Clump of fox fur
The pitter pattering of tiny feet as they scamper across the entryway just seconds after the front door clicks closed is my clue to put down the knife. I set the last of the bowl of filling to the side of the cutting board where the dumpling dough rests as a small voice calls out, “Erin!”
I stifle a laugh and step back from the counter to wipe my hands on my apron. Right on cue. “In here, Ellie!” In the next instant, a whirlwind of pink barrels into the room, her short black curls bouncing like corkscrews against her fleshed cheeks. Her bare-feet slip and slide across the freshly polished floors. I cringe as the image of her planting face first into the tile flashes before my eyes.
My midriff breaks her almost-fall, pinning me against the back of the stove. Thank God I haven’t turned it on to start frying the dumplings yet.
Her small arms wrap around my waist and a beaming grin splits her face as she peers up at me with wide, sparkling brown eyes. “It’s Lantern Day!”
I laugh and squeeze her back. “Oh? And does ‘Lantern Day,’” I bit down on my bottom lip to keep my grin at bay, “mean you can run in the house?”
The corners of her mouth turn down ever so slightly, but an extra spark of mischief dances in her eyes.
She smiles slyly and unwinds her arms from around me, hopping back and forth on the balls of her feet and fixing me with her best puppy-dog eyes. “Maybe?” she singsongs.
This time I can’t help the chuckle that bubbles forth from my throat. “What am I going to do with you, little fox?”
Helen giggles. “That’s what Mama used to call me!”
I nod and tweak her nose before turning back to the counter. “Yes, she did. Do you remember why she called you that?”
I swivel toward her and stifle another snicker at the way her face scrunches up in thought.
“Um… ‘cause foxes were her favorite and she loved me the bestest?”
“Hey!”I plant my hand on my hip and snap the air with my dishtowel.
She shrieks and giggles, skirting just out of my reach. “What? It’s true, isn’t it?”
I purse my lips and arch my eyebrow, crossing my arms. How is it that a 7-year-old already has the sass of a teenager? “What? You think being the baby of the family gives you special privileges now?”
Helen blinks. “What’s a ‘privillage’?”
I smirk. “Never mind. “ I turn back toward the counter and continue stuffing the dumplings. “Did you have a good time at school today?”
“Uh, huh.” Helen nods as she slides her backpack from over her shoulder. “And look,” she sets it down on the tile and unzips the large flap. The corners of my lips twitch as half of her small frame is swallowed by the fabric.
When she finally pops up again, a child-sized, lotus-shaped red lantern with a golden dragon emblem on it is cradled in her palm. “I made it at school today.” She holds it up.
I sigh and once again stop cutting the thick dough into squares. Dinner won’t be done until midnight at this rate, but I rinse my hands and come over to her, bending down to inspect it properly. “It’s very pretty, Ellie.” I finger the material, admiring her design. The lanterns are a tradition in China, floated on the river once a year as a way to honor and send well wishes to deceased loved ones. “Are you going to float it tonight?”
Helen nods. “Uh huh, for Daddy, since you said you were gonna make Mommy’s this year.” She pauses and looks around the kitchen. A frown contorts her lips, and the little brow on her forehead crinkles.
It’s nearly impossible for me not to giggle as she spins on her heel and attempts to fix me with a stern look.
“Ya still haven’t made it yet?” she huffs. “What are ya waiting for?”
I shake my head. “I’ve only been home for two hours–”
“Two hours!” she shrieks. “And you been standing there rolling dough the whole time?”
I stick out my tongue at her. “I assumed you’d want to eat. Was I wrong?”
Helen rolls her eyes and stamps her foot. “Well, duh! Butcha don’t gotta take all day ta make dinner.”
I pause and give her a stern look. “Helen Marie, don’t you sass me. What would mother say if she heard you talking like that? And, for that matter, what will your brothers and sister say when they get home?”
Helen smirked. “They gonna be much hungrier ‘an I am after workin’ all day,” she taunts. “Senior secondary school is much harder than primary. James says so.”
“Uh huh. And do you believe everything James tells you?”
Helen scoffed. “‘Course not. But it’s gots ta be harder ‘cause he’s 18 and I’m only seven.
Darn! She had me with that one. “All right, little fox, enough games. If you go get the supplies out while I finish stuffing these, you can help me make Mom’s lantern while they’re steaming. Deal?”
Helen’s face lit up. “Deal.”
The river laps at my feet, it’s soft tide washing over them every time I squish some remnants of eroded grass and mud beneath my toes. I breathe in the crisp, fresh night air, closing my eyes to revel in the peaceful rhythm of cricket song and the murmurs of families gathered along the banks as their hushed conversations float over the crowd. When I open them again, the sun has just touched the edge of the horizon, bathing the murky water in a sea of bright reds, oranges, pinks, and purples that sway in the breeze and dance with the rhythm of the ripples on the surface. A slow smile graces my face and for a moment I imagine my mother, looking down on us from the heavens; the river her canvas, the sun her pallet and the rays her paintbrush.
My throat constricts and I shut my eyes again. A small, warm hand in mine draws me back to the present. I look over. Helen smiles and points to the faint outline of the moon beyond a swirl of misty clouds.
I join hands with my five siblings and together we lower the lanterns into the water. Mother’s is perfect; a royal, regal blue with a violet candle lighting the way, and the silhouette of a mischievous fox carved over the center of the three petals facing the shore, her front paws raised slightly in the air, prancing like a queen of the waves over the simmering surface.
I lean back, training my eyes to the stars. Wherever you are, I thought, I hope you are happy and together always.
The next morning, I swear I see a fox look back at me as it streaks toward the words, leaving only a clump of fur behind.
We are together, Erin, the wind said as it whistles through the trees. And we will always be with you.