Zhou Yuyan opened a library book to page fifty-three as she waited for her son in his chess master’s living room. The lesson was two hours long; she’d determined long ago that it wasn’t worth it to drive the twenty minutes back home, even though she enjoyed the soothing ride down the 51 North and the view of the birch trees by the sides of the highway. 

She stared at the words on the page and tried to trace their shapes with her fingers. Collectively, they were supposed to deliver the climax of a love story between a knight and a country girl in a remote Scottish town, but Yuyan saw them as tiny ants, the brown type with large heads and small bodies she’d see back in Hunan. Nevertheless, the feel of the yellowed page soothed her like a morning walk by the beach, giving her the belief that she was holding wisdom from a once-important man. She had only recently embarked on the journey of reading in English; she’d hopped in bed with her touchpad one night, excited for some alone-time while her son was at camp, only to find her fingers frozen on the search engine as she suddenly realized her withering interest in the world around her. Then restless, her gaze had fallen upon an old romance fiction sitting on her dusty bookshelf, singularly colorful among rows of Chinese medicine books from her med school days. 

As she looked away from the book and peeked at the afternoon sun from the window, wondering if the puffs of cumulus clouds were indeed moving in the distant sky, she noticed in her reflection some flakes of dried skin by the corners of her mouth and to the side of her nose bridge. Had it been a week, or two, since she’d used lotion? Yuyan couldn’t remember. She still looked mildly attractive for a woman in her early fifties. Every time she attended the weekly Mahjong parties hosted by one of her mom group friends, the women would gossip about the fairness of her skin, the good shape of her body, and the natural curls in her black hair, which oftentimes dangled in front of her chest, covering the slight edge of her cheeks. Perhaps they envied her voice the most, a mellow tone that could be paired with any conversation to make her appear vulnerable and ready to forgive, and her subtle Taiwanese accent, coating her ordinary Chinese words in a sugary yet mature girlish charm.  

Before going back to the first sentence of the second paragraph, Yuyan looked up to the wooden door once more. Behind it, her twelve-year-old son and Grandmaster Wang were presumably sitting across a chess board, discussing new techniques from the latest championship series. She imagined Mr. Wang pointing at the rook and queen, saying some sophisticated lines that she couldn’t decipher, and her son staring intensely at the two pieces, nodding with enlightenment in his eyes, as he happily absorbed all the knowledge coming out of his master’s mouth. The lesson was one-hundred-twenty dollars, which was a fifth of her weekly income, but she felt satisfied knowing that it was money well spent for her son’s future. 

Yuyan used to tell her friends how grateful she’d been for having found Mr. Wang as her son’s teacher. The day after New Year’s, she’d found his number at the back of a Chinese yellow page directory when she and her best friend were chipping away sunflower seeds on the couch, stressing over their sons’ extracurriculars. She’d left the living room and called him immediately after reading his credentials: 35-year-old national chess champion from Guangzhou, speaks Mandarin and English, loves kids. In the colored profile picture that closely resembled his looks in real life, he had a French crop with straight bangs, small monolid eyes, a wood-bead necklace, and a pair of huge earlobes like Buddha—all hints of a good educator with an added stroke of “good luck” in Chinese myths. To her surprise, he’d happily taken her son after one round of a test match online. “He’s extremely talented for his age. Give him time and he’ll be on the world stage one day,” he’d told her on the phone. Overwhelmed by the possibility that her son might indeed be special, she signed a fifteen-lesson contract with Mr. Wang three days after that initial phone call. 

To make her two-hour waits at his home more enjoyable, Mr. Wang always prepared for her a cup of freshly brewed Oolong and a plate of fruits and pistachios on the rosewood dining table. He’d also gotten rid of the password on his desktop and brought down the curved TV from his bedroom upstairs in case Yuyan ever got bored of reading. Although she appreciated his efforts, none of these pleasantries mattered more to her than what went on behind the wooden door to his study. 

