Within the Fold
A short story about legacy, revolution, and obliquely, terraforming Mars. Also contains a dumpling recipe.
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The morning of the ritual, my fathers assured me there was no need to be nervous. One reminded me I would have all the time I needed. The other said nothing, only tugged gently on my earlobe, to remind me of where I bit my grandmother the first time I met her and that we still laughed about it at family gatherings.
In truth, my nai nai, my grandmother, was a jovial woman who alleviated her rare bad moods with marathon cooking sessions that earned her a legendary status within the neighborhood. She promised me a simple conversation, but I knew it was more, this beginning of my journey into adulthood, the first time I would be listening to a story as its caretaker rather than its recipient.
The whole way to her home, I imagined what it would be like: solemn, I thought, precise, for certain. By the time I arrived on the third floor of a building set into the wall of the lava tube, I thought anyone might be able tell that I was not fit to begin. I hovered outside the curtain in the open doorway until a voice called out from within.
“Suying, no need to loiter. Come in, haizi.” I smiled, both charmed and worried that she would see me as a child no matter how old I grew.
I took a deep breath to brace myself, straightened out of the slouch the aunties in my building always hollered about and ducked through the curtain. I thought there might be incense, perhaps offerings to the ancestors and worried about the appropriateness of my simple smock. I even brought a notebook, real paper and a pen to help the words lodge within my mind. So I was startled to see my grandmother in the kitchen with an array of ingredients on the stone top island counter.
I paused in the doorframe, but my grandma smiled at me, corners of her eyes wrinkling up. She gestured for me to come to the counter and took the notebook from my hand. “Take notes another time. This time, you need only to listen.”
“I thought I was learning a story,” I said, hesitant, surveying the ingredients. A bowl of flour, already shifted, small dishes of spices, apportioned out, and a bundle of green onions, picked fresh from the hydroponic garden shared by the building. The large head of napa cabbage and a package of ground bean-based meat substitute made it clear that my grandmother was preparing to make our traditional family dumplings.
“I am going to tell you a story and I will teach you a skill,” my grandmother said as she directed me to the sink. She said nothing else until I cleaned my hands, dried them upon a dish towel she embroidered with a dancing fish, and rolled my sleeves above my elbows. When we stood over the ingredients, my fear of having to learn multiple things obvious by the way my eyebrows pulled together, she said, “This story will be yours to keep and preserve. One day, you will choose how to pass it on. Today, we do things this way.”
First, we mixed the dough, one part water to four parts flour. I put my hands into a heavy stone bowl and pressed the clumps of flour into each other, rolling and kneading to pick up the dusting of powder that remained. As I worked, beads of sweat building on my temple and an honest ache building up in strange parts of my arm, unused muscles stretching and pulling from the strain, my grandmother began to tell her story.
You already know that your three times great grandparent Zhou Daitan participated in the revolutionary struggles. I will not speak about that today. Instead, I will tell you of their life before the revolution, what made them the sort of person willing to stand arm in arm with their neighbors, the world that shaped them and that they shaped in turn. And though I did not know your three times great grandparent, this story comes to me from their daughter, to her daughter, and down to me. Through them, I bestow it upon you.
Once I punched the dough into a smooth ball, my grandmother declared the task done and we set it aside to rest. Then, I added soy sauce, salt, white pepper, as well as an egg to the meat substitute. With rhythmic, circular motions, I folded these ingredients together.
Daitan grew up on earth, on a patch of sparse and harsh land set aside for refugees. They were a rambunctious child, creative in inventing games and new ways to attract trouble. Though they received the mandatory years of education, provided by the international government for all refugee children, they were not an attentive student. Still, they read widely and thought freely, a difficult thing to do. And someone must have seen potential in that for they received a scholarship to university, sponsored by companies eager to showcase their generosity. They studied as widely as they read and meandered out of university two years too late with a degree in food science. Without sufficient social capital to obtain a posting in a lab, they returned to and worked in the packaging factory next to the camp where they grew tall and strong.
Under my grandmother’s watchful eye, I minced a handful of wood ear mushrooms, the slivers sticking to my hands, as well as a few shitake mushrooms, their unami infused scent filling my nostrils. These I deposited into the marinating meat substitute along with a dollop of sesame oil. Again, I accepted the wooden chopsticks my grandmother passed to me and mixed to integrate the dark pieces of seasoning.
Daitan’s time in university turned them quiet and contemplative. But working in the factory alongside childhood friends and strangers turned into family by proximity and shared struggle, they found their voice again. That voice spoke against exploitation and it wasn’t long before they drew the ire of those who hoped a heavy hand could crush dissent before it bloomed in full.
Then I went back to the bamboo chopping board, passed down through the generations, lovingly cared for by each. I recalled running my hands across the surface as a toddler, feeling the marks left it in by use, some sanded down or covered by newer marks over the years, and wondering when I’d get a chance to use it. Now that I was older, I didn’t have quite the same fascination with chopping vegetables. Still, I found the crunch and thunk of the knife through the green onions and the napa cabbage satisfying. I thought I’d have trouble listening and avoiding injury, but the rhythmic motion proved no distraction.
