Iridescence for the Soul
by Hallie Xu
I didn’t know this at the time, but that afternoon was the beginning of our planting.
My class had just finished our Red Scarf ceremony, and I found myself a little woozy. As a first-grader, I stood under a blazing sun for hours, reciting rehearsed chants until my throat parched and my temples tinged with sweat. As ceremonies go, this one didn’t deviate much from the others, laden with repeated Red traditions and symbolism that dulled once the novelty wore off. I looked down, observing how the collar of my white and blue uniform clashed conspicuously with the scarlet cloth laid over my shoulders and across my heart, bonding me to the Five-Starred Flag and to China itself. I shall henceforth not only be physically identical with our country but also share its past hardships, present endeavors, and future aspirations.
At least that was what Teacher Liang hoped we’d understand. Her eyes were narrow and focused, reverential toward the ceremonies. She quickly punished any giggling or distraction. I was only six, but she drilled her eyes through me and the other kids, commanding our every move as if we were pieces of machinery. A part of me knew, by rote, that I was supposed to march forward and follow whatever Teacher Liang said, but I couldn’t help but steal glances at a purple flower we passed, aching to touch its velvety petals. When Teacher Liang passed by my roll, my spine, on survival reflex, immediately straightened. This seemed to satisfy her, and I was spared to continue forward in an upright posture, powered by awkward tension.
Eventually, Teacher Liang dismissed students one by one. When she called my name, I stepped out of the formation and took neat steps until I was out of eyesight. Only then did I allow my spine to relax. I’d been a wild horse penned-up, and now I was free to roam for a moment.
"The supposedly sacred Red Scarf hung sloppily around her neck; she used it as a sweat handkerchief."
I was about to run toward the flower when I saw Gwendolyn digging by the Bamboo Grove. She was easy to miss — a child kneeling in the dirt, her bent torso hidden behind the tall grass, prodding the soil with her hands. The supposedly sacred Red Scarf hung sloppily around her neck; she used it as a sweat handkerchief. The Bamboo Grove wasn’t really a grove at all — it was a messy potpourri of plants, which included several bamboo trees tall enough to cast an emerald shade. Gwendolyn situated herself in an area vulnerable to the sun, and the way she dug with her bare hands was peculiarly captivating — how she paid no regard to the bees circling her head, the mud under her nails, or the dirty fingerprints on her scarf.
I stepped into the shade. “What are you doing?” I asked.
Gwendolyn didn’t respond. She pulled out a bag of Rainbow Ropes and ripped open the package. She took out the candy, cradling it in her palm as if it was a rolled-up baby snake, before setting it at the bottom of the hole she had dug.
“Saving that for lunch?” We didn’t always prioritize hygiene. I reached for the candy, but Gwendolyn pushed my hand away.
“Nope. I’m planting.” She looked at me for the first time, her eyes twinkling with excitement.
“You can’t.” I didn’t need a degree in botany to know that growing trees from Rainbow Ropes was absurd.
“Yes, I can!” She turned towards me, her short ponytail flinging against her head in one quick flair. “I’m planting a special tree,” she told me, “You don’t understand.”
Soon, she was immersed in her own world again. I tilted my head, trying to grasp any special qualities about the scene before me, but all I saw were sweat, soil, and a piece of dirty candy. I watched Gwendolyn cup soil in her palms and shower it over the candy, letting the dirt trickle through her fingers like raindrops until all traces of rainbow were tucked beneath the freshly churned soil. She was right: I couldn’t comprehend the planting at all, but I was captivated by her actions — by her. I felt something itch inside me, something like the first drop of melted snow rolling down from the high branches and crackling against leaves, echoing crisply throughout the forest.
Gwendolyn’s unfathomable excitement convinced me that she possessed a different pair of eyes, one that allowed her to see a world that others couldn’t. I wondered what life would be like if I saw the same world she saw, one discovered through rose-colored prisms and adorned with layers of iridescent glow. Wouldn’t that be much more interesting than the monochromatic, everlasting red?
Before I could allow myself to ponder these questions, the shrill of Teacher Liang’s whistle cut through the tranquil air. Startled and flustered, I stepped out of the emerald shade of bamboo and ran back to class. I made sure not to let my thoughts become too much of a distraction during the lecture on two-digit subtraction.
I had met Gwendolyn for the first time at the new student orientation, two months before the planting. It was late August, a time still warm in Shenzhen. Teacher Liang greeted us from her lectern at the front of the classroom, elevated by one step. Formality hung in the air like incense in a temple; we sat up straight, our chins up, attentive. Teacher Liang smiled with satisfaction, concluding that “maturity indeed comes with growth.” I wouldn’t say it was natural growth that prompted maturity; weeks before school, my parents had instructed me to transform into a model student. According to them, elementary school signaled the beginning of my life-long competition with my peers, and the first victory was winning good impressions from teachers. They drilled orders into my brain, restricting my every move like a steel scaffold until I couldn’t tell what their intentions were and what were my own.
The 48 students in my class lined up in a single file. I was Number 12. Teacher Liang’s projector ran out of power, and this hiccup allowed us to drop the professional persona and engage in small talk. Just as I resigned myself to an empty table, Number 11 turned around and stared at me. She was slightly shorter, with tanned skin and wide-open eyes. She had talked to Numbers 10 and 9 before. My heart sped up, mind racing to evaluate my appearance as my hands straightened the edges of my shirt.
“Hi?” I tried.
She kept staring, but her gaze was nothing judgmental. The moment was just verging into awkwardness when she finally replied.
Before I could say anything, she turned back and resumed her conversation. I was shocked, but the feeling was different from receiving an unexpected gift or being jump scared. It was more personal, as if something had just bloomed right beside my sternum, sending a wave of warmth throughout my body. I had never thought of myself as beautiful. My grandmother used “beautiful” to describe some of my friends or the girl next door, but never me. Could I be cute? Maybe. Pretty? Sure, when I wasn’t all sweaty from climbing trees. But beautiful? That adjective was too elegant for me to wear, and for the most part that was fine. I’d accepted that beauty wasn’t for me and didn’t yearn for it, but hearing the word roll off her tongue so effortlessly flabbergasted me. I felt like a kid who had stumbled upon the jewelry mine buried deep inside her mother’s closet, a kid who had always secretly adored the treasures it held.
Number 11 hadn’t introduced herself, disregarding the pleasantries of social collisions so commonplace in our world. It was like she stood in the middle of a rapid current that rushed me towards maturity, her hand outreached to offer the assurance and sincerity I craved but never received from anyone. It was strangely comforting, but that would be one of the less-strange things I’d find out about Gwendolyn Lin. In an afternoon of our eighth week of school I watched her plant in the Bamboo Grove, and henceforth we formed something like a friendship.