Mei-Ying, the Heavens Are Crying

The winning story in the Youth Short Story Category of the 2022 Amazon Canada First Novel Award

Caitlin Mah at the 2022 Amazon Canada First Novel Award ceremony.

i. wind on water, july 8th:

Mei-Ying’s forearms rest on the sides of the sink, splotched blue like the summer sky. He’s cleaning up dinner—or is supposed to be, anyway. The voices from the radio on the wooden fold-out table leak into the kitchen. Mei-Ying listens with one ear. It’s the same as always, the singular frequency available in the concrete box that is the apartment’s fourteenth floor. Tonight: scattered news about Article 27 covered with a curtain of radio static, and 危險遊戲. His mother used to play that song. When they stood next to each other on the metro he could hear it pouring out of her headphones that never fit quite right.

No, you don’t have to. Mei-Ying takes Jun’s bowl and rinses it out in the sink. I don’t want to keep you; it’ll get too dark—unsafe to take the train.

I can stay. I’ll just sleep on the couch. No classes tomorrow anyways. Jun has one hand on his jacket, which is draped over the kitchen chair. He moves to help with the dishes.

Mei-Ying looks over his shoulder at Jun. Something beyond a brief worry begs him to let his classmate stay. It’s getting worse—they both know—but Mei-Ying has not yet felt the blinding sting of tear gas. No one has shouted at him, and he hasn’t practiced aiming laser pointers at security cameras. Nor does he want to. Because then he’ll have to be there when his friends shatter windows or kick tear gas canisters back at the police while backed by a sea of trembling umbrellas.

Jun is adamant about doing all of that. He calls it his cause and looks down upon anyone who doesn’t see things the same way. Still, he often asks to come over to the apartment to talk about what’s going on outside—something Mei-Ying’s never said a word about. Maybe he’s a good listener, someone neutral. But then again, Jun hates neutral; he thinks it’s something for people to call themselves when they don’t care enough. The fact that he always stays is peculiar. But Mei-Ying doesn’t mind.

I guess, he says softly. I’m sorry about the couch. It’s not good for your back.

It’s not like you have anywhere better for me to sleep. It’s fine, I won’t complain.

Anywhere better. Mei-Ying wonders if Jun remembers when their parents would go on vacation together. Mei-Ying and Jun would always split the pull-out couch. Jun would give Mei-Ying all the blankets because he was always cold and Jun was always warm. Mei-Ying certainly remembers lying awake with outstretched fingers inches away from Jun’s face, feeling the feathers of Jun’s breath against his fingertips, slow wind dancing in the humid night.

ii. the heavens cry

Jun sits on the couch, listening to the sky. He’s contemplating opening up the balcony’s sliding doors to have a drink outside when Mei-Ying steps into the room. Behind him, bed sheets drag over discarded newspapers; his hair sticks up at angles Jun thought were physically impossible.

Just came to check on you. Mei-Ying yawns, white sheets falling around slender shoulders. You doing okay, Jun?

Jun jumps up and hurries over, almost tripping over the pile of his belongings on the floor.

Are you okay, Mei? He traces a finger along the hem of the bedsheets. You’re looking sort of pale.

There’s a slap of rain on the glass doors. Wind, Jun mouths. He looks at Mei-Ying’s collarbones, as if seeking an explanation for the weather. His gaze traces Mei-Ying’s forearms. They are something sacred; they have wind in them. He can tell by the bruises. Jun cannot remember seeing Mei-Ying’s forearms without them. He was there in the early months of their fifth summer when Mei-Ying tripped on untied shoelaces. Skin fell away to pearlescent bone, the wind rushed in, and licked at the blood dripping from his left knee. Mei-Ying was to be a sickly child.

Don’t look at me like that, Jun—

Let’s go stand on the balcony.

It’s raining.

Mei-Ying doesn’t really mind rain, though. The air outside is cool, wet, and hungry. They trace their hands along the railing and send droplets of water falling into the night. Mei-Ying is wearing Jun’s jacket, grabbed off the kitchen chair to save the bed sheets from the storm. He sneezes, feeling Jun’s gaze tickle his ribs as his torso convulsed.

