Contest #213 winner 🏆

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Fiction Inspirational Asian American

My clay hands are becoming solid porcelain. I have always had potter’s hands. The throwing water absorbs the moisturizing oils of the skin. Leaves the hands rough. The clay paste dries and cracks the skin. Leaving it red. 


But now my hands are hardening. In the bisque firing, my hands harden like porous greenware. The cremated carbon and sulfur escape, exhuming my soul from the earthen clay, little by little, drawing it back to its source. The soul stews out in a boiling whistle, agitating out from between the minerals lodged in the ridges and wrinkles of each digit. The palms petrify. The flesh sinters and binds to itself. In the glaze firing, my hands glow red as the enamel stiffens and makes the fingers rigid and reflective. The silicate vitrifies and turns to glass. Dust becomes crystal—like a baby’s flesh crystalizing into the windows of the eyes. I am born again in the womb of the kiln. I am a porcelain village.


I have received an order for a series of six ornate hand-painted vases. It is enough money for Dandan’s first semester. But I don’t know if I can complete the order. Though I struggle to find my hands, which have become like ghost appendages, I tell no one. I am frightened the orders will dry up. Dandan has been accepted at Columbia University for the fall and has always wanted to go to the United States. And she will need money. So I struggle to find strength and answers. For her. But I fear the pull of Tai Yi Shen—the great spirit—the creator God, pulling back the breath of life infused in this jar of clay.


The January mornings are misty, with a cold mist hugging the valley. My hands ache from the cold and wet of the river. Though my touch is going, I still feel hot and cold. The dirt is hard and stiff under foot and smells like the burned dust of the kiln. 


I dig clay from the banks of the Jia Ling River. Back at my home shop, in Ciqikou, I mix various minerals into the clay. Kaolin, silica, and feldspars. I then wedge the day’s clay on a long wooden table, folding and pressing to remove all of the air. If I do not get out all of the air, the clay will warp and crack in the kiln. Then I begin the process of forming the clay into the shape of finished goods and ready it for five days of firing. For pottery, we use a wheel and throw the clay. For complex shapes, a mold. 


As I mold today’s clay into traditional teacups using delicate molds, Dandan brings me my morning tea. It is a Jasmine tea. It is a honey orchid oolong tea. It smells of irises and orchids and the misty meadows of the Shikengong Mountain. It tastes sweet like nutty molasses with notes of a mild bitter metallic roast. Bright, coppery, and clean. With an after taste of the esters of bubble gum powder that is distinctive of the jasmine resin when properly brewed.


If I am a simple rice bowl, Dandan is a hand painted dining set. My given name is Jing—Jing Yuchi—but Dandan and everyone else call me Jane.


Ciqikou or Longyin Town in Chongquing, China is an ancient place. It means Porcelain Village and if legend is to be believed, is the birthplace of porcelain. The stone streets border ancestral teahouses, pagodas, street food vendors selling doughy mahua, and antique shops with strings of hanging red lanterns on every storefront. The Bao Lun Temple stands above the town and stares back at the North Gate. Dandan is excited for the Lantern Festival next week. It will be her last before her travels and her great adventure.


“Ama, we need to get ready for the lantern festival,” Dandan says.


“Bao bei, I have a big order I have to fill first,” I tell her.


“Pfoof. Forget about your orders ama, I am making the tangyuan. I went to the market before and I have everything: brown sugar, sesame seed, walnut, and bean paste. And lots of rice,” she says.


“You go in and start without me niu niu. I have to go down to the market and see Dr. Looey Zhou about the pain in my hands,” I say.


“It is so beautiful in the market this time of year. I will miss all of the red lanterns. You know what the old legend says the reason is for the red lanterns,” Dandan says, wanting to tell me for the eleven hundredth time.


“No bao bei, what is it?” I humor her.


