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Kunming Lake. Image: ‘FanJ’, Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

Li Xuan pulled on her usual outfit, the one that made her feel untouchable. A hot-pink fanny pack curled around her waist, the same one she bought from Paddy’s Markets the year her daughter was born. A khaki bucket hat, beloved by her late husband, went over her ears. By the time she shrugged into her puffy Uniqlo vest, she felt ready to waltz with a savage dingo.

In the next room, her grandson Nathan marathoned Naruto re-runs on her cubic telly set; fat tears stained his cheeks, sliding into his patchy attempt at a beard.

‘If you’re headed to Cabra, grab me some bubble tea, will ya?’ he asked, eyes fixed on the screen.

‘No way. When will you leave my house?’

‘I want taro milk with herbal jelly—thanks, poh poh!’ He pursed his lips into a half-hearted kiss, the snot dribbling down his chin derailing the attempt at tenderness.

Li Xuan shook her head. She’d have to deal with this brat later: today was too important. But before she could wriggle into her sneakers, Nathan took a proper look.

‘Are you wearing lipstick?’ He sprung up suddenly, beginning to inch closer. ‘You’re going on a date?’

Li Xuan attempted to wrangle her front door shut but Nathan was faster, wedging his foot in the door. Cold air whistled past them and, despite her layers, Li Xuan shivered.

‘I was just going to say that you look really nice,’ Nathan said. Despite the red-rimmed look, he was grinning the way he did as a toddler, when she snuck him Caramello Koalas behind his mother’s back. He leaned closer, conspiratorial. ‘So, is this guy really hot or what?’

‘Hot?’ Li Xuan frowned. ‘Like fever?’

‘Nah, y’know, like is he fit? Handsome. Suai.’

‘Oh,’ Li Xuan said, feeling her ears heat. ‘I don’t know. I haven’t seen them in fifty years.’

‘Then you’ll have heaps of saucy details to catch up on,’ Nathan said, tugging Li Xuan into a hug. ‘Don’t stay out too late, ya vixen.’

Her lunch date was taking place in less than an hour, decades of time dilating and contracting at each of those teasing words. Entwined around Nathan’s back, her hands began to tremble.

*

Two new Taiwanese tea places had popped up on John Street, their lilac banners reminding Li Xuan of Nathan’s request for taro. A few paces down, she passed by a sushi train, minimally furnished with cement beams and blocky timber stools, gleaming in the spot that once belonged to her favourite phở place.

They had agreed to meet for yum cha at Golden Palace.

A butcher dozed on a hammock in the deserted mall beneath the restaurant as her daughter cleaved through crispy pork behind the glass screen of Good Luck BBQ House. Jewellery stands lay unattended, beads of turquoise and jade swinging on chains of false gold. An old man, frailer than even Li Xuan, was heaving a leather chair out of the shop that sold massage paraphernalia, wobbling past racks of leek-green áo dài. Li Xuan quietly greeted him before stepping on the escalator, towards the deluge of sunlight above.

Slowly ascending, Li Xuan glimpsed a figure pacing in front of the landscape window overlooking Gough Whitlam Place car park. A ponytail, swinging back and forth, the colour of bleached limestone. Then: the curve of a back in a coat embroidered with larks, and two gnarled hands polka-dotted with age. These things were all new, but Li Xuan felt her atoms headbutt one another with frenzied recognition.

It was her.

Li Xuan reached the top. The woman’s footfalls slowed, flyaway hairs backlit by the pale, prenoon glow. For a moment, Li Xuan couldn’t meet her eye, glancing out the window at distant commuters speckling the sea of brick-red levels. That car park hadn’t been there five years ago, and she couldn’t recall the previous view.

The suburb was like a fragile charcoal drawing, each brick, each path, each person sketched out from a miasma of remembrances, not quite true to life.

The suburb was like a fragile charcoal drawing, each brick, each path, each person sketched out from a miasma of remembrances, not quite true to life. The artist was always improving their work bit by bit, their eraser ruthlessly seeking out imperfections. Vague figures and time-worn shops crumbled into a black smear, as bolder, modern lines were drawn over them with a ruler.

The small changes always unnerved Li Xuan, reminding her of her own immateriality.

‘A-Xuan, late, as always.’ That voice—the tinge of amusement, the lilting Yunnanese vowels—burrowed into Li Xuan like a child returning to their bed after a day of sweaty-limbed games.

