An icy wind slithered inside Mia’s coat. The ground underneath her was smothered under six inches of snow, and the black trees towering over her were hunched like ailing crones. She tried not think about the sogginess of her boots, which her mother had brought over to America from Chengdu. Folding her arms close to her body, she wearily eyed her ecology teacher, who was pacing in front of the class.
“When winter arrives,” the teacher began in a bellowing voice, “plants and animals must find a way to survive the cold.”
Mia never had an affinity for ecology, for to understand ecology was to understand the intricate relations between biology and geography. To her, ecology was simply the withering trees that stood before her.
The teacher continued, “To some animals, this means migrating south to warmer climates. One of these animals is the raven, who must travel south to find food.”
Her teacher gestured at one of the trees. It had thin, spindly branches like the juniper tree right outside of Mia’s home. A set of yellow eyes perched on one of its branches. Mia gazed up and locked gazes with those eyes, which glowed against the darkness of the raven’s feathers.
“Ravens are common in this area at this time of year,” the teacher said, “but they will all soon leave to go south.”
Mia’s teacher continued to lecture, but she was no longer listening. As she stared at the raven, she thought about yellow steamed buns, or, as her mother called them, huang mi bao. At night, the buns radiated gold.
Then she heard someone call, “Mia!”
Looking away from the raven, Mia found her teacher looking at her with squinted eyes. She swallowed.
“I asked you, Mia,” the teacher said, “Where do the ravens go when they leave?”
Mia’s throat clogged up as her teacher tapped her foot impatiently. As she searched her brain for the answer, she wished she could disappear into the snow.
Finally, the teacher said coldly, “South, Mia. Remember that.”
At the dinner table, Mia pulled her legs to her chest, using her hands to cover her numb toes. In front her, her mother kneaded a glob of warm yellow dough. The work seemed to absorb her mother, who did not pay any attention to Mia. This was fine with Mia as she dreaded having to admit to that she, once again, could not remember a single thing from ecology class, or most of her others classes for that matter. All of the lines on her textbooks and the stream of words from her teachers’ lectures were tangled up in her head, never unravelling.
The phone rang. Her mother picked up the phone with her sticky hands.
“Wei?” Her mother said. Hello?
The person on the other end said something, and her mother’s lips tightened into a thin line. Quietly, she replied in Mandarin. Mia managed to pick out a few words. Ma. Mom. Bing. Sick. She watched as her mother’s fingers closed around the jade necklace that hung from her neck, knuckles whitening.
Her buried her face in her hands as she set down the phone.
Mia asked, “What’s the matter?”
Her mother remained silent for a few moments.
Then she looked up at Mia, “Your grandmother. She has…ai.”
Mia had long lost her ear to detect the delicate tones of Mandarin, so crucial for comprehending her mother’s native language. Her mother often said that all the Mandarin in Mia’s tongue was stolen from her the moment she began to speak English.
So, Mia blinked with a confused look on her face, “She has love?”
Her mother looked like she wanted to slap her, “Ai, Mi-ya. Cancer.”
Mia shrunk under her mother’s gaze, a mixture of disappointment and anger. To Mia, even her Mandarin name seemed foreign, despite her mother insisting that Mi-ya, not Mia, was her real name. For her mother, “Mia” was only a name given for the convenience in a country that didn’t speak Chinese.
“I’m sorry—” Mia interrupted herself and then corrected in a shaky voice, “D-dui bu qi.”
Her mother didn’t say anything.
“W-will she be all right? D-ui bu qi.”
“She has ai, Mi-ya,” her mother repeated.
Mia wanted to ask if her grandmother was going to get treated. Was her family, her aunts and uncles living in China, taking care of her grandmother? What had her grandmother, who Mia only knew from her mother’s stories and dusty black-and-white photographs, been doing these past years?
However, when Mia opened her mouth to speak, no words came out. Instead, she stammered, “D-dui b-bu q-qi.”
Her mother got up and slowly walked towards the living room. Mia followed, careful to keep her footsteps quiet. Stopping at the doorway, she saw her mother kneel down in the centre of living room with her hands clasped together, and whisper a torrent of Mandarin.
Mia had asked her mother before who she was praying to. Her mother had answered lao tian ye, which translated to “the sky”. Even after her mother explained this to her, Mia still found it strange.
As her mother continued to pray, lao tian ye was the only phrase Mia could pick out, making a chant. Lao tian ye, lao tian ye, lao tian ye.
After a while, Mia’s gaze slipped from her mother and towards the living room window. Outside, there was the juniper tree. In the summer, the juniper yielded large verdant green leaves, but, in the winter, it was as barren as a frozen cake. On the tree, several ravens perched. This was not the first time that ravens took refuge in the juniper. However, this was the first time that Mia focused on the eyes of those ravens.
Remembering the raven from her ecology class, she saw the golden eyes of the birds and thought of the yellow dough sitting on the dining room table, now cold.
She wanted to point to the ravens and say to her mother, “Huang mi bao. Don’t they look like huang mi bao?”
But of course she didn’t. After a few minutes, her mother still kneeling on the floor, Mia went to the dining room and wrapped the yellow dough in plastic wrap. She slipped the dough in the refrigerator, hoping it would still be good tomorrow.
She returned to the living room. Looking out the window, she stared at the ravens, listening to her mother pray lao tian ye, lao tian ye. Eventually, the birds left the tree, one by one, carrying their yellow eyes with them. Where they went, Mia didn’t know.
The next morning, when Mia went to take the bus to school, her mother smiled at her, handing her a lunch bag filled with leftover rice and vegetables. However, Mia saw her mother’s hands shaking even when she was standing still.
When Mia got to school, her ecology teacher took the class out to the forest again. Mia attempted to conceal herself by walking in the middle of the crowd, but the snow crunched beneath her boots like bones.
They arrived at the woods, where several ravens perched. The teacher began her lecture about the seasons cycle for trees, the diet of ravens, and bird nesting habits, but none of it stuck in Mia’s mind. She only looked at the ravens’ yellow eyes, which seemed to stare back at her.
“Now, Mia,” her teacher said, “let’s see if you remember this time. Where do the birds fly during the winter?”
Mia hardly heard her. Watching the ravens, she thought of the yellow dough that was left unbaked while her mother prayed lao tian ye, lao tian ye. She remembered the ravens that perched on the juniper and how her mother’s shaking hands this morning were as fragile as a glass vase.
“Mia,” her teacher spit, “Mia!”
Lip curling, the teacher strode towards Mia. The crowd of students parted, leaving Mia exposed. Mia’s attention snapped back to her class when she found her view of the forest blocked by the teacher’s massive figure.
“I asked you, Mia,” her teacher said slowly, “Where do the birds go in the winter?”
Mia knew that if her mother broke, she wouldn’t be able to put her back together. But it was this uselessness, this helplessness, this complete ignorance of ecology that finally unclogged her throat.
She raised her head. Locking eyes with her teacher, she answered:
“They fly to the sky.”