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Writing South

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The spring after my mother left, I tried to write a letter to her.

She had taught me how to write characters like her people did, with a brush and ink and paper that were the only things I had ever seen her ask from my father. She said I was not very good at it. I would try to do exactly what she did, painting the lines in order, one-two-three-four-five. I thought the characters I painted looked the same as hers, but she would point to one part and say it was too big and another part was too small, and that Han people would not think it was beautiful.

She taught me some Han songs and poems, and showed me how to write them. I remember one poem she taught me started “guan-guan-ju-jiu-zai-he-zhi-zhou” and she said it was about two ospreys by the river, calling “guan guan.”

“But Enne,” I remember telling her, “ospreys don’t say guan guan. They say cik cik.”

She didn’t answer me, and she turned her face away in that way that meant she was sad. I was instantly sorry that I had said anything.

To try to cheer her up I copied out the entire poem carefully with the brush, and then asked her to teach me again how to recite it. By the end of the day I could recite the whole poem with only one or two mistakes, and Enne was smiling and happy. I was bursting with pride, because my mother rarely smiled. She never smiled for my father, or at least, she never let him see it. She sometimes smiled for my aunts and uncles. I was the best at making her smile, when I memorized a Han poem or drew a Han character that she said was beautiful, or when I came home after riding all morning and rushed into the tent calling “Enne, I’m back!” or sometimes when she was looking sad and I whispered “I love you, Enne,” so that no one else could hear.

The spring after she left, I took out her old brush and ink and paper. When I first realized that she left her writing things behind—the day after we parted ways with the Han riders, when we turned back north and they continued south with my mother—I was horrified. They were Enne’s most precious possessions! She would be so terribly unhappy when she realized that she forgot them! I was ready to leap on my horse and ride after my mother, to bring her precious things to her. But my uncle called me back, telling me not to be stupid. In the land of the Han where my mother was going, there was ink and paper and brushes aplenty. She would not need the old ones that she left behind.

So I still had her old writing things, and I took them out and tried to write a letter to her. But as I sat and thought about how to start it, I realized that I didn’t know how. With her poems and songs, Enne taught me how to write in the Han language about ospreys and rivers and trees with strange names, about boats and kings and beautiful ladies. But I didn’t know how to write the words I wanted to speak to her—“Hello, mother!” or “Are you well?” or “I hope you are happy.”

In the end, I found a bit of a poem that I could use. If I could not write my own words, I would have to make do.
I copied carefully from one of the pieces of paper she left behind. It was from a poem about missing someone and wishing to see them again. I tried to paint the characters beautifully, but I still did not know how to tell whether I was doing it right.

This was better than nothing—it would tell her that I missed her, and that I was thinking of her. But it still wasn’t right. It was just a bit of poem; it wasn’t my own self talking to her. Wasn’t there any way to send my own voice to her?

At last, I thought of something that I could write. “I love you, mother,” like I used to tell her when she was sad. I knew the characters for that, and I drew them onto the paper, trying to put my voice into them. But when I finished, I knew that it was all wrong. Enne wasn’t my “Mu” like a mother was called in the Han poems. She wasn’t my 母. She was my Enne. But there was no way to write that.

I put away the ink then, and washed out the brush, and waited for the letter to dry before folding it up and putting it away. I wouldn’t send it.

In the south, everyone knew how to write beautiful Han characters, I was sure. And everyone could recite Han poems without a single mistake. Enne would smile all the time as she listened to them. She did not need me to send her half a poem in my probably-not-beautiful writing.

In the south, there was no one who knew how to say “Good morning, Enne,” or call “I’m back, Enne!” when they came home from riding. If I were there, I could make her smile that way. But I was not there, and I did not know how to write the words so that my voice could carry to her. So trying to write a letter was pointless, after all.



A year after he arrived in Luoyang, the capital, Liu Yuan was already his teachers’ favorite student and the idol of the other boys. His family had sent him south to learn to be civilized in the Han way, and he had taken to the lessons as though he were born for them. He wrote beautifully, everyone agreed; both his handwriting and his prose were elegant and refined. He avidly read all the books he could find on history, military strategy, and philosophy, and could discuss any subject eloquently, with only the faintest hint of a northern accent.

The teachers congratulated him on his progress, hinting delicately that it was a great achievement for someone who was the first in his family to be properly educated. The other boys joked that it was a pity that he could not write home to tell his family about his studies, since they would not be able to read the letter.

Liu Yuan laughed politely at these jokes, and no one noticed the flicker of his expression that hid a tiny secret. Among his things, hidden carefully under clothes and books, was an old, worn letter with characters his finger had traced over and over as a child, sitting on the lap of his favorite uncle, who was really his big brother but so much older that he was called Uncle instead.

The handwriting of the letter was lopsided and badly proportioned, like the writing of the clumsiest beginning student. It was barely a letter at all; it followed no proper form, and was just a few disjointed phrases.

Nevertheless, Liu Yuan thought of it often, taking it out to spread it and trace the characters with his finger again. And he wondered if, somewhere in this southern land, there was a very old woman who was still wishing for word from her children.