“The Jade Emperor sensed an uprising when his favorite crane was killed by his villagers. He resolved to destroy the old village on the fifteenth day of the lunar year, the night of the new moon—the yuan xiao jie. But his daughter overheard his plan. The princess was in love with a poor fisherman’s boy in the village. Knowing what was going to happen she warned the villagers to put up red lanterns all over town. Then she fooled her father, telling him that the gods had already burned the village. And so every year we use the red lantern to symbolize the mercy of a young girl that overthrows the ill-fated curse of a tyrannical lord and to pray for yuan yue—a fortunate new beginning.” Dandan says, her face bright with a satisfied smile.


“You will have your own bright new beginnings soon enough, now go finish making the tangyuan.”


“Oh ama, you have had pain in your hands all your life, come help me with the rice balls,” Dandan pleaded.


“Later bao bei, later,” I say.


* * *


Dr. Zhou is a stout man whose black hair has a thick luster like that of a horse, embroidered with a few shiny thistles of white. His eyes are bright and skin taut, featuring a vibrancy that is unusual for a man of seventy-six. He wears a white Hanfu linen shirt with frog buttons and a choker collar. He smells of licorice and lemon and carries himself in a calm, exacting manner.


“Nushi Yuchi, what is bothering you?” he asks.


“I am losing feeling in my hands—losing touch,” I tell him.


“Ohh, Jane, that must be terrifying for you,” he says, taking my right hand and needling it in a form of massage, pulling on the fingers and working his way down each of the bones of the hand, and pressing and squeezing my thumb. “Your energy is very weak in these hands.”


“When I am working with the clay, I can’t feel where my hand ends and the clay begins and sometimes I look down and my hands are off the wheel,” I tell him.


“Your yin or po can be separated from your spirit. You know the story of Bayou—”


“—zhao-hun, the calling back of the soul. But I have no delirium. There are no devils hiding in my closets,” I say.


“Maybe. No devils. But Dandan is your heart. She is going to New York soon. Your essence is cold as marrow is cold. Your yang is unstable. But like cures like. You must steal a heart to replace lost heart, or you will lose all feeling and body and spirit will be parted forever.” Dr. Zhou says. “Zao hundun er po tianhuang. Cure for cold body. Bore open chaos and destroy heaven’s neglect,” he adds with a wry grin that only a very old man can pull off.


“You want me to take a lover at sixty-seven,” I say, perplexed. And then joke, “Dr. Zhou, are you flirting with me?”


“Take a lover. Adopt a stray dog. Whatever it takes to bring feeling back in balance. One more thing Nushi Yuchi, get yourself some warm clothes. There will be snow for the yuan xiao jie—all week there have been clouds over the moon.”


* * *


How does an old lady steal a heart. It is one thing for Dandan, but for an old lady like me who is losing her sense of touch to touch another human heart—let alone steal it—is a tall order. I puzzle over strategies and tactics. Food comes to mind. Visual allure is not entirely out of the question, as I have kept my figure and practice yoga daily. Dandan is the storyteller. I have no aptitude for words. Painting is another idea. But whose heart can I steal? Where do I even look? Will there be someone at the winter festival of the new moon?


The mail lady delivers my mail and the check for the six vases is there, just in time. I will have to go later and deposit this and get a traveler’s check for the gift.


I place the bisque ware on a cookie and begin the process of applying the initial glaze coloring. 


These large white gourd vases are painted with three layers of blue glaze. On the mouth are the petals of opening flowers leading to a border by the lip of the vase. Below, at the bottom of the neck, is another border and a skirt to separate the body of the vase, with branching vines and ornate circular flowers in a fractal design, painted circularly around the curves of the vase to create an effect like movement. I add two bluebirds and a hummingbird for added flare.


Now for the glaze firing and then in three days the final touches. And I can’t forget the final touch of my special gift, the porcelain chest.


* * *


I go to see my friend Sisi, who works at the candy shop across the way. I walk in past the tourists, and we go in the back area of the shop where she is watching the Real Housewives of New Jersey and spending time on WeChat with her American ‘boyfriend.’ 


Sisi has big mantis-like eyes and a rounded head. Her hair seems flat on top like a small tight-fitting cap. Her cheeks are warm and curious, but she has a serious chin.