She looked at Ru Lian.

*

When they first met, Kunming was drowning. The sky haemorrhaged rain for ten straight days, beating flimsy wagons, stores and terracotta roofs into submission. Mud sloughed off roads like treacly amphibian skin, sliding under the doorjambs of poorly defended homes, suffocating each crevice with its river-water stench. In Li Xuan’s village, people cracked open their doors and tipped their heads towards the sky.

Kunming, known as the district of eternal blossoms, existed in a perpetual state of springtime that rarely made room for disaster. The endless downpour drew the eye, even as dye bled from the villagers’ cloth shoes, and the carnage of their wooden market stalls floated towards new homes beneath the lakes, huddled against reeds and plastic waste. For weeks after the flood, Li Xuan kept spotting residual oddities: yellow leaves splayed against her pillow, a drowned kitten trapped in a toilet cubicle, a mangled bicycle tangled between the branches of an overturned tree.

But the strangest occurrence happened on a Friday, when the Zhao family sent their eldest daughter to speak to the commoners. I am Zhao Ru Lian, the girl announced in the market square, her voice musical. Our family lives on the hill, in the renovated temple. The storm ruined three of the upstairs bedrooms and my father will pay anyone willing to help us clean.

‘She’s acting like we don’t all know who she is,’ Li Xuan said, stumbling after Ru Lian with her classmates.

Three bedrooms, mouthed her friend Xing Xing in return, who slept in the same room where his ma cooked, sold pork buns and prayed. ‘Do you think they have more?’

The cresting excitement in Xing Xing captured what everyone was thinking: at last they would get a good look. Li Xuan had only stolen glances through the leaves of the tallow trees dotting the hillside, looking for the red granite phoenixes calcified in the act of flight, perched on pavilion gates.

For centuries, the grounds had housed a temple to Yan Wang, the god of death, with incense sticks regularly lit by locals for the valley’s many spirits. When the Zhaos came along with their oyster sauce fortune, everyone learnt that even the holy came with a price tag.

Rumours gestated in their little peasant houses, the whispering of parents and aunties punctuated by crackles of brazier fire. What kind of people would disembowel floors and shrines that had stood for generations?

‘Heathens,’ they hissed. ‘Devils.’

‘No, worse than that,’ Li Xuan’s mother tutted. ‘Snobs with no face.’

But looking at the girl leading the motley troop uphill, through squelching soups of mud and grass, Li Xuan thought that the Zhaos didn’t seem like much. Ru Lian, now in pinching distance, certainly had markers that betrayed good care: the dewiness of her skin, her hairpin where a small garnet phoenix nested.

And yet, she was surprisingly dull. Just a girl that was about Li Xuan’s age, not yet sixteen, hair the colour of dry soil, with a thin, serious mouth. And Li Xuan had never met one of those that she couldn’t bowl over with a well-timed right hook, or turn of phrase.

Catching one of Li Xuan’s sly glances, the corner of Ru Lian’s mouth lifted.

‘The only other time I’ve heard of a flood this great,’ she said with that sing-song voice of hers, ‘it was the flood of Gun-Yu. Ancient texts claim it was sent by the gods and lasted for two generations, choking off food supply and drowning millions. Hopefully, that doesn’t happen to us.’

‘How cheerful!’ Li Xuan laughed. ‘Did you only say that so all these dirty farmers would know you could read?’

‘No!’ Ru Lian said. ‘I wanted to share—’

‘Reading doesn’t impress Li Xuan.’ Xing Xing sighed. ‘She thinks books are only good for firewood.’

‘Aiya, Xing Xing! Of course, I think books have many uses,’ Li Xuan said. ‘They also make great flyswatters. And you can use them as rags to soak up shit from a leaking toilet.’ Li Xuan had struck a match, Ru Lian’s face smouldering redder and redder. But as quick as it came, the anger snuffed out, the pucker between her brows smoothed over. For the next few moments, the Zhao girl was silent, powering forward in graceful, crane-like strides. When she spoke again, she addressed only Xing Xing.

‘In the books I read,’ she told him, ‘women shifted into foxes, and spun Pandan leaves into jade. Men fought dragons with only an oak branch and fell in love with snakes. A princess, stranded in the desert, devoured the juddering hearts of camels to survive the glacial nights.’

