At last, he shakes his head again. No. It’s too dangerous, Fei. You wouldn’t be able to handle it. I’m already going to have my work cut out for me keeping myself alive. I can’t allow myself to worry about you the whole time.
I won’t be a burden! I insist. I can help you.
Now he looks amused. How? Will you win the line keeper over by drawing him a picture?
I sigh in irritation. Clap your hands , I tell him.
He stares in understandable confusion. I gesture impatiently, and with a shrug, he claps three times. The sounds are short and loud.
Now do it again , I say, just before turning around. I wait and hear nothing. After several seconds pass, I look back and glare. You didn’t clap.
He looks a little surprised but shrugs. What’s the point?
Just do it , I insist. I turn my back to him, and this time he claps. I face him once more. You just clapped three times.
His face is understandably puzzled at this exercise, but he doesn’t yet seem to grasp that anything unusual is happening. So? That’s what I did before.
Then clap a different number of times, and I’ll tell you the amount. Seeing his baffled look, I add, Do it .
He claps four times, and I tell him the number. Then two. Then seven. The last time, he doesn’t clap at all, and when I turn around, his eyes are impossibly wide.
You didn’t clap that time , I say.
How are you doing this? he asks.
I steel myself, working up the courage to state what I can barely believe myself. I can hear the sounds—they’re caused when you clap. I don’t understand it, but somehow my hearing has returned. I hear this. I hear all sorts of things.
The idea is so ludicrous, so beyond our everyday experience, that Li Wei can’t even try to take it seriously. He looks at me like we’re children again, caught up in a game. It’s some kind of trick. Come on, Fei. Tell me how you’re really doing it.
It’s not a trick! I tell him. It’s been going on for almost two days, and I don’t understand it. That’s why I was so distracted earlier when your father died. Li Wei . . . you’re the first person I’ve told. You must believe me.
He scrutinizes me intently. It’s impossible , he says, though his expression isn’t so certain. Hearing is gone for us.
Not for me , I say.
Why just you then?
I wish I knew. . . . You can’t even begin to imagine what this has been like. The burden of carrying this secret is catching up with me, and I think Li Wei is beginning to realize this. His expression softens, filling with an affection I haven’t seen in him in a long time. Out of habit, he reaches for me, wanting to comfort me like he might have in our childhood.
I nearly let him, but the importance of what’s at stake enables me to push aside my own desires. Stepping back, I try to look tough. Look , I say, believe me or not, but the point is, I can help you on this trip. Maybe I can communicate with the line keeper. I can certainly help in other ways. I pick up a small stone on the path’s side and hand it to Li Wei. Throw it at one of these trees. I turn around again and wait. After a pause, I hear a sharp sound off to my left. When I face him again, I point in that direction. There. You threw it over there.
It’s impossible , he repeats. But I can see in his face that, despite whatever reason is telling him otherwise, he’s daring to believe my story. How? How did this happen? Fei, you must have some idea!
I don’t , I say. I really don’t. But it seems to be here to stay, and as long as I’ve got it, it can be helpful. If I can hear where you just threw the stone, I’ll be able to hear when stones are falling on the climb down.
His breath catches as understanding hits him, and for the first time in our acquaintance, he is at a loss for words. At last, he lifts his hands to speak. Perhaps . . . perhaps you might be useful on this trip after all.
WHEN I RETURN TO THE dormitory later that night, I’m certain that everyone will notice my nervousness and excitement, but much like my hearing, the storm of emotions churning inside is apparent only to me. The other apprentices who went to the funeral have returned, and everyone is preparing for bed. I’m certain if Zhang Jing had still been in my room, she would have noticed something was amiss. But my sister is on the other side of the school, with the servants.
I change for bed and slip under the covers dutifully, just like all the other girls in my room. Darkness descends, lit only by peeps of moonlight shining through the edges of the blinds. Soon my roommates fall into sleep, and the room is filled with the soft sounds of what I’ve come to recognize as breathing. Sometimes I find that sound oddly soothing, but tonight I’m too anxious to give it much thought. I have hours to wait until I can spring into action, and my mind is spinning with all the things that can go wrong on the journey I’m about to embark upon with Li Wei.
It took some time for us to come up with a plan. Neither of us was sure if anyone would try to stop us when we left. It isn’t that climbing down is forbidden; it’s just that no one has ever really attempted to do it. Both of us are valued for different reasons: I am valued for my artistic skill set, and he is valued because of the village’s burning need to mine more metals. It’s possible others might prevent us from leaving simply to keep us in the workforce. Leaving under cover of darkness will be our best chance of escape.
That will make our descent even more dangerous, but the moon is full and bright tonight. We will get our start by its light and be far enough down by sunrise that no one can stop us. Around that time, most villagers will still be getting up and preparing for the day, walking to the center to read the record. My absence will be noticed before Li Wei’s, but it seems unlikely the masters will guess where I’ve gone.