Chen Liko tugged at the yoke, signaling the old gray water buffalo to stop. The animal snorted and pointed his horns to the ground.
"That's the last row for today, Old Gray. Tomorrow maybe we will finish the job, eh?"
The animal raised his head up and down with pleasure as his young master rubbed him hard on the neck.
Liko pulled a handkerchief from his back pocket and wiped away the sweat that had trickled into his eyebrows. He leaned over, unhooked the lines from the yoke, and dropped the heavy wooden plow into the dark, rich soil where it would stay until the next day's work. Tired but satisfied, he slapped Old Gray on the backside with his stick.
"Back to the shed with you."
Some of the villagers were already walking back to Tanching, the large square boxes strapped to their shoulders hanging in front of them, empty now of the hundreds of young rice plants that had filled them that morning. Liko's eyes scanned the watery rice paddies in the distance, then stopped on a figure still bent over in the murky water. Kwan Mei Lin seemed tireless, thrusting green rice shoots into the mud below the water.
Liko was grateful for her presence. Any moment of the day he could search for her and draw pleasure just knowing she was next to him in the fields of Tanching, far from the awful prison life she had endured two years before.
Mei Lin stood then and waved at him. He waved back and pointed toward her family's cowshed.
The old cowshed was on the hill behind her house, and during spring planting Mei Lin often met him there to help him bed down Old Gray for the night.
The sun was setting behind him as he walked, casting a warm orange glow over the otherwise dull cement houses and chicken yards of Tanching Village. Mei Lin's house was the first one in from the sugarcane fields. He let the rope slacken as he led the water buffalo behind the Kwans' chicken house and carefully picked his path up the hill so the creature wouldn't trample the family's large vegetable garden.
He glanced behind him before going inside. Mei Lin was already at her house below the sloping garden. She would change out of her wet shoes and meet him soon.
Liko enjoyed the coolness of the little cowshed, with its familiar smells of fresh straw and grain and shafts of light that pierced through the wall's bamboo slats. He turned the large animal around, backed him into his stall, and closed the gate.
Old Gray pawed the ground, anxious to be rid of the yoke.
"In a minute, old man, in a minute."
Liko leaned over the water bucket by the wall and splashed his face and arms, washing away the day's hard work and sweat. He pulled his shirt collar up to his face and wiped it dry.
Turning, he saw Mei Lin. Her black shoulder-length hair caught the sun's rays as she stood in the doorway, holding out a long-handled rice bag in one hand—probably his dinner. She was as thin and delicate as a dove on the outside, but her spirit was as strong as Old Gray. Her smile brought a rush of warmth into his chest.
"Mei Lin!" Liko took her hand and led her inside, then took both of her hands in his. "These beautiful hands are waterlogged."
Mei Lin wrinkled her nose at him and pulled her hands away. "You should see my feet. I can't wait until the water warms up. My toes are wrinkled and numb!"
"It's bad for your feet to stand in water all day."
"Now you sound like Doctor Chen instead of Pastor Chen," Mei Lin teased.
Liko smiled down at her and brushed the hair back from her cheek. "Perhaps you would prefer to marry Doctor Chen instead?"
"I'm planning to marry Chen Liko, not his occupation or title," she answered.
"Ah, now Ping would soundly rebuke you for your 'poisonous Western thinking,'" Liko said.
Liko searched her face in the darkness, glad for this time of day when they could be together. "Let's bed down Old Gray. Then we can talk."
Mei Lin gave Old Gray the bucket of clean water by the wall, leaning over the stall gate to grab the stale water bucket from the stall. She hauled the old water outside to her grandmother's garden and dumped it over the row of growing cabbages, then walked down the hill to her courtyard to refill the bucket at the courtyard pump.
Liko, meanwhile, grabbed the wooden mallet from the nail on the shed wall, then opened Old Gray's stall. He skillfully tapped the wooden pins out of the side of the yoke, and the heavy wooden under-collar shifted to the ground. Old Gray shook his sides with delight and snorted. Liko hoisted the collar and the other separate pieces onto their large wall hooks.
After returning the fresh water bucket to the wall, Mei Lin used an old cracked rice bowl to scoop fresh grain into the feeding trough. She scratched Old Gray between his horns. "Now you're earning your keep, aren't you, Old Gray?"
When she turned, Liko was smiling at her, waiting to shut the gate. "Don't I get scratched between the ears for helping?"
Mei Lin smiled. "Maybe." She dipped her hands into the water and then shook them dry.
