The train was delayed indefinitely. Everett removed himself from the hall where the migrant workers all clenched their fists, the ticket booth girls wore patient scowls, and the security guards had just started growling at the violation of their midday naps. Hefting his knapsack, he crossed the sun-hammered gray stone plaza toward a faded cafe, swerving through travelers who sat among luggage in the shade of a dingy palm tree. There was no breeze. Cigarette smoke rose in acrid pillars, and the air was so humid that when he’d sat and opened The Columbia Book of Chinese Poetry, the pages felt as damp as a used wash rag. Through the glare, Everett could barely make out the departure screen, and only in squinting did he realize that it was either on the fritz, or that his train was set to leave at precisely eighty-eight o’clock. He sighed and set to translating.
When the waitress brought his iced lemon tea, Everett thanked her in perfect Chinese. The girl blushed red and giggled demurely, then scampered away to report the occurrence to her eager coworkers.
“Impressive,” said the man to Everett’s left.
Everett glanced up. The man was beatific. His face was Chinese and his hair was as white as a swan’s wing. With an empty and slightly pestered smile, Everett offered him a profuse greeting that he’d culled from the works of Lu Xun: Apologies, most respected uncle. I’m afraid that I didn’t hear you clearly.
The man rapped his silver-tipped cane on the tiles.
“Impeccable! Bravo! Your accent is perfect, young man.”
Filled with pride at this commendation, Everett decided to forgive the man for persisting in the habit that most Chinese have of speaking to foreigners in no language other than English. “Thank you, sir, I should say the same to you.”
“Well, of course,” the man replied with a hearty chuckle. “I am now a foreigner like you, after all. Though not American.”
Everett wasn’t terribly surprised, for the man’s accent overflowed with the bluster of a well-heeled immigrant. He did, however, feel annoyed: “You can tell I’m American by the way I say thanks?”
“Iowa, one presumes? Midwestern at the least?”
Everett had to admit his astonishment.
“Cedar Rapids, as a matter of fact! How can you tell?”
Eagerly he angled his chair toward the man who gazed at him now with a winsome smile. He was dressed in a loose, white linen suit, sockless loafers of a delicate make, and wore sunglasses that were small and round and with bright red lenses in the frames. At first glance he appeared like any other boomtown factory owner, with his prideful posture and bewildering sense of fashion, but upon closer examination, despite his somewhat froggy aspect and stature of a racehorse jockey, the man’s golden skin and unhurried demeanor exuded the aura of a Caribbean gentleman of leisure.
The old man laughed. “Oh, one does learn to read such things.” He glanced at the weighty tome on Everett’s table. “Though not always from books, I can assure you that.”
Detecting no hint of condescension, Everett extended his hand to the man then offered greetings in the most formal language he could muster. Again, the man laughed, and shook Everett’s hand. “It’s a pleasure to meet you.”
“It seems we’re both waiting on a train?” Everett gestured to the nautical portmanteau set against the man’s table. “Do you think it’ll ever actually leave?”
The old man sighed and gazed across the plaza, where emaciated children shoved plastic flowers at a tour group of frightened women.
“That’s the thing about trains, isn’t it? Their departures are a matter of fate.”
“Where are you going?”
At this the man glanced at his portmanteau, a shadow of regret on his face.
“To my hometown, I’m afraid.” He wiped his eye. “To bury the love of my life.”
Immediately discomfited, Everett stopped fluttering the pages of his book. He noticed the man agitating a pewter wedding ring on his finger, and then all at once realized he’d never learned a formal way of expressing condolences to a man who’s lost his wife.
Seeing Everett’s awkward demeanor, the man gave a calming smile. “It’s okay,” he said. “I carried her away from that place, upon a time. Now fate decrees that I carry her back.”
“You carried her away?” Everett asked.
Again, the man laughed. “Quite literally, yes. For twenty-three days.”
“For twenty-three days?”
“Or nights, I should say. We slept in the day. To avoid the red devils.”
Everett leaned forward with his elbows on his knees, mouth hanging open in a look of startled curiosity.
“Are you serious?”
“More than you can even imagine, young man.”
“Would it be rude to ask you to tell me the story?”
The man squinted behind his red spectacles, as if to gauge Everett’s worth. Then he withdrew a gold pocket watch, compared it to the digital departure table which still read eighty-eight o’clock, and with a deep breath that seemed to draw a breeze across the plaza, he chuckled: “Do you think we have the time?”
It all began on Tomb Sweeping Day, when Aunty Crow thrashed me for refusing to cut the puppy’s throat. She’d acquired it that morning with the intention of boiling it into a stew, one to be poured over Uncle Chou’s grave, along with a portion of cobra liquor so Uncle’s ghost could get plastered in heaven and she along with him on Earth. But the moment I saw the pitiful creature with her rheumy eyes and soft blonde fur, I knew that I could never take her life. So as Aunty Crow flung her vile imprecations and rusty old kitchen utensils, I ran off clutching the puppy to my chest, with a bright purple knot rising on my forehead, never imagining that the bantam creature would be the engineer of my fate.
The day was atrociously hot for spring, and the pomelo grove was under assault from a plague of dragon-mosquitoes. Dripping with sweat and the fullness of love for my newfound pet, I went to hide behind the shady porch of Gao’s teahouse in the square. Being a holiday, the village had the joyous uproar of a carnival. It bustled with cries from the chess pavilion, the shrieks of children playing stickball games, the clattering of hand-carved mahjong tiles, and the crackling of fiery shrines by the side of the road. Reclining in the shade and fanning myself with a frond of elephant ear, I couldn’t help myself laughing at the puppy who, swelled with gratitude, took upon herself the charge of defending me against the bombardier mosquitoes. Much like myself, she was a runt from within whose breast swelled oceans of occasionally demented bravery. Yet during one such courageous effort, as she bounded through the dust attempting to snag yet another mosquito in her knobby little teeth, my puppy only managed to catch the attention of a gang of local youths.
“Hey Little Frog!” yelled Gao Dinghao, the teahouse owner’s son, for such was the sobriquet by which those swaggering idiots addressed me. “Finally found a wife, have you?” His comrades’ laughter clattered like mahjong tiles across the planks of the porch.
Shaking my fist and cursing their mothers, I rose into a fearsome wushu stance, preparing for a bout of fisticuffs. Yet as I did so, my puppy, dear thing, ferocious as she was, loosed a shrill bark and burst forward to defend me, only to run smack into a stool where sat the most beautiful girl in the entire world.
My heart nearly burst. Tan Lijun was the flower of the village, a princess in all but title. Her eyes were large with a sparkle at the edges. Her long black braid sat chatoyant in the tropical sun. It was no secret that I’d loved her from afar my entire life, but with my station as a grove-whelped orphan, I could never hope to do anything more than admire her enchanting beauty from the gutters as she passed. In fact, no less than fourteen men had asked for her hand in marriage that year, but her goateed father, a clever landlord and pomelo merchant who owned the groves where I worked every day, had calmly laughed and allowed his daughter to wordlessly reject each one with a wave of her hand. Everyone knew they were waiting for an excellent political match, and until such an auspicious suitor was arranged, Lijun would float through our midst with the posture of the haughtiest angel in heaven. So it was that, as she shrieked and dropped a pot of tea, I worried not about my muddle-headed puppy, nor at having to pay the expense of a soiled silk dress, but only at appearing wretched and foolish in front of my heart’s desire.
“Careful, Lijun,” Gao Dinghao barked, sidling up and laughing. “Little Frog’s mangy pooch will give you rabies!”
Lijun glared with her courtesan’s eyes, as her lordly friends whispered insults from behind their fans.
“Miss Tan,” I stammered, falling to one knee. “My profoundest apologies!” Then inspired by the chivalrous wuxia novels which had been my only education, I held my elephant ear frond aloft, and said, “Please accept this token of my undying affection.”
Gao Dinghao and his toadies exploded into laughter. The sound was grating, and it seemed to annoy Lijun all the more. With a sigh she muttered, “Could you get that filthy thing away from me, please?” then kicked at my puppy with an embroidered slipper and her silk scarves fluttering in the air. Too dizzy to fight back, my pet could do little more than whine as I gathered her into my arms. Again, I attempted to express my apologies, but Lijun only huffed in response. Gathering her skirts, she allowed Dinghao to escort her home, as her friends chattered in their wake like scornful birds. It was only in watching them walk away, with a rind of sweat and dust on my skin, that I puffed up my chest and stuck out my jaw and decided right then to name my puppy “Lucky Queen.”
