Gao Ling has a long way to go to overcome her shyness.

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Gao Ling would rather climb these steps forever than face her greatest fear.The January cold sliced through Gao Ling’s windbreaker as she stood on the deck of the East Wind 37. Few passengers on the steamboat were willing to put up with the biting wind that whipped off the river today. Gao Ling was glad. Being alone here at the bow was like riding down the Yangtze in her own private boat.


The door behind her creaked open, and Mother stepped out onto the deck. “We should make it to Wuhan in good time,” she said, smiling. Mother always worried that they would get fogged in during the three-day trip down the river and be late for the New Year’s celebration at Grandfather’s house. “Come in out of the cold now.”


“But I love to watch the river,” Gao Ling said. She never tired of the scenery along the Yangtze. This part of the river had high cliffs on one side and flat rocks on the other. Lonely evergreens perched on the hills.


She didn’t want to be inside the East Wind 37, where children cried and roosters crowed. The thick smell of food cooking hung in the air all day long. Inside, Gao Ling would have to face the people. The other passengers were full of questions. Where was her home? Where was she going? Gao Ling could never find the courage to answer.


“Can’t I stay outside a little bit longer?” she asked Mother.


“No,” Mother said. “I have an errand for you to run in Wanxian. We’ll be docking any minute.”


An errand. Mother had never sent her on an errand in Wanxian. “Alone?”


“Gao Ling, you’re old enough now to go into Wanxian and buy oranges for Grandfather.”


“From a street vendor?”


“Of course from a street vendor. Who else?” Mother sighed. “Gao Ling, you’ve got to stop being so shy. You hang your head. You won’t look at people. You’re even scared to run errands. A big girl like you.”


“Can’t you at least go with me into Wanxian?” Gao Ling asked.


Mother shook her head and dug a few coins out of her pocket. “I don’t feel up to climbing those steps today.”


When the East Wind 37 docked at Wanxian, passengers crowded off the boat to begin the long climb into town. Two hundred and fifty steps stretched up the cliff. Today Gao Ling didn’t mind the slippery steps. She would have climbed these steps forever if it meant she didn’t have to buy the oranges.


Too soon, Gao Ling reached the top. The main street of Wanxian was just as muddy as the steps. Everywhere men sat peeling oranges and tossing the peels into boxes. People laughed. Vendors stuffed squawking chickens into net bags. Voices shouted out for customers. “This must be the noisiest place in China,” Gao Ling thought. If only she could be on her own private steamboat sailing down the silent Yangtze. Away from the noise. Away from the people.


One vendor’s voice rose shrilly above the others. It belonged to the woman selling oranges on the other side of the marketplace. Gao Ling remembered her from other years—her crooked brown teeth, the black of her eyes melting into the white. Before, Gao Ling had always crouched behind Mother so that she wouldn’t have to talk to the vendor.


“Buy my lucky oranges?” the woman asked now as Gao Ling walked toward her.


“Speak,” Gao Ling urged herself. “Speak!” But she couldn’t say the words. Instead she turned and skated across the mud, away from the vendor, away from Wanxian, down to the East Wind 37.


Back aboard the boat, Gao Ling found her mother lying on her cot. “Where are Grandfather’s oranges?” asked Mother.


“I didn’t get them,” Gao Ling whispered.


“You know Grandfather looks forward to Wanxian oranges all year.”


Gao Ling was ashamed of herself. A big girl like you, her mother had said. Too scared to buy oranges from a street vendor.


That night fog covered the river, and the next morning it still hung like a ghost around the East Wind 37.


“We’re fogged in,” Mother said. “We’ll never make it to Wuhan by New Year’s now.” She sighed and lay back down on her cot.


Everything was going wrong. The ship was fogged in. Mother didn’t feel well enough to climb the steps into Wanxian. Grandfather wouldn’t have any oranges for New Year’s. “I should do something,” Gao Ling thought.


Gao Ling knew what she must do. She must climb the two hundred and fifty steps into Wanxian. She knew the East Wind 37 wouldn’t leave without her. She had heard the captain say it couldn’t sail until the fog lifted.


Gao Ling went ashore and climbed through the fog, up into Wanxian. Fog masked the marketplace so that she couldn’t see anything. The crowd of shoppers, the chicken vendors, the boxes of orange peels—it was as if they weren’t there.


Then Gao Ling heard her. A shrill voice pierced through the fog like the cry of a chicken. “Oranges. Buy my lucky oranges.” Gao Ling made herself walk toward the voice.


“I can do it,” Gao Ling thought, fingering the coins in her pocket. “Ten oranges, please,” she said, hoping the vendor didn’t notice the quiver in her voice.


Gao Ling paid the woman and stuffed the oranges carefully into her net bag. As she slid away down the muddy street, the sun peeked through the fog. The East Wind 37 would sail today after all. They would be only a little late getting to Grandfather’s house. She was sure of that.


“Wait till Mother sees what’s in my bag,” Gao Ling said to herself. Hurrying down the steps toward the Yangtze, she felt as light as the east wind.