When Zinovy decides he needs to find out why Grace is so sad.
“I want to walk with Grace today,” Zinovy said to Sara. “We need to find out what’s bugging her. Has she told you why she’s so full of sadness?”
“No, but I suspect it has something to do with her family. She carries their pictures and I’ve seen her looking at them with tears in her eyes. She’s probably missing them.”
“We’ll see. You try to find out. You’ll be better at that than I.”
They found Grace sitting by the river watching a herd of gazelles grazing on the other side. A cheetah crouched beside them at the edge of the stream, lapping the water, his eyes raised to the human visitors across the way, his tongue sending ripples of concentric circles into the gentle current with each dip of his head.
Grace glanced up at Sara and Zinovy. “It’s amazing, isn’t it? They act as if they’ve lived together in peace forever.”
“It’s also amazing that they’re here,” Zinovy said. “They’ve traveled far to be in this place.”
The three watched the animals together for a while. The cheetah, his thirst finally quenched, stood up, licked his lips, and blinked at them a time or two. The herd of gazelles wandered a few feet closer to the cat, seeking greener pastures, and he turned his eyes in their direction, his long tongue still working the last of the moisture from his whiskers. Then he sat down and began a leisurely, rhythmic cleaning of his entire body, beginning with the bottom of his right paw.
Zinovy said, “We’d best be going. The others will be ready to start.”
They fell into place at the end of the line behind Simon and Ruben who plodded steadily along with Caleb galloping and whinnying between them. A few paces into their journey, Zinovy looked at Sara over Grace’s head and raised his eyebrows. She nodded imperceptibly, but continued to walk without speaking for some time. Zinovy assumed she was searching for the right words.
Finally she took a deep breath and began: “Grace, Zinovy and I have noticed that you seem to be worrying about something. I mean, you don’t seem as happy as you were before. What’s the matter? We’d like to help if we can.”
Grace stiffened slightly. Zinovy saw tears forming in the corners of her eyes. He looked at Sara, willing her to do something.
Sara persisted, speaking gently. “Are you worried about your family?”
Grace broke down, then, and the tears fell freely. Sara stopped and wrapped her arms around her. Zinovy stood silently watching. Finally Grace looked up and wiped her face on the tail of her shirt. “I’m sorry. I really am all right. It’s just that I can’t stop thinking about them. I miss them more every day.”
Sara gave her shoulders a squeeze. “You don’t have to apologize.”
“If I only knew something about what happened to them,” Grace went on. “I think that would help. As it is I can’t bring closure to the pain because I don’t know. . .” She trailed off and wiped her eyes again. After a minute Sara took her hand and the three of them moved on.
“Maybe they’re okay,” Sara ventured. “Maybe they were in the country when it happened. Remember? They say most of the destruction happened in the cities.”
Zinovy interjected, “It’s true. The people were all in the towns of their births. The Supreme Commander’s edict, you know. Where was your husband born?”
Grace took a deep, trembling breath and said, “He was born in a small village outside of Shaowu.”
“Then he would have taken your children there, wouldn’t he?”
“He’d planned to, but at the last minute the government decided he needed to stay in Shanghai. We talked three days before we were scheduled to come down. He told me they would be in Shanghai when I landed.” Her shoulders slumped again.
She needed a distraction. Zinovy spoke quickly, trying to avert another crying spell. “Tell us about your life. How did you meet your husband?”
Grace swallowed more tears, then she began her story. “We grew up in the same village. I lived with my grandparents and he lived with his parents. They were rice farmers.”
“Why did you live with your grandparents? Where were your parents?” Sara asked.
“My parents lived inside the city—in Shaowu.”
Grace had not answered the first question. Sara glanced at Zinovy and he shrugged. It was hard to know how much they should pry. But finally Grace went on. “I couldn’t live with my parents because when I was born my father wanted to kill me.”
Sara’s mouth dropped open. “Why?”
“Because I was a girl. In those days couples could only have one child, remember? Many girls were killed in China then.”
“But you weren’t killed,” Zinovy pointed out.
Sara rolled her eyes. “Duh!” she said.
He glared at her and turned again to Grace. “How did you survive?”
“My mother wouldn’t let it happen. One day when my father was at work she took me to her parents’ house. Government officials were not so vigilant in villages where they needed many rice pickers. And then she went home and told my father she’d thrown me in the river.”
