Leah A. Chase
I am a dirt child. I am covered in the substance. It invades my body, drying the back of my throat and stuffing my fingernails until the whites disappear. My bare, calloused feet pad over the rough concrete, staining my heels with grime. Grease separates my short hair into thin strands that fan out in disarray. I know no luxury— an oversized coat stained with garbage conceals my protruding ribs. Black spots speckle my body like enlarged freckles. A trail of dirt marks my path as I wander through the city.
There is something peculiar about Tianjin at night. Faceless ghosts shuffle down narrow cement sidewalks, each one bathed in neon lights beneath thick clouds of smog. Sulfur wafts from the incoming bullet trains and subway lines, which cross-hatch the bustling metropolis. Corporate offices stacked like Legos kiss the starless sky, and hundreds of silhouettes against a backdrop of yellow light fill every window. From far away, the city is a Mozart sonata, never missing a note or skipping a beat. It is the perfect puzzle—confusing at first but beautiful once put together.
The peculiar part lies beyond the surreal imagery. Beneath the city’s flesh are festering organs trapped in a steel skeleton. Rust coats the metallic bones, rotting the mallow within, and industrial waste courses through black veins beneath the concrete surface. A malnourished heart palpitates at the center of the city, blackened from decades of smoke. No one sees the city the way I do. No one sees the dirt beneath the shine.
I trudge under the blue lights of the subway, counting discarded cigarette butts and glass bottle shards. I kick at empty plastic bags, watch them hover in the air for a moment before floating back down. The distant whir of a train echoes throughout the station as I follow the trail of waste, swinging my legs at each piece in one languid motion. I jump in surprise when my toes crash into something solid, sending a small box skittering to the edge of the platform. Tiny rectangular wafers trail behind it. Rubbing my empty stomach, I creep towards the box.
The screech of an incoming train rattles my eardrums, and a hot wind whips my hair and clothes as it zips by. The conjoined cars erupt in a plume of opaque, black smoke as it comes to a halt. Before I can react, the doors slide open to release an influx of passengers clutching leather briefcases and schoolbags. The swarm devours the box before my outstretched hands and pulls me further away from the platform. A stream of people bounces me around like a ragdoll, forcing me to sink to the ground in a ball of confusion and fright.
The whistle of the train melts into the cacophony of voices, drowning out my own thoughts as I wait for the storm to pass. Footsteps thunder away, just barely missing my hands and feet. The chaos soon subsides, and the station is empty once more. I unfurl from my ball and peer at the littered wafers. My footsteps reverberate off the walls as I dash over to observe them, but they are nothing more than grounded vanilla powder. The box is smashed flat. My eyebrows knit together in frustration as I hurl the box onto the tracks. I grip my quivering stomach, wincing as the hunger erupts in stinging waves.
I have grown accustomed to rifling through garbage for discarded leftovers. On lucky days, customers return their unfinished meals, and overflowing garbage disposals line every back alley. I’d plug my nose to avoid the sour rank and squeeze my eyes shut at the dismembered morsel, my tongue shrinking in protest. But I’d swallow it anyway; I must eat to survive. Tonight is different. There is not a single bit of food in sight.
On a bench beside the tracks sits a middle-aged man. He leafs through a newspaper, adjusting his horn-rimmed glasses as he scans each article. A grey Panama hat casts shadows down the bridge of his nose and into the sunken valleys beneath his eyes. There is something familiar about his faded pinstripe suit, the way he drums his fingers on the edge of the bench. I watch each finger tap the metal seat, noticing the pink scars trailing across his palm. Tossing the newspaper to the ground, he stands and strolls up the stairs toward the city’s surface.
I climb the stairs after him, blinking rapidly, adjusting my eyes to the brightness of neon restaurant signs and flashing billboards. Dozens of white cubes colonize the streets, indistinguishable from one another. Each one is sliced into even, clean-cut chunks of living spaces like large blocks of tofu. Swarms of people drift down clogged sidewalks, swallowing the retreating man, and I brace myself to be swept up in their current. I follow his shuffling footsteps past intersections, over bridges, and through tunnels.
