by Clare Drewes
I woke up to a full moon. The world below my feet was still, but it wasn’t supposed to be. There was no clanging of pots or voices shouting commands, there was just silence. I opened my paper screen and leaned out the window. There was a very strong smell in the air, not the usual peanut sauce but something more distinct…smoke.
I raced downstairs. The smell was becoming stronger. I ran into the shop’s kitchen. My forehead began to burn. My throat closed up and I couldn’t swallow. The skin on my feet felt raw. Something powerful was eating at my back. I turned around and saw flames running around the perimeter of the room. I ran into the courtyard and found my mother on her knees. “Jia! Jia!” she repeated. “My house! My House!” Water was gathered and the flames were soon gone, but the kitchen was a pile of smoldering ash.
As the sun rose, bystanders and helpers left. My mother was still in the courtyard. “Laupo! Laupo!” she cried. “Husband! Husband! Chie Hui Noksu, your father, look for your father.” My body was still. I did not look, because I knew I would find nothing.
My ears were ringing from the noise surrounding me. Street vendors harassed passers-by, and little children dogged street buggies. The city, Shangjiakou, was not exciting but painful. The pain I felt was not from the unfamiliar sites, but the distant familiarity of it. Rice porridge, fish stock and overwhelming curry filled the street with an amazing aroma. It smelled like my father, my house, and my city. I wanted to bury my face in my father’s apron and escape. I wanted to escape just like my father did. I could escape from my mother, my life, and most of all, my uncle.
Birds scattered as the cart came to a stop in front of a small shack. Red curtains covered openings in the wood house. Dead potted plants framed the ill-fitting door. The roof sagged at the corners, and patches of wood covered places where tile had fallen off. A large tub of water filled with clothes sat in the yard. A large man approached us. As he came closer, his unshaven whiskers became visible. His nails varied in size, and dirt made up the rest of his hand.
“Akio,” my mother greeted my uncle. His name, Akio, means glorious hero, but behind his back he is referred to as Dai, the large one.
He smiled as if he was proud of his home and his nearly toothless mouth. “Kazue, Miho, come! Rin, the bags won’t unpack themselves.”
Cousin Kazue and Miho and Aunt Rin were used to Akio’s frequent requests. The two scrawny girls met my brothers and took them inside the house. Aunt Rin waved towards my mother and quickly grabbed the largest bags. As Akio and my mother went inside the house for tea, Rin and I unloaded the cart.
I woke up early, and to my surprise nobody was awake. My brothers were on the floor and my cousins were squished into the bed I shared with them. I grabbed my white linen dress and tiptoed past my mother in the house’s front room. Once I was in the street I asked one of the few pedestrians where I could find wagashi, traditional Japanese treats. As I passed other shack-homes, I discovered a small alley. The shops’ many stories rested on carved, water-stained wood beams. The old walls looked as if they were having trouble carrying such large structures, so they clung to their neighbor’s walls in hope of help. Old doors allowed morning mist to creep underneath their cracks, but one shop looked different. Purple-hued smoke was protruding from one building’s doorframe.
I cautiously knocked on the wood. The knocker was wet. Red paint marked my hand. More fresh paint dripped from the eaves above me. I entered the building, seeking a wet cloth to clean my garments. As the door opened, a cloud of smoke whipped against my face. My eyes watered, but I continued moving. As my tears drained, I saw a candlelit room. It looked as if the storekeeper had been here for hours. The candles were merely stubs. Wall space without candles was filled by dolls. The dolls all had very foreign characteristics. Their skin was dark and their hair was brown, unlike any of the people in China. Two of the dolls seemed to be a pair. A short girl holding a teacup stood next to a man with a very stern face. The man held a canvas bag in one arm and a cooking pan in the other.
A voice startled my concentration. “Do you like those dolls?” I turned to find a round, balding man standing next to me.
“No!” My harsh tone shocked the man as well as myself. “I am looking for something more friendly, for a child.”
His face eased and his wrinkles moved even farther down his face. He slowly led me to a basket full of Asian girls wearing pink dresses. I smiled, thinking of my cousins. I handed the dolls and a few coins to the man. As he took the money, he handed me something else in return. A wet rag. “For the paint,” he added. I noticed the rag had already been used, but I gladly took it. I retrieved the dolls and left the shop without another word.
The sun had risen above the tall buildings. I traced my steps back to the small shack village. As I entered the house, anger swept over me. I was not missed. No one ran to me, relieved I was safe. Instead, my mother sat at the table bawling, with my aunt.
