped eating long ago, but I can still sense fragrances.
“Chen, you’re overthinking this,” says Yue, who then drops her fan-hat and stoops down to start arranging the mangoes. “It’s all about the heart, remember? You’re smart as heck, and you don’t just play around with it. You actually like to read and study, like a crazy person. Why you choose to do all that in the little free time we have, I don’t understand.” Yue keeps on stacking the mangoes and talking without stopping for breath. “But the point is, you want to do this, and you can do this. Not everyone can. It’s just, every examinee prays to The Lady before the exam. You’re already smart, so you don’t need to ask for much, just pray for her to bless you with a clear mind, blue sky, and nothing to trouble you on the day.”
So this is an examinee. Of course, why else would they be here at my feet with two hats worth of mangoes? But they are quite eclectic when it comes to wish-making—no joss sticks, no parents, just two girls and a bunch of mangoes.
Two girls and a bunch of mangoes. Two girls. Having been a spirit as long as I have, and hearing countless prayers through the years, I sometimes don’t distinguish between people anymore. I sense living humans with their offerings laid down in front of me, but I don’t actually think about who they are, and I barely pay attention to what they’re wishing for anymore. It’s always a variation of the same thing: good exams, easy questions, shiny top results. And it always comes from some boy, or maybe his parents. But girls, they don’t come here for blessings—until today.
Does this mean what I think it means? Did the Academy finally accept female scholars? After all these years, did they finally open their eyes? I look at the girls in front of me, willing them to steer their conversation towards my questions.
“I don’t know,” Chen says and looks over at me with a hint of doubt in her eyes. “I feel like The Lady wouldn’t be entirely fond of rule-breakers.”
“We’re not rule-breakers,” Yue says, “we’re just ahead of the times. And we’ll show them what the future is like. Well, you’ll show them. I’ll cheer you on and get you out of prison if things go wrong.” Yue smiles, but her joke only makes Chen’s gaze heavier with thoughts.
Rule-breakers. I see. The rules remain, and girls remain outside of examination rooms.
Yue continues to set up the mangoes and Chen continues to watch me thoughtfully, her face rouged and wrapped in the summer heat. Like my face was, that day many decades ago. Like that day when the sunlight cut through the sky sharp and direct, like it was meant to blind my senses.
I suddenly find myself walking again, walking under the protruding roof of the village’s community house, walking into a cool room where there was a pinned up piece of parchment smeared with black ink. On it was the announcement we were all waiting for. Each summer, only one name from the village was sung, one person selected for their intelligent mind to go to the nation’s capital to enroll in the Academy. This was an honor any family with a son would pray for, an opportunity every young man would work hard to get. And as I approached the announcement, as I looked beyond the many hopeful heads itching to find their name, I saw it. The male name I had picked for myself, dark and eloquent against the dry parchment. Yuan Li. I was the chosen. I was the promising youth and future academic.
I inched my way to the front of the crowd, towards this name that had been sung. I made it. No one knew and no one believed that I could, but I did. I was the girl who did it, the girl’s whose hard work and disguise paid off. I had the proof, and I was going to prove them wrong. Not now, perhaps, but I would work my way up to a good, strong position with credibility, and then reveal myself so that everyone could see that brilliance and intelligence had nothing to do with gender. Here was the first step, right in front of me, and I was about to take it.
But there, at the precipice of something great, I fell. In a flurry, I heard people shouting my chosen name. Who is Yuan Li? We were a big village, but a village nonetheless, and everyone knew everyone. Yet no one knew that name. Because that wasn’t a real name—that wasn’t a real boy. Someone noticed me in the crowd and recognized me for the girl I was. Someone pulled at my hat, my clothes, my skin. Someone threw punches, accusations, threats at me. So many of them, and only one me. I fell into the darkness of their anger, and I sunk.
When I find myself in the present again, the girls are already kneeling in front of a neatly arranged pile of mangoes, their calves tucked beneath their thighs. They have no joss sticks and no parents around. Yue pushes her braid back and glances at Chen. “Remember, you can do this. You’re the smartest person I know. And I’m pretty smart myself, so that’s quite a big compliment.”
Chen shakes her head with exasperation, but she reaches out and take Yue’s hand. “I don’t know why I let you convince me to do these things.” She looks into Yue’s eyes and holds her gaze for a while. Then, the girls let go each other’s hands, straightened their backs, and in unison, bow down to me. Their heads, one slightly messy and one very neat seem so small next to all the fruits and offerings. Their bodies like needles swallowed in a haystack.
Being a minor spirit, I can scream and shout, but I can never be understood. That crowd many decades ago swallowed me and trampled on me. In the days after I left my living body, I wailed. I stayed at the village community house and wailed until the following exam season came around. When the highest achiever was announced I screamed into his ears until they bled. The year after that, I went into the exam room and screamed louder, so that every examinee’s skin prickled with cold sweat. I screamed until someone decided to put together a shrine for me and asked for my forgiveness. Forgive what, they didn’t know, but they knew they needed to appease me in order to take their exams in peace.
I granted their wish, eventually. I stopped screaming. I stopped caring about the fact that they didn’t understand me. The year after I stopped, someone else came to my shrine, to ask for easy exam questions. Another asked for good grades. And another asked for success. Year after year, mothers, fathers, and young men came to me with their wishes and hopes and dreams. I never gave them intelligence or guarantee their success—all I did was stop screaming. And still, every year, one of the many examinees will return to thank me for making miracles happen for them.
That is who I have become, a revered spirit who is still somehow irrelevant.
But today, I’m getting prayers from two young girls along with their fragrant, freshly harvested mangoes. I watch the sweat drip from the side of Yue’s and Chen’s faces as they raise themselves to their feet. I watch them leave my shrine with their conical hats firmly on their heads. And I bless them with the clearest of minds and the bluest of skies.