You want to go back inside? Jun’s still looking.

No. Let’s stay. I can’t sleep, anyway.

He looks back up at the bead of rainwater making its way down the curve of Jun’s cheek. It’s the same way he used to look up at Jun at the bakery near their elementary school. Mei-Ying’s mother would take them there every Friday to buy bread and pastries for the coming week. He was always too nervous and overwhelmed by the bright lights and shining cellophane to say anything. He would whisper what he wanted to Jun, who would happily report to the girl at the counter. Mei-Ying would watch to make sure Jun said the right thing, even though they always ordered the same pastries: a slice of airy 馬拉糕 for Mei-Ying and a fresh 蛋撻 for Jun.

The bakery’s still there. Mei-Ying bikes past it to get groceries sometimes, but the windows he used to press his face against are now boarded up. Barely legible graffiti covers the plywood—a distant echo of the messy chalk scrawls on the daily specials board inside. Those words are all over the city, vulgar and accusatory, but Mei-Ying knows why they’re there. Once, Mei-Ying found a can of spray paint in Jun’s bag and confronted him about it. Jun, never one to pass up an opportunity to explain his beliefs, simply looked at him, then removed his shirt, revealing a malignant red bruise on his shoulder. Mei-Ying’s lecture died in his throat, and he looked down at his own arms, marked by blue bruises—like mortal weakness.

Such exchanges are few and far in between; Mei-Ying hates having them. They’re at peace on the balcony, talking about all-nighters, the best seat in the lecture hall, and Jun’s horribly verbose essays. They’ve had this conversation many times before, sitting near café windows or at the pavilion near the archery club. But it’s different hearing Jun’s voice in the early hours of the morning. They’re avoiding the questions that neither of them know how to ask. He wants to apologize. Maybe something like: Jun, I’m sorry I ever said anything about you going to the protests. I know I said it was wrong to fight that way, but what they’re doing to you—

It’s too late. Mei-Ying has been silent through it all, and to Jun that said everything. He wipes more rain off the rail, frowning as raindrops fall into the humid alley below them. Mei-Ying zips up the jacket. It hurts to see Jun, whose ideals stay unwavering amidst calamity. Jun, who taught Mei-Ying what it means to stand up for himself.

—whose arm is around Mei-Ying’s waist now; Jun, who is looking into the distance, away.

It’s raining, Jun. But I—

Mei-Ying manages, before losing the rest of the phrase in the rain.

Let’s go back inside, then.

Too much rain?

Jun’s arm is still there, and Mei-Ying is looking out, looking away.

Do you think it’s sad? It’s like the heavens are crying, Mei-Ying.

As if on cue, the rain picks up, tossing around the clothesline Mei-Ying had stretched out for laundry. The empty plastic clothespins beat against the lattice roof. There’s a distant, high-pitched whine of fireworks, mixed in with the piercing wail of sirens. Light throws itself against the cramped buildings below, sprawls in the sky above. They ring out with the same characteristic scream, but Mei-Ying knows only one is a cry for help.

Let’s go back inside.

Mei-Ying says it again.

iii. the wind rises

Mei-Ying sits at the edge of the bed, breathing. The air tastes like dried rose petals. He’s still wearing Jun’s jacket, though it’s slipped down to expose his shoulders. Down the hall, Mei-Ying can hear the gentle roar of the hairdryer. Jun’s hair was soaked through. Mei-Ying is not sure what he’s waiting for, or why. But he’s waiting, staring at the postcard tacked onto the wall. It’s a well-framed shot of Visby Cathedral, taken near the harbour. A line of Swedish text states the date of the church’s inauguration: July 27, 1225. Mei-Ying remembers Jun showing him photos of the altarpiece and pulpit; he had suggested that Mei-Ying could practice sketching with the photos he took. Mei-Ying replied that he would rather be there in person to see the cathedral and how the sun touches it.

There’s a hesitant knock at the door. Jun whispers into the soft, sweet darkness of Mei-Ying’s bedroom:

Mei? You still awake?

In response, he slips out of the jacket, leaving it soaked on the bed. He opens the door. Jun. Shouldn’t you go to sleep?

I will. Soon. How are you?