That night the red devils arrived. It wasn’t the first time they’d come to cause trouble, kicking over shrines and crushing paper lanterns and spitting on the necks of the elderly, but it was the first time that they stayed. No one recognized the haggard teenagers, for they hadn’t yet begun to recruit from our town, but everyone knew that the world had changed when they burst into the merriment of Gao’s teahouse, scattering fragrant coals from the brazier, disemboweling sticky rice buns with bamboo stalks shaped into bayonets, then dragging Old Gao through the door by his silver hair. Even Dinghao, for all his bravado and rippling muscle, could only stand aside in abject terror as they softened up his father with a flurry of kicks to the ribs. When they declared the teahouse a counterrevolutionary capitalist pigsty, then claimed it as their base of operations, no one dared to defy them. Instead everyone simply got up and left, sobered by fear, and the only sounds in the village that night were the cackles and patriotic slogans of the militants, the insects croaking in the pomelo groves, and the wailing of our ancestors’ ghosts.
The next night was much the same. And the one after, and the one after that. Though the ruffians mostly refrained from physical violence, their constant presence blanketed the village in a fog of silent unease. Everyone had heard the reports from the north: homes upended, schools ransacked, landlords dragged from their villas and made to take baths in their own tangy piss. So as the blackguards stared like vultures from the porch they’d papered with hortatory slogans, no one whispered a word in opposition. We all just passed by, nervous and wary, refusing to glance at the sunflower seeds they spat at our feet, fearfully wondering why the squint-eyed aggressors were taking so long to pursue any official action.
It was upon returning from the toilets one day that I made the mistake of taking the shortcut through the village square. Scraped and sweaty from twelve straight hours of hauling rain-rotted pomelo trunks, I was thinking only of hurrying home so as to lessen Aunty Crow’s tirades, and then sit down to a steaming bowl of rice. Fumes from the bathhouse lingered around me like rumors of deviant behavior, and even Lucky Queen ran ahead to escape the stench. But as she did so, scampering past the teahouse porch which had been requisitioned as a stage for criticism sessions, one of those wiry and sharp-jawed hooligans sent her sprawling with a boot to the stomach and a cackling explosion of laughter.
“Avast, you imbecile!” I ran up and shouted. “What do you think you’re doing!”
“Pets are a symbol of the petty bourgeois!” the cretin barked, shoving his puffed-up chest in my face. “Are you a class enemy, frog face?”
Two of the others leaped from their perch and swarmed around me.
“The Great Proletariat Revolution only needs guard dogs!”
“And dogs to be eaten for dinner!”
One of the idiots poked me in the chest, and perhaps unwisely, I barked back at him like a vicious guard dog myself. In fact, in that moment, I felt more than ready for a fight. Though undersized, my legs were robust from years of hard labor, and my capacity for work was legendary, so barring a bayonet thrust to the stomach, I knew I’d at least get in a few kicks and thus keep my honor intact.
“No one,” I growled through gritted teeth, “is going to eat Lucky Queen.”
“Lucky Queen!” the idiot guffawed. “So, he is an elitist after all!”
It was only then, as Lucky Queen bared her teeth between my feet, that a vision appeared which struck the hooligans cold.
“Leave them alone,” said Tan Lijun, floating from the shadows of the Earth Goddess temple, her voice as cool and tranquil as a winter’s night. Her gaggle of friends recoiled behind her, cupping hushed murmurs in their hands. Fragrant tendrils of incense smoke rose up around her shoulders and it made her appear even more stunning and otherworldly than usual. As she boldly strode into our midst, her beauty was so fierce in the waning light, and her quiet confidence so overwhelming, that the hooligan soldiers (who were all still celibate youths after all), were completely shocked into silence.
“Go home,” she said to me, flicking her gaze to each of the discomfited soldiers in turn. “And take your stupid mutt with you.”
Aware that Lijun’s intervention was driven not by a sense of compassion, but her condescension toward the unkempt youths, I expressed no thanks, said nothing at all, and curled Lucky Queen into my hand and backed away. In fact, I felt a tad resentful at being saved by a girl, especially one who stood a head taller than me. Yet even so it was thrilling to watch as Lijun gave them a derisive sneer, swung her long, luxurious braid, snapped her fingers to her gaggle of friends, then floated off in the direction of her father’s home. Her friends kept glancing behind them as they left, but Lijun did not. She only walked off into the sun, never noticing the sulfurous coals that burned in the sockets of the rankled devils’ eyes.
It was the greatest mistake of Lijun’s life. That night as she slept in the two-story villa, not yet a year old, that her father had built with proceeds from leasing pomelo groves, she awoke to a ruckus in the courtyard. The red guards had kicked down the wooden front gate, smashing to bits its delicate tesserae and stone-wrought corbels, so that its depicted dragons and phoenixes looked like toothless salamanders and plucked chickens ready for the pot. When she ran downstairs, torchlight danced on the stucco walls in lurid, ghostlike shapes. Her mother’s sobs exploded like dropped clay jars. As her grandmother shrieked for her to stay inside, Lijun, haughty and defiant as always, burst through the front door to find her parents supine on the ground, their foreheads braced against the damp flagstones, each with a red devil’s muddy boot planted on their backs.
“The bourgeois princess arrives at last!” one of them howled as he gripped Lijun by the arm. She kicked and fought but it was no use, and soon she too was forced to the ground, where one of the imbeciles sat on her back while another approached with rusty and blood-stained shears. Fearing the worst, her father pleaded and begged them to stop, admitting his guilt as a capitalist traitor to the Great Proletariat Revolution, offering money, land, anything, as long they let his daughter live.
“You’ll answer for your crimes soon enough,” one said. Then as her parents’ wailing intermingled with the desolate silence that leaked from the groves, one of the savages gripped Lijun’s ear, ran the goat shears across her pale neck, and then with a grinding and violent effort, snipped off her lustrous braid.
“Now she looks fit to be a proper revolutionary wife,” the miscreant snarled.
When they eventually left, hauling her parents in a wooden-wheeled pig cart, the villa was papered from gutter to cornice with signs reading “Counterrevolutionary Swine,” and the groves beyond the courtyard shimmered with the eyes of villagers who’d crept through the trees to witness the scene. I admit with shame that I hid among them, and like the other two dozen gathered, I waited until the cackling of the soldiers diminished in the distance before I sulked back through the muddy fields, to a laborer’s hut where I’d never again fall sleep with ease, as distraught by my cowardice as by the realization that I was the reason for Lijun’s deplorable fate.
In the days that followed, Lijun’s parents were never seen in public, though she went about her business as if nothing strange had happened. Still she floated throughout the village, with her chin held high and her spine as rigid as a bamboo pole, traveling each day to the Earth Goddess temple where she lit incense and murmured unknowable prayers. The only evidence of any change was the way her friends had abandoned her entirely, and the mangled tufts of hair that sprung from her head. Perhaps I alone believed that this made her more beautiful than ever, as if the aberration only served to prove that her ethereal perfection was true, and the one time I attempted to tell her this, an ember from the incense leaped into her eyes, she sneered at Lucky Queen who hid behind my ankles, and then with tremendous bitterness she said, “This is all that damned dog’s fault.”
And perhaps it was. Truthfully, I felt an immensity of guilt, even as Lijun’s family became the least of the village’s concern. Soon Teacher Zhang was frog-marched onto the tea house porch, where kneeling with a dunce cap on his head and a bucket of feces hung around his neck, he was forced to read a self-criticism admitting his crimes in poisoning youngsters with bourgeois Western mathematics. Then just the same as Lijun’s parents, he too was carted away. Before long the Street of Barbers was emptied, its buildings requisitioned as barracks for the teenage marauders whose ranks were swelling daily, tableware was horded to be smelted into bullets, Shi the Librarian had disappeared, and soon we even had to stand in line for an hour or more to receive ration tickets that allowed us the luxury of picking our own damned fruit.
It wasn’t long after when Gao Dinghao began to sneak around at night. In the tiny hours he’d rap on our window and pass along news in hushed and bitter tones. First was the rumor that three towns over, a troop of red devils had swelled its ranks by recruiting children as young as six from the four-hundred-year-old Jesuits’ orphanage they’d recently burned to the ground. “Maybe you should think about joining, Little Frog,” he taunted through the window slats (had Aunty Crow not tugged me back, I’d have joined my boot to his face). Second was the bewildering revelation that Shi the Librarian hadn’t truly disappeared. Where we all thought that he’d been sent off for reeducation, due to his stockpiles of Beethoven records and illicit nudie girl magazines, the truth was that Shi the Librarian’s brother, Shi the Engineer, had smuggled him away on the coal train that passed by nightly toward the southern borderlands. “And the greedy old bastard took his magazines with him!” Third, finally, and easily the most surprising news of all: Shi the Librarian was a hero. The following evening, at midnight exactly, he and his brother would return with two empty box cars hitched to the train, and anyone who wanted to flee was welcome aboard.