As they cleared the last line of trees, Xing Xing was bouncing up and down, begging to borrow a storybook. Ru Lian graciously obliged, before shifting her storytelling to gossip about the scullery maids’ romances. There was a soothing quality to her cadence; it made Li Xuan want to lean in closer, made her feel as if she could never get close enough.

When they reached the gates, Li Xuan looked up to see phoenix wings spread above, so intricately carved that the feathers seemed to twitch and ruffle.

‘You can borrow some too, if you like,’ Ru Lian said, sparing her a glance.

‘No thank you,’ Li Xuan said, trying to muster her last drop of pride. Instead, she grinned—defeat was a thrilling feeling.

There was a soothing quality to her cadence; it made Li Xuan want to lean in closer, made her feel as if she could never get close enough.

*

When Li Xuan closed her eyes, the sound, the smell, the feel of Pu’er tea filling a cup took her all the way home. It was the hot flotsams of steam wafting from Ba’s bathing bucket; the trickle of rain from their leaky old roof, tinkling right into Ma’s ceramic bowls.

But then the memory splintered, spoiled by the whine of a metal trolley, by the muffled, wet slap of cheong fun being lobbed onto the carpet by a screeching two-year-old. Li Xuan opened her eyes and saw that she was back in Cabramatta, in Sydney, on an island floating in the sea.

Ru Lian was distributing the tea. Her back was rigid, her hands delicately poised like a frozen dancer waiting for applause. It was the kind of severe grace that never came naturally; it was trained into someone’s very being. Taking this pause, Li Xuan drank in the ways Ru Lian was different but the same. Like the child she had known, Ru Lian wore her face plain yet seemed effortlessly groomed, wrinkles infused with herbal skin creams and lavender mists.

Li Xuan, meanwhile, had spent the morning rescuing a single tube of lipstick from the bathroom drawer, rummaging through Q-tips, baby wipes, and half-opened jars of tiger balm. Finally, she’d found it, knobbly hands greasing it open, smearing a blossom of coral-orange over her lips.

‘You’re so lucky to live here in Australia,’ Ru Lian said, after the tea was poured. Those last syllables rolled around her tongue hesitantly, as if she were sounding out something alien. Au-da-li-ah. ‘Here, the meat is so luscious and the milk so creamy! And you live in this lovely little town; it reminds me much more of our old village than Tsim Tsa Tsui.’

‘So, your nephew lives in Chatswood? Our families didn’t end up so far away from one another,’ Li Xuan said instead, even though she had only set foot in Chatswood once, the sun stripping skin from her nose as her husband dripped honeydew ice cream onto the pavement.

‘Yes, isn’t it funny? When I saw your name and location on WeChat I almost had a heart attack, told my husband that I had to visit immediately. He was shocked by my sudden interest in his sister’s little devil.’

Li Xuan frowned. Something was wrong. She watched Ru Lian peck at the roasted peanuts in her congee, impassive. Li Xuan cursed herself: why had she picked such a cheap restaurant, when Ru Lian probably lunched in upscale yum cha parlours all over Hong Kong? She resisted the urge to wipe off her cheap lipstick with the back of her palm.

‘I tried to find you, years ago. My daughter went back to the village and asked about your family,’ she said, soldiering on. ‘We had no idea if you had escaped, if you were even still alive—’

‘That ugly business is in the past,’ Ru Lian interrupted, slotting another peanut into her mouth, chewing limply. ‘We got away just fine during the revolution and I was engaged the next year. But I’m sorry your daughter had to see that eyesore.’

Li Xuan thought of the Zhao mansion, how Carina had described it. Half of it had crumbled into ruin, the walls charred black. Phoenix parts lay scattered across the dirt, beady eyes staring into nothing. She couldn’t conjure the image: gates and mahogany floors and eaves devoured by licks of revolutionary flame. The house continued living and breathing in her mind, as did the Ru Lian she once knew, buried inside the woman in front of her like the core of a Matryoshka doll.

‘I have a grandson that’s your nephew’s age,’ Li Xuan found herself saying. ‘He’s staying with me right now.’

‘Wah, you should have brought him along! I’d love to—’

‘His ma found out he’s in a relationship with a man, so he isn’t doing too well,’ Li Xuan said, enunciating each word with intent. ‘No matter what I say, she refuses to allow him home. And Nathan is just like my Carina, so stubborn! He wouldn’t want to even if she agreed.’