His casual inquiry carries a careful tone, much less brash than his normal greetings. Mei-Ying opens the door a bit wider, the triangle of light on the floor advances. He murmurs a vague welcome, then turns to the side and sneezes, complaining about the cold. Jun steps inside, and Mei-Ying returns to his spot at the edge of the bed, lower lip bitten into a shy smile. Jun crosses the floor to sit next to him. He folds his jacket up and places it on the floor.

Cold? Mei, you’re hot. Your face is flushed, too—

Jun presses the back of his hand to Mei-Ying’s forehead.

I don’t feel like I have a fever. Mei-Ying rubs his eyes, yawns, and points towards the first-aid box on his desk. Check if you want.

Jun obliges. The first aid box is actually a biscuit tin from Strasbourg. He struggles with the fancy metal latch before pulling out a digital thermometer. He kneels at the edge of the bed.

Open your mouth.

Jun slips it under Mei-Ying’s tongue as soon as he parts his lips. His hand rests under Mei-Ying’s jaw, holding his chin up. Mei-Ying raises his eyes from the thermometer to Jun’s face—Jun’s lips, really. They are parted slightly. The metal is cold in his mouth and he’s tempted to work his tongue around it. Jun’s hand, although comforting, also tickles. He reaches up to grab at it, wraps his fingers around Jun’s forearm and tugs. Jun makes a sound of protest and yanks the thermometer out. It beeps a split second after. Mei-Ying sits up higher to look at the number on the display. It’s normal, just as he predicted. He falls back onto the bed, breathing hard.

I was holding my breath, Mei-Ying mutters.

Jun says nothing. He takes a seat next to Mei-Ying, looks down at his classmate’s silhouette, and smiles, looks at the postcard on the wall: Visby. The one from Strasbourg should be next to it, but he can’t see it in the darkness.

Do you hate that I’m gone sometimes?

His voice cuts the gossamer silence. Mei-Ying rolls over, and Jun stares at the other boy’s back.

I never said that.

But do you?

No. I understand— Because I w—

Mei-Ying sits up suddenly, eyes widening.

Jun looks back, imploring him to go on. But Mei-Ying doesn’t really know what he meant to say beyond that. He could say he hated watching Jun dab at the blood on his face or retch in the sink because of tear gas. He’s wanted to say these things for a long time—wanted to join Jun for a while. But looking at Jun, all Mei-Ying sees is the boy from fourteen summers ago:

It was mid-August when they ate 龍眼 to cool off.They took turns puncturing dragon skin with Jun’s father’s pocket-knife. There was a puff of air—a small pop—as Jun pierced the skin and dug into flesh. If Mei-Ying held the fruit close to his ear, he could hear the wind leave its body. He looked at the bandage on his knee and then to the glimmering black pit, the dragon’s eye between Jun’s lips.

It’s okay. Don’t say it.

I’ll say it— I want—

Jun exhales, loud enough to startle Mei-Ying out of finishing his sentence.

You don’t have to say it. I understand, okay? You’re allowed to feel that way. I won’t hate you for it.

Mei-Ying has rolled back over onto his stomach, looking up at Jun, the boy from fourteen summers ago. The boy who had knees scarred from the pavement and gashes on his forearms from when Mei-Ying flung his mother’s paper fan at him. And those marks are still there, opened again, fresh. That’s all he sees. And yet the marks, like Jun, are new: no longer is Jun the boy that walked home without an umbrella because Mei-Ying asked to borrow it. Nor is he the boy who let matches burn down to his fingertips because he thought it was funny when his mother chided him in a panic. He’s cold; he’s burnt. Jun’s like Mei-Ying. To this Jun, Mei-Ying can find the courage to tell him he’s wrong.

I want to be with you, Jun. I mean, when you leave with the others to the streets I get all scared. I’ve seen what they’ve done to you. So if this is what I have to do so I never have to see it again I’ll—

Ah. Jun’s reaction is quiet, but Mei-ying can see him suppressing a pained smile. So that’s what it was.