“Quit stirring up trouble!” Aunty Crow hissed, rattling the window in Dinghao’s face. “Angry teenagers come and go. Before long you’ll all be lazy old men who can’t take a shit without a poor woman’s help.”
Dinghao crept off without another word, but I had to admit, the glint in his eye made a great impression on me. Burdened by the shame of his father’s denouncement, Dinghao smoldered with a quiet anger, and as he slipped off into the pomelo trees, he had the true look of a hero. That very moment I decided that I too would seek my fortune in the south. Perhaps by helping to lead others out, I might redeem my craven behavior on the night of Lijun’s disgrace. Perhaps I might have the chance to be a hero too.
The very next night I tucked Lucky Queen inside my shirt, then slipped into the kitchen which was really just a mud hut leaned against the house. I’d planned to pilfer a sack of beans so we’d have some sustenance for the ride away, and as I dipped my hand into the pot, a cough in the corner startled me. I spun and there sat Aunty Crow on her wooden stool, staring from the tops of her muddled eyes with the patience of a waterlogged tree stump.
“Aunty? What are you doing up so late?”
Pained by remorse, I pleaded as Aunty wrote circles in the air with a burning incense stick.
“Go,” she said. “And take your stupid dog. And don’t get caught. Else they’ll hang me when I tell them how you died of stupidity.”
Filled with gratitude I fell to my knees and attempted to kiss Aunty Crow’s gnarled hands. But never one for shows of affection, Aunty only smacked me on the back of the head and said, “Hurry up, you idiot!”
When we made it to the designated spot by the railroad tracks on the outskirts of town, a dozen villagers had already gathered in a darkness that felt like a blessing. The moon was full and ripe in the sky, but the railway passed through a mangrove swamp where snarling vines and a potent miasma obscured our faces and scents as we waited for the sign. Gao Dinghao stood at the fore with a doughty air and the shifty expression of a smuggler. His shamefaced parents huddled in the mud behind him. Coffin Maker Wang had brought his family, along with an ominous stack of his wares which were to be our hiding places for the passage, and strangely no one considered this to be a bad sign. Among the rest were fruit farmers like me, a dentist’s family, Gouty Li from the stationery shop, and most surprisingly, an avuncular and steely-eyed security guard from the Building of General Affairs. Perhaps least surprising, though most awe-inspiring, was Tan Lijun herself. Dinghao whispered that she had a wealthy uncle who lived in Kowloon, and as she sat on her leather suitcase, hands folded on her lap and her tufts of hair pinned up with silver barrettes, her immutable grace made it seem as though this town of Kowloon, a place of which I’d never heard, was the closest suburb of Shangri-La.
Cautiously I approached her with down-turned eyes and a hand to my chest. “I’m glad to see you here, Lijun. If I can do anything to help…”
At first Lijun gave no reply. She only fluttered her lashes in a manner that betrayed existential confusion. But when Lucky Queen poked her snout through my shirt and expressed my very same heartfelt sentiments, Lijun shook her head, gave a weak laugh, then whispered thank you as she stared into the darkness of the swamp. In that moment, I felt tall enough to kiss the moon.
In time the last few passengers came, including Lijun’s trio of haughty girlfriends. They arrived with their families, all lesser landlords, and spent a few moments colluding in the dark before they approached Lijun. With their hands clasped in a timid display, they murmured something in their girlish code. Lijun gave a perfunctory nod, and though it wasn’t a joyous reunion, any animosity between them seemed to disappear. Altogether they sat on their luggage, twiddling their thumbs and hoping they’d been perfect daughters and wives in each of their many past lives.
As the minutes ground more and more slowly by, the nervousness among us became as tangible and stifling as the fumes from the swamp. At five minutes to midnight, even Dinghao seemed ready to bite through his lip. “No, we can’t, we mustn’t,” his mother cried in his father’s arms. When midnight passed without a sound, without the three long, flat train whistles at which we were to ready our coffins and prepare to board, all of the women began to cry, along with the steely-eyed security guard who hadn’t said a word all night. Dinghao lay with his ear to the tracks, but when he detected no distant vibrations, his tan face blanched. Soon Coffin Maker Wang crept up to him, and for a few moments they appeared to collude, and then argue, and then they began to hiss like lizards. I myself ran up to separate them, but as I did so, Lucky Queen uttered a ferocious growl and that’s when we heard the most terrifying sound in the world: the national anthem.
Who knows how they discovered our plan. One could only say a prayer for Shi the Librarian and Shi the Engineer. And who knows why they were singing and marching instead of creeping quietly through the swamp, but sure enough, there they were, a battalion of gaunt and motherless youths bedecked in castoff army fatigues and red armbands, some wearing oversized water can helmets, others gas masks, all of them carrying bamboo pikes and fieldhand shovels and buckets of paint, and one tiny girl an ominous-looking water hose. In rank and file, they marched a hundred yards down the tracks, lusty for violence and drunk on the middling kind of hubris a peasant is only allowed once in a lifespan. At their fore strode two scouts with flaming torches and fierce-looking mongrels on chains, and as soon as she sniffed those slobbering beasts, Lucky Queen burst the buttons on my shirt, then began to bark with the wildness of a freedom fighter charging out her last gasp of hope.
“Dammit Little Frog!” Dinghao cried, as the mongrels started barking and a whistle was blown among the horde. Then with a shrill and tremulous wailing from the women and the steely-eyed security guard, all of us gathered there abandoned the luggage and the stack of coffins and went scrambling into the swamp. A few broke off in random directions, but for the most part we clambered together through waist-high mud and muck and vines, pulling the aunties over mangrove roots, falling on our faces in stagnant pools of water, never looking back into the swirling dark for fear of the barking of the phantasmal dogs, the murderous cries of the chasing guards, and the national anthem which echoed all throughout the night.
Driven by despair we plowed ahead, finding new reservoirs of strength every time we heard a hellish shrieking from those who’d doubled back toward the village and were caught. Four were lost, but it seemed like hundreds, like everyone we’d ever known or loved were being consumed by the snarling of the dogs and the fever of the devils and the uncaring land of our birth, and that feeling persisted for never-ending hours, even as the cries of our pursuers diminished into haunting echoes in the distance. Eventually we who remained came to rest atop a hill on the far-flung side of the swamp, our clothing torn, our faces slathered with pestilential mud, our hands bleeding and our skin swollen with the bites of a thousand bog gnats. There we rested, so tired and gasping that no one had the breath to cast accusations. Dinghao’s mother shook with a palsy. Tan Lijun heaved breaths like a wraith. Her trio of friends went dry of tears, and so we gathered our bearings for a moment and attempted to understand the wretchedness of our fate.
Dinghao squatted on a flat stone ledge, peering out over the swamp and the town and the torchlights that flickered in the darkness like a zodiac of doom.
“What now?” Coffin Maker Wang whispered.
With a coolness to his gaze, Dinghao turned to the opposite direction, looking out over the illucid darkness and the landscape that stretched for miles.
“Now,” he said. “We walk.”
Though the midday sky was burning hot, Everett barely noticed the sweat pouring down his neck, nor how he’d thumbed his book into a soggy, pulpy brick. Above the gates of the departure hall, the digital display scrolled the names of faraway cities, alongside smiley-faced sun icons which failed to convince the stranded crowds that the heat was in fact a gift from the Ministry of Weather.
“And so, you walked?”
The old man didn’t seem to hear Everett speak, and instead mopped his brow with a silk handkerchief that he flourished like a bored magician. He appeared to be watching a sidewalk tout who hawked children’s toys from a blanket spread atop the concrete. A gaggle of children loosed a cheer as the tout set some toy or other to clanking, and then with a sudden burst of inspiration, Everett’s companion rose chuckling from his chair, strolled across the plaza, and passed the tout a wad of bills. Standing there hunched atop his silver cane, the man looked somewhat like a child himself, both for his stature and the giddy expression on his face. Upon returning he plopped a mechanical dog on the table and said, “For you, my dear boy. A gift.”