“Jane! You came such a long way to see me. I am so delighted! Will you be coming out for the lantern festival Friday?”


“I wouldn’t miss it,” I tell her.


“So what is going on Janey?” she asks.


“Dr. Zhou says I have to steal a heart,” I say.


“At your age? You’d sooner steal a penny off a dead man’s eyes!” she says.


“Hey,” I say, “it isn’t that bad, is it,” and I blush—and we both break out in laughter.


“You know the old folk story about the farmer, right? About the luck?” Sisi says.


“No, tell it to me,” I say.


“A farmer gets a horse, which soon runs away. A neighbor says, ‘That's bad news.’ The farmer replies, ‘Good news, bad news, who can say?’ The horse comes back and brings another horse with him. Good news, you might say. The farmer gives the second horse to his son, who rides it, then is thrown and badly breaks his leg. ‘So sorry for your bad news,’ says the concerned neighbor. ‘Good news, bad news, who can say?’ the farmer replies. In a week or so, the emperor's men come and take every able-bodied young man to fight in a war. The farmer's son is spared.”


“Ok. That is a good story, but I don’t know what I’m supposed to get from that,” I tell her.


“It could mean a lot of things. But what I think is, maybe you are having trouble letting go of Dandan. Maybe like the horse that runs away comes back with another horse, you gain more by letting her go. Maybe you not meant to steal man’s heart. Maybe steal back Dandan’s heart, make sure she come back to you.”


“Sisi, you are very smart. And wise. Thank you so much,” I tell her, and head back to check on my gourd vases and my special porcelain chest.


* * *


Ciqikou is fully lit with thousands of red lanterns and the Bao Lun Temple is a shining spire, like a tower of red flames, lit and inscribed with hundreds of sigils, all in ornate calligraphy, hanging down in ribbons from its many eves and archways and boat-like slanting porticos.


Throngs of people crowd the streets. The moon is full in the sky. The brisk wind blows, pulling at their scarves and caps and whistling through the ornamental ribbons covered with calligraphy—the riddles attached to the sky lanterns. Waves of fluffy white snow tumble down in zigzagging waves, making the stone walkway squeak as peals of laughter and chatter echo down the promenade. Everyone is walking down to the river by the Bao Lun Temple, where the launching of the sky lanterns will take place.


“Ama, if you can answer my riddle, you will shoot the literary tiger and all the pain in your hands will go away,” Dandan tells me.


Dandan’s sky lantern has a cryptic riddle hanging off of it in ornate Chinese Caligraphy:


I can follow you for thousands of miles and not miss home. I do not fear cold or fire, and I desire neither food nor drink. But I disappear when the sun sets behind the western mountains. Who am I?


I think on this a long time. I think I know the answer. But I save this secret and hold it in escrow for later.


“Happy Yuan Yue! Bao Bei! How did your tangyuan come out?” I ask.


“Here try,” Dandan says, sticking the sugary dough in my mouth. I chew and taste the brown sugar and the crunchy walnut and gluey bean curd. 


“Mmmm, very good niu niu, your best yet. Tuántuán yuányuán [I say reciting the traditional message] happy reunion, happy family! We will miss this next year,” I tell her.


“Oh, ama, I will be back to see you. I’m not leaving forever,” she says.


“Say the kai deng qi fu—prayer for good fortune—that you will be back next year and in good health,” I tell her, and she does.


We reach the river. The fireworks begin to go off, signaling the beginning of the fang tian deng—the time for the releasing of the sky lanterns with prayers and wishes for the heavens. The snow is coming down now in thick blankets, the drifting flakes shimmering with the light of the moon and the thousands of lanterns everyone is holding along the banks.


“I think I know the answer to your riddle bao bei, goes for thousands of miles, doesn’t get hot or cold, doesn’t fear, but disappears with the dying sun… it is a ‘shadow’,” I tell her.


“Very good ama, you will have much good fortune this new year,” Dandan says.


