Somewhere on the blue felted seat of the S7 line I had lost it. The little orange duck. It was a wind-up toy my father had bought me on a business trip just a few weeks ago. It fit perfectly in the palm of my hand, and when I turned the key nestled behind the tip of its right wing, the duck’s shiny plastic feet hopped in my palm.
I had several animal toys, but this was the first one that could move, and the first one my father had bought me after returning from a business trip, during which he had spent an entire week away.
A year ago, my mother and I had moved to Munich from Beijing. My father had moved there a year before us to work as a visual software engineer at the German Aerospace Center. A whole year had gone by in which I did not see him and now I didn’t want to let him out of my sight. I must have been angry at my father for leaving because during those first few months my mother and I were in Munich, my father was only allowed to enter a room if he entered butt first or I would yell and cry. I have very little recollection of my father in China because I was only two when he left. I just remember his figure getting smaller and smaller as I stood in the doorway of our one room apartment before he disappeared. Now we were all together again, and I was enrolled in the local kindergarten of the town of Geisenbrunn where we lived, southwest of Munich’s city center.
About the duck, it was a beautiful wind-up toy in golden orange with green painted wings and a smiling beak. It wasn’t one of the soft stuffed animals that I loved, but it was the one my father had bought me and I would cherish this feeling each time I held it in my hand.
The city of Munich was a culturally rich place to grow up in, full of art, and history museums, classical music, and activities for kids. Over the years, I recall taking the subway with my mother throughout the city to attend woodworking classes, Christmas ornament painting, the puppet theater and the bubble museum, but I don’t remember what we did on that day. When the train doors opened and we stepped onto the platform my mother turned around and asked “where is your duck?” I looked at my empty right hand, the hand not holding my mother’s, then at the train rapidly pulling away from the station, and let out a cry.
This was the first present my father had given me in our new home, and now it was gone. I imagined my orange duck sitting all alone on the seat with no one to play with, or snatched up by a mean boy who broke its wing, or worse yet, picked up by some nicer, prettier girl who would take it home and make it her playmate. All of these scenarios spun around in my head and by the time we exited the station, I was bawling inconsolably. Already, I clung to things too tightly. I was a sentimental and over-sensitive child, and I was afraid this was a sign that I could never hold on to the things, people, or places that I loved.
It would seem that the theme of losing things or leaving them behind followed me in my life. I don’t remember the farewell with my grandparents when we boarded that plane for Germany, but I remember my father’s departure from our doorway, his walking out onto the street and waving, and my mother sitting down on the bed and putting her face in her hands. Even though he was here now, the remembrance of that feeling as his figure got smaller and smaller in the distance made me shudder.
But the duck, the duck. I don’t remember the rest of that day, but soon after my father bought me another windup toy, this time a yellow baby chick with a bright red beak. But it wasn’t the same. I couldn’t tell you why I was so attached to this toy. It wasn’t event the coolest, or cutest, or most expensive toy in the big toy shop in the center of Munich. But these are the tragedies of childhood, the first heartbreak, the first loss in a history of losses.
I would lose many more things to come. Moving from the first house where we lived, I had to say goodbye to the grandpa we shared the house with, who folded me beautiful animal weavings made of straw. We would move again to a bigger apartment where we had our own unit on the third floor with small a balcony and a television, and then again to another apartment where I had my own room with a pink mickey mouse carpet. All this before we made one final move, out of the town, the city, and the whole country of Germany, to America.
I had to bid farewell to the old lady downstairs who made me chicken alphabet soup and wept at the picture of her deceased son on the wall. And my best friend Ines whom I watched every Disney movie with and flipped through magazines of naked men she had stolen from her older sister. There was also my entire third grade class. And my beloved teacher Frau Kindle with the white curly hair who would give me a warm hug if ever I was sad, I had to leave her behind too.
Writing this makes me wonder where they are now. And marvel at the way people pass through our lives, how we lose them, how we stop keeping in touch. My parents left their entire lives behind when they left China: their parents, siblings, and friends, their language, their ability to navigate a city street. I suppose that that is the cost of progress; in order to move forward in life we also have to leave some things behind.
Later, I would dry my tears and come to enjoy playing with the wind up chick and my other toys: the big stuffed rabbit, the mermaid barbie, the small brown bear. I am much older now, and I no longer play with these toys. I have a job, I live in a studio apartment in New York, and I don’t often think about these moments from childhood. But the duck, the duck. And that child, whose heart broke over its loss, who could see so much magic in an ordinary thing. I never forgot her.
Cat Wei holds a BA in Comparative Literature and a BS in Economics from the University of Pennsylvania. Her writing has appeared in Sundog Lit and her translation of contemporary Chinese poetry has been published in Poetry Sky magazine. She lives in New York City.