Ru Lian was finally silent. If she felt any surprise, or disgust, or commiseration, it didn’t show. At least she had stopped poking at those damn peanuts. ‘I see,’ she said.

‘He’s been eating every Dorito, vitamin and painkiller in my house, no matter where I hide them. It’s all very annoying.’

‘So, it doesn’t bother you,’ Ru Lian said. Not a question but a statement.

‘No,’ Li Xuan said, resolute. ‘It doesn’t bother me at all.’

*

Time did funny things to memory; decades of hope, pain and geography growing so dense, they jumbled any sense of linearity.

She couldn’t discern specific days, or the face of the uncle who sold jasmine vines outside her house, but remembered a teenaged Ru Lian sprawled out on a chaise longue, idly flicking through her latest novel as Li Xuan helped carry a rotting dressing table out of the Zhao mansion.

In that disorienting house, which mixed Chinese wooden beams with Victorian fireplaces and coiling bannisters, Li Xuan got to know Ru Lian’s habits quite well. As the villagers peeled waterlogged cabinets from walls and blackened rugs from floors, Ru Lian enjoyed distracting them with chatter—about the history of the temple, her father’s gambling habits, or the fables she was reading. She lounged on every surface like a sunbathing lizard; no table, floorboard or mantel was safe, as she slurped at enormous bowls of guo qiao mi xian, noodles dripping soup onto her pages.

Day after day, when Li Xuan came to help clean, she saw new bruises budding across Ru Lian fingers and arms, in calculated patterns that Li Xuan knew well. But Ru Lian maintained her irreverence, enjoyed it even.

During one of Li Xuan’s last afternoons at the Zhao’s, Ru Lian rolled onto her side and smirked right at her. ‘It’s too bad you hate books so much,’ she said, ‘because this tale is scandalous.’

‘What’s it called?’ Li Xuan asked, before she could stop herself. ‘The Butterfly Lovers.’

Li Xuan snorted. ‘Everyone knows that stupid story. I’ve never read a book and I’ve heard it told a thousand times.’

‘This is an adult retelling,’ Ru Lian said. ‘There’s a scene where Zhu Yingtai pleasures Liang Shanbo, while Shanbo still thinks Yingtai is a man.’

Li Xuan blushed furiously. ‘You’re lying!’

‘I suppose you’ll have to read it to find out.’

Something about Ru Lian’s smug expression—eyebrows disappearing high into her blunt fringe—was so ridiculous that Li Xuan sank her teeth into her bottom lip to stave off laughter, blood leaking out like red bean filling.

That evening, when Ru Lian asked if Li Xuan wanted to go swimming at the lake, Li Xuan agreed.

Far too quickly.

‘See you tomorrow,’ she said, childlike, heart beating true.

*

The water that rippled in the lake was as cold as polar ice and filled with unpleasant surprises. One couldn’t wade in without bumping their foot against a desiccated milk carton, or scraping it against the spokes of an abandoned wagon wheel. If your luck was bad, you stepped directly on spongey, oozing creatures, choking the life out of them. Li Xuan theorised that this sense of unpredictability was what excited Ru Lian, driving her to dive in and backstroke with abandon. Maybe we’ll find a corpse, she whispered into the shell of Li Xuan’s ear.

Whenever they swam at dusk, they returned to shore just when the water transfigured into a void of black, wringing calligraphy ink from their hair.

Whenever they swam at dusk, they returned to shore just when the water transfigured into a void of black, wringing calligraphy ink from their hair onto the chrysanthemums growing in the surrounding bushes. Then, they lay side by side, arms slick and pressed together. ‘A long time from now, when I am old and ugly,’ Ru Lian said, ‘I’m going to have a family of my own and there will be no secrets between us.’

Li Xuan turned her head to look at her. ‘Where will you live?’

‘In a small hut, deep in the forest. I’ll paint all the walls as yellow as those flowers, and there will be no more spirits haunting me.’

‘How would this hut contain all the helpers you’d need to keep you happy?’ Li Xuan snorts. ‘A princess like you can’t even boil water, let alone make guo qiao mi xian. You’d die!’

‘You could make it for me,’ Ru Lian said, and for a second both girls were quiet.