“And now it is time for your New Year’s gift,” I say with a smile.


“Ama! What gift? You didn’t have to get me anything,” Dandan says.


“Oh, bao bei, I am so proud of you and excited for your journey, but I will miss you very much. Here, this is for you.” I pull out a porcelain chest, crafted in red clay, in the shape of a heart, glazed three times, with a red bright glaze like that of the lanterns.


Dandan looks up and smiles. And holds the porcelain vest close to her chest. “Oh, ama, this is so sweet.”


“Open it niu niu,” I tell her. My hands shake in the cold, but I can scarcely place my fingers. All of the feeling is tingly and tentative like a spirit without a body, wisping along transparent as air.


She opens the hinge of the lid of the chest and looks inside and sees a key with a red ribbon, attached to a little gold locket.


“What is it, ama?” Dandan asks.


“It is a key to the store, so you can come back anytime, even if I am not there. It will always be yours. And a locket, to make new memories. Maybe you will meet a friend or a love at school. And be sure to bring them back home to me—when you return.”


“Thank you, ama, I will, of course, you will always be my heart,” Dandan says.


I feel a tingle in my fingers, where the clay is softening in the warmth of the moment. I can feel the heat of the lantern radiate through my palms and up my forearms.


We take the lanterns and hoist them into the air. A thousand prayers lift into the sky and glow. The red lights blow in the breeze like the spirits of the mountain, snaking along with the gush of the river and the rush of the cold January breeze.


I hold Dandan in my arms a long time before we go home.


I take the porcelain village out of the kiln. It cools and dries along the banks of the Jia Ling River. It freezes in time, like a memory. It is smooth to the touch. Glassy and full of hidden meanings, like fine China.




August 30, 2023 04:35

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90 comments

Amanda Lieser
00:57 Sep 20, 2023

Hi Jonathan! This story was absolutely breathtaking, and a well-deserved win! I love how you managed to create such a rich world in 3000 words or less I also highly admired the deep and beautiful imagery that you packed into every single sentence. Your characters were beautifully crafted. Their souls kept from the page. I adored them and hope that they only experience happiness after this transition.

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Jonathan Page
03:33 Oct 01, 2023

Thanks Amanda!

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Shawn Leader
21:31 Sep 11, 2023

Nice work, man. You use words good. ;)

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Jonathan Page
03:33 Oct 01, 2023

Thanks Shawn!

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Trudy Herdwick
13:24 Sep 11, 2023

Exceptional writing. You transported me with your descriptive visionary writing to being in the room with them throughout this story. Absolutely, well deserved & an inspiring win (from a newbie aspiring writer!)

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Jonathan Page
03:32 Oct 01, 2023

Thanks Trudy!

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16:52 Sep 08, 2023

Congrats! Your prose is stellar as usual. I've been seeing your stories for a few weeks and pleased to see you get highlighted. Paragraphs like these are just amazing: "The palms petrify. The flesh sinters and binds to itself. In the glaze firing, my hands glow red as the enamel stiffens and makes the fingers rigid and reflective. The silicate vitrifies and turns to glass. Dust becomes crystal—like a baby’s flesh crystalizing into the windows of the eyes. I am born again in the womb of the kiln."

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Jonathan Page
16:56 Sep 08, 2023

Thanks Scott! I love your work and have been reading as much of it as I can!

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Sarah Martyn
00:54 Sep 04, 2023

"If I am a simple rice bowl, Dandan is a hand painted dining set." Love the artistic use of words here. Delightful read.

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Jonathan Page
01:25 Sep 04, 2023

Thanks Sarah!

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Karen Mobilia
19:38 Dec 17, 2023

I am an almost 60 year old woman with severe dry eye syndrome. This made me cry. Thank you. Very poignant and touching story. I love learning about other culture's and their spiritual traditions.

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04:47 Dec 03, 2023

Hi Jonathan. I fell in love with your characters! Jane and Dandan came alive through your well-crafted dialogue, great imagery and portrayal of a beautiful tradition with the festival of lanterns. Well done.