And so it was that Daitan found themselves cast out, blacklisted, unable to obtain even the meanest of jobs. Their fellow refugees knew what it was to be forced to the margins of society and offered them sustenance. For a time, Daitan was able to do good work within the camp, using what they learned in the factory to rebuild the hastily raised residences, repair the solar still that produced water. These odd jobs also allowed them to distribute the revolutionary literature published by friends within the factory. And when the operation was discovered, Daitan volunteered to take the fall.
The green onions went on top of the mixture and the cabbage went in a separate dish with salt to pull out water. While both rested, my grandmother upended the ball of dough onto a dusting of flour and put me to work pushing it across the counter until it tightened. With one smooth motion, she twisted the dough in half and began to roll her half out, until it resembled a snake.
As there were few places to exile someone who was already a refugee, Daitan found themselves on a one-way trip to the stars. They were still terraforming the planet then and Daitan, like many who grew up in the camps, found it difficult to breathe on the red planet. Even so, they tended to the legume fields for though they did not choose to come to Mars, they were forced to work off the cost of the fuel.
Slowly, so I could copy each step, my grandmother lifted the length of dough and pinched the top of it between the thumb and forefinger of her right hand. With her left, she twisted off pieces of dough. Mine were nowhere near as uniform, some small, some large, most torn off with great force rather than the deft and precise motions I failed to copy. When I grimaced at my collection of however, my grandmother only reached out to wipe a bit of flour from my chin and continued.
Daitan was hardly the only one who came to the planet unwillingly. Except for the youngest, taken in by a flashy recruitment poster and the promises of an unscrupulous earth-side recruitment center whose manager sated himself on kickbacks, all of their bunkmates fell afoul of one planetary power or another. And all of them dreamed of something different.
In synchronized motions, we crushed each knob of dough flat and tossed them in the flour so they would not stick together. Then I tipped the cabbage into the rest of the filling and mixed one last time, trying to ignore the ache in my arm and flinging a bit of filling onto the table in the process. Without
skipping a beat, my grandmother swiped the filling into a pan and set it atop the induction stove. Almost immediately, it began to sizzle and pop. She snatched it up with a pair of chopsticks, blew on it, and offered it to me. I closed my eyes as I considered the flavor and layered textures, to see if it needed anything else. When I decided it needed a bit more salt, I picked up the shaker, an old porcelain vinegar bottle repurposed and passed down.
During the day cycles, they rode lifts to the surface, where the vast legume fields blanketed the red dirt of the blossoming planet and fantasized about escaping over the horizon. At the end of their shifts, they urged the bovine herds that consumed the legumes into the shelter of the lava tubes and contemplated letting the animals loose. During their night cycle, they lay in their rickety three-layer bunks, six workers to a room, and traded stories or comfort.
My grandmother handed me a rolling pin, not much wider than my finger. She took one of the knobs of dough and brought the edge of it underneath the pin. In practiced motions, the pressed the dough from the outside in, turning the disc after each stroke. I ended up with an oblong shape of uneven thickness that made me wince when I compared it with her thin circle of dough. She took the wrapper from me without comment and began to fix it, gesturing for me to start another.
Life went on thus and though it seemed as if nothing changed as they repeated the same work against their ever-mounting debt, Daitan came to understood that they were building community. People who might have been enemies on earth taught each other their languages. No mode of living seemed all that strange from two meters away. Games and song and dance from different cultures passed back and forth, used to speed the trickle of time. And in these ways, large and small, sedition spread.
We continued rolling and pressing until we piled the wrappers high, dusted flour between each layer. I used chopsticks to position a dollop of filling in the middle of a wrapper. I set the chopsticks down and gathered the wrapper into my palm, watching my grandmother draw the edges together in folds that held the weight of her experience. Perhaps that’s what kept her dumplings closed because mine invariably peeked open at the edges, bits of filling threatening to burst out or the wrapper simply gaping wide.
At the factory, Daitan learned to play a game of make believe and magic. It was fantastical and fanciful and so no one took notice when they began to teach it to their friends. For diversion and escape, yes, but also to pass messages best left unsaid in rooms owned and operated by people who held debt over them like blades. And some things were better conveyed through simulation and practice than through explanation anyway.
My grandmother said that skill would come with time and practice. And I thought that this too, was a lesson she meant to impart. So I kept at it, crimping and folding and often failing, yet in the end, producing a precious few dumplings I would be proud to present to my fathers. Finally, we dropped them into the boiling water atop the stove, easing them into the roiling water one by one so that the hot water did not splash.
So it was that when the revolution began, Daitan knew what to do. They were part of a community once more, indebted to it, embedded within it, reliant upon it. Because what makes a person is not just who they are but what they do, the people who raise them, the society that shapes them, the atmosphere they breathe, the horizons they see. So it was with your three times great grandparent. So it will be with you. That is why we tell these stories, why we ask you to remember them, why we hope that you hold them to your hearts as we did, so you will make different mistakes, and so you will know what was freely given and what was taken to make a better world.