Everett laughed as he received the toy and placed it atop his knapsack. But then he furrowed his brow. “Apologies. I feel as though I should give you something too.”
The man waved his hand in the air. “Nonsense,” he said. “Consider it a token of our people’s great history. Did you know that the breed we call Beijing Gou, which you may know as Pekingese, was the truest symbol of aristocratic bearing in the courts of our last Qing emperor?”
Everett was enthused to admit that he did not.
“And that the blood of our purest breeds was used upon a time by castrated oracles to halt the four winds and inhibit the spread of venereal plagues?”
“Wow,” said Everett, dumbly nodding his head.
“Or perhaps that the legendary Conqueror Ku only came to power five thousand years ago when his loyal mutt Panhu vanquished his enemies and in doing so allowed him to win the love of the kingdom’s fairest maiden, the emperor’s daughter, who rode Panhu into the southern mountains where she birthed old Ku eight sons?”
Everett swallowed a lump in his throat.
“Or that the everyday village pooch which is native to these balmy southern climes is in fact the singular greatest defense against poisonous snakes?”
Everett’s mouth hung agape. “Snakes? I thought only mongeese were fast enough to fight snakes?”
“Mongooses,” the old man corrected Everett. “Of course, this is only anecdotal evidence. But were it not true, then Tan Lijun and I might never have made it out alive.”
On the third day, Dinghao decided that we hadn’t made enough progress. By twilight and starshine we’d hiked across ridges and forded rocky streams, using the specter of the railroad tracks in the distance as a kind of guide. Yet never once did we hear the coal train or see its smoke trail arcing through the sky. In fact, we heard little at all those days except for the “buji buji” calls of orange birds, our own labored breathing, the incessant tears of the security guard, and on two occasions, the haunting refrain of the national anthem which made us double our speed. By the second night we’d eaten what little food stores we possessed and began to scavenge for mountain oysters, whose slimy texture and alkaline taste even Tan Lijun slurped down without complaint. Either way we were tired and hungry, and to the white-eared bulbuls in the trees we must have appeared like refugee spirits all fleeing from the colonies of hell. So, it was on the third desperate morning that Dinghao decreed we had to continue by the light of the sun, or else we’d no chance of reaching the border alive.
Inspired by Dinghao’s seemingly inexhaustible supply of energy, no one thought to disagree. Beaten down but resolute, we lurched single file along muddy old goat paths, weaving underneath tropical canopies that tinged the daylight green. That morning Lucky Queen was uniquely innervated, feasting as she had been for three whole days on nutritious dragon-mosquitoes, and even the cowardly security guard had stopped staring at her with a hungry expression after seeing how masterfully she kept the plague of insects at bay.
During mid-morning we reached a crumbled and ruinous shrine to the ancient Earth Goddess, and there Lijun halted her steps. “It’s too early to rest,” Dinghao said blankly across his shoulder, but Lijun defied him with a sneer. “Look to your mother, Little Gao.” Though insulted, Dinghao was instantly heartsick to realize that in his compulsion to lead us to safety, he’d overlooked how stoically his parents were suffering. His mother looked pale and clung to his father, attempting to hide the tremor in her hands. His father had a cut on his scalp that appeared infected. The pair of them whispered together for a moment, then Old Gao gave a fatigued smile and said: “It’s okay, son. Just a minute or two.”
“A minute or two,” Dinghao murmured, embracing his mother with a pained expression.
“Besides,” said Lijun, rolling her eyes. “We need all the help we can get.” Then Lijun drew a single joss stick from the tattered folds of her dress. How she’d managed to keep it unbroken was truly a miracle, and everyone considered it a sign of good fortune when she borrowed spectacles from Coffin Maker Wang, took to her knees before the shrine, and lit the incense with a holy ray of magnified light. Its first smoke wisps filled us all with the fragrant breath of companionship, and as we rested in a banyan tree’s shade, it seemed for a moment that our journey was almost over.
And for some of us, it almost was. The very next moment, Tan Lijun unleashed a scream that ripped the day in half. Reacting instantly, her trio of friends too screamed in synchrony, the cowardly security guard ran into the woods where he was never seen again, and Gao Dinghao and I leaped up ready for a fight. Yet it wasn’t any red devils crawling through the brush that had frightened Lijun, but something far more treacherous: a cobra, with eyes as black as polished coal and a hood wider than a man’s hand. It slithered around the Earth Goddess shrine and rose to its full height, swaying in time with the incense smoke as it gazed into Lijun’s soul. Lijun scrambled to back away as her trio of friends continued screaming, but before anything at all could be done, the serpent opened its treacherous maw and hatefully bolted through the air.
What happened next was the one true miracle, perhaps the proudest moment of my life. Not that I did anything myself, for it happened so quickly that words like bravery, honor and fear held no meaning whatsoever. Like the others I stood gutted, barely capable of understanding what occurred before my eyes as the airborne serpent was wrenched from its trajectory, snared by the jaws of my dear Lucky Queen as she bounded through the air like a lion.
Their battle only lasted for seconds. The malevolent hissing and piercing barks kicked up a dust cloud and a scattering of twigs, and when they were done, the snake lay dead, its head crushed by Lucky Queen’s knobby little teeth. Seeing this result, I ran up and stomped on the corpse of the serpent and kicked it to the brush, as Lucky Queen wobbled and plopped on her haunches, exhausted, but victorious. “Lucky Queen!” I cried, lifting my puppy and twirling her through the air. She responded with a weak but satisfied whine, and the other villagers watched awestruck as I set her back down and placed a kiss on her snout.
Only then did we notice Tan Lijun rolling about and moaning on the ground. As she’d scrambled away from the murderous serpent, she’d stepped in a fissure in the shrine’s foundation, then tripped and fell, and her thin ankle had snapped beneath her. Her foot swelled up like a rotten melon and when we attempted to help her stand, she collapsed into the chaotic sobs of a creature who has never in her life known pain.
“Mother of bastards!” Dinghao blurted, kicking at the dirt as we tried to fashion a splint from rags and sticks. “Can you walk?”
Lijun said nothing but sat on the ground, streaked with mud and blood and tears, unable to halt the violent shivers of her body. Her trio of friends had recoiled into the cautious arms of their fathers, whimpering and waiting. Coffin Maker Wang hunkered to the side, silently relieved that amidst the fracas his spectacles had gone unbroken. Bravely Tan Lijun tried to walk but the moment she placed weight on her foot, she collapsed with a shrill cry of pain.
“It’s no use,” I said, peering up at Dinghao. “We’ll have to carry her.”
“Carry her! We’re barely making it as we are!”
“Then we’ll have to rest until she’s better.”
“Rest until she’s better! You’re insane, Little Frog! Don’t you know that soldiers are prowling these hills?”
I gritted my teeth, rising to the fullness of my height which, admittedly, wasn’t very high.
“Then what do you suggest we do, Little Gao? Just leave her here?”
Dinghao huffed and stormed away, tearing at branches and kicking at spreads of loose scree. I myself sat down on the dirt and attempted to comfort Lijun as best I could, though such was impossible. She couldn’t walk, and the realization of what that meant had stained her face with fear. Yet seeing her that way, frail, pain-wracked, dirty and wearing the hair of an ill-behaved toddler, I remembered how stoically she’d passed through the village in the days following her parents’ capture, and felt in awe of her great inner strength. I knew that she would endure, and I beside her. The physical ravages of that moment were but a palimpsest of Tan Lijun’s immortal beauty, and it was my honor to share in all of her suffering.
“You’ll be okay,” I took her hand and whispered. “I promise you will.”
Tan Lijun screwed up her eyes.
“What’s wrong with your dog?” she said.
“Lucky Queen saved you. She truly has the heart of a dragon!”
“No, you idiot,” she gestured with her chin. “Look. The damned thing’s dying.”
Instantly I spun and saw Lucky Queen lying on her side, pink tongue lolling, breathing in rapid little bursts. “Oh no,” I blurted, crawling over to where she lay with her brown eyes gazing up at me in fatalistic pride. In examining her body, I discovered a swollen incision on her neck where the snake had managed in the furor of battle to snag her with a single fang. Desperately I planted my lips around the wound and began to suck, hoping the venom hadn’t spread. I spit out thin streams of toxic blood then went back for more, ignoring the burbles of disgust that rose from Lijun’s useless friends, and when finally, no more would come, I sat and cradled her against my chest, rocking back and forth, ashamed at man’s inability to match the courage of a single dog.
