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Adventure East Asian

It was a balmy midmorning on the cusp of spring and summer, the air smelling of magnolia wood and blooming jasmine, and Yelena was sweating. Her pale arms were starting to redden from the light sun, and she kept having to pull her skirt, sticky with sweat and river water, away from her knees. 

The warm months in the nation of Xinzihua were unfamiliar, her body having long acclimated to the permafrost of her home country, forcing her to spend the first two summers of her new life cooped up in a dark room with a cold drink in reach. When she had insisted that, since she was now thirteen and practically an adult, it was time to brave the weather and spend the coming season outside, her adoptive father nearly fainted. That morning, he scurried her out the door with a bright smile as she met with her cousins, chattering on about how much fun she was going to have on this lovely, sunny day. She thought it strange that he was tearing up as he watched her travel down the street, but the thought quickly fell away as the four children raced down the craggy path to the river, heaping wicker baskets in tow. 

Yelena stood in the knee-deep marsh, the basket of soggy clothes dripping a mixture of river water and laundry soap onto her shoulder. On her head was a tangled crown of silky white flowers she had woven idly, some of the fallen petals caught in her unruly curls. Underfoot was a trampled, branchy bunch of those same flowers that weren’t pretty enough to be used, whose stems she had snapped out of boredom as she watched Lianhua sling a freshly washed bed sheet over the clothesline. Both Jiabo and Shuchang were still in the river, the older boy listlessly rinsing a basket of his clothing with only the occasional dramatic sigh. Her gaze, however, was fixed on Shuchang and his scrunched, focused expression as he bound a flat bed of sticks together. The gentle sloshing of the surrounding water drowned out his grumbles as she watched, her eyes glazing over as she wondered what he was building, and what kind of trouble he was going to cause with it once done. Lianhua waded over, tired of waiting for her younger cousin, and hoisted the basket off her shoulder, clicking her fingers in front of Yelena’s face with her free hand.

“What’s wrong? You’re zoning out, and your father told me that something’s wrong when you zone out.” She said, trying to snap the girl out of her trance. It didn’t work; her eyes were still glassy and her mouth was opened in a puzzled grimace. Again, she snapped her fingers in front of her cousin’s face before Yelena pointed at the boy, whose foot held the bed of sticks firmly in place as he pulled a section of rope taught, neither of their focus wavering.

“What is Shu doing?”

Lianhua pushed up her glasses with the crook of her elbow, sighing as she wrung out and hung up a shirt to dry. She didn’t even look over at her brother.

“Probably something he shouldn’t be. Come on, help me hang these up.”

Yelena nodded, a bit disengaged as she climbed onto a stump, helping her with the chore, her mind wandering. Occasionally, she snapped her head back to the sound of rushing water and the dislodging of rock, only for Lianhua to bring her attention back with an exasperated huff. The sun rose as morning shifted to noon, and the lines were filled with a rainbow of wet garments, bedsheets, and lonely socks that flapped in the light breeze. Yelena, her crown of flowers made pulpy with sweat and water, stacked an empty laundry basket on top of another, and flopped down on the ground. She let out an exhausted breath, her tired eyes trailing over to the boy in the water once again. Even from her spot in the misty grass, the expression of pride on his face was clear; whatever it was that he was building, it was almost finished. 

The scent of earth and clean linen overtook the blooming greenery of spring, and little bubbles of soap floated upstream. Jiabo sat down next to her, squeezing the water out of the front of his shirt and the ends of his hair as he stared blankly at the river ahead. Just like her, he was watching Shuchang. His eyebrows creased together in both concern and curiosity, his fingers absentmindedly twirling a piece of grass. The two of them sat there for quite some time, waiting, watching, staining their fingertips green as the sunburn on Yelena’s shoulders grew hot to the touch. Finally, as the sun hung high in the sky, the boy stood up straight with his fists on his hips.

“Done! Hey, hey, everyone, come look!”

Shuchang waved his arms wildly, his foot still holding the bed in place as the children scurried to the riverside, peering at whatever it was that he was gesturing at. Their faces contorted into a shared confused look on their faces, and Lianhua wiped off her glasses.

”What even is that?” Jiabo asked with a tinge of fear in his voice. Shuchang beamed, an expression that usually meant he was up to no good.

”It’s a sailboat!”

Lianhua sighed heavily, as she often did when her brother spoke, and cleaned her glasses again. Maybe some of his madness was finally rubbing off on her, and she was starting to hallucinate. In her mind, she begged the Goddess to either make this whole scene a vivid hallucination, a sign that she needed new lenses, or an elaborate dream. Yet, when she slid them back on her nose, the view was all the same: Shuchang had decided that, instead of helping with two households worth of laundry, he would build a raft. This was reality, and she groaned:

“What in the world are we going to do with a boat?