Free from the onrush, he ducks into a twenty-four-hour convenience store. Inside seems muted compared to the bustling city streets. The humming of a revolving fan and the strumming of an acoustic guitar over the intercom are the only sources of noise. Potted ferns give the room an herbal scent, and neon signs hanging outside the store cast a pink glow on the merchandise.
A tri-tone chime signals my entrance, and the few customers inside turn their attention to me. My bare feet slap against the polished linoleum as I weave through a field of staring eyes. In a city this size, it is easy to be invisible. One can pass through their entire life unnoticed by the rest of the world, as long as they follow society’s standard protocol. I am somewhat invisible, but unlike most, I do not go unnoticed. In a room full of invisible people, I know what parts of me they can and cannot see. When I catch their wandering eyes, I know they only see my dirt.
I drift through aisles, marveling at all the luxuries I cannot afford. I read the stamps and labels on each commercial canned good like novels, leaf through magazines page after page by the stand. My eyes gloss over chocolate bars and rainbow swirl lollipops. Through the shelves, I spy the man browsing through the candy aisle. His fingers shy over a box of caramels, and his eyes seem to shimmer. A sudden wheeze draws my attention to the counter, where the shopkeeper analyzes my every move. I know he is growing impatient, so I stalk behind the man in pinstripes and pick a box of caramels.
When I place my purchase on the counter, the shopkeeper raises an eyebrow at me. “You got seven yuan?” A cigarette hangs limp between his lips, wisps of smoke curling upwards from the butt. He cocks his head ever so slightly, his glasses sliding down his nose to reveal two almost yellow eyes. I shrink back from the counter and rifle through my pockets for spare change. I dump everything I have and slide the coins toward the shopkeeper.
As I turn to leave with the caramels, he calls, “You’re short some. Either cough up the remaining yuan or put the candy back.”
I contemplate making a run for it, but the shopkeeper catches my wandering eyes and frowns. He clamps his fingers around my wrist and plucks the candy from my hand. Sliding the money back to me, he grumbles, “Can’t take chances with filthy mutts.” He motions towards the door with his free hand and says, “There’s nothing else for you here. That’s the cheapest we’ve got.”
My eyes glue themselves to the ground, afraid to meet the stares searing my skin. I trudge outside, a defeated soldier retreating from the battlefield. In the distance, I see the mysterious man stomping through the snow. He pries the box of caramels open, taunting my whining stomach. The snow sends a shudder up my spine as I begin my pursuit. Chunks of ice bruise my feet as I tread over uneven terrain, sickening crunches following each step I take. A lilac hue dyes my fingertips and toes, and I know it will seize the rest of my body soon. I resort to sucking my fingers in hopes of dispelling the cold.
A powerful scent of sweet bean drifts in the wind, and my stomach sputters. The dark scene melts around me, and I am transported to a warm household. Glancing down, I find my skin scrubbed clean of dirt, a silk dress in place of my typical rags. Rows of candles illuminate the room and framed photographs hang from the walls. Upon closer inspection, I find myself—no older than an infant—cradled in a young man’s arms. He wears a vibrant pinstripe suit beside a woman with similar attire. As I examine him, I begin to notice things I never saw before. His eyes are lined with dark circles, and his teeth are stained yellow. His hand snakes around the woman’s waist, his bony fingers digging into her side like long claws. His hands, however, are unmarked.
The sweet scent brings my attention to a long table. I sit cross-legged on a cushion, observing the sea of delicacies before me: steaming pork buns, copper pots containing winter melon soup. A sweet bean bun sits on my plate, oozing with red paste. Upon touching it, I recoil my fingers from its freezing surface. Dirt begins to spill out of the dough. It stuffs the cracks in the walls and blankets the wooden floor as the house disappears, and I am left in an empty, snow-covered street.