The day grew humid and long. Lucky Queen seemed unready to die, though she couldn’t do anything but lie and breathe. Perhaps impressed by my humble puppy’s willingness to sacrifice herself, no one complained as I gathered soft taro leaves into a mattress and allowed her to rest beside Tan Lijun. In fact, all the others did much the same, despite Dinghao’s perpetual grumbling and occasional cathartic need to shout at the trees. Every one of us needed sleep, even as our collective unease amplified each cry from the white-eared bulbuls, exaggerated every rustle in the understory, and imbued the wind with murmurs of gunfire and distant revolutionary slogans. In time I too began to doze, and only when dusk fell did I awake to whispers, and so realize that our comrades were quietly conspiring some distance away.
Every single one of them watched as Dinghao pushed aside a branch and crossed his arms.
“We’ve taken a vote, Little Frog,” he said.
Already suspicious of their secretive behavior, I merely arched my eyebrow in response.
“It’s getting dark. We’re leaving now. We simply can’t wait any longer.”
“Wait…what?” said Tan Lijun, hoisting herself up to sitting. “But how will we…? How will I manage…?”
“We’re leaving without you,” Gao Dinghao said grimly.
For the briefest of moments then, I closed my eyes, and all I could hear was Tan Lijun’s feral voice. She clawed at the dirt and implored the villagers, but no one responded. Even her trio of friends remained silent. When I opened my eyes, they were hiding behind their fathers’ tattered robes, toeing the ground and chewing their lips and looking for all the world like terrified children. And in that moment, as the great truths of human nature revealed themselves to us, as Coffin Maker Wang and Gouty Li and all the others took backward baby steps down the old goat path, Tan Lijun became inhumanly grim and composed herself.
“Fine,” she sneered. “I’m tired of your whining anyway!”
Her trio of friends began to cry.
Gao Dinghao gave a single, stoic nod, then moved toward the path. Truthfully, he had a touch of pity in his eyes, but even so he was hardened with resolve as he spoke across his shoulder. “Little Frog, we’ve no other choice.”
In that instant I made no motion, but remained where I sat on the bed of leaves, gazing at Lucky Queen and Tan Lijun who had covered her face with her hands. A dark froth of anger bubbled in my heart, for Dinghao was right. He had no other choice. The world didn’t care if we lived or died. Lijun and Lucky Queen would only slow us down. Their frailty would almost assuredly curse our fate.
“Little Frog, are you coming?” he said.
There was nothing else left in this world for me to love.
“You’ve taken a vote?” I muttered.
Dinghao halted in the gathering dusk. The indigo light fell heavy on his shoulders. The villagers watched as he remained with his back turned, looking not at them, but at the gnarled ground beneath his feet.
“That’s what I said.”
“How democratic of you.” I rose to standing. “You really are a traitor to the people, Little Gao.”
The villagers inhaled a collective, startled breath. The canopy rustled. Tan Lijun peered at us with red-rimmed eyes.
“Think, Little Frog,” Gao Dinghao growled, turning slowly around with an incredulous look. “It’s suicide. Don’t be stupid.”
Perhaps he was right. If the devils found us, we’d never escape. They’d drag us back home in rusty chains. They’d shave our heads. They’d leave us in the village square to be eaten by crows.
I smiled at Tan Lijun.
“It’ll be okay,” I whispered to her. “I swear on my life.”
“Oh, dear god,” she muttered, and began to cry.
Dinghao gave a snort of confusion, an ugly expression which quickly collapsed into a squint of embarrassment. For a moment I thought we were going to fight, but angrily then he just shook his head and shoved through the grasping trees. When he took his mother’s feeble hand into his, I actually felt sorry for him.
“Fine then! Good luck!” he cried.
“Go to hell,” I replied.
The bulbuls in the trees took flight in shock. At the bottom of the hill, Lijun’s friends loosed a horrid wail. The mists of nightfall swirled around us. And so it was we found ourselves utterly alone.
Everett exited the train station bathroom without complaint toward the puddles of piss on the tiles beneath the urinals, the odor of chemicals and putrefaction, and the lack of hand soap in the sinks. Shouldering his way through startled migrants and the cigarette smoke that billowed from the toilets, he rushed back to the cafe with only a cursory glance at the train schedule, which still read eighty-eight o’clock. When he spilled into his seat, he exhaled a breath he’d been holding since he’d left, and the old man slapped his knee and laughed.
“Everything come out alright, young man?”
“That’s what you need to tell me,” Everett said.
Again, the man laughed, then gave a sly glance toward Everett’s book. “What’s left to tell?” He cleared his throat. “In youth I couldn’t sing the common tune. It was my nature to love the mountains and the hills. By mistake I got caught in a dusty snare, went away once and stayed for thirty years.“
Everett gave the man a look of astonishment, then placed his palm flat on the book.
“That’s my favorite poet,” he said. “Tao Yuanming. ‘Returning to My Home in the Country, Number One’.”
“Amazing! Bravo!” The old man applauded with his gentlemanly hands. “You truly are a scholar, my friend. I feel as though you’re my very own nephew.”
A luminous pride swelled within Everett’s breast. Never before had he felt so rewarded for his efforts in studying the ancient poetry. Never before had he felt rewarded for studying poetry at all.
The old man leaned across his silver cane.
“Your favorite you say?”
Everett nodded dumbly.
“But perhaps you don’t know what happens next? So long since I’ve enjoyed the hills and ponds…“
He paused, waiting for Everett to respond.
“The boundless pleasures of woods and fields…?”
A darkness glinted in the man’s beady eyes. He shook his head no.
“Then perhaps there is more to the poetry than you know.”
Not long after the others left, it became clear that we couldn’t linger in that ruinous place. As twilight crept up the mountainside, the dragon-mosquitoes began to swarm, pullulating so thickly in the air that we couldn’t breathe without choking on their wings. Still weakened by venom, Lucky Queen could only watch sadly as Lijun and I slapped them dead on our skin, and it tugged at her puppy heartstrings so hard that she half-rolled, half-slunk through the dirt, then nibbled on the fraying hem of my trousers, indicating it was time to go. I agreed. After gently nesting Lucky Queen within my shirt, I turned and squatted on the ground before Lijun.
Lijun buried her face in her hands.
“So, this is how I die. Riding on the back of Little Frog.”
I didn’t respond. In fact, I didn’t say another word that night, but instead applied the lessons I’d learned during years of hauling pomelo baskets as heavy as an adolescent mule. That is: one step at a time. With my hands interlaced behind my waist and Lijun seated there clutching my neck, we made our way down the slope of the mountain, gliding over stones, parting creek waters, moving just fast enough to keep the mosquitoes from finding safe purchase on our skin. At first Lijun cried out at the sight of every log or scrabble of shale, saying “Watch it, waterhead! Are you paying attention?” or squeaking out yelps whenever my foot sank into marshy soil and her broken ankle thwacked against my knee. But eventually night fell hard and dark, the mosquitoes relented, and Lijun soon grew as calm and trusting as Lucky Queen in my shirt. In this way we plodded through phosphorescent plains and empty rice fields, through mists shot through with stray moonbeams and rainfalls dripping from the broad, flat leaves of the canopies sagging overhead. Once we heard dogs howling in the distance, in a creekside village spied from a cliff, and in that moment, I sped to a gallop, Lijun gritted her teeth in pain, and she growled in my ear, “I’ll kill you when all this is over.”
For me, the passage was easy. After all, Tan Lijun was the lightest load I’d carried in years, and my only challenge was meditating so as to prevent the physical reflex that any young man could expect while gripping a woman’s bottom in his hands. When dawn broke pale and clean in the sky, I felt as energetic as when we’d departed, though Tan Lijun was exhausted. She collapsed in the dirt beneath a giant spider plant, falling asleep the instant her head hit the ground. I too rested with my back against a tree, and when eventually we rose, Lijun rebuked me for a hundred things, for the pain in her foot, for the soreness in her neck and the rumble in her stomach, but she never complained about the way I’d nested Lucky Queen in her arms as she slept.
We made good progress those first few nights, marching steadily beneath clear skies, subsisting on bamboo shoots and yellow croakers that I speared in the muddy streams coursing toward the Opal River. The pain in Lijun’s foot diminished with each passing dawn, and so she was forced to find new things of which to complain about, chiefly the dragon-mosquitoes. Each dusk we had to spend a few minutes in battle, swiping through the air like pestered bears, hoarding enough of their emerald bodies to feed Lucky Queen who was still too weak to hunt herself. Yet despite her constant grumbling, it seemed Lijun had begun to enjoy our covert journey, for once as we coasted through a downhill tunnel of dripping camphors, she began to giggle, whispered “Faster!” and I picked up speed, and her tattered scarves trailed behind us like smoke, and Lucky Queen thrust her snout from my shirt, and when we burst from the tree line into a sweeping valley of shimmering grasses, Lijun squealed with such wild glee that surely she appeared like a mad aviator navigating the stars on a dragon.
