The New Generation of Classic Short Stories

Vol. 12, No. 3

The Beijing of Possibilities

by Jonathan Tel

She's going to have a baby. It's due any day now. She's a virgin, but even so.
     She's twenty-nine and lives with her father, a fisherman, in a village in Hainan. She's no catch. Anyway, most of the men have left to seek work elsewhere. Nevertheless.
     This is how: A woman from a nearby village moved to Beijing and found a job as a shelf-stacker and fell in love. She married her sweetheart, a native Beijinger; she legalized her status; she became pregnant. The two of them are living in one room—they're in no position to care for a child, but they don't want an abortion either. So here's the arrangement: The woman back in Hainan is to be the foster mother. She'll do everything a real mother does, almost, and she'll be paid an allowance as well. Maybe, in five or ten years' time, the biological parents will demand the child back.
     Nobody knows whether it's a boy or a girl.
     In advance of the birth, she assembles a few things: A newborn-size coverlet (she buys it secondhand from a mother whose child is now a toddler). A plastic rattle with a picture of Mao on it (she'd shaken it herself when she'd been a baby). Also, she knits a red acrylic baby hat and booties. Not that you need much in the way of clothing in Hainan, even in winter. Not like in Beijing, where, so they say, snow is falling.
     The baby is breathing beneath the waves.
     The baby is sleeping above the clouds.
     The baby is curled up inside the tiniest speck of dust.
     January 12. A text message on her cell phone from a Beijing number. Sorry to tell you the child passed away three hours after birth. Then an hour later the party secretary, who has the only computer in the village, pushes an e-mail printout under her door. Congratulations! It's a girl!
     Her father is at sea, trawling for squid. There's no one to console her. But what should she be sad about anyhow? It's not as if it was her baby that died. It's old news that babies do die sometimes—we are all aware of this, even as we sit at our desks or walk under the open sky, and the knowledge doesn't trouble us much. The baby had never been inside her body. She'd never held it, even. What has she lost?
     A possibility. That's all. A future that will never happen.
     What does snow feel like, when it flutters on the skin? Like ice cream? Like dust? Like dandruff? Like cotton candy? Like water? Like steam, only hard and cold.

A year later, the party secretary knocks on her door and opens it without waiting for an answer. A kindly, middle-aged man, he grew up with her father and they were in the same unit of the Pioneers. His eyebrows are jumping with excitement. "I've got some wonderful news for you! Remember the baby?"
     How could she forget?
     "Well, the baby was a Beijinger, right? And you filled out the paperwork to be the foster mother, right? So you're a Beijinger, too!"
     She stares blankly.
     "You have a residence permit for Beijing! It took some effort on my part. I called in a few connections. We had to blur your relationship with the father—Heavens! Do you know how many people would give their eyeteeth to be a legal resident there!"
     "But I don't want—"
     She can't imagine ever leaving Hainan. The sand, the sky, the coconut palms, the sea—yes, the sea above all. The sea is always there. It's alien, unknowable, and doesn't necessarily love her, but it's there. The sea is her foster parent.
     Then again, what does she want? How should she know? The man is right: thousands of people are eager to migrate to Beijing—and who's to say she isn't that kind of person?
     The whole village pulls together to give her this big chance. Someone finds her a place to live, in the home of a Hainanese family in a western suburb. Someone else arranges a job for her there, at a company. Nobody's quite sure what the company does, and the salary won't be much, but it's a job! And the party secretary himself loans her the one-way fare, for bus and ferry and train.
     She stands at the stop, her father at her side. He made landfall yesterday, and in a few days he'll set out again. Neither is the talkative sort; they don't look each other in the eye. Thoughts pass between them, ebbing and flowing, of parenthood and love and loss. The daughter's suitcase holds the warmest clothing she has, plus one knitted bootie. He smells, as always, of the ocean.

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