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Pat Ruhe
16:05 Nov 24, 2023

Hi Jonathan, Loved the story! We will be discussing your story on Monday, Nov. 27th, at 1:00 pm at our next meeting of the Victoria Falls Literary Shorts Club located in Laurel, MD. Could you please send me a biography of yourself that I can share with our group. If you would be interested you could join our group at 1:00 pm on Monday via Zoom to introduce yourself and share details about your story. You can let me know at my email address if you would like to attend and I will send you the details. Our group is very diverse and enjoys me...

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Josephine Harris
17:01 Nov 15, 2023

Wonderful. It reminds me in part of Amy Tan. Authentic and peaceful. Well done Jonathan. You are more than ready to write that novel and I would hope to read it.

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17:59 Oct 23, 2023

I'm new to reedsy so first time I read one of your stories. I'll read more as I enjoy and admire your talent. You are a winner. I hope you're working on a novel. Judging by the number of submissions here, you are doing what you love to do. It's not all about money. I wish you great success. Cheers

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17:34 Sep 27, 2023

I am SERIOUSLY impressed by this story and your ability to breathe life into every sentence. Would it be wrong to say I’m jealous? Haha This is the kind of writing that I aspire to, fantastic and a well-deserved win!

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Jonathan Page
17:51 Sep 27, 2023

Thanks Dilettante!

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21:50 Sep 21, 2023

i love your work

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Jonathan Page
06:23 Oct 03, 2023

Thanks Inioluwa!

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Chalice Davis
03:37 Sep 19, 2023

I am so happy to have read your story. It was heartfelt and soothing to read. Also it was nice to see a different cultural perspective that I had never really known before.

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Jonathan Page
06:23 Oct 03, 2023

Thanks Chalice!

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Kerry Clark
08:56 Sep 16, 2023

Brilliant imagery, and well-crafted emotion. Thank you for a fabulous story.

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Jonathan Page
06:24 Oct 03, 2023

Thanks Kerry!

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Claudia Parker
17:41 Sep 14, 2023

Amazing story! Really excellent descriptions and a total immersion experience. Congrats!

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Jonathan Page
06:24 Oct 03, 2023

Thanks Claudia!

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Emma Winnicutt
13:53 Sep 14, 2023

A beautiful and captivating story! A joy to read!

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Jonathan Page
06:24 Oct 03, 2023

Thanks Emma!

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Rebecca Miles
18:45 Sep 12, 2023

I do like it when an author beds down in a story, giving the reader one really sustaining metaphor and complexifying it in degrees. Your choice of the Chinese potter and the clay certainly provides you with very fine base material to mould (to borrow from your imagery ,-)) And it is the feeling you inject into the metaphor that makes it so enjoyable and ultimately moving. At first there is the fear of petrification, the oils dry and the cracks seem to foreshadow a terrible rupture- like the broken relationship which might come with the move....

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Jonathan Page
06:24 Oct 03, 2023

Thanks Rebecca!

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Michał Przywara
18:38 Sep 10, 2023

Congrats on the win! And a lovely story it is, where the sculptor is losing the feeling in her hands and her heart, because ironically, she can't let go. The internal story about luck seems particularly apt here, and ultimately we get a happy ending. Change still happens - that's inevitable - but she's found a way to accept that change and move forward in peace. There's some lovely prose here, and I particularly like the bit about her hands turning to porcelain. Not only is it so perfectly fitting for someone who works with clay, but it se...

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Jonathan Page
06:25 Oct 03, 2023

Thanks Michal!

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Robert W
16:17 Sep 10, 2023

Jonathan - just one word: Brilliant.

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Jonathan Page
06:25 Oct 03, 2023

Thanks Robert!

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Philip Ebuluofor
15:59 Sep 10, 2023

Congrats.

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Jonathan Page
06:26 Oct 03, 2023

Thanks Philip!

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Philip Ebuluofor
20:39 Oct 05, 2023

Welcome.

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