As the stove flickered low, Ba went outside, where he fell into a fit of coughing. He might have been trying to hide it from us; all of us pushed through our illnesses. The stinking herbal brews Ma prepared never cured us completely.
My sisters whispered together. Born less than a year apart, they were always together, crows perched on a roof. First Daughter probably hoped that the official would pass over me. We three shared part of our names, Mei, to show how we lived through the same generation: Mei Tian, Mei Ling, and Mei Xiang, all of us plum blossoms that opened in late winter, pink against the snow—all that was pure, strong, and reckless. Unlike me, my sisters were both dainty, with delicate features—brushstroke brows and long-lashed eyes like my mother's. First Daughter—Mei Tian, five years older—had no patience for me. Second Daughter—Mei Ling—always tried to stop her bullying or found me after a blowup with the gift of a feather or a dried persimmon. But as much as I resented First Daughter, I also longed for the softness she reserved for our sister.
As a baby, I might have been a doll to them, new and precious in a home with no toys and no time to play, but for as long as I could remember, they'd treated me as another task in a long day: to carry, to feed, to bathe, to silence. They stole the words I meant to say for myself, for that was the curse of the youngest child. Before I could walk, they ran. Before I could speak, they were singing. They were the first children to survive, arriving after a stillborn son and a toddler fallen to a fever. My mother loved my sisters with an intensity forged from loss, but I felt like another failed attempt at a son.
Ba had wanted an heir so much that, for a time, I'd been one for him. I carried loads twice my size and wove traps to catch fish in the river. In the evenings, I joined him and the other men in the plaza, listening to their riddles, rowdy and rousing. Then my body began to curve and swell, and I was no longer welcome.
I finished the mushrooms and set my chopsticks down on my bowl. The village disdained my family because of our misfortunes, and my family disdained me, yet the girl they'd called nothing, the girl they'd called nothing at all, had been summoned by the Party.
My neighbors already acted as though my victory had been their own. They nodded with a satisfaction that had nothing to do with me, as they might have for a sow with an exceptionally large litter, or for a baby born with the lucky ears of a Buddha—achievements that weren't theirs, but that they took credit for all the same.
"Will you serve the Party?" Secretary Sun had asked this afternoon. I'd nodded, glinting inside.
"You'll go to Beijing."
Before I could ask him about my responsibilities, he strode away with the headman. Afterward, a few neighbors asked me to bring back a souvenir from the capital, tobacco or liquor; Fatty Song wanted a piece of candy for his sister. Behind them, Ba hung back, tall with pride.
"Maybe," I'd told them, but I owed them nothing, and I had no intention of returning anytime soon.
Now First Daughter splashed me with her cup of hot water. "Clumsy! You bumped the table!" She was the clever sister, the one whom I couldn't help but admire for her shrewd taunts and even shrewder punishments.
"What are your new duties?" she asked. Although her tone was sly, I wouldn't let her rile me. I'd been wondering the same. I tried not to worry. The Party must have its reasons for keeping it secret.
"Not yours," I said. I was leaving, and she was staying. I would see more in a day away than she would her entire life.
"Ma?" I asked.
"They'll tell you when you're supposed to know," Ma said. "The Chairman protects. The Chairman provides."
His portrait hung above us, his face stern, though with the hint of a smile.
"Maybe you're not old enough to hear such things," First Daughter said.
"Old enough to be chosen," I said. "But not old." Not like you, I didn't have to say.
"How can women best serve the Party?" First Daughter asked. "The same way they always have."
"Women hold up half the sky," I said.
"By lying down," she said.
At her words, I clenched between my thighs. She was trying to trick me. "You're wrong." I hated the quaver in my voice.
Ma stared into her empty bowl, her lips pinched white. Second Daughter put her hand on mine, but she didn't disagree.