The following evening, we had our first argument. Lijun had hobbled off into the bushes for a moment of privacy, and when she returned, she was leaning on a crutch fashioned from an oak branch. At first, I felt a degree of relief at her grim tenacity and womanly tolerance for pain, for lately she’d seemed less like a cripple, and more like a queen relaxing on a cushioned palanquin. Yet when I saw how slowly she limped, I refused to let her walk, both for the dawdling progress we’d make and also as a matter of honor. When Lijun ignored me and ambled up the path, I began to grow angry. “Stop being so prideful!” I shouted. It was then Lijun gave a furious scowl. “You will not touch me again!” Admittedly I was embarrassed, believing she’d divined the reason I stopped so often to take a tighter grip on her bottom. But then she turned demurely away and whispered, “At least not for seven days.” And so that night we groped through the darkness, side by side, our hopes of freedom temporarily impeded by the remarkable and timely health of her feminine parts.
We spoke very little in the days that followed. Lijun’s slippers dissolved from her feet, soaked by the very last rain of our journey and abraded by stones on the ground. We both felt so tired and hungry that she didn’t argue when I took off my sturdy canvas shoes and gave them to her to wear. Two days later she noticed the bleeding sores on my feet and suggested that she carry me for a while. It was the only moment of humor I recall. Whenever else she spoke, she did so with a fiery hate that I knew in her heart wasn’t truly meant for me, but that in the wicked heat, I was the only valve through which to unburden her of the pain of survival. Once, and only once, she directed that rage toward Lucky Queen. She cursed and spat and threatened to drown her in a swamp. But when I said “Fine” and picked up my pace so that Lijun couldn’t keep up, she fell into heap and screamed, “I’m sorry! Please don’t leave me!” Were it not for the sad look in Lucky Queen’s eyes, I might never have turned around. But finally I did, hoisting Lijun once again upon my back and trudging off to the sound of her desolate tears.
It was in such a quiet one moonless night, after days of drought, that we reached a sloping and charred cinderland where nothing but a few coarse grasses rustled in the breeze. Creeping past ominous-looking rampikes and parting disheveled brushwood stacks, we walked through the tangled site of a village where it seemed not a soul remained. Lucky Queen whined in the crook of my arm as we strolled among knolls and ancient grave mounds, picking through the traces of dried-up wells, blackened brick hearths left open to the sky, and huts with their roofs collapsed into heaps on pallets where the living once slept. Above the lintels of every door hung hand-painted banners with political slogans unmarred by the doom still floating in the air, and as we searched for remaining stores of water, we came upon a wretched old crone. She was dressed in a shawl and her spine was bent, and she cackled a song to herself as she sorted scraps of wood. Yet when she saw us, the old crone flared her muddled gray eyes and hissed in a manner that brooked no politeness: “Who are you! What are you doing!”
With the perfect musical timing of an actress, Tan Lijun gave a weary sigh, leaned on her crutch and said: “Greetings, Aunty. I am Xiao Song. This is my husband, Little Dragon. We’re traveling to visit my father in Silver Sparrow Village.”
The old woman’s cloudy eyes flicked back and forth, and in that moment, I felt overcome with emotion. How could anyone, even this brainsick ghost of a crone, believe that Tan Lijun had chosen me for marriage? Surely, the crone would see through the lie. Surely, she’d run off to alert the authorities the very moment we left. Luckily however, as I straightened my posture and stretched my neck in the manner of a worthy husband, the old woman wheezed out a laugh.
“Husband, aye? I had one of those once. Can’t even remember his name!” Again, she cackled and went back to gathering wood.
At that moment, as the woman leered about with her nebulous eyes, she reminded me so much of Aunty Crow that despair took hold of my heart. “What happened here?” I murmured to her, my voice like dust across my dry, cracked lips. “Where are these people now?”
The wood-gatherer spoke across her shoulder. “Dead and gone! None of them left! The whole town burned for giving refuge to a runaway gang of class enemies!”
Immediately Tan Lijun and I both succumbed to terror. We argued with our eyes as a gust of wind sent ash clouds fluttering across the village, and even Lucky Queen grew nervous in my arms. Yet despite our fear and barren longing for a world not so forsaken, Tan Lijun somehow found the strength to hobble on her crutch over to the woman’s scraps. There she picked up a single fragment, and placed it neatly and evenly atop her pile.
“Man’s life is a phantom affair,” she whispered. It would be many years before I understood what she’d meant.
It was deep into the night when we heard the coal train whistling across a ridge of horsetail pine. Despite never straying too far from the tracks, it was the first time we’d heard those three, long notes indicating that the train was slowing, and their noisy caterwaul shocked the evergreens and filled us with hope and fear. Creeping to the ridgeline I spied an arc of fizzling orange lights, the snares of power lines tangled at a station, and just beyond, the first glow of dawn breaking over a hobnail village. The town congregated on the northernmost bank of a murky river, yet on the southern bank I saw nothing at all. Just a barbwire fence, empty marshlands with mountains in the distance, and the vein of the train tracks passing through unencumbered. Only then did I realize where we were.
“We made it!” I croaked to Tan Lijun. “We made it to the border!”
“Great,” she sighed. She was seated on a tree root and sipping from the all but empty canteen I’d left her. “Take me to the nearest hot bath.”
By the time we made it down to the village, the sky was bright and the dusty streets were full with villagers in wide-brimmed hats pushing wobbly bicycles through the haze. At first, I worried that our tragic appearance, muddy, scabbed and limping along like exiled lepers, would alert the locals to our status as desperate runaways. Yet as we hitched down the flat paved streets, past sagging power lines and moldy buildings, no one seemed to notice us at all. Only when we approached the river did we understand why. At a concrete chute no more than waist deep, a multitude of deplorable creatures stood in rows with weathered tin buckets, staring woefully at a trickle of stagnant water oozing past their feet. A baby bawled. Some rancorous engine in a wooden-planked shack was belching out black plumes of smoke. I too stared at the trickle of water, my tongue like leather and my eye sockets aching, wondering how much I could drink before it would kill me. But then I noticed a pinched grandfather standing aside. He blinked hungrily at Lucky Queen, who’d only that morning begun to walk, and we hurried on past as fast as we possibly could.
At a distance from the main thoroughfares and commotion, we found an unused dock sinking into the quiet and stinking river. Surrounded by tall marsh grasses and the chained-up frames of decrepit skiffs, it provided an exemplary hiding place, and so I bid Lijun hunker down and wait while I examined our options.
“You’d better hurry back,” she remarked while pinching her nose. “Else I’m selling this stupid dog and buying a first-class ticket on the cross-border train.”
As usual, I ignored her. Creeping alone along the riverbanks, I searched for gaps in the barbwire fence that loomed on the southern side. Unfortunately, the fence appeared to be the sturdiest construction for a hundred kilometers, and the more I searched the more I realized we’d have to find another way across. In time I came to the very train station I’d spied from the ridge, which in all truth was little more than a porte-cochère of corrugated tin surrounded by tilting, dilapidated shacks and the half-shorn trunks of camphor trees. Yet not far away, an exquisite walking bridge arched across the river, and I crouched in the sedge to get a closer look. It had painted trusses and red paper lanterns, and thoughtfully complex balustrades transmitting sunlight into double-lucky symbols on the floor. A gaggle of stone-faced soldiers guarded its pathways, and their wooden rifles gleamed on their shoulders as they checked passports for a mute line of nurses in blindingly white frock coats. For a length of time that was stupidly risky, I remained watching those noble women, entranced by the jugs of water they carried, and distracted thus it wasn’t until a creaking rose from the railroad tracks that I realized the danger I was in.
The rickety train had been unloaded, its boxcars open to the dusty sun and its flatbeds baking in the heat. Yet as the beast rerouted northward, I noticed a tumult of stiff-lipped soldiers contending with a duo of paunchy bureaucrats, and standing at a distance, a troop of feral and wildly aroused red devils. Only then did I spy the solitary flatbed cart which hadn’t been shed of its cargo, and the two naked men standing atop it, shackled and cowering from the sun. Their cracked skin burned as red as our flag, and their backs were crimped as they stood with their foreheads touching. Yet when I realized who they were, my heart screamed out in a maddening fury and I vomited dust at my feet.