After flipping through two more pages, Yuyan let go of the book in her hands and stared dreamily at the blank TV screen. 


When she was her son’s age, Yuyan had been a village girl in the province of Hunan. At the time she didn’t know that China was still recovering from the civil war. She only knew that she was hungry during school and that she did not like having to eat plants as the main entrée of every meal; eggs and proteins were only for special occasions like holidays and birthdays. Her parents earned a combined monthly salary of only seventy yuan teaching math and literature at a local elementary school—and they were considered some of the more educated and influential people in the village. 

The walk on the dirt road to school took forty minutes most days, and occasionally, to make use of this time, she trailed at the tail of her group to squeeze in a few more vocabulary words or equations. More often than not, however, she took the time to observe her surroundings. She enjoyed the view of the rice fields and the herds of oxen from the elevated plateau, but more than those, she looked forward to walking through the rows of birches right before entering the main school gate—this solid mud path where dried autumn leaves often mingled with the shed feathers of white doves. That was twenty-seven years before Pu Shu wrote his famous Bai Hua Lin, yet she was already deeply mesmerized by the melancholic beauty of those trees whose branches were long and white and dotted with black sparrows. On sunny days, she would pretend the mud path was a red carpet and that the birches were government officials lined on two sides as she stepped down from her private jet to greet the people of her imaginary kingdom. On rainy days, she would rush through the birches without looking up and trudge through the mud in her straw sandals, imagining all the Russian soldiers who’d lost their lives in similar birch woods in the Napoleonic tales her mother used to read her. 

Once Yuyan became old enough to work, she started carving in those birches. A single tally on one tree meant she’d saved one yuan, and once all the trees had three tallies, she’d have sixty yuan, the rough cost of textbooks for a first-year college student back in an era when the government paid for everyone’s tuitions. Her janitorial job required her to stay after school for an additional three hours, but the dining hall did provide special dinners for student staff members: half a hardboiled egg, a plate of watercress, and a large bowl of congee. Many students applied for the job just for that bite of egg. In the end, Yuyan stood out for the position because her grades were at the top of the class. She would gnaw away the egg whites first, and when only the yolk remained, she would take tiny chipmunk bites as if it were a delicate mango macaron. 

On the day she left Hunan by train, she went back to her birches, kneeled down, and kissed the ground. 

Her hard work paid off in the end. Senior year ended before her knife even scratched half of the birch trunks. With one of the highest college entrance exam scores in the province, she was accepted to a top university in Beijing that offered to cover all her miscellaneous costs. On the day she left Hunan by train, she went back to her birches, kneeled down, and kissed the ground. 


The wooden door opened, and Mr. Wang walked out with her son. “He did well today. We reviewed some of his game records from the past week. I think he’s improving,” Mr. Wang said as he patted him on the back. Yuyan closed the book and got up, feeling her sore muscles stretch. The pool of sunlight in front of her slippers had disappeared. It was getting dark outside. 

“Ma, can we go now?” her son uttered impatiently. 

“Okay,” Yuyan said. She wanted to ask Mr. Wang more details about her son’s progress, but she was tired from sitting for so long, and she could tell her son wanted to leave. There was no more leftover take-out at home. A pack of frozen chicken wings awaited her in a bowl of warm water by the sink. 

As she drove by the birches on 51 North, she thought about the first time she had passed by those trees on her way to her friend’s house. It’d stunned her: miles of skyrocketing paper birches interspaced with marshes and ponds, cattails and saltbushes, rays of sunlight dispersed between their thin trunks, hitting the side of her face, lighting up the empty road ahead of her. They did not house sparrows, attracting flocks of swallows instead, but they still looked like the taller cousins of her Hunan birches with their long branches, yellow leaves, and faded branch scars. Ever since that afternoon, she would go for drives through that scenic stretch of highway whenever she wanted to be alone and get some fresh air. 

