by Stacie Eirich
It was under the lantern lights that I first saw Mei-Ling.
She wore a dress that glittered like golden petals swaying amid a kaleidoscope of ruby, amber and emerald. She was looking up, her face lit by a thousand twinkling globes of light that spun, delighting the crowd of onlookers. She giggled, a smile bursting on her upturned face, and then she spun along with the lanterns, dipping and swaying to the beat of the gong and drum. The crowd parted as the lion and dragon dancers came through; the fierce, beautiful head of the brave beasts warding off evil and spreading good fortune to the people.
I knew that if my fortune was good that festival night, I might meet the beautiful woman who danced with lions and dragons, her eyes shimmering in the moonlight like stars.
It wasn’t only her beauty that captivated me, it was the carefree way she moved and the joyfulness in her smile. And her eyes. Dear goddess above, those dark eyes. The way they glittered in the glow of the lantern lights, great pools of ebony that beheld such depths in them —perhaps the very secrets of the universe.
I shivered at the thought that those eyes might never look at me at all. Or worse, if they did, they might never see me as someone she could love. A short woman with gray eyes, stringy hair and worn shoes, I knew I was unremarkable to most. My eyes held no gleam, my dress no glitter, and I owned nothing of consequence to my name. The only things I could lay claim to at that very moment were my devotion to my art, my passion for authentic beauty — and a ravenous appetite for tangyuan, the sticky-round dumplings served every year at the lantern festival.
The sweet scents of sugar and roses filled the air as Mei-ling danced, the yellow and red ribbons that adorned the lion & dragon bodies curling in the air around her. The crowd moved in a constant ebb and flow, the music pulling me closer and closer like the constant beating of the drums. I used what little coins I had to buy tangyuan, thanking the food vendor as he passed me a small bowl. He bowed, then smiled and pointed to the lantern that hung directly above my head.
The lantern gleamed a bright golden, and had a message written upon it: Be happy and carry laughter all the time: 笑口常開 (xiào kǒu cháng kāi). Then I heard Mei-Ling’s infectious giggle carrying to me on the wind, and looked down to see her bright, dark eyes gazing straight into mine.
She smiled, her face lit by a thousand red, gold and orange glowing ornaments. In that moment, I felt my fear of rejection melt, replaced with a shimmering hope.
I stepped out from under the lantern of laughter and into the festival’s throng, reaching Mei-ling with the bowl of steaming tangyuan still untouched in my hands. The beating of the drums had reached a fever pitch, with the lion and dragon actors performing a scene and men on stilts wowing the gathered onlookers. Then the drums stopped, and in the silence that followed Mei-Ling spoke to me for the first time.
“All wishes come true: 心想事成 (xīn xiǎng shì chén),” she said, in a voice that was soft, musical, and deep as the night sky. Then she reached her hand up to gently tilt my cheek, and I felt a soft buzzing warmth flow through her skin into my own.
“Do they?” I asked, unable to say anything more as I continued to gaze at her.
“Yes,” she said, and her eyes did a little dance along with her smile. “For tonight, I believe they do.” She moved her hands to cup the bowl of tangyuan. “Will you share with me? I’ll show you the best place in the city to view the fireworks from.”
I released the sweet treat to her, feeling my inhibitions let loose with the dumplings. Then I took her hand as she weaved through the crowd, away from the lantern lights of the city streets and into an alleyway. I watched her with awe as she deftly scaled a ladder to stand atop a thin, red-tiled roof, then jumped to a second and a third level until she had reached the top. Then I followed her its zenith, my heart beating as loudly as the drums that echoed from the city’s center.
“Isn’t it amazing?” she breathed as the brilliants sparks of fireworks began to burst into the sky above us. “I can believe anything is possible under the festival lights.” Her golden dress folded around her as she curled her legs in beside me, and we sat together watching the display.
“Yes,” I agreed, looking not at the sky but at Mei-ling, who hadn’t yet told me her name. “Anything is possible tonight. Even love.”
Then she looked at me, her bright, dark eyes melting into my blue-gray ones. Our hands found each other in the darkness, pressing skin to skin as our fingers laced together tightly.
“Especially love,” she said. Then she shifted her body closer, leaning into mine, and our lips met in an electrifying kiss that silenced the world around us. We lingered, our breath warm and sweet as we touched noses, cheeks and foreheads together.
She told her me her name then, in a whisper. “Tell me yours now,” she said, “so that I may look for you again.”
“Chun 春 ,” I told her, and she smiled wide in response. “like the spring that is coming.”
When the fireworks had ended, we descended the ladder together and returned to the city streets below. The full moon shone brightly, and it was time to release the lanterns into the February night sky. The new year was ending, but spring was just beginning.
“All wishes come true: 心想事成 (xīn xiǎng shì chén)!” we said, raising our lantern up together and releasing it into the stars.
And amid a kaleidoscope of colors, Mei-ling’s laughter and love-filled soul shimmered.
Then, like the golden dust of dreams, she disappeared into the throng of festival-goers, leaving me with the sweet scent of her skin — and the lingering touch of her soft lips.
I watched as our lantern soared up in the sky, its message shining like a golden beacon into the vast, moonlit night. And I made a silent wish that I would see Mei-ling again, when spring came, under the festival lights.