“That’s awful,” Sara said.
Grace shrugged. “Overpopulation was a problem. That’s how the government dealt with it.”
Sara frowned. “But how could your father want you dead? Don’t you hate him for it?”
“Not really. I grew up knowing what had happened so it seemed natural to me.” She smiled. “That’s how I got my name, ‘Lian.’ ‘Lian’ means ‘graceful willow.” My grandparents told me I had been blessed by gracious gods.”
“But did you ever see your mother?”
“Oh yes. She came to visit whenever she could. She had another baby—a boy. I always wanted to have a girl so I could love her freely, like my mother wanted to love me.” She smiled. “Instead I had three wonderful boys.”
Sara studied the ground as she walked. Zinovy could see the wheels turning in her head. Finally she spoke again, “That’s hideous. It’s the worst kind of chauvinism. And you’re really not even the least bit angry about it?”
Zinovy glanced sideways at Grace. She was still smiling, and her steps were relaxed. It had been good for her to talk about her past. She turned to Sara. “How would being angry change anything? My life was full of love as I grew up. My mother loved me very much, and my grandparents did too.”
Sara shook her head vigorously. “But it was so wrong.” She frowned at Grace. “You should be angry about that kind of thing. That’s the problem. Women aren’t angry enough. If women were angrier there would be less sexism in the world.”
“You think so? The feminist movement was full of anger, but chauvinism didn’t go away.”
Sara stopped walking, put her hands on her hips, and glared at Grace. “I can’t believe you’re so docile. You’re doing a disservice to women when you dismiss the issue so easily. Chauvinism kills women. It would have killed you if your mother hadn’t done what she did.”
Grace stopped too. “But it didn’t,” she said, frowning back at Sara. “And being angry would have killed me. It would have eaten away at my heart and killed my spirit.”
Grace let her words sink in. Then she reached out and took Sara’s hand. “I’m not docile,” she said. “I resist discrimination all the time. I resist it for my race as well as for my gender. But I resist it from a position of strength. Strength to resist that kind of negativity comes from knowing who you are and being confident in that knowledge. When you have that kind of confidence you can’t be touched by the attitudes of others.”
She took Sara’s other hand. “But I’m not a feminist. I’m a human being. That’s all. That’s all any of us are. And the best way to fight discrimination is to see ourselves that way, to act like human beings, and treat everyone else like human beings.”
“That’s too simple. Not everyone deserves to be treated like a human being.”
Grace looked into her friend’s eyes. “My dear, I know what you’re thinking. This isn’t about me and my father. It’s about you and your father, isn’t it?”
Sara’s head dropped. Grace went on, “You have to let it go, Sara. If you don’t it will destroy you.”
Sara drew back, ducked her chin and looked at Grace through narrowed eyes. “I don’t know if I can,” she said. “You may be right, but how do you forgive when you can’t?”
“I don’t know, honey,” Grace said gently. “I only know you have to.”
Sara turned to move on. She stepped over a tiny pile of lion droppings in the trail, speaking as if to herself, “That’s what he told me.”
Grace remained standing. “Wait. Who is ‘he’? Do you mean the man who walked with you the other day?”
Sara turned back. “Yes.”
“Sara, what did he call you?”
“What do you mean?”
“What title did he give you when he talked to you?”
Sara’s brow creased. Finally she said, “He called me ‘daughter’. Why?”
Zinovy watched her face change as she heard her own words. The creases in her brow disappeared. Her jaw dropped. Her eyes filled with astonishment. Grace let the revelation settle in, then she said, softly, “There you have it. That’s who you are, Sara. Why don’t you just stop struggling and let him be your father?”
Zinovy looked at Grace. Her face glowed with a contentment he’d not seen in days. A softness touched his heart and tears came once again, unannounced, to his eyes. He blinked them away and frowned.
He stood, still as a stone, and looked at both women. What to do? His feelings boomeranged back and forth between relief and agitation. He was glad Grace felt better, but Sara’s allusion to her imaginary companion had reminded him that their biggest morale problem was nowhere near being solved. It had, in fact, developed a disturbing new angle. He was not ready to admit it, but his own dream by the riverbank bore a suspicious resemblance to Sara’s vision of the man walking with her by the river.