I enter a park swarmed with drunkards howling with laughter and slapping one another on the back. They are the disdained few, the night prowlers who slink from one bar to another, only to pass out beneath a bridge and awake in a foreign environment with nothing but pounding headaches and lipstick stains on their necks. They strip themselves of their sanity for nights they will never remember and consequences they will never forget.
I watch from afar as they empty bottles of cheap liquor into their stomachs and shudder in delight at the electric taste. The man in pinstripes is nowhere to be found. Another strange man catches me staring and shoots a toothy grin. Clutched in his hands is a sweet, steaming bean bun. He stumbles against the nearest tree and leers over me, blowing putrid puffs of smoke from a cigarette.
“Cold, aren’t you?” Extending his cigarette towards me, he says, “Here, take a puff. It’ll warm you right up.”
I raise my arms in protest and motion toward the bun, but he ignores my defense and pins the drug between my lips. The close proximity of the flame blinds me in a red flash, and my chest contracts as my lungs shrivel and harden. Thick clouds clog my throat, and my breath shortens. I wheeze and sputter as black plumes erupt from my mouth, rolling off my tongue and billowing into the air.
I clutch my chest in hopes of catching my breath, while the man chokes through his laughter. “First-timer, eh? Trust me, you’ll get used to it,” he says as I spit the lingering taste onto the ground.
He takes a large bite of the bun, snorting through his chewing. I glower in vexation and grit my teeth. My fingers subconsciously flex and unflex, and my eyes narrow. As the man’s teeth tear through the bean paste, I pounce and snatch at the bun. My mouth gapes in silent terror as his fingers catch me around the throat and squeeze. His body careens toward mine, drowning me in his shadow. The cigarette falls to the ground, sputtering as it bounces on the concrete. In an instant, he has my back pinned to the tree trunk.
“What do you think you’re doing, kid?” he growls through clenched teeth. “Didn’t your parents teach you that it’s not nice to steal?”
My tongue lolls out as I flail my legs in desperation. My eyes dart around in search of help, but no one comes—they are too afraid to try and too detached to care. Glaring at the man, I clamp my teeth down on his wrist.
Curses fly from his lips as he releases his hold on me, and I collapse into a heap on the ground. A whirlwind of knuckles shrouds my vision, landing a delicate bruise on my jaw. “Scram, you orphan thief!”
As I turn to flee, another stinging sensation pricks my neck, tattooing my skin with a crimson burn and a ring of ash. I hear the distant drunken cackling fade behind me, but I do not dare turn around. Cupping my throbbing chin, I fly through the empty streets with nothing but the wind rushing in my ears and my panicked breaths blowing hot steam into the crisp air. As the moon begins its descent, my feet find themselves sinking into fresh snow on a new road. I skirt the edge of the city along the waterside, tracing the moon’s arch with doe-like eyes. The sky swallows the stars whole, snuffing out their natural light and replacing them with artificial bulbs sprinkled throughout the city.
I am transported back to the warm household, but this time, a sharp coldness fills the room. The shutters block moonlight from entering, leaving me huddled on the floor in darkness. The man in pinstripes paces around the room, his face beet red, spit flying from his lips with each scream. Liquor fueling his rage, he shotputs furniture across the room, sending cauldrons of soup clattering to the floor. He hurls a bottle at me, and I duck in vain as glass shatters above my head. Shards tangle themselves in my hair and scrape my scalp as blood flows down my face.
He scrambles for the larger shards, only to shriek as they slice into his skin. He lifts me by the collar and rattles me around, shouting words slurred beyond comprehension. When he drops me in a heap on the floor, I stumble towards the door and kick it open. A violent wind swirls around me, drawing me into the winter landscape, transforming me into a dirt child. I adorn an armor of grime as I escape into the unknown, letting the city drown the man’s screams.
