Lucky Seven


‘Please missis.’ Shuang stood at the door to the terrace.

‘Yes, Shuang?’ I turned towards her. It was raining outside. ‘Are you dry out there?’

‘Yes, missis.’ She waited.

‘Do you want something?’

‘Missis, a cup. Please.’

I looked at the frail seven-year old standing in my doorway, dark eyes fixed on me. I had taken her in after the earthquake. Her whole family had been killed. She wouldn’t come in the house, except to the outer rooms, and would only sleep outside. For now, while the good weather lasted, a makeshift tent in my enclosed garden provided shelter and security. Later in the year we would have to see.

‘What for?’ I was curious.

‘For Ai, missis, to collect water for her.’

I pointed at the tap. ‘There is water.’ My house boasted a piped supply.

She shook her head. ‘No, missis, he needs fresh water. From the sky.’ Her small hand raised upward, pointing.

I didn’t argue. I had become used to Shuang’s ways, her small, rigid beliefs. It seemed part of a defence mechanism for managing life and forgetting the disaster. The bird was part of it. I had tried to persuade her to let it free, but she said it was all she had. As she had lain in the rubble, the bird had alighted next to her and sung. It had saved her, she believed. I could not understand why the bird had stayed to be caught by one of the rescuers and placed in a bamboo cage, but Shuang was sure. ‘Ai will stay with me as long as I live,’ she had said.

I gave her an old cup, and she scampered off, placing the cup carefully on a stone, heedless of the rain. Then she went back to her shelter.


After all the problems back home and the break up with John, I wanted a different life. I had studied China for years, and when the country started opening up five years ago, I found myself a dilapidated house in a small town in the country. It had been the home of a local party member, a dignitary. They have all gone to the cities now, to industry and wealth, as do many of the young, so our town consists mainly of older people. A young girl like Shuang is a rarity, and so is well received. Her good nature also helps. She does small tasks, fetching and carrying, which she pursues with diligence. In return, she receives gifts of food, clothes and coins. She helps me with tasks to earn her keep and brings the food she is given to me and we eat together.

In truth, I love her companionship. I have few visitors, and although the townsfolk are friendly, to them I believe I remain an outsider with strange habits. One of my few luxuries is internet access provided via satellite, and that has engendered a great deal of curiosity.

‘But what is it for?’ asked Xiang-Li, my neighbour, who had glimpsed the coloured screen through my window. ‘Is it like a TV?’ She pronounced it the western way, ‘tee-vee’, which sounded comical amidst the complex tones of the local dialect, reminding me of my native Wales and its many adopted words. I had tried to explain to her, but seemingly failed, possibly because finding word equivalents in Chinese was difficult. But no doubt my words were passed on to her circle of friends and beyond. I was a focus of interest. Sometimes I asked for things in the local grocery shop that raised eyebrows, but the proprietor there, who called herself Mrs Toy, soon cottoned onto the fact that I’d pay a premium for something special, and her diligence in searching out sources was remarkable. After a while, I noticed that instead of the one special package with my name on, there were often two or three others, and Mrs Toy was always ready to quiz me on how a certain vegetable might be used and what meat it would go with. Presumably such information was passed on to my growing circle of fans. The specialities were not even ‘foreign’ in the true sense, mostly Chinese, but were produce that was little known in our isolated region.

The landslip that buried Shuang’s village, although triggered by an earthquake, was most likely the result of the massive earthworks and changes that had taken place around the new dams. Spoil had been dumped in heaps, watercourses changed, and the whole run-off of the rains had carved new gulleys and streams in the vicinity. It was the price of progress, I supposed.


It was the season of the Perseids, mid-August. Each night I sat out on the porch and gazed at the night sky, ablaze not only with stars, but also a silver rain of shooting stars. I would see the flickering candle in Shuang’s tent extinguish as she settled herself to sleep.

Shuang would often invite me for tea. She was always a serious child, but on these occasions especially so. She would have a small fire burning outside her tent, on which a tin cauldron boiled. Since the time she had borrowed the cup from me for Ai, she had acquired a fine set of her own. She made the tea solemnly, and poured it out, offering a plate of sweets made of chestnut paste. I enjoyed these interludes. Although we chattered and gossiped over our regular meals, here we spoke more seriously, about deeper things. She would talk about her family, her sisters and brothers, her friends.

‘I am the only one spared,’ she said. ‘I should not have been spared. Heaven will take me one day.’

‘You were lucky,’ I told her, ‘Make the most of your luck.’

‘No,’ she said, ‘I am unlucky, very unlucky.’

I disliked this pessimistic talk, and tried to lighten the mood. I worried what was going on in her seven-year old mind.

Shuang would allow Ai to fly free in the tent. I was worried the bird might escape. Although I felt it should be free, I was concerned about Shuang’s reaction should it do so.

‘Do not worry,’ she said as I fussed with the flap of cloth covering the doorway, ‘She will not leave me.’

Shuang’s candle went out and the garden was dark. The sky blazed. Almost at once, I was disturbed by a pattering sound, like rain. It was over as quickly as it had begun, and I could see no sign of wetness beyond the porch. I went out into the garden, and an insect stung my arm, so I hurried into the house. It was unusual to have insects this time of the season.

In the morning, I awoke to a bright sun. I realised I could not hear Shuang singing. I got up and looked out. The tent door was still pulled across. I slipped on a gown and walked over to Shuang’s small space. For the first time I saw she had made a garden of her own in a flower bed – some herbs, some wild flowers grew. I smiled.

‘Shuang!’ I called. There was no answer, so I gently pulled the cloth aside. I stepped back as a fluttering ball of feathers flew into my face and past me. I turned in shock as Ai, wings vibrating rapidly, rose and disappeared into the blue sky.

She had been wrong. The bird would escape, fly free. Poor Shuang, she would be heartbroken. But why was the bird loose in the tent? – she always put him back in his cage before she went to sleep.

‘Shuang darling – time to get up!’ I ducked my head into the tent and there she was, sleeping peacefully. Then I noticed the cage. The door hung open and the tiny wire lock seemed to be broken. It looked as if the wire had been cut by something. So that was why Ai had been free.

‘Shuang?’ She had not moved, and I was concerned. I went over and touched her cheek. Her eyelids flickered as I spoke again, this time with real concern. ‘Shuang, what is wrong? Are you ill?’

I slipped my hand under her head and lifted her as her eyes opened. She stared ahead. I reached for the cup containing rainwater which stood by the birdcage.

Her lips opened slightly, the lower lip drooping, her tongue lolling. I tipped water into her mouth and she coughed. He body shook, her limbs twitched violently and her eyes rolled upwards; strange grunts came from her throat. Was it some kind of fever? I had to fetch the doctor! I gently lowered her head back onto the pillow as her eyes focused once on mine, then became unseeing.

I became aware there was blood on my hand.

Then I noticed the tiny pencils of sunlight streaming down. Looking up, I saw perforations in the canvas roof. I looked at Shuang more closely. Just above her hairline was a circular mark. The skin was ringed with black, shrivelled back so I could see white bone beneath, and a hole, a hole neatly drilled through the bone. Her body shook with spasms once more, and then she lay still.

I knew what it was. That pattering – shooting stars! Tiny meteorites! Of all the impossible things to happen. And I had said she was lucky. No, I was wrong and she was right: she was unlucky. And she had been right about the other things: Heaven had indeed called her and Ai had not left her while she still truly lived.

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