Without being noticed, I slipped into the children’s room. The two little girls sat in the room playing with cloth scraps. Miho and Kazue were beaming as I presented them with the ornate dolls. They quickly swapped toys, agreeing that Kazue’s doll looked like her and Miho’s doll looked like her. How the girls came to this conclusion I do not know, for each girl was identical, as were the dolls. They quickly ran to show their new possessions to their mother.
As the twins left, my uncle entered. He began sorting through my belongings. He seemed pleased with his discovery: an ivory hairpin painted with pink plum blossoms. My father came to me. I saw the two of us under one of the katsura trees in the family garden. A large gust of wind knocked my hair down and decorated it with many heart-shaped leaves. My father unraveled a piece of cloth, revealing a beautiful hairpiece. He twisted my black mane and held it in place with the new gift. He smiled and held my hand. I’ll miss you. He mounted a horse and departed from the sweet moment.
My uncle must have sensed my hesitation because he felt the need to explain himself. “Your riches are gone, and you no longer have need for such luxuries.” Once I heard the front door shut I broke down.
Hours later I found myself propped up against the wall. Red tears emerged from my cheek. My fingertips were stained from blood and my long fingernails remained inside of my face. Moonlight exposed the shadows around me. I tried and tried with all my might to rise, but my body was exhausted. I gave up and allowed myself to stay in the corner. I listened to breathing. Little sharp breaths and long ones craving more than air. Murmurs of rewarding dreams and a visitor who seemed to be enjoying the solitude and silence of the night as much as I. A thin face appeared in front of the window. The moon outlined his face and highlighted his prominent cheekbones. Our eyes locked. His expression indicated generosity. I knew what he needed.
I left the room and fetched a bowl of rice accompanied by a kiwi. When I returned I was not surprised to find him inside of the room. I did not need to offer the food to him. As he enjoyed the rare “delicacy,” I observed him. His frame was thin and short. He could not have been older than eight years, but his eyes looked as if he had lived for hundreds. He placed the bowl on the ground and swiftly climbed out of the window. Where he had sat lay a small piece of string and a green bead. I knew this was his offering of thanks.
Smooth, wet, thin feathers rested in my palm. Laid before me sat tens of chickens. They could not see the disgusted, woeful mien of mine and I regretted that. I had had no intension of slaughtering a living thing this morning, but that was not my choice. His face was red and spewing drops of spit toward mine. His pockets were flat. He had no money. He knew the collectors would come for the money soon, the money that he had bet the night before but didn’t have. The money he still didn’t have. I wandered through vendors’ stands.
“Shen, Shen, Shen Diawan Lok. She-” I stopped. My chin reached towards the sky. A man with broad shoulders blocked the sun.
“You need Shen Lok? I am here.” He bent over and examined the cart full of chickens. “Akio needs money?” My expression obviously answered his question. “Well, I need more chickens. Put them in that.”
Before I placed the chickens into a barrel filled with warm, brown water, I looked at the man one more time. He nodded. The little bodies fell to the bottom, until one rested on another. I needed not to ask for payment, for it was already in the cart.
As I toted the handcart behind me, I saw more. Dirty children sat in front of businesses. The one I had met the night before looked like emperor Sung Ch’ao. Their wide cheekbones suggested that they once had full faces. Their bodies sat on top of small sticks, legs. The youngest was sitting alone. I parked my cart and sat with them. “Hello. Where is your mother?”
The child stared at me. He stood up and began walking away. I followed. He twisted my mind as we ventured deeper into the neighborhood. I lost track of his torn blue shirt. “Come,” he called. Following the sound, I found myself in front of a fence. He opened a gate for me. Inside sat a dirt patch. Goats rested their heads over the many puddles of water.
I continued walking, without my little guide. As I turned corners, more children became visible. They ran into cloth tents. Some greeted me by tugging on my clothing, but I did not stop for them. Dirt became less visible. Structures squeezed into awkward corners and borrowed neighbors’ walls. I began to turn. My turns turned into circles. The slum lasted for miles. I could not see the end or the beginning of this foreign community.
Something was picking at my back. I swatted it away and turned to look for the pest. I found two small watering eyes. This face was not a stranger. It was my guide, the little boy who I had found on the street. I leaned down and hugged the child, to make up for my aggressive swatting. He smiled and took my hand. He led me to a tent. Standing next to it was a cart full of smiling children. I smiled back. The boy climbed in. I found my strength and began to pull. To my surprