NEA Literature Fellowships

Terrence Cheng

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(2006 - Prose)

From the novel Little Flower

She forced herself to wake up because she kept dreaming of her husband, her son, visions of her mother kneeling, praying, the burning of the village that had been her home in her mind like a smoking pyre, rubble and bodies and heads jutting out of the flames. She stood and peeked her head through the curtain. She was close to the front door that was closed, could still hear sobbing, muttering around her. As she thought she might be able to make an escape, the door opened and she threw herself back down on the straw bed.

A soldier's voice was shouting and she heard footsteps in the hallway. Maybe they were going back into the truck, continuing to their true destination. Then she saw an old woman go by with a tray, heard the sound of the curtains being pulled open and the women's voices around her murmuring. She listened for the Chinese girl's voice but didn't hear it. The soldier's voice rang over them all. The old woman came through her curtain and Xiao-Ping was on her knees, ready to take the two small bowls the old woman gave her. She slurped down the first one, a thin watery soup, the other bowl a grainy dry porridge she swallowed in three gulps. She tasted nothing and did not care, felt the food warm inside her belly, her body absorbing.

The front door of the house was cracked open with a soldier standing guard. He had a rifle at his side, attached to the tip a long bayonet aglow in wan light. She thought it was evening, but had lost track of what day, what hour, did not think it mattered. Minutes later the old woman came to their doors again and took the bowls and was gone. She wanted to ask the old woman where they were, what was going on, but the old woman would not meet her eyes and Xiao-Ping did not know what language the old woman spoke, if she would even understand. The main door closed and left them all sitting, still hungry in the darkness.

She did not want to fall asleep and yet she knew eventually she would. She kept thinking about the village, tried not to cry as she thought there were guards inside listening and she did not know if they would beat her or attack her. She felt so small, tiny, weak. She wished she could take a bath, soak herself in a stream or pond even if the water was cold. She thought she could smell the sweat and filth of the soldiers she had fought, feel remnants of the nightmare that had happened to her stuck to her skin. She saw Lin struggling with the soldiers, covering the unborn child with her arms, then what they did to her. The thrust of the bayonet over and over again. Xiao-Ping wept, covering her mouth. She could not erase the images from her mind.

The main door opened again and Xiao-Ping knew many of the other girls were awake because she was on the ground and could see across several cubicles on each side of her, even in the dark. Some were talking to each other, shared a language. It was not Chinese, and did not sound like the hard cutting language of the soldiers either. Were they speaking a dialect she did not know?

She heard boots coming through the door and into the aisle and all the voices stopped except for the men who were filtering through now. A dim light came on somewhere in the house, she could see it in the hallway. Xiao-Ping sat up, braced herself on her hands leaning behind her. She watched booted feet make their way past her cubicle. A few of them stopped, she felt them looking, watching, moving on. She kept her head tilted down so someone looking into her cubicle would not be able to see her face.

Then there was someone inside. She looked up and a chubby man with a sword at his side stood over her. He had rectangular patches on his shoulders and on his collar, was wearing a hat with one star in front. He was built like an ogre, thick and broad, barely able to fit in the cubicle. The man undid his belts and unhooked his sword, hung them on post hooks she had not noticed before. He took off his hat, started to unbutton his shirt, kept his eyes on her as a small smile formed on his face, mustache twitching on his lip. He pulled one foot up while still standing and yanked his boot off. Then the other. He unbuttoned his pants and when he leaned down, one arm braced on the post of the cubicle, his pants looped around his ankles, Xiao-Ping pushed off her arms and kicked at his face with one foot landing heel first in his mouth.

Terrence Cheng is the author of Sons of Heaven (HarperPerennial), and Deep in the Mountains (Watson-Guptill, tentative publication date Spring 2007). Cheng was born in Taipei, Taiwan in 1972, and immigrated to the United States with his parents in 1973. He earned a BA in English at SUNY Binghamton in upstate New York, and an MFA in Fiction at the University of Miami, FL, where he was a James Michener Fellow. Cheng is currently Assistant Professor of English and Creative Writing at Lehman College, part of the City University of New York. He has lived most of his life in New York. For more information visit

Photo by PF Bentley

Author's Statement

I've been working on this novel, Little Flower, since 2002, and with the NEA's generous funding I will now have the time and flexibility to do justice to the story, its characters, and the remarkable history within which all of it lies. I give my most sincere thanks to the panelists who took the time to read, discuss and whittle down the one-billion applicant manuscripts; and of course, my thanks to the NEA for providing this opportunity to myself and other writers, musicians, and artists in so many fields.