Shuchang gave her a pointed look, “That’s a really stupid question, Li. It’s for sailing, of course; what else would it be for? Quilting?”

The three of them stared at the raft, utterly befuddled, at each other, and back at the raft. It was shambly at best, crafted out of thinning twigs that he’d stuffed into a pack instead of collecting firewood, and some twine that he traded for three coins and a small tin of mints. Some reeds from the banks were tied there, too. The river’s current was in the process of sweeping it away, which was probably for the best, but Shuchang wedged it firmly between the rocks with his heel. There the poor boat suffered, bobbing up and down wherever it could in a feeble attempt to escape. However, it stayed firmly planted in between the rocks and the young man’s foot, and Jiabo swore he could hear it begging for either mercy or death.

”That doesn’t look very safe.” Yelena muttered. It was obvious, but she felt like someone needed to say it. 

“Chang, the middle part is bending. I don’t think it'll stay afloat under your weight, much less all four of ours.” 

“Sure it will! It’s our very own, reliable, trusty sailboat, after all.” 

“Without a sail?” Lianhua smirked. Shuchang stuttered, the heat rising to his face as he waded over to the clotheslines, yanking down one of their mother’s nicest, still-damp skirts. He went back out to the raft, quickly erected a mast with a large stick, and tied the skirt like a flag around it. The wind picked up, ruffling the fabric in silky waves, and he stood in awe of his handiwork. He whipped back around, smiling pointedly at his sister, who only rolled her eyes.

“There. We have our own special sail, just like real seamen. Now climb aboard, everyone, and we’ll be back from the other side of the world before supper!”, he whooped, hopping on top of his handmade boat with a pale flag of embroidered cranes, motioning his reluctant family over. They didn’t budge, only staring at him bewilderedly until he scowled.

”Come on! If you all aren’t going to join me on my adventure, I’ll go by myself!”

Not keen on the idea of Shuchang going on a solo journey, especially one down a river, the children lumbered past the waterside foliage onto the boat. It was larger than it appeared to be from the banks and, despite its rickety appearance, was rather sturdy. The wood was still stripping and the twine still looked cheap, but it was at least able to hold them all up in the shallow water. Their hastily mounted flag swayed and dried in the wind, the waistband still dripping. Yelena settled herself, sitting cross-legged at the edge of the raft, marveling at the moss-coated rocks under the bleary water. As it often did, her mind wandered. She thought about what it would be like to spend days, months, years at sea in a real boat, not just one made of sticks; to sail in water that you couldn’t see the bottom of, and to conquer waves as big as a house. A pang of recognition settled in her heart as she looked over her shoulder, lips pursing quizzically.

”Jiabo, was Aunt Guiying a fisherman-woman before she had Qixuan?”

“Mom? Yes, she was, but her crew never went past the Tao Estuary. Fishing isn’t much of a woman’s job, though, especially out in the ocean.”

She hummed, satisfied as her cousins sat on opposite sides, hoping that the balanced weight would keep them from sinking. Of course, nothing was guaranteed, and Liahua muttered another prayer that was cut off by a sharp yelp. Shuchang kicked the dam of rocks free, and a gust of wind shoved them forward. 

Yelena lurched forward, Jiabo’s arm being the only thing between her and the water, and she shoved her feet in the space between two sticks. She scuttled back as a spray of water splashed her and Lianhua, before crawling back to the edge. The three of them shared surprised grunts and groans as they repositioned, wrung out, and wiped themselves down, their captain seemingly unperturbed by the sudden swell as he watched the sail. Around them, the waves surged. A thin layer of seafoam swished, disappearing and returning in an erratic rhythm, not unlike the laundry soap bubbles resting peacefully in the reeds a few feet away.

Shuchang pulled a folded map of the world from his satchel, running a finger in a path from the skinny creek where they did their laundry into the ocean. He looked over at his older brother as if thanking him for the idea and held the parchment up for everyone to see. Not wanting to move from their steadying positions, the children craned their necks as far as their bones allowed.

“I bet we could go to the estuary, too. Then, we’ll sail out to the Qiuyue Sea, and then we’ll be in the ocean like real sailors. Maybe we can float all the way to the Belgar Peninsula; I learned about it in my geography lessons.” He said, tracing a line across the inked waters, landing on the illustrated port, “We could buy some goat’s wool from the farms there, too. It’s thicker because it’s always snowing in the mountains there, and I think Mama would make good sweaters out of it.”