As she merged onto the right lane, placing herself even closer to the birches, she replayed Mr. Wang’s compliment in her head and felt pleasantly satisfied. She thought about her parents’ monthly salaries; now she could afford to spend twice that amount on a single chess lesson, and in dollars too. Indeed, she’d gone to Beijing to become a doctor; indeed, she’d given up her pursuit in the medical field after coming to America due to differences in qualifications and her insufficient grasp of the English language; indeed, she became a stay-at-home mom who sold handbags online for a living, but her son was now cruising comfortably through the birches in an SUV, wasn’t he? He had his smartphone to play with. He had his chess strategies to digest. Yuyan breathed a sigh of contentment. The afternoon was cold; simply breathing sent chills down her nose and throat, reminiscent of an early morning run. She turned up the heat and pressed harder on the gas pedal. 


The following Sunday Mr. Wang was out of town, and he had arranged a lesson over the chess server. After checking the video call quality and waving hello to Mr. Wang, Yuyan went down to the living room with her romance novel bookmarked at page seventy-four. She flipped through the pages wearily, a little more impatiently than usual, and after a few minutes she was onto a new chapter. It’d been a long day for her. In the morning she’d tripped over the extension cord in her room when her son called her from downstairs, asking for help on a math problem, and earlier in the afternoon she’d had a two-hour phone call with a customer who’d complained incessantly about a broken strap on her handbag, even though it had been perfectly fine when she’d mailed it out. 

After closing the book and staring mindlessly for a minute at the blond knight in shining armor on the cover, she went upstairs to deliver a plate of diced watermelon to her son. But when she opened his door, she saw that he was playing a computer game—the kind with flying dragons and fire balls. He switched screens immediately, bringing back the chess board, his few remaining white pieces surrounded by Mr. Wang’s powerful army. 

“Ma,” her son stammered. “It’s not what you think, I swear. Mr. Wang gave me a five-minute break.” But it was too late. Yuyan had already fled down the stairs, out the door, and headed towards her car, hoping to clear her mind by going for a therapeutic drive by the birches. Something told her that this wasn’t the first time her son had done this. What if his mind was never on chess? Then what was she spending so much time and money for?

She flung herself into the driver’s seat and slammed the door in her haste to get moving. She backed out carelessly and trampled the flowers in her neighbor’s front yard and bumped into a clump of trash cans by the curb. Chinese neighbors started pouring out of their houses, encircling her car. One of the older men in the group pulled the driver’s door open. He said something to her ear, but she didn’t budge. Her head was buried in the steering wheel. Her arms dangled by the side of her body, half stuck in the creases between the door and the gear shift. A paper cup rested horizontally on her lap, spilling cold coffee onto her jeans. There was a faint sigh accompanied by some sniffing. The neighbors whispered to each other, wondering if they should call an ambulance. 

Then Yuyan emerged from the car. 

“Is it the boy? Did he do something wrong?” one middle-aged woman in a blue sweater immediately said. She stepped forward and gave Yuyan a half-hearted embrace as Yuyan shook her head. 

“Don’t worry, when my son was his age, he misbehaved a lot too. Now he’s in Harvard,” another chimed in, ignoring Yuyan’s weak denials that her son had done anything.

“I see,” Yuyan murmured. Besides her shaky voice, traces of the accident were buried in the night’s darkness: the tears in her eyes, the mess her hair had become, the brown stain on her crotch. 

She walked to Michael Chen, the owner of the house, bowed, and apologized. Michael hugged her and refused her offer to pay for the damages, pushing her hands away as she pulled hundred-dollar bills out of her wallet. 

“Are you sure?” she asked, head lowered, eyes shut, like she might collapse any moment. Michael nodded.