They stared up at the handful of stars visible through the film of pollution; hazy, grey tentacles that had crawled over from the cities.

After a moment, Ru Lian tangled her hand in Li Xuan’s hair.

*

Eventually, all swims came to an end, as did yum cha. Li Xuan and Ru Lian went through the motions: they squabbled over the bill and inquired about the other’s plans for the rest of the day, before surmising that both parties were busy. They stepped on the escalator together, rode it all the way down, and began a slow trundle to the train station, not saying much at all.

Li Xuan was slowly giving in to a creeping sense of acceptance. What had she expected? Fifty years was a long time by anybody’s standard, a temporal realm where whole communities sprung up from the dirt and stretched their arms up towards the sun. And yet, wherever she looked, she saw what she was losing.

There, two blocks down, lay a store selling $15 pinstriped suits and tubs of discount school shoes. Years ago, when her daughter was still a pre- teen, the lot belonged to a Malaysian family that sold apam balik. Those days were gone, those moments of her daughter licking batter from her fingers as her husband hummed along with the shop’s pop tunes. There, at the sharp corner turn, was where Nathan had once tripped as a child, smashing his nose hard against a signpost. His mother had stroked his cloudling tufts of hair, holding his head in one hand as she wiped at his nose with the other.

That tenderness had been entombed by time as well. Li Xuan and Ru Lian prepared to part at the traffic light. Quickly, Li Xuan committed this new Ru Lian to memory: the strands of hair wisping into her mouth, the wrinkles clustered around her blank gaze. She was glad to know Ru Lian at this stage, even if she was a stranger; glad to know that she had survived and would go on surviving. When she opened her mouth to say goodbye, something in Ru Lian seemed to give way, her jaw clenching so tight that it seemed her teeth would grind through nerve.

‘I planned to say many things to you today, and said none,’ Ru Lian said, her wild tone reminding Li Xuan of the girl that had recklessly sliced her way through a darkened lake.

Li Xuan committed this new Ru Lian to memory: the strands of hair wisping into her mouth, the wrinkles clustered around her blank gaze.

‘Words are difficult,’ Li Xuan said. ‘Say them, even if they are silly.’ This seemed to be the wrong response—Ru Lian looked more frustrated. ‘All that I want to say,’ she said, shaking her head, ‘is see you tomorrow. Does that make any sense to you?’

‘No, it doesn’t,’ Li Xuan said and they both began to laugh.

*

Li Xuan dawdled in town for a few hours, buying bags of water spinach and milk, along with a single cup of taro milk tea. She returned just as the sun was slipping away, orange light illuminating the wings of bats and the mouths of yawning calico cats. She creaked her flyscreen open, unstrapped her fanny pack from around her waist.

Nathan was still in the same position she had left him, blanket wrapped around his shoulders, watching Star Trek now. Only the photon torpedoes indicated that time had passed.

‘Here you go, xiao gui,’ she said, handing her grandson his tea.

Nathan perked up and instantly began slurping jelly, touched with simple delight.

‘You’re a legend, poh poh,’ he said.

Li Xuan sat next to him, combing her hands through the bits of hair standing up from his head. ‘Are you feeling better?’

‘A little,’ Nathan said, ‘Jono updated me on his new job. We can prob- ably move in together in a few months so I can stop burdening you.’

‘You’re not a burden. I only want you to take rubbish out sometime.’

‘Yeah, yeah,’ Nathan said. ‘Soooooo, how was your romantic lunch?

Fill me in!’ Li Xuan paused, remembering. She wanted to tell him everything, she wanted to tell him nothing.

A long time away, when I am old and ugly, I’m going to have a family of my own and there will be no secrets between us.

‘It go okay,’ she said simply. ‘But I think—we both change too much.’

She must have looked quite pathetic because, suddenly, her hands were being clasped in Nathan’s. It was a new feeling for Li Xuan—being the one in need of comfort.

‘Who needs a crusty old dude that doesn’t understand you,’ Nathan said confidently. ‘You have so many options now with online dating—there’s probably a Tinder for old Asians out there somewhere, I’ll find it for you! Even people like us can find love, y’know?’

This is an extract from Collisions: Fictions of the Future, an anthology of Australian writers of colour published by Liminal Magazine and Pantera Press, and available now at your local independent bookseller.