The Earth Moves

Entry by: Briergate

19th April 2016
Late, Long and Few

The train swung from side to side rhythmically, making other passengers droop tired heads and relax, finding primal memories from times before consciousness. Chen remained alert, excitement holding her shoulders rigid and eyes wide. Sichuan province stretched ahead in miles of green and brown, as familiar to Chen as her own hands. She stared out of the window watching the women working in the rice fields, stooped under the weight of children strapped to their backs. She smiled, thinking of Liang, and the days when her daughter was small enough to be carried in the same way.

Checking her watch, she shifted impatiently. An hour to go, and then her arms would be full of Liang, sating her maternal craving and easing the ache of separation at last. Across from her, a young man sat with two boys, and as always when Chen saw parents with more than one child, she wondered what they had done to deserve exclusion from the policy. Chen herself would have had more than Liang, but the stories of government brutality, forced abortions and beatings had made her terrified of breaching the rule. Instead, she'd gained a refrigerator and a new stove, and lost her womb.

The boys nestled in to each other, whispering and laughing, and Chen smiled despite herself. Perhaps, she thought, changing position and staring out of the window again, one was a perfect number. Whole and complete, it held the power to be unique. Unique things were prized so much more highly than things which came in high numbers. Unconsciously, her hand slipped to her stomach, playing over the scar as the train weaved through lush fields and in to the city boundary.

Soon, Liang, Chen thought, sending her daughter a whispered message. It had been over three months since they had last been together. Chen's work had been sending her ever further away in a quest to earn enough to keep Liang at school. She pictured her daughter's face, with her pale smooth skin and laughing eyes, and the way Liang's hair fell sleek and straight to hide her smile when she was trying to be prim.

They were going to meet outside school, and Chen had planned out a cosy dinner, with plenty of time for talking and catching up on everything before they slept. She glanced down at her bag with pleasure. Inside, she had a number of gifts collected over the past few weeks. A beautiful jacket with colourful embroidery to fit Liang's slight frame. Chocolate, spiced tea, and two novels which Liang would have to keep tucked away out of sight, reading them in secret away from eyes that would report her. She tucked her bag more carefully beneath her feet, as the train pulled in to the station.

All around her, people stretched and startled awake, jolted by the lurching of the carriage as the train squealed to a halt. Standing quickly, Chen took her bag over her shoulder and slipped past the waiting passengers to jump from the train first. Her stomach was roiling with anticipation, making her walk faster towards the taxi rank that would take her the last part of the journey to Liang's school.

The driver dropped her off at the foot of the hill which led to the school, and Chen paused when she got out to smooth her hair and dress, looking up at the cramped building ahead. As with so many government buildings, the school was haphazardly constructed and hastily made, with uneven roof tiles and bowed walls, but Chen was proud that she could send Liang there. She quickened her pace now, striding up the hill. Ten minutes, and they would be face to face.

As Chen walked, she became aware of a deep rumble beneath her feet. She glanced down, uncertain, and suddenly fell as the earth shifted in long waves. She grasped at the grass, trying to gain purchase as for long minutes the whole world shifted on its axis leaving her incapable of balancing. She felt the shudder in her whole body, making her nauseous and confused, unable to stand or orientate herself. For two long minutes nothing was stable or safe, and Chen lay in terror, closing her eyes against the wrath of the earth.

She ducked her head down and raised her hands as debris began to roll down from the hill. Roof tiles scattered around her, and beyond the seismic rumbling Chen heard the unmistakeable groan and tear of a building falling. She scrambled to her feet, and began to run up the hill calling for Liang. Rocks and debris rolled towards her and she leaped over concrete and splintered planks.

As she neared the school, she hesitated. The building was destroyed. Where just moments before she had seen walls and windows, now there was just rubble, dust and devastation. Her heart lurched as she heard screams, and people began to run from the crumbled concrete. Young students were crying out, blood streaming from head wounds, some crawling to get out from the rubble while others were completely still, trapped beneath stones and dust.

Chen screamed out Liang's name and ran haphazardly, searching each young face desperately. She tripped over a lifeless body and fell, scrambling up again blindly. She checked the face beneath her, sickening herself with the surge of relief when the dead student was a boy. Students crawled and screamed from the wreckage, and Chen's voice soared higher, fighting to be heard. She clambered over rocks and splintered wood, her eyes streaming from the dust which clung to her clothes and skin, filling her mouth with grit.

Chen pulled a young girl from beneath some rubble, her hands scrabbling to free the student from the weight collapsed around her. Chen wiped at the girl's face with the hem of her dress, shaking her to try and get her to rouse. The girl turned and coughed a stream of blood and dust, sitting up, and Chen moved further in to the ruins of the building. People streamed up the hill, desperate parents joining Chen in pulling out bodies, pausing only to check the face of each before moving on to the next. The living and dead got equal attention, as each parent worked frenziedly to find their child. Next to her, a mother fell to her knees beside the pale limp body of her son, silent with grief.

Chen worked on, her hands bloodied and caked in dust. Stronger hands than hers helped, moving stone and tiles in a vile rhythm of fear. Behind her, parents were tending to the injured, laying students out on the grass as one by one they were retrieved from under the crumpled building. Chen worked instinctively, responding to the sound of females begging for help, ignoring the deeper voices.

They worked for hours, the parents joined by villagers bringing water and cloth to tend to the injured, ripped sheets to cover the faces of the dead. Chen's mind was blank, beyond tired now, and she moved like a machine unaware of her body as she silently searched the rubble. Finally, she was gripped in strong male arms and dragged from the dust to the field below, placed gently on the ground beside the line of bodies.

A woman knelt beside her, offering a bowl of water, and she drank deeply, using the dregs to wipe her face of blood and dust. The woman shook Chen, and told her to walk the line of children and search each face. Chen nodded mutely, accepting support as she struggled to stand, and the woman gripped her shoulders to keep her upright as she stumbled along the line. She recognised some of the lifeless faces, seeing other's from Liang's class. With each shocking jolt of recognition came the immediate gratitude that another woman's child had died.

A girl's voice shouted - mother, and a dozen desperate women turned at the familiarity of the beautiful shared name. Chen stopped walking, staring wildly back to find the girl who called. She raised a trembling hand towards the voice, and began to stumble away from the bodies, searching among the wounded, the villagers and parents. Hope blossomed scarlet now, feeding her limbs with renewed energy, as she responded to the call.
People stood aside to let Chen through, and then she was kneeling, arms outstretched as Liang fell in to her. Chen gathered her daughter close and held her tightly, checking her face, her arms, her bleeding hands.

"I was waiting for you. I stayed outside so that I could see you as soon as you came," Liang said, her voice scratched with dust. Chen nodded, not daring to speak of what would have happened, had she not been coming for her daughter. They sat, their bodies melding together in a way that Chen hadn’t felt since Liang was growing within her. Wordlessly, they gripped each other, turning from the loss and grief behind them, losing themselves in a long exhalation of gratitude.

Chen traced her daughter's face again and again, silently rocking her close as the sun dropped behind the wreckage of the building, and finally they stood together, instinctively shielding each other from the line of the dead and the dying, and the parents kneeling beside each.

They walked down the hill in silence, arms woven and streaked faces turned towards home.
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