As the scene dissolves, I find the man in pinstripes standing before me. My name rolls off his tongue as he bores his gaze onto my miserable figure. He removes a box of caramels from the folds of his coat and rattles them before me. I lift one frail hand toward it, only to crumple at his feet. When he lights a cigarette, I catch a glance of the faded scars on his hand. In the flame, I see a house—my old house—before alcohol and abuse. I see a mother painted in black and blue, a father dressed in blood-stained pinstripes. I see a tiny child sobbing in the corner as dirt invisible to her seeps through her skin.
The man smirks at my blackened form. With a tap of his cigarette, he sprinkles the ashes over my body, adding to the dirt already consuming me. My chest heaves as I begin to cry. I cry for the scorches and bruises branding my skin for all to see and pity. I cry for the hunger that continues to torment me, and I cry for my failure to become invisible to the world. Here, under a starless sky, I cry for my wish, my wish to be a dirt child no longer.
A small hand prods my shoulder, but I do not budge. It is not until two, three, four more pairs of hands nudge my arms that I lift my gaze to settle on six children. Their eyes are dark and beady, no bigger than peas. They are grimy around the edges—like me—with a history of smiles and laughter—unlike me. Their pupils dilate like binoculars focusing in and out. I am paralyzed under their stare. Their clothes are identical to mine, stained by years of harsh weather and garbage. Their skin is muddled with soil so thick it is difficult to see their true skin color beneath. They are dirt children.
They surround me in a circle, pressing their tiny bellies against all sides of my body. They herd me along to the waterside, where they bend down until their faces hover inches above the calm surface. Each one scoops a handful of water, careful not to spill a single drop. The child holding my sleeve is the last to go. I watch her stoop over the edge like a graceful herring craning down for a drink. For a moment, all is still. She sucks in one short breath, signaling the others to do the same, and tosses the water high above her head. The droplets soar in the sky until moonlight strikes them, piercing their orb-like bodies. Gravity fails to pull them down, and they grow bigger and brighter, transforming into stars above us.
Each child returns to the water for handful after handful, and soon the stars cover the sky in a celestial blanket, replacing the menacing atmosphere with a milky hue. I admire the spectacle from my humble place on earth, millions of miles below its home among the galaxies. I imagine myself melting into a puddle in the hands of a child before I am thrown into the sky, where I dispel the clouds of smog and embrace the sun.
An icy prick on the back of my neck startles me, and I whip around to find a single flickering streetlamp illuminating an empty street. When I turn back, the children are gone. I gaze skyward, peering through the dim night. A snowflake lands on the tip of my nose. It melts almost instantly, transforming into thin rivulets trickling down my skin. I watch in awe as more pirouette around me. They nest themselves in the follicles of my hair and on the patches of my skin. They decorate my eyelashes in a coat of frost and sprinkle my clothes like powdered sugar. I tilt my face upwards, catching snowflakes on my tongue as they fall. My throat welcomes the wetness. Water pools in my palms and I fling it into the air like the dirt children did.
As I streak the sky with my own stars, I forget the coldness and revel in the magic falling around me. I forget my hunger and twirl amongst the millions of frosty molecules. Even as they spread over my body like a cerulean cocoon, I allow my eyelids to slide shut. Ice seeps into my bloodstream and my heartbeat fades as sleep drifts nearer. My belly cries for nothing; I am full on complacency.
I am a dirt child. I am born from dirt, raised in dirt, and defined by dirt. I uproot myself. Drifting about the metropolis, I leave behind my dirt in the shelves of a convenience store, the foot of a park bench, waiting for a new dirt child to emerge into the world, carrying a small memory of me to cast into the stars.
about the writer
Leah A. Chase is a student at Long Beach Polytechnic High School. She is a 2017 CSSSA alumni, and she has also been recognized as a finalist in the Young Authors Writing Competition at Columbia College Chicago. Although she typically writes fiction, she enjoys poetry and creative non-fiction as well.