"Ready?" Liko asked, suddenly serious. Lately Mei Lin seemed to be hiding something behind those beautiful eyes. He hoped tonight to find out what it was.
* * *
Mei Lin nodded and waited as Liko pulled the lantern down from the wall. She brushed his arm as they walked through the door together, and her stomach fluttered into her throat.
You're still a love-sick schoolgirl, Mei Lin chided herself.
Liko took her hand, and in unspoken agreement they walked behind the shed to their favorite spot. The field workers were gone now, most of them preparing evening meals.
Liko had never wanted to be a field worker, but he had replaced his father in both the field and the pulpit after Pastor Chen's death two years ago. Mei Lin was proud of the way he shouldered the responsibility for his mother and for his father's expanding church.
They were the perfect team. When it wasn't spring planting or harvest, Mei Lin spent her free afternoons evangelizing throughout Tanching. Liko taught on weekends. The Gospel was like a newly discovered stream of cool water, wending its way throughout the parched village. Everyone was eager to drink its sweetness—everyone but the cadre and Old One Tooth, the village fortune-teller.
Their small house church of Tanching was now divided into three smaller cell groups. Liko headed one group, Mei Lin's father a second, and Liko's mother the third. Their dream was to start a training school for evangelists, but they needed teaching materials.
When they came to the rice paddies just beyond the cowshed, Mei Lin and Liko slipped off their shoes and rolled up their pant legs. Leaving their shoes behind, they carefully walked across one of the slippery ridges that separated the watery rice paddies.
Liko led the way off the path and into the cold water.
"Your neighbor will have his rice planted up here by the end of the week," he said, wading in water up to his shins.
"Then we'll meet in the cowshed again, like last winter?" asked Mei Lin, her voice shivery. She rolled her pant legs a little higher above the knees.
"Maybe. Until the new rice shoots are well rooted."
Slowly they walked through the paddy, cold wet mud squishing between their toes with each step, making their way to a large rock that jutted out of the water. Mei Lin jumped easily onto the rock and then sat beside Liko on its edge, splashing the shallow water between her muddy toes until they were clean.
Mei Lin loved the view from the rock. Facing the cowshed, she could barely see the top of her house. To the far right, the sun set behind sugarcane fields and rice paddies that went on for miles, as far as they could see, up the distant mountain. On the left, the small houses, gardens, and winding paths of Tanching were alive with people watering their gardens and finishing the day's work while neighbor children congregated to play.
Liko moved up higher on the rock, and Mei Lin scooted up beside him, pulling their supper and thermoses out of her rice bag.
"I fried lotus roots last night."
She handed him steamed vegetables, fried lotus roots, and a vegetable and egg spring roll.
"You take good care of this farmer, don't you."
"I try." She laid their rice bowls, chopsticks, and food items on top of the bag. "And you're only a temporary farmer."
Liko hunched forward, resting his elbows on his knees. "I've been wondering about that today ... wondering if I'm a temporary farmer or a temporary preacher."
"You're a temporary farmer," said Mei Lin confidently. "And a full-time preacher, with great potential to be a doctor."
Liko smiled. "And, don't forget, a future husband." He took her hands in his. "Let's pray. God, we thank you for another day of good blessings and good work," he said sincerely.
"And thank you for giving Fu Yatou your favor with Cadre Fang," said Mei Lin.
"Yes, Lord," agreed Liko. "We ask for Fu Yatou's identity card to be issued this summer so that she can go to school next fall. And we ask you to free Mei Lin's time from the house so that she will once again be able to do your missionary work in the village."
Mei Lin hesitated. She hadn't told Liko about the new opportunity that had come her way.
The rice paddies climbing the hills in the distance caught her attention. Their watery glaze reflected the dazzling reds and yellows of the setting sun. "Lord God, we ask you for strength to continue to climb to the top of the hill you've put before us, to do your work with joy."
"Please show us the way you want us to go, Lord," Liko prayed earnestly. "And thank you for the rain that has brought us this food to fill our bodies."
Both of them waited for a moment in silence.
"Amen," said Liko.
"Amen," said Mei Lin.
"I'll be glad when we can pray together in our own house and sit at our own table." Liko scooped his vegetables on top of his rice. "Two more years seems like forever."
Mei Lin allowed her thoughts to slip into the future when she would have her own home to care for and meals to cook for Liko every day. "You will be twenty-two before we know it," she said. "Then we will marry, and you will come in from the fields and I will sauté chicken and tomatoes with mushroom dumplings. And we will eat rice that we harvested ourselves. And Father and Amah and your mother will come for supper on Friday evenings."