“Shi the Librarian,” I cried. “Shi the Engineer.”
When I returned to the dock, Tan Lijun could see the despair on my face. “What’s happened?” she begged, but I shook my head, unwilling to curse her with a palpable image for the doom we’d somehow avoided. Instead I mumbled that I’d been unsuccessful, that I couldn’t find a single way across, and I suppose my demeanor was weak and pathetic for as I stammered and clutched at my scalp, Lijun reared back and slapped me across the mouth.
“Don’t turn into a coward now,” she seethed.
I don’t think I ever told her how, in that moment, with my head knocked screwy, I saw her standing before me in a nurse’s frock, her long, lustrous hair pinned up in a bun, glowing as if she were freshly birthed from the sun. Though honestly, I didn’t have the chance. For at that moment Lucky Queen grew nervous, scampering to the gunwale of a paint-peeled skiff, then gnawing on the hemp cord that bound it to the dock. At first, I attempted to calm her down, climbing in to pet her scruff as Lijun plied her with gentle words, but Lucky Queen refused to quit. She actually seemed angry as she bit and tore and the skiff lurched and trundled against its berth. Yet before we had time to ascertain her intentions, a voice barked out from behind us.
“You two there! What are you doing?”
The devil came loping through the tall marsh grass, a gnomish boy with bloodshot eyes and a cigarette dangling from his mouth. When she saw him, Tan Lijun loosed a scream: “You idiot! You led them right to us!”
It was true. And instantly I succumbed to horror and shame. After so many weeks of toil and suffering, it wasn’t the poison in Lucky Queen’s veins, nor Tan Lijun’s inability to walk, but my own stupidity which had placed us in the red devils’ clutches. The brigand turned back and gestured in the direction of the railway station, hollering “Spies! I’ve cornered two spies!” and never before had I felt so pathetic, or unsure of what to do. Soon an entire company of them had gathered on the banks and the creaky dock, pointing their bamboo bayonets and braying like a horde of cannibals. “Capture them! Capture the capitalist spies!” One by one they lurched into the water, holding their bayonets above their heads and snarling through the sewage and clumps of algae which matched their fatigues, and I was so shocked that all I could do was stare like a useless child. Yet then one devil launched his pike through the air like a javelin, and even though it fell well short of the boat, its sinister hissing woke me from my trance. I realized that everything, all of our lives, had come to that moment. As Lijun curled on the floorboards and wailed, I gathered myself at the wobbly rail and prepared to dive, for even if it meant my own certain doom, I would fight to the death in those noxious waters, I would drown the devils every one by hand, I would be a martyr, I’d give my life to save the girl behind me, and perhaps in the end I truly would have, if not for the sudden realization that our rowboat was floating away at a surprising speed.
From her perch in the stern, Lucky Queen unleashed a bark of triumph as the chewed-up hemp cord trailed behind us in the speedy currents of the river. Upon recognizing that she’d saved us again, I lifted Lucky Queen above my head and emitted a roar at the desperate teenagers who’d only just discovered that they didn’t know how to swim. One by one, at the sound of my bloody and desiccated voice, they ceased their flailing and bubbling pleas, for though my roar contained no language, it made them understand with perfect clarity that it was they who were little more than children, and all but powerless against the human spirit when set to purpose by the bravery of man’s best friend. Lijun was shocked. She could only stare at the expanding ripples, as if written there was the tale of her own salvation. Yet no matter how much the red devils howled, no matter how many whistles they blew, in the end there was nothing they could do except watch as the currents of the river bore us away, a trio of joyous and laughing wraiths, past lazy tugboats and walleyed fisherfolk, past sewage drains and mighty mangroves and smoke totems writhing in the sky, until the country of our turmoil was gone, dissolved in the blinding glitter of the sea which even today, after so many travels, carries Lijun and I to freedom within my dreams.
So it was that we became wayfarers not far from the ports of salvation. Warmed by our triumphant escape from the devils, it was difficult to suppress the leisurely feeling of riding on a pleasure cruise. The sun was golden and the ocean aimless. Lijun joked that she shouldn’t have forgotten her parasol. Lucky Queen sprawled on her furry backside and allowed herself the reward of a long tummy rub. Seeing the pair of them so relaxed, my heart unclenched for the first time in weeks, though I had no idea where we were. In fact, my only concern in that moment was our exhausted supply of fresh water. I hadn’t had a drink myself in three days, having saved every drop from the canteen for Tan Lijun and Lucky Queen, and perhaps that’s the reason I was lulled so easily by the somnolent lapping of the waves. After pulling up a tarpaulin I instantly sank into a gravedigger’s sleep, and soon enough, Lijun joined me. It was stupid, perhaps, for as is so often the case with freedom we had no assurance of survival, but in our deprived state, sleep was unavoidable. Thus, we bobbed through tranquil hours, occasionally rousing to peek from the tarpaulin and make sure we hadn’t drifted too far away from the tangled cliffs of the southern borderlands, where eventually, surely, a beach or a village or a dock would appear and provide a final end to our tale. Whenever we did so the sky was blinding and the heat so malevolent the planks of our skiff seemed to crack like a furnace, but it couldn’t burn away the joy in our hearts. Despite all odds, and despite the violent gnashing in my stomach, the three of us had made it out alive.
The rest was a hallucination. Lucky Queen remained with her paws on the gunwale, watching those mysterious and rocky coasts, and I knew she dreamed of feasts of dragon-mosquitoes. I smiled as her coat grew long and glossy, and her knobby little teeth became the fangs of a lithe, golden wolf. The sun dilated on the rim of the sky. Schools of pink-winged fish took flight. With my eyelids fluttering and flakes of blood falling from my nose, I laughed as Lucky Queen curled at the feet of her beautiful mistress, as Lijun’s hair draped past her shoulders in a cool rose garden in the land of Kowloon, and as that dream grew sharper and crisper, I relinquished myself to the burning thirst in my bones.
“It’s beautiful…” Lijun whispered.
The world had grown dark. The moon was squinting. I blinked but my eyelids crunched like dry, yellow paper.
“Look, waterhead! You’ll never believe it!”
I struggled out from underneath the tarpaulin, feeling as though my ribs were cracking. “Water,” I rasped, and Tan Lijun only squealed in agreement. “Yes! Isn’t it amazing!” she said. Lucky Queen howled. The sea was alive. The sound of crashing waves meant land wasn’t far. I could no longer feel the limits of my body, my veins run dry of all they contained, but when I finally crawled to the gunwale, I saw why Tan Lijun sounded so delighted. As if by miracle our skiff pitched forth at a startling speed. We flew underneath a night sky dripping with stars. Sprays of luminous turquoise foam formed arcs behind us, and the ocean before us glowed, no, burned with the heavenly blue of bioluminescent creatures, the water itself made of purest light as we sailed toward a beach like pale, white dust, as Lijun clutched my arm and held tight, as Lucky Queen stood like an idol on the prow and announced our arrival, and when the skiff finally slid to rest on that moonlit beach, I could hear tears ringing in Lijun’s voice, and knew that this time, for the first time since we’d begun our journey, her tears were those born of joy.
I gave her my hand as she clambered from the boat, hopping on her good leg beyond the water’s edge, then sprawling on her back in the sand with a maniac’s laughter. Lucky Queen ran around in frantic circles. She leaped upon Lijun’s breast and licked her face. In the distance flickered yellow lights, long, moving beams, and a boy’s concerned voice cried out to bring help, and the moment I realized that the voice was friendly, that the figures like ghosts had come in aid, I blinked my own teary eyes at Lijun, fell to my knees, collapsed face first in the grit and sand, and let the world go dark. For my task was complete.
When I awoke, it was in a bed. All was white. The sheets, the ceiling, the sky through the window glass. Elated songbirds trilled in the distance and as my vision settled into focus, I found myself gazing at mahogany shelves overladen with books, painted globes and unfurled maps. Never having suspected that heaven itself was a private library, I wondered how many adventurous wuxia novels it might contain. As this feeling crept in, I discovered that I was entirely naked, and it took an effort of blinking to realize that the heaving and tossing of my scaly limbs was not the effect of my spirit having tumbled upward through the clouds, but of a plump aunty who presently bathed me with a sponge.
“Apologies, madam,” I croaked like a toad as she deliberately polished my genitals. “Modesty demands you leave that appendage alone.”