“Okay,” she said, drawing in a deep breath, and then another. “Okay,” she repeated. She retreated to her car, eyes still on the cement as if trying to dodge a minefield. As she was about to stomp on the gas pedal, her neighbors pounded on her window, informing her that she had not changed the gear back from reverse, that if she continued, she would back out into the blue and white porcelain pots on Michael’s front porch. Once she was on the main road, she circled around the community park for a few minutes, and when she headed for home, all the people had already cleared off from Michael’s front yard. She tiptoed to the door of her house, as if afraid the neighbors were still watching her. 


When Yuyan opened the door to her son’s room, he was reading a chess strategies workbook on his bed. He looked at her blankly, as if he’d just woken up from a long nap. Seeing his innocent gaze, she let out a deep breath and fiddled with her jacket, trying to pull it down to cover the coffee stain on her lap. The wet patch no longer bothered her, but she wanted to hide it from her son; for now, standing below the warm breeze from the heater overhead, she was already regretting how recklessly she had acted. 

“Where’d you go ma?” he asked. 

“Out for a walk,” she responded from the doorway of his room. 

“Are you okay ma?” he asked, frowning a little. “I wanted to follow you, but I was afraid of making you angrier.”

“I am okay,” she said, taking a few baby steps towards him. He scooched back in his bed until he was leaning against the headboard, his legs pulled in all the way, knees covering the school eagle mascot on his shirt. He tugged the fleece blanket over his body and started fidgeting with the scalloped edge. 

“Ma, I like your shirt today. It’s pretty,” he said after quickly scanning her body, pointing at the pink mock neck sweater inside her jacket. She was standing in front of him now, and he kept his head low to avoid her gaze, murmuring, “The watermelon was so sweet tonight. I wanted to cut you a bowl too, but there was no more in the fridge.”

“It’s fine,” she said. She glanced over the posters she’d taped to his closet half a decade ago: a cartoon of Cao Cao in golden armor and an oil painting of Julius Caesar right next to it—two grand figures that she’d hoped would shape his character. Eroded by time, the colors were fading on Caesar’s robe and Cao Cao’s hand, the corners of the portrayals either missing or curled in. Kneeling by his bed, she looked up at Cao Cao like a worshipper, whose eyes, intense, dusty, and blue for some reason, held on tightly to hers. When Cao Cao had missed the perfect opportunity to reunite China at the Battle of the Red Cliff, where his troops outnumbered the foes five to one, he did not return to the imperial capital thinking he’d never battle again. For he was alive, and to him, that was the victory, the miracle of the Red Cliff.

The ache in her body started to dissipate at the realization that her son was still young and filled with potential and that something much worse could’ve happened. She placed her hand on his forehead and caressed his hair silently until her palm itched. Was it necessary for the barber to always cut his hair so short? It wasn’t like he was joining a monastery in some Chinese village. Perhaps, had his hair been longer like one of the idol kids she’d seen on Korean television the other day, more girls would talk to him. He was only twelve, but confidence builds early on, doesn’t it?

Yuyan glanced at the clock; seeing how late it was, she patted his head once more and turned to leave. Then she heard him whisper, “Ma, don’t leave.”

She didn’t respond but paused by the door.

“Ma, I almost beat Mr. Wang in the second game today. We were pretty much even for the first half of the game until I made this one careless mistake. Don’t be mad at me, ma, okay? I won’t ever play games again during my lessons.”

She wanted to go back to his bed and caress his hair, but she stood still, glancing at the full moon through his windows, its base shrouded in a mist of clouds. “It is getting late. You should go to sleep,” she said, eyes still on the moon. 

“Good night, ma,” he said. 

“Good night,” she whispered, soft enough that only she could hear. 

Her son turned the lights off. Aside from the luminescent alarm clock on his night table, she could only see a blurry outline of his body beneath the blanket. She shut his door fully and walked out.


