Lijun and the Willow
Chapter 1 – Signs
Lijun's father began avoiding her shortly after her mother's funeral. She noticed him flinching and looking away from her whenever they shared a room, but there was always someone on hand, some Aunty This or Uncle That, to lead her away and fill her head with chit-chat until her worries slipped her mind. The days rolled on by, and the tide of visitors slowly ebbed away, until, eventually, there were just the two of them left in the house.
After an uncomfortable few days together, her father announced that it was time for him to return to work. Each morning he would make a point of leaving the house before Lijun awoke. When she got up, she would find a bowl of cereal and a packed lunch waiting for her on the kitchen table, along with five pounds in an envelope and a scribbled note. The sentiments expressed in the note were always the same: Be good. Take care of yourself. Don't lose the money. Don't be late for school. On weekends the bit about school would be replaced with: "I'll be working today - sorry."
Lijun was often awake when her father came home from work. She would lay in bed, wrapped within the darkness of her room, and listen to the rattle of his key in the door, the creak of the loose floorboard in the hallway, the clatter of pans in the kitchen or the murmur of T.V. in the lounge. During those time she often wanted to go down and talk to him, or, at least, to see him, but she always felt too timid. Their relationship was like the shortcut through the flower beds in the park; it was a quick way to get to school that many kids took advantage of, but Lijun always felt too intimidated by the wooden signpost that warned people to ‘KEEP AWAY!' in angry, drippy, red letters to follow them. Getting up early and coming home late was her father's way of telling her to ‘keep away'.
Lijun knew why her father was avoiding her. It was because she looked so much like her mum. Everyone said so. An uncle whose name she couldn't remember once observed that she had inherited only two things from her father – the colour of her eyes (green) and her surname (Jones). Before her mum had died, people used to give her funny looks when she was out and about with her father. It used to amuse her to imagine them thinking to themselves "'he can't be her dad – can he? He's too, well, white!' Of course, she never went anywhere with her father any more.
So Lijun would remain in bed when she heard her father return home each night, feeling frustrated and sad and just plain weird. She would listen to him moving about downstairs until she fell asleep. Then, when she slept, she invariably dreamed.
Ever since her mum had died, Lijun had been bothered by a single reoccurring dream: she stood before a tree. It had long, lazy, heavy branches that drooped down towards the earth, and as much as she might squint, she could not see past them. The tree was framed by a deep midnight sky. Silver light glimmered from behind the branches, and Lijun somehow knew that it came up from the knotted roots which encircled the base of the tree.