He reclines on the bed as well, parallel to Mei-Ying and staring up at the ceiling. Mei, you wouldn’t last out there. You’ve seen me—

It’s true. Mei-Ying thought Jun was strong. In some ways, he still thinks that. And you. Jun continues. I don’t want you to get hurt. You’re—

Jun wants to finish his sentence, but his words are caught at the back of his throat. He’s looking at Mei-Ying, watching his shoulder blades twitch under pale skin like trapped wings. Maybe that’s where all the wind stays; Mei-Ying is a flightless, fragile bird.

Wind, Mei-Ying mouths. He understands; it’s the reason he never said anything to Jun in the first place. Wind makes one weak that way, when it gets under one’s skin and takes rest in delicate bone marrow. It eats away from the inside, a guilty secret, unatonable.

Wind. Jun makes a noise of acknowledgement. It’s the best way they can both explain it and leave it alone at the same time. His hand drifts upwards, coming to rest under Mei-Ying’s chin.

Mei-Ying doesn’t push Jun’s arm out of the way this time. He thinks of Jun’s postcard from Visby, and how he wrote back to tell Jun about his mother’s peach tree bearing swollen fruit in the backyard. He promised he would save the best peach for Jun. And then Jun sent another postcard from Strasbourg: Not much time to write back. Raining. Please tell me everything. He never saved the peach because Jun wasn’t back soon enough. But he kept the postcards. The one from Strasbourg is in his backpack; a promise to eventually tell Jun everything. But not now, and not like this with Jun’s fingertips under his chin and thumb at his lips. Sometimes, Mei-Ying thinks Jun could kiss the wind out of him. So he closes his eyes and inhales sharply. And wait. Then Jun’s hand is gone, and his eyes are open again, lips still parted.

Why did you—

You—that face. You looked uncomfortable.

I wasn’t.

Do you want me to—

Mei-Ying nods and Jun slides his hand back to where it was before. He folds his fingers around Jun’s wrist and tugs. There’s a brief moment of resistance from both of them, before Jun realizes what Mei-Ying wants, and he’s tugging too, pulling Mei-Ying toward him. His hand, in the same place, tilts Mei-Ying’s chin towards him. Mei-Ying’s fingers are still around Jun’s wrist when their lips meet. His other hand reaches hesitantly for Jun’s shoulder and he shivers as his fingers touch bare skin.

Mei-Ying is warm, like he was fourteen summers ago when he first looked at Jun’s lips and the dragon’s eye between them. It feels like a different, distant summer, far away from the thunder of the city.

Mei-Ying feels the wind leave him as they pull apart. Jun smiles, and the flush on Mei-Ying’s cheeks makes its way down to his neck. He’s lightheaded, but it’s different from the times he stood up too fast and plummeted to the ground. The last licks of wind stay, but the rest of him is falling away.

I was holding my breath, Mei-Ying whispers.

You should sleep. It’s late.

No classes tomorrow. But Mei-Ying obliges anyway, sliding under the covers and repositioning himself to face the door. He can hear the distant buzz of the radio in the kitchen, reminding him of the unfinished dishes. The hallway light is bright. Mei-Ying was never able to sleep with the lights on. He hopes Jun will shut the door on his way out. But Jun hasn’t left yet. Mei-Ying turns around to find Jun lying next to him, looking at the ceiling. The air still tastes like rose petals.

Can I stay?

Do you want to? Mei-Ying feels rude, answering a question with another question. Especially when he already has an answer for himself.

Only if you—

I do.

And it’s decided now that Jun’s going to stay, so Mei-Ying lies awake with outstretched fingers inches away from Jun’s face. He can see Jun’s skin so clearly now—they almost match, wounds from the wind and the water: forearms splotched blue like the summer sky, forearms licked red by heaven’s breath, tears—

He can feel their breaths, slow wind dancing in the humid night.

Caitlin Mah is a seventeen-year-old student from Vancouver. Her works have appeared in print and online, and she was recently nominated for a Claudia Ann Seaman Award in Fiction. When not writing, she is planning trips to Italy and dreaming of owning a cat café.

As the winner of the 2022 Amazon Canada First Novel Award in the Youth Short Story category, Caitlin received a $5,000 cash prize and a virtual mentorship workshop with an editor of The Walrus.

Caitlin Mah