As Yuyan descended the stairs, she replayed the car scene in front of Michael’s house. Now all the other moms knew her son had misbehaved; how embarrassing was that? And if she had been a little more careless, the police could even have been involved. She grabbed the banister with all the force in her hand, winced, and bit off the scab on her lower lip. Resisting the urge to go back up and check on her son, she walked into the kitchen and stepped barefoot in the garage, where all her luxury handbags were stored ever since she’d started doing online business. She didn’t need to inventory the shelves until next Tuesday, but since she had finished all the housework, she hoped a quick walk around her brands would serve to soothe her.

Trudging through the sea of paper foam, packaging tapes, and cardboard boxes, she thought about all the nights when she slept before nine and woke up at three to get the best deals from special online sales and stayed up until dawn to contemplate at what prices she would re-mark them. Usually, she wouldn’t set a price in stone until the item had been delivered and she had taken pictures of it from different angles and uploaded them to her page. Overall, her profit per luxury item averaged sixty-seven dollars, making her total monthly profit somewhere between two and four grand depending on the season. She pointed at every bag wrapped in foam papers on the two shelves and mentally ran through her mnemonics to remember what they looked like, “Two Kors, Ming blue and white; four Coaches, pattern of Emperor Qianlong’s morning bracelet; eleven Spades…” By the time she finished counting and determined the number of handbags to be thirty-four, twelve less than the number last weekend, she felt a bit calmer and nodded in satisfaction.

On her way out, she stumbled upon something wooden and hollow. She bent down and saw the chess set—the kind with Snakes and Ladders and other traditional family board games inside its layered compartments—that Mr. Wang had given her son when he’d first started taking lessons. For a second, her heart ached seeing it covered in dust, knowing that he had no one to play with in the house. If she had been able to learn to play a sport, an instrument, or intellectual board games in her childhood in that small village in Hunan, she would be able to engage with her son in activities much more involved than the small talks during dinner and car rides to and from places. She knew how to set up the chessboard, though sometimes confusing the positions of the king and queen, but she had no idea how to maneuver her army away from his, nor how to respond to his smirking “Ma, you’re so easy,” at the end of a two-minute round. The magic to her, the swirl of pieces dancing on the board, removed and replaced with a pinch of the fingers, was perhaps like a stroll through the park for her son, instinctive and ordinary. After the first couple weeks of lessons, he’d played exclusively online with people on the chess server. 

She stepped over the fallen queen and king meshed in spiderwebs atop the board and opened the door to the kitchen.


The year her son turned fourteen, Yuyan realized that he needed more social interactions. He started to go through that teenage phase where he rarely spoke more than a sentence to anyone. He’d long stopped taking lessons from Mr. Wang; after coming home from school every afternoon, he would lock himself in his room and play games until dinner. “Just leave him alone. He will eventually come out of his hermit shell,” her friends had told her. She knew he had friends. There was Hansen, who scored perfect on math tests with only an hour of studying the night before; Nick, the awkward kid, who’d never spoken a single word to her even though she’d given him dozens of rides; Zhang Han, the mystery, who was not good at studying, possessed no special talents, and played no games. It almost seemed as if he just sat home and breathed air all day. Once her son had asked him what he did in his free time. Zhang Han had just shrugged and said he liked to sleep. Yuyan wasn’t happy with who her son was friends with, but she accepted them the way one accepted a lukewarm meal after already paying for it at the counter. She was simply concerned because he and his friends never met outside of class, whereas all of her friends’ kids were having sleepover parties every other weekend. 

Then one day after school in mid-May, her son and his friends came up to the curb where she parked.

“Ma, can you drive us to this basketball court? It’s fifteen minutes from our house,” her son said as he hopped in the front seat and handed her the phone with the directions. Through the corner of her eye, she saw Hansen, Nick, and Zhang Han sitting straight in the back row, heads leaned in, as if they were about to embark on a mission in a military jeep.  

