“Planting a plane tree can attract golden phoenix.” Ya always feels that this proverb is wrong. The eight-year-old has never seen a phoenix on the plane tree in the yard.
“Come on! Don’t be stupid, you can’t see something that does not exist,” said Ying.
“Why is there such a saying?”
“It’s just talk,” said Ying. “If not, how could anyone have not seen it?”
The two girls often play together under the plane tree. It is really a fun place under the tree, where in summer, one feels cool sitting under the tree because of the shade; while in autumn, fallen leaves rustle and crackle as people step on them. In winter, it seems that the barren branches are not that interesting, but once it snows, everything is different. Like someone who has carefully piled it up, the snow on the tree branches is thick and bright. When the weather is good, it looks beautiful as the snow reflects the blue hues of the sky.
Spring is the most lovable season, during which the plane tree is covered with light purple flowers, like a tiny long horn. There is a soothing fragrance when you pick up a flower and breathe in.
But what about the phoenix?
Everyone claims that there is no phoenix, but Ya doesn’t believe it. If the bird doesn’t exist, then why would there be such a word? There are so many stories and paintings about the phoenix! By the way, the phoenix has a good partner called the dragon! “Dragon and Phoenix” has a nice ring to it.
“There is no dragon, so it just matches the phoenix. In this way, it is ‘non-existent phoenix’ matching with ‘non-existent dragon’,” said Ying straightforwardly.
It was late at night, and then a wind arose. Ya stayed awake. Suddenly it dawned on her that the phoenix, wanting to see people, might come at night? She put on her clothes, parted the curtains, and looked out into the dusk quietly. However, she did not see anything till her eyes were sore. At dawn, she became feverish and took a few days off.
When Ya went back to school, she had a new volunteer teacher, who however really did not look like a teacher. Black hair combed into a ponytail, she told them stories, sang, and played with them. The girl’s pigtails swung to and fro as she walked or turned round, like a tiny black cloud. Ya wished that if she could have a sister, she would be like the teacher.
She took the chance to whisper to her teacher.
“Teacher, is there any phoenix in the world?”
“Why do you ask this?”
Ya felt warmth in her heart. The teacher did not say “no” initially, instead asked her why she raised the question in this way. She was really kind.
She explained everything to her teacher. The teacher listened to her with smile, and patted her affectionately on the head.
“Is there any?” She looked at the teacher with eager eyes.
“Can you keep it secret if I tell you?”
“Yes, I can.”
“Yes, there is,” nodded the teacher.
For a moment, Ya felt elated.
“Have you seen it?”
“What is it like?”
Biting her lip, the teacher replied thoughtfully. “With bright colors, they can fly far with the particularly wide wings.
“So, is it very, very big?”
“Bigger than the plane tree?”
“The phoenix simply can’t fall on this tree, right?”
“Bigger than the village?”
“It’s bigger than the mountain.”
“So... I can only see it after I walk out of the mountains?”
“Yeah. You can see it in a bigger place, when you go out of the mountain. “
“Well,” relieved Ya.
“So, you have to study hard, go to the middle school in the town, high school in the county, and then the provincial capital or big places like Beijing and Shanghai for university. By then, you will definitely see it.”
“I will!” Ya nodded hard.
Ya did not tell anyone this secret. She studied well, and since then she had better academic performance. Yet, the higher grades she entered, the fewer girl friends of her were in the classroom. When she was admitted to the high school in the county, she was left alone.
“What is the purpose of university study for a girl? It is nothing more than spending more money, and finally she has to find a job. It is better to make money early,” Ying’s mother said to Ya’s mother.
Originally, Ya’s mother intended to persuade her girl to discontinue her studies, yet she eventually relented as Ya insisted on going to school. Ya and Ying went to the county together, but Ying started to work for a restaurant there. As outsiders there, the two girls were very close. They would see each other every week, but their topics were gradually getting wider apart. Ya talked about homework, exams, classmates, and teachers while Ying was concerned with her salary, makeup, bosses, and guests. Sometimes, they also went home together. The villagers inevitably compared the two girls. Ying became very fashionable but Ya was still that girl.
In the year of Ya’s second year of high school, Ying went to the provincial capital, saying that it was easy to make more money there. A year later, Ya also went to that city for university. The two met again, but there was nothing to talk about at all. After all, as fellow villagers, they still kept in touch with each other.
After a few more years, Ya went to Beijing for her master’s and doctoral degrees. Then she stayed in Beijing for work and often went abroad for business trips. For her first trip, Ya flew Air China. The huge red phoenix emblazoned on the plane reminded her of the plane tree at home. She was then lost in thought.
She didn’t go home often, yet every time she went back, everyone who had ties of kinship or friendship would go to visit. When someone asked those relatives on the road where they were going, they replied, “We are going to see the ‘phoenix’.”
Ya didn’t speak much, and just smiled sweetly while serving guests. Occasionally, when the school’s bell rang, she would glance in the direction of the school, which reminded her of the volunteer teacher as well as her pigtail swinging to and fro.
QIAO YE is a writer who has published several collections of essays and short stories.