“Do you think I could trade some fancy goat’s wool for some of Mrs. Wei’s plums?” Jiabo hummed, pinching his lower lip.

“You could give Mrs. Wei your left hand and she wouldn’t even let you breathe in the direction of her plums!” His sister chuckled, cleaning the river water off of her glasses. The children burst into a peal of laughter, tossing jabs at their neighbor as the wind carried them upstream. Yelena clutched the edge of the boat as she leaned over, feeling the coarse and sturdy wood against her fingertips, as she stared into the water. Fish, with their tawny scales and muddled green fins, raced past the rocks beneath them. Her eyes were trained on their slim, wriggling bodies as they swam onward, their gills swaying and flapping against the current. She dipped her hand near a school of small, almost black ones, and they scattered beneath her fingers. A small, surprised noise escaped her lips at their retreat, and she smiled. In her home nation, long, flowing rivers were rare. The only fish she had ever seen were in small, deep ponds beneath the ice, and they were far more skittish than the ones joining them on their adventure. 

“Do you want to be a fisherman like your mama, Chang? You could build your own boat and spend all year at sea, catching all sorts of fish, and then you could bring them back to sell or eat.”, Yelena mused, trying to pet a thick, brown paddlefish. The young helmsman’s expression soured as he leaned boyishly against the mast. 

“A fisherman? No way, I hate fish!”

“Then why did you steal my helping of shrimp congee this morning?” Lianhua retorted, pushing her glasses back up on her nose.

”Shrimp aren’t fish.” He scoffed in return. Their eyes, filled with ire, locked as if they were sworn enemies.

”They’re seafood.”

”But they aren’t fish. Not all seafood is fish, Lianhua. They’re little sea bugs, I think.”

“They are not!”

”They are—“

”The estuary!”

Yelena pointed to the wide mouth of the river—which was on their opposite side. The argument dropped like a dead bird from the sky. Shuchang, who had been standing proudly by the mast, cried out as he fell to his knees, paddling his hands in the water.

”No, no, no! We’re going the wrong way!

A wave of panic crashed over the children as they piled on one edge of their sailboat, fighting both the current and the wind, which only seemed to get stronger. The raft started to tip forward, the edge of the sticks running into a school of green bass, and Yelena leaped to the other side, wrangling the skirt off the mast. She jumped as the raft slammed against a wall of jagged stone, sending her just high enough to tug it down as her family’s howling filled the air, but she was quickly knocked down as the river crashed around them. Just like it had in the morning, the air smelled richly of magnolia wood, jasmine, and freshwater. It blew unforgivingly, sending the poor raft bounding 

The sailboat careened downstream, not up, crashing against boulders and scratching shallow gravel. Shuchang got green in the face, Lianhua wrapped her glasses in her skirt as she and Yelena prayed loudly, and Jiabo tried to take the mast down. Once again, he was sent flying as a sharp wave smacked against the stern. The noise he made as he clung onto the stick, splinters embedding in his fingers, would be considered very embarrassing in typical circumstances. As the rushing of water got louder and shallower, the ground became rockier, and the thin layer of seafoam settled. The four children, soaking wet and shaking with adrenaline, used slivers from the twigs as makeshift oars, cursing at the sweet, strong wind as it carried them along the stream. Yelena clung to the mast, cramming her feet in between the rocks underneath in a feeble attempt to stop the boat before the rapids carried them away. Their sail thrashed, as if the embroidered cranes were trying to escape from the fabric, and the wind was deafening.

The water rushed.

The seafoam stirred.

The waves sprayed.


A chorus of screams was silenced by the snapping of wood and a single, heavy, splash. Gasping, they bobbed back up, Yelena on Jiabo’s back, and their mother’s skirt on Lianhua’s head. They looked at each other, at the remains of their sailboat, then back at each other. Shuchang uttered a word that, in any other circumstance, would’ve earned him a firm slap.

The sun was setting, casting the sitting room in an elegant orange glow as the scattered clouds gave way to a clear sea of stars. Guiying swayed rhythmically in a rocking chair, darning a sock, wondering why the laundry was taking so long.

March 09, 2024 04:24

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1 comment

David Sweet
01:20 Mar 10, 2024

Welcome to Reedsy! This reminds me of the time that I was building a raft to sail down a nearby river like Huck Finn. My 1st grade teacher ratted me out after I wrote her a note telling her I would not be back to school. Thanks for reminding me of that memory. Also, thank you for a fun, entertaining story. I hope you find a niche here on Reedsy for all of your stories!


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