By Ellie Corne

Black cotton shoes. Wrinkled skin, resembling snake-like remains of dried waterways, parched by the sun to a bone dry, thirsty land. White Nikes. Rosy, delicate cheeks, lined by an untouched pair of burnt umber eyes. Linked by blood and genes yet not by heart, the pair, father and son, pull their sea blue moped in to a sheltered riverside grove. At five in the afternoon the sun still shines brightly, creating rays that sear through the tallest skyscrapers and heavy haze. Yesterday the Zhang Jia Bang River would have sparkled, reflecting the brilliant red of the spring sun on to the pink and yellow hues of cherry blossom petals lining the river bank. But today the water is a dark grey, absorbing the blazing sun into its depths and leaving each leaf and flower sulking under the suffocating haze. It is this river that provides for Zhao’s family, a kind old friend that welcomes the fishermen to borrow a fraction of its life, to fuel theirs.  

“Son! Did we catch anything? Look, look! There are splashes in the water!”

It is difficult to see beneath the lingering fog above the grey-green river, and young Jun squints hard. But the unmistakable steady sound of echoing flops from within the net makes his heart race. His ears grow ecstatic at the sound of the live water, an enchanting racket with an appeal that only fishermen of the Zhang Jia Bang River understand. His father, Zhao, has taught him the ways of the fishermen, through anecdotes of their family’s past. This river has raised Jun, Zhao, and Zhao’s father, each generation of men witnessing a different river, though carrying the same story. Before Zhao’s father, the river stretched itself into the wetlands and marshes of Pudong, the Eastern district of Shanghai. Although much of its body had kept its position over the years, it used to have arms that stretched far and wide into the fields, fingers that ran even farther into the rice paddies of welcoming farmers, and a soul that livened not only the flow of the river itself, but all those living around it.

Zhao hears the sudden beating of wings and the rustling of willow branches behind him. It is an azure-winged magpie. These birds come here often to play, mostly a tag-styled game in groups where they skip from tree to tree, swirling and twirling above the green water, teasingly dipping their wing tips in and causing a magnificent commotion. This was once a common sight for Zhao, as Shanghai, located at the junction of the East Asian-Australasian flyway was a path journeyed by approximately 50 million waterbirds each year. In the spring when the trees sang the brilliant songs of migrating birds, Zhao often sits in the shade to listen – magpies, warblers, swallows, turtle doves. Zhao can still name them all.

Young Jun, however, is not amused by the magpie’s performance. As Zhao snaps out of the daydream that the birds have cast upon him, he notices that Jun has already lost all interest in the single pathetic looking fish in their net. 

“It’s okay Jun, we’ll catch more eventually! There are hundreds of fish in this river that are just waiting for us to catch them. Look there’s one now!”

Jun’s gaze drifts toward where Zhao’s finger is pointing, only to see the ghostly pale, bloated lower belly of a carp. He sighs and turns on his heel, walking towards his father’s motorbike. He digs into his backpack filled with math, English, and biology textbooks, pulls out a stale, cold pork bun, and eats with his rubber soles grazing the green water. Although he sits in silence, the adjacent six-lane highway, that was built two years before to cross the Zhang Jia Bang river, muffles out the sweet song of a single swallow and the swishing of the weeping willow leaves that gently caress the side of Jun’s head. Jun’s ears will never be enlightened by the songs of the swallow, or the whispers of the willow tree.

Zhao, oblivious to Jun’s sadness, continues to fish. He tosses the mammoth bamboo-framed net into the murky waters, just as he has done so the past thirty years of his life. As he is doing so, the wind picks up, lifting wisps of dirt and dried crimson leaves from the ground into the air, and not long after, into Zhao’s eyes. He is momentarily blinded, but then appears unfazed as he is used to this common occurrence during his daily fishing rituals.

The clouds begin to shade into a dark onyx. They hover low, and reflect the quivering colors of city lights and traffic. Jun, a gleaming blob of sudden energy, runs toward the fencing of the river and presses his chest against the cold metal. But he looks to the left and not at the river beneath him. He resembles a contorted robot as he stares at the exhilarating highways, the whizzing by of trucks and cars – burst after burst of fluorescent streams of light. If he squints just enough, they become a level sky full of meteors. His dark eyes are hit by light in short intervals and twitch continuously to the right, following the journeys of the Buick GL8, Honda Civic, DaZhong taxi. Jun can name them all.

The river has evolved from its tranquil state, into a dazzling metropolis of blue and green fairy lights, the colors meant to enhance what once was – and should still be displayed – the river’s natural state. It has only been dark for a few minutes when a frustrated Zhao frantically collects his empty buckets, rolls up his fishing net, and grabs Jun’s hand to go. The reflection of the harsh green LED tree lights reflect onto Zhao’s face as he hurries to escape from this horridly artificial government-sponsored project that seems to have grown up all around the city. The river is no longer the one that he held close to his heart, but is now a foreign mass of lights that Zhao does not recognise, and refuses to try to embrace. Zhao, trying to remain unperturbed and keeping his back toward the river, lets his legs lead him in the direction of home. Unlike Zhao, Jun is more hesitant to leave, as the lights bring joy to his twinkling eyes. Jun walks backward with his back towards his father, moving slowly so as to not leave the beauty of the electric rainbow-colored river too soon. He can only walk so far until he loses sight of the river. He raises his hand toward it and waves, wishing that the lights would be on even in the day when he next returns.

“Jun, Er Zi,” says Zhao. “Do you hear that beautiful rush of the river’s water in the night? When I was younger, I would play in it, splashing the fast flowing, icy spring water onto my sisters and washing dew-covered vegetables in it! Hah, we have to visit it sometime, you’d love . . . ” 

Zhao goes on and on, first telling Jun about the rushing water, then about the friendly amphibians that live under the very bridge they are walking over. Little does he know, but Jun will never experience the rush of cold water, or chase frogs and newts, for they no longer exist in this place – they exist only in Zhao’s memories.

Ellie is an anthropology student at the University of London. She is currently taking a year off to train to become a Scuba Divemaster in Australia, before moving on to study Chinese history, politics, and art at NYU Shanghai for a semester. In her free time, she enjoys reading science fiction novels and playing rugby.