by Helen Jun
Issue: Elysium (Spring 2012)

A great city rose behind the clouds. All around, starlight rode on the galloping waves, whispering mysteries of the land. The silhouette of the harbor arched along the treetops and plunged with the boats.

I was silent as I imagined a blonde woman and a man, holding the hand of a small girl, leaving this harbor. What filled the time before that scene?

Our boat creaked as it touched the dock. When I stepped onto the pier, my heart soared, seeking the sweet-smelling earth. A bright yellow leaf fluttered to my feet.

“Welcome home,” my homeland murmured.

In the daylight, the city lay bare. I followed the streets to the place where paint peeled off the walls like molting insects, and patches of dirt were like bloody scabs on the lawn. Children ran barefoot, their faces dirty and emaciated.

“Hello,” I called out to one of the little ones, “Does Mrs. Hutchinson still work here?”

The boy glanced at me and said a hasty “yes” before he sprinted away, shrieking as he chased a ball with his friends.

I stepped inside. “Mrs. Hutchinson,” I said, offering a hand. “It’s nice to meet you.”

Her eyes were like gaping caves as she bolted upright. “You here to adopt a child?”

“Mrs. Hutchinson,” I watched her face, smiling hesitantly. “I’m Erica.”

She looked at me blankly. “Who…”

“I lived here seventeen years ago, until the Gardiners took me overseas. Remember? You had to feed me separately every night because I couldn’t swallow well.”

“I’ve had a lot of Erica’s.” Mrs. Hutchinson slouched back in her seat. “Hold on, I’ll bring out the files.”

She shuffled through the fading papers, one crumpled sheet after another. The faces of the children blurred together in her fingers.

“Here.” She handed me the yellowing paper.

The young girl clutched the hem of a ragged skirt, a rough hand pushing her forward. It was my face that smiled demurely behind the smudged fingerprints. I raked the picture for an answer: who was I?

Mrs. Hutchinson ushered me out of the orphanage, but I didn’t leave. It was hard to believe this was it. A boy squatted near me, peeling the wings off a struggling dragonfly. The children screamed and chased a ball until it burst; a small gaggle hurled rocks at a girl until she cried and lost their interest.

Perhaps there was no answer.

The path back to my hotel was lined with ginkgo trees, but the tears smeared the view into a yellow haze. The rancid smell of the fallen leaves stung my nose, but I walked on.

“You forgot this,” a young voice said behind me.

It was the girl the other children were bullying earlier; the dried tears made stripes on her face. I took the crumpled paper from her hands. “Thanks.”

“You’re pretty,” the girl peered up at me. “Are you a mother?”

I laughed. “No, why would you ask that? I’m a student.”

“Oh.” She made circles with her foot in the gravel. “You should be.”

“What’s your name?” I asked suddenly.

“Laurie,” she answered. “Where do you live?”

“The States,” I said. “I’m from here, though. The same building you’re from.” The certainty in my voice surprised me. “The place unsettled me. It’s not what I remember.”

“The orphanage is ugly.” Laurie said. “But you’re not.”

“Thank you.” I smoothed the little girl’s matted hair. “Neither are you.”

“Erica, right?” She pointed to the paper in my hands, and I nodded.

The orphanage with its molting walls visualized in front of me, mingled with Laurie’s past, present, and budding future. I saw the masked grief behind her intelligent face, and for that moment of compassion, she was me.

I held her small, rough hand and put my arm around her thin shoulders. “Erica?” Laurie said. “You should be a mother.”

Her eyes were bright. I responded, “I will.”

The city faded just as it appeared, vanishing behind the billowing clouds. I held a heart-shaped gingko leaf in my hand, a promise to return. But for now, I was whole— perhaps I had not come here to belong.

Sunlight saturated the air. The captain’s whistle spilled into the bright sky as we drifted homeward.