Liko's eyes twinkled. "Just like the old days when your mother and my father were alive."
"Perhaps they will invite us for tea and—"
"And then our child will roll down the hill in a race to the bottom!" Liko laughed.
Mei Lin bit her lower lip and said nothing.
"I like to dream with you, Mei Lin."
Liko had unknowingly touched her deepest well of sadness. Even Amah hadn't guessed, because Mei Lin carefully pretended to use the menstrual pads she bought at market each month. The truth was that the torture and starvation she had endured in Shanghai Prison had robbed her of her most precious gift to Liko and Father—her body no longer had the capacity to bear a child.
But Mei Lin didn't want to think about her own child just now. There were other children on her heart tonight.
"Liko, there's something I want to talk to you about."
"I received a letter from Mother Su in Shanghai," she said. "Remember how Pastor Wong helped her husband get out of prison?"
"How is Sun Tao doing? Has he recovered from nearly starving to death?"
"Much better," said Mei Lin. She smiled and looked up into Liko's face. "Mother Su wants me to come and see her this summer, only for a couple of months. I'd be back in time to help with the harvest."
"But ... I thought you would want to evangelize here, in Tanching."
"We have three house churches now in Tanching. There are plenty of evangelists here."
"Shanghai is a big city," said Liko.
"Well, I wouldn't be going to evangelize. At least not primarily." A smile crept across Mei Lin's face. "Mother Su and her husband are rescuing orphans. They can't change the state-run orphanage, so they have started one of their own."
"An orphanage? Really? An orphanage run by Christians?"
"Yes," answered Mei Lin. "Sun Tao works driving a taxi during the day, and their daughter works, too. Mother Su is only working part time in the factory so she can dedicate more of her time to the orphans. But she needs help."
Liko ran his hand through his hair. "That's incredible. Is it legal?"
"I don't know. But when I think of what Fu Yatou went through, I'm ready to help. Do you remember the stories?"
Liko smiled. "You haven't let me forget them."
Mei Lin had met Fu Yatou in a park in Shanghai, soon after her release from prison. The child was nine years old, though she looked much younger, and was living on the streets after escaping from an orphanage. With the help of some other Christians, Mei Lin had brought the little girl home to Tanching.
"Well, if the state-run orphanages don't improve, perhaps the best solution is to start privately owned orphanages run by Christians. I'm not sure what Mother Su has found out, but I want to help her. It will be a good experience. And I think it's the right thing to do, Liko. I can feel it—in here." She pointed at her heart.
Liko was quiet for a few moments. "Mei Lin, I ... I'd be lying if I said I wanted you to go. It's so soon after Shanghai Prison, and ..."
Mei Lin could read his thoughts. "And so soon after your father's death?"
Liko quietly stood and stuffed his hands deep into his pockets. "Sometimes I wrestle with the absolute cruelty of it. My father's only crime was his faith in Jesus, and what a high price he paid."
Mei Lin stared up at Liko's tall frame, silhouetted against the darkening sky. His father, like her mother, died as a martyr for his beliefs. He seldom spoke of his father's death at the hands of communist prison guards.
Liko looked stricken. "The Public Security Bureau could find out what you're doing. They sent Sun Tao to prison just for driving others around to help orphans. How can I possibly release you to such wolves?"
"You'll never release me to the wolves," Mei Lin whispered. She stood and reached up to touch his cheek. "Release me to God, Chen Liko. Release me to the Good Shepherd."
Liko stared across the deepening horizon. "It will be difficult to run the churches without you," he finally said. "When will you go?"
"In two weeks. I want to help Father finish the spring planting first."
"And how long will you be gone?"
"About ten weeks."
Liko was quiet.
"Do you want some time to pray about it? I don't have to decide today."
Liko shook his head. "No. This is so close to your dream, Mei Lin. I can feel it, too. In here." He tapped his heart and then put his arms around her. "I will miss you. In fact, I miss you already."
Mei Lin squeezed him tightly. "Thank you. Thank you for understanding."
He buried his face in her hair. "Come back to me, Mei Lin."
Mei Lin closed her eyes. "I will. I love you, Liko."
Across the China Sky by C. Hope Flinchbaugh
Copyright © 2006; ISBN 0764202391
Published by Bethany House Publishers
Used by permission. Unauthorized duplication prohibited.
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