“How are you guys doing?” Yuyan asked, making her face visible in the rear-view mirror. She wasn’t mad that her son hadn’t updated her earlier, though she’d bought him a smartphone with the sole intention of encouraging communication between them. If anything, she was slightly embarrassed, because the car smelled from the groceries she’d gotten last night: fresh grass carps, scallions, tofu skin, bamboo shoots, and watercress. His friends turned their heads, looked at each other with awkward smiles, and shrugged. They wrapped their arms tightly around their backpacks and whispered cautiously back and forth as if they were in the audience at a class presentation. 

During the ride, her son frequently glanced back at them. All Yuyan could make out were the questions he asked: “Is it just me or is Mrs. Anderson super unreasonable with her rubrics? Do you guys know when the maintenance will be over? I’ve been checking the server every other minute since last night,” and his laughter in response to their replies, which were inaudible even with the radio off, the windows closed. 

The moment her car pulled into the parking lot, her son opened the door and dribbled the ball out. His friends ran after him. Only Zhang Han came back a minute later to pick up the two quarters that’d slipped out of his pocket during the ride. He made a swift eye contact with Yuyan and then hopped out without saying a word. 

The afternoon was extra stuffy though there was no sun. She wiped her face with the leftover tissues in her pocket from a fast food restaurant two days ago. The foundation and concealer came off from the tip of her nose. She touched the pores. In the reflection from the driver’s seat window, they looked like somebody had taken a needle and jabbed around mercilessly. She wondered whether her mom group friends at the Mahjong parties would still look twice in her direction if they saw her nose without makeup. 

Yuyan got out of her car and stretched under the shade, thankful for a reprieve from the heat. They were technically in a high school playground. She could tell the baskets were slightly taller than the ones in their middle school, the three-point line a bit farther out. In the distance, some white doves skipped on the metal benches by the football field while students in purple uniforms long-jumped into a pool of sand. Yuyan wondered how her son’s high school journey would turn out and whether he would stay after school to engage in extracurriculars like his peers.

Her son stole the ball from Hansen and dribbled to the outskirts of the three-point line. Just as he leaped and released the ball in midair, a tennis ball flew over the high fence from the nearby tennis courts. Without seeing what had become of his shot, he sprinted in the direction of the metal benches until he fetched the little fuzzy ball. It was full of dirt and looked more brown than green. He threw it towards the nearest tennis court, but it stuck to the fence, too high for him to retrieve. He shrugged and jogged back to the hoop, where his friends were clapping for him. The three-pointer had been a clean swoosh.

Perhaps she shouldn’t hope for anything more than a healthy body and good growth for her son.

Yuyan took a sip of ice water from her bottle. Perhaps she shouldn’t hope for anything more than a healthy body and good growth for her son. At fourteen, he was the tallest on the court, a solid two inches taller than her. She secretly made a deal with herself: if he could reach 5’ 11” by his senior year in high school, she would not blame him for whatever opportunities he would miss during the four years of high school. And no matter what he did, she would never again act as recklessly as she had on that night two years ago when she had backed out into Michael’s front yard. She reached for the tote bag on the driver’s seat and pulled out a new romance novel she’d checked out from the library last week. Leaning against the bumper of her car, she flipped to the bookmarked page and resumed her journey in an Irish castle. 


After the boys had finished their last round of Knockout, they whined about the heat and asked Yuyan to drop them off. Their houses were not close to each other, but she happily ushered them into her car, seeing they’d had a good time. Throughout the ride her son fidgeted with the letters on the basketball in silence and stared out his window, as if thinking about something deep, while Hansen, Nick, and Zhang Han continued to lean forward and glance at each other awkwardly. 

Yuyan took the quick route through the birches on 51 North and got all his friends home before dinner time. On their way home, she looked back and saw that her son had put up his hood and was leaning against the window in silence, still gripping the basketball. She resisted the urge to turn on the radio, in case he’d fallen asleep.

As soon as they got back to their house and shut the door though, he yelled, “Ma, why were you standing by the car this whole time?”

