Breathing life into a blank sheet of paper is one of the most challenging undertakings in this world. The ability to direct a vivid story simply by arranging words on a page is something to be valued and celebrated, as it enriches our lives, broadens our perspective and, ultimately, shapes our future.
This May, That’s PRD held its first writing contest in years, welcoming participants of all ages, ethnicities and occupations living in the Pearl River Delta to submit written works of any genre. The response was incredible – we received dozens of quality submissions, allowing us to connect with readers on a more personal level.
After selecting a handful of finalists, That’s PRD held a live reading event on May 14 at The Paddy Field in Guangzhou, where 17 brave souls stepped on stage to read their work aloud in front of a supportive audience and panel of three prominent journalists.
We’re thrilled to present the winning works from that night, we hope you enjoy their stories!
Things Go By
Painting by Tre Tennyson
First place winner
In the morning the man would come to take her away.
Now, as the sun melted past the trees, her feeble eyes read the quiet room and found their bounty – the butternut bureau, stately but weatherworn, beneath a singular window. She gathered what remained within her and pulled her body from the bed, her withered muscles scraping the bone, her calloused feet feeling the cold, dusty wood on their bare skin, unassisted by caretakers or daughters, fighting to stand on their own for the first time in weeks. And then the coughs tore through her body, reminding her of the man coming in the morning, and filled her footsteps with disappointment.
The sweet odor of calamine lotion, rubbed first on her wrists and then her back after a morning of thirsty mosquitoes, stung her nostrils with irony. With tumors having claimed her bones and her brain and the lining of her lungs, it was the mosquitoes that irritated her most, whining and winning their supper from her old skin and empty blood. She thought of them now as little emissaries, carrying the cancer from her body and out into the world, out above the ceiling fan, bit by bit, announcing to the empty air that even they have now claimed some part of who she was.
Yet when her daughters came with their fly swatters and traps, she sent them away, harboring a secret fear that if the mosquitoes, who were now possessed with little bits of her, were killed then she too would die completely. So she tolerated them but found herself irritated by the mosquitoes’ seeming indifference to their unique relationship.
After her daughters said the man would be coming, she planned her journey from the bed only when she knew they would be away, downstairs in one of their secret rooms having hushed conversations about what to do with her.
She pushed her feet across the floor with pains twisting her knees, shaking her chest, dampening her face with tears, finding new discomforts in familiar steps. But pain would not dissuade her. “You’ve spent a lifetime not listening to your body,” her oldest daughter would tell her, and this moment, she reasoned, should be no different.
She had earned her years with a quiet confidence in her own decisions, decisions which had granted her more good than ill. It was the desperate act of living, after all, the confrontation every man must make against time, that drove her choices, that pressured her to identify things with which to fill her hours.
And she found many things, chief among them the gray taste of time itself, burned at the end and diminishing in a trail of smoke, taking with it her hours, her afternoons and her years. And when there was no more time to give, she gave her organs and her bones to that gray taste, until even they were no longer solvent.
With dusk coloring the room, she stumbled at last to the butternut bureau, fumbling her fingers to open the drawer, and rescued a yellowed pack of Parliaments from the forgotten dark. She tried moving again but tumbled to the floor, bogged in effort and sweat, and when the coughs shook her body, she turned them into laughs, shaking a single wilted cigarette from the pack, twisting it between her fingers, and holding it up, beyond the window, against the flame of the setting sun.
And she held it there for as long as she could, forgetting the man coming in the morning, and listening as the mosquitoes carried her into the air.
Talking In Our Sleep
Second place winner
The whispers of Time keep echoing in my ears. Has too much Time passed me by? Will the future ever look as endless as it once did? These whispers keep echoing, like a baby’s cry that cannot be satisfied or a lover’s heart that will not be mended in… Time.
When I think about all the faces I’ve seen, all the tears that have been wiped away, all the laughs that will be imitated on the street corners, bar stools, dance floors and bedrooms… these echoes someone turn to screams.
How can you not hear it begging for forward motion? Always forward. Finish it now, the deadline was yesterday, where’s the ring, when’s the baby coming, when will you retire? I know you hear this agonizing repercussion from day to day, month to month, year to year, decade to decade… generation to generation.
Time, who gave you control of us? All the keys to locked doors, all the revelations revealed only a little too late, even all the joy appreciated after the moment has passed. Who told you what our limitations were, Time?
The millions – rather billions – that have gone before us all snared by Time and yet we still don’t know why. We’re no closer to understanding how to stop it, slow it down or even reverse it. It is the master and we are the slaves; it is the director, the audience, the puppeteer and we are simply on stage. It has the upper hand and we are forced to put all our chips in.
Rather, as we are forced to think again, could it be all so simple. As Time moves on dragging us with it, could we now finally see the moments? After all, we’re only human, what are we to Time? Not even a blink of an eye in all of the eternity Time has seen or has yet to see. But for a moment, as small as we all are to Time, we can stand eye-to-eye, toe-to-toe, breath-to-breath…
It feels as though it stops around us. The forward motion cannot be kept moving if we refuse, just for an instant, to recognize its power.
When your child cries at 3am and you drag yourself out of the bed, don’t rush forward in anger with Time – pause, see and be. For Time will steal these moments from you and you will wish they would come again.
When your heart breaks after you’ve loved more than you ever thought possible and the pain burns your soul, don’t stop yourself from crying. Pause, see and be.