The aunty giggled and gave my member an enlightened poke, but then realized what had just occurred and screamed and ran from the room. In an instant the passageways surrounding bustled with a windy tumult of opening doors, and before I could even determine what was happening, my dear Lucky Queen ricocheted up from the floor where she’d been standing guard, yipping with that purity of joy only known by dogs. She leaped upon my pillow and set to licking my cadaverous face, and when finally, I managed to pry her away, Tan Lijun was standing in the doorway, wearing a dress of the cleanest purple silk, hands pressed together in front of her angelic face. Behind her stood a tall, professorial man with a mustache and golden wire frame spectacles, and behind him, the portentous aunty who giggled and gestured between my legs.
“I can see why you chose him!” the aunty said, tugging on Lijun’s sleeve. “Little dragon indeed!”
Lijun flushed but did not speak. Her open mouth searched for words and came up wanting. In that lull, the elegant man, Lijun’s uncle, coughed into his fist and then came to my bed. He tugged the sheets back up to my chest so as to preserve my modesty, then calmly placed a manicured hand on my shoulder.
“My family owes you a debt,” he said. “For saving my niece’s life.”
“I did?” I wheezed. “But where are we…? How…?”
Lijun covered her mouth with both hands. “Rest,” she stammered, limping slowly into the room with sunlight glimmering in her tears. “We made it. We’re in Kowloon.”
Her uncle and the aunty with the prodigious bosom shared a look of sweet affirmation.
“Please,” the man said. “Take all the time you need. This villa and all it contains is at your disposal. For my niece’s betrothed, for a man of such courage, it’s the very least we could do.”
Feeling certain that my brain had suffered some irreparable damage, I rose to my elbow and practiced blinking, at the dignified man, at Lucky Queen, and finally at Lijun whose face had turned bright red.
“Apologies, sir, but I’m afraid you’re mistaken. I’m nothing more than Lijun’s humble servant.”
The man gave a curious look to Lijun, who rolled her eyes and squeezed my hand. “You silly waterhead,” she scolded. “Who else could I marry? Who knows how to take care of me better than you?”
I blinked for a moment then, suddenly afraid. I stared at Lijun’s uncle.
“Really. I’m not joking, sir. I can’t marry her. She’s a…I’m just a…I’m little more than a…”
“Hero,” her uncle said, smiling.
“A hero?” I whispered.
“A hero,” he declared. “Now rest, young man. Your mind is addled. But as soon as you’ve recovered, we’ll have a suit made, perhaps two or three, and then you can start in the office.”
Her uncle laughed. “Of course, my boy! No nephew of mine will go without a job. You’ll be my apprentice. There are fortunes to be made in shipping, young man. We’ll make a gentleman of you in no time at all!”
In that moment I felt overwhelmed. I gazed at the books and maps around me, at Lijun’s uncle and his tailored linen suit, and all I could think of was the pomelo grove, the dank mud hut where Aunty Crow had raised me, and how little I knew of the world. I peered at Lijun whose devilish mouth formed a satisfied smile, and who, despite all that had happened, was admittedly still as intoxicating as a rose. Finally, then I looked into the eyes of the puppy couched in the sheets on my lap, who beamed with a sweet and guileless canine grin. “A gentleman,” I nodded my head. “How does that sound, Lucky Queen?”
Lucky Queen howled with jubilation. She licked my face, then leaped off the bed to scamper in circles, as Lijun sat beside me with a cryptic grin. She rolled her eyes, then giggled with embarrassment, and then as her uncle and the portentous aunty sighed in the doorway, the lame woman I’d carried for weeks and hundreds of kilometers, whose heart I’d desired from an impossible distance, placed a single kiss upon my cheek, and affirmed that as soon as I was healthy again, she would climb upon my back and remain there for the rest of our lives.
“But,” she said grimly. “Squeeze my bottom like that again and I’ll kill you.”
As the daylight faltered, Everett stared at his faded anthology of ancient poetry, astonished. He’d already known that truth wasn’t found in the lines of verse, but in the caesuras, the silences and spaces in between. He knew it as a fact memorized and discoursed, as a well-cited topic for a master’s thesis, and even more as an easy metaphor for the narrative failures of history. (Everett, it should be no surprise, was rarely invited to parties.) Yet as the old man gazed through his glasses at the bright liquid wake of the sun, Everett experienced the ringing sensation of knowing something truly within his own heart.
“Is that the end?” he murmured.
The man gave a calm and knowing half-smile.
“What story has an end?” he spread his hands. “Lijun’s uncle gave me a job. I rose to the top. And now here I am, body and soul. All that’s left to tell is of a man growing old.”
“But how did you learn so much…about people? How did you become…who you are?”
With a modest expression, the old man gazed across the plaza. On the overhead screen, the inscrutable cyphers had been replaced by an ironclad schedule, and the concourse murmured with the bustle of lives resumed.
“That, I’m afraid,” the old man said, “is a story I’d prefer be told when it comes to an end.”
Understanding the depths of meaning contained in the man’s sly grin, Everett could do little more than laugh and fall back into his chair, exhausted. In time he helped carry the man’s portmanteau to the doors of the departure hall, and there prepared to say his goodbyes. Yet as they shook hands, Everett realized that he did, in fact, have a gift to give, a means of expressing his thanks.
Everett pressed his book into the man’s hands. “Take it, please. As a token of gratitude. Now, somehow, it feels as though it never belonged to me anyway.”
For a moment the old man narrowed his eyes. He riffled through the pages and paused here and there, as if selecting random verses to store as snacks for the long journey home. Then, with one last mischievous chuckle, he snapped the book shut and handed it back to Everett.
“Poetry belongs to no one, young man. Friendship, that is what endures.”
There was nothing Everett could say. He felt a pang of grief as they shook hands, and then the man turned in his white linen suit and tottered toward the automatic doors. Yet at the last second, before the man passed forever into memory, Everett called out in the most luxuriant Chinese he could muster: Your most honorable wife…may she rest in peace!
The man turned around with his bushy eyebrows shoved into high arches.
“My wife?” He laughed. “Tan Lijun? Oh, my dear boy, I’m afraid you’re mistaken. That old nag will never die. She’s the bane of my existence. I’m returning home to bury my dear Lucky Queen!” The old man barked an exultant laugh. “Farewell, my friend! Don’t ever stop reading!”
Everett stood with his mouth agape. He watched the man enter the security line, instantly unable to understand anything around him. The fatigued attendants in their poorly cut suits, the sepia palm trees and honking taxis and children clutching plastic flowers in their hands, it all seemed strange and bewildering. Unable to move, he continued staring at the gallant old man as he bowed to a teenaged security guard. Then, Everett, with his foreigner’s heart addled, began to stagger away.
Yet he didn’t get far. As he clutched the straps of his canvas knapsack, Everett heard an uproar behind him.
It’s a dog! Oh God, it’s a dog!
Everett spun around. The ticketing attendants recoiled in fear and a crowd of migrants stared.
The old uncle’s got a dead dog in his case!
The security guard seized the man’s thin arm as the portmanteau lay open on the ground, revealing a stuffed work of taxidermy with a golden collar on its neck.
Avast, you impudent cretins! How dare you defile my dear Lucky Queen!
The old man growled as his bright red spectacles glinted in the fluorescent lighting. He shook his fists. He hollered threats. And then as the pimply security guard attempted to draw his baton, the old man loosed a mighty wushu kick that sent the poor fellow flying. Cries of delight rose up from the crowd as a troop of sentries appeared from thin air. Whistles blew. Babies started crying. The old man uttered wild, feral curses as Final Boarding Call scrolled by on the overhead screen.
Watching aghast from his vantage point outside, Everett realized that the sidewalk tout had sidled up beside him, though he didn’t seem concerned with the fracas inside.
“Book?” the man said in soupy English, gesturing at the tattered volume Everett held in his hands.
Everett stared at the tout, befuddled.
The sky was red, the plaza breezy.
“Poetry,” he whispered, chuckling to himself.
Then he tucked it into his knapsack and walked away.
Jordan Dotson has been published in Quarterly Literary Review Singapore, Afterness: Literature from the New Transnational Asia, Drunken Boat, The Magazine of History & Fiction and MaLa Literary Journal. Born in Appalachian Virginia, USA, he moved to China in 2005 to study classical Chinese poetry, and has worked there since as a creative writing teacher, musician, music journalist, screenwriter, and university counselor. Jordan earned his MFA in Fiction from the City University of Hong Kong. He publishes in both English and Chinese.