“It was too hot inside the car. But don’t worry, I was only reading a book, not judging how you were playing,” Yuyan replied softly as she placed his sneakers on the shoe rack. 

“You know, Zhang Han called me a bad son. He asked why I’d made you wait for us. I told him I didn’t, but he wouldn’t believe me,” he said.

“Does he think I am a good ma?” She walked to the kitchen, took out a cabbage from the fridge, and started running water through its outer shell. 

“No, ma, you don’t get it,” her son raised his voice, “Zhang Han meant that you have nothing to do but stand by a car and wait for me all day. I know you want to save gas. I know you love nature. I know you read those books with weird erotic covers. It’s just, maybe you can park a little farther next time so we don’t see you?”

Without saying a word, Yuyan grabbed the bucket of runoff water from the cabbage rinse and headed towards the bathroom. The bucket weighed no more than a dozen water bottles, but that afternoon her back felt weak. Some water spilled on the sweater wool rug before she placed the bucket next to the sink; she would use it to flush the toilet next time she used the bathroom.

On her way back to the kitchen, she heard a shuffling noise in the garage. Through the peephole, her son stood in the center of her sea of packaging supplies, facing the small windows near the top of the garage door. His fists clenched tight, shoulders tilting up and down, as if he had just screamed his heart out and was only now recovering. 

When he came out, he had the broken pieces of the chess set in his arms; the dust atop the grids was no longer a thin layer that could be wiped off with the tip of a finger, but instead resembled the thick pile of grey puff found in vacuums. Yuyan suddenly remembered she’d heard something collapse the other day when she was revamping the garage with bigger, heavier, metallic shelves. He set the remnants in a corner of their living room, next to a red copy paper box, inside which resided an old HDMI cable, two albums of a popular 90s Cantonese rock band, old resumes from Yuyan’s doctor days, and all the other things they no longer needed. 

He then ran up to his room and came back down holding a stack of papers, which she saw were last week’s newspapers. “Ma,” he pointed to the ads on the last page. “I was looking at this the other day. Do you think I could start taking piano lessons?”

Delighted by the word, “piano,” Yuyan walked over to the living room in her loose crocs and stood beside him. 

“Look at Mrs. Chen’s credentials.” He pointed at the bullet points in the lower left corner. In her photo, Mrs. Chen rested her right arm on the fallboard of a grand piano in a fancy room with gold framed paintings splayed over the walls, a setting Yuyan had only seen in movie portrayals of elite European homes. 

She asked her son why he wanted to play the piano all of a sudden—was it peer pressure or was it that talent show they’d watched last Friday, where a four-year old recited a beautiful piece on the keyboard?

“Both,” her son responded. “But look at her bio, ma, she comes to the student’s house to teach, free of extra charge. You know what that means?”

Yuyan shook her head. 

“That means you won’t ever need to wait at random places for me to finish my lessons and stuff. Isn’t that just super cool?” he exclaimed.

Slightly taken aback by his comment, Yuyan opened her mouth to say something, but no words came out. She scanned the living room, pondering where she could fit a piano in their small house, how long he would stay interested in playing it, and if he would still be embarrassed by her even if she didn’t need to wait for him.

But she let her eyelids drop for a few seconds, pushing these doubts away. Somewhere behind the birch woods in a distant mountain, next to a small hut, she imagined herself sitting with her son, enjoying a cup of Oolong as he dabbled with the black and white keys by the waterfall, in the elegant silk sleeves of Tang poets.


“Behind the Birch Woods” by Mike Yunxuan Li appeared in Issue 40 of Berkeley Fiction Review.

Mike Yunxuan Li is currently a senior at Cornell University majoring in psychology and Spanish and minoring in creative writing. He has received an honorable mention for Cornell University’s 2019 Arthur Lynn Andrews Award for Fiction. His writing has appeared or is forthcoming in The Woven Tale Press and Fourth Genre.

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