When you’re in love, don’t rush into that kiss for Time will never take you back. Pause, see and be.
In that instant where Time has no power, we are the masters with the keys watching and changing the script to the play. For you are a human BE-ing, so be.
But what do I know. I’m just talking in my sleep.
My Lot, My Lord
Third place winner
She sat on the subway, menstruating and wondering when she would finally get to her destination. Her destination was now three stops away, and the next stop would make it four. She had knowingly missed her stop, immobilized to her seat by the blood that had soaked up her tampon, flooded past her panty liner and cotton underwear and leaked onto her dress. Paranoia gripped her, as she imagined the blood seeping onto the seat and leaving a red indelible mark should she – God forbid – stand up and leave her seat.
She could not stand up, paralyzed by the shame of allowing something as personal as menstrual blood come into contact with a public transportation surface. She wallowed in guilt, feeling irresponsible for not having the foresight to know that she had to change her tampon more than four times today. Today was Day Two, which usually did not warrant more than three tampon changes, and yet here she was, on Day Two with a bloodstained dress.
She should not have sat down, she concluded after some thought. If she had braved both the backache and swollen feet that came with her period, and had chosen to stand instead of sitting down, she would not be in this predicament. But sit she had and now sit on she did, silently praying that she would bleed to death in her seat. Death by menstrual hemorrhage would be more honorable than experiencing the humiliation of strangers witnessing the huge map of Arkansas that had sketched itself over the back of her skirt in red ink.
Now past its seating capacity, the cabin had several standing passengers. An old woman leaned against a pole, inciting pangs of sympathy riddled with embarrassment. On an ordinary day, she would have offered her her seat. But today was far from ordinary. Today was Day Two gone wrong, and even China’s elderly were being affected by the ripples of the initial shock.
She thought back to how empowered she usually felt on her period. She took exceptional pride in the fact that she could wear a bandage-tight dress, walk in heels and be a productive member of society, all while bleeding through the most sensitive part of her body. She loved the fact that her body could bleed without being hurt. And that bleeding was a sign that she was well and alive. No man could do that. Period. And she derived an unmistakable feminist kick from it, because she secretly believed that menstruation was a mark of female invincibility and super- humanity. Her period always came on time, and like a good guest, it amiably checked out three days later. It did not bring undue drama with it – just the usual bloating here, swollen feet there, as well as the backache, pimples and inexplicable fatigue.
But now, here she sat, pensively gaining miles in the opposite direction of home, feeling smaller and smaller as the distance between her and home became larger. The period, which usually made her feel invincible, had humbled her, and had leveled her to a timid, self-conscious woman who associated shame with menstruation.
The thunderstorm in her womb raged on, colored by brief lightning pangs of menstrual cramps and the heavy showers of blood noiselessly hitting her underwear.
“This is my lot, my Lord,” she whispered to nobody in particular.
Tomorrow, she would do better.
Photo by Christian Saavedra
Fourth place winner and audience choice winner
It’s 6pm. Metro Line 3. The orange one. You are packed in with the rest of them. Faces look similar, though not identical, and they look at you, baffled. It's 90 degrees and there’s air conditioning, but with all the people pouring down the stairs your sweat has its own sweat. You are saturated with this place, these people, these smells, copulating violently.
There are clearly marked areas for people to line up, but lines don’t exist here. It’s all queues and crowding. This ebb and flow, ebb and shove. It’s like being in the Atlantic in August. Your skin is wrinkled, but you’re still sweating and you’re jumping waves, being towed, pulled, dragged, carried with the current and the rip tide is strong. Then you see it has formed – the mass, the wave – and there’s no time to navigate.
The metro arrives, the doors open. People push shoulder first, elbows bent, heads down. There’s no break, just one mass gathering. It crashes on the precipice of those sliding doors. You are pushed in several directions. Your feet don’t touch the ground; tip toes skimming, feet on top and underneath your soles as you are thrust into the car like clothing into an overstuffed suitcase.
You are the tallest person on the metro and everyone continues to push – slowly, steadily. This madness. No one else can fit, but they all keep moving – collectivist culture – and they smile innocuously like toddlers taking toys from each other. Not a word is spoken. It is quiet, mostly, other than small children babbling or the fullness of still bodies pressed together. The doors close, the train goes.
All the heads sway, bodies leaning and tilting, zigzagging cars and cars in a tunnel you will never see the inside of except for its blur from the inside of the metro car, and you can trace the slinking shape of the line as you look down. This is a long train.
A small woman, with gray-rooted hair and a pink shirt is standing in front of you. You realize she is standing on you. The face of your hips cradle her rear. You are spooning her. Not a word is spoken. It is quiet, mostly, other than small children babbling or the fullness of still bodies pressed together. The train stops, one or two people get off; another wave crashes. The mass swells. The doors close. The train goes.
No one really looks at anyone except they all look at you. Your brain wants you to think the looks are awful, wants you to scowl, but you know they are in awe of you and you are in awe of this life, this place, your feet on this ground.
You look up. Breathe. Pupils flash like cameras. How many flashes can you collect? You smile at the insanity of it all because you are amazed by the mass, the collection in this car, moving at light speed. What’s crazy is that each day, every time you get on the metro, it becomes less and less strange and you think about the time to come and you can’t fathom it. That thought doesn’t even stick in your brain because time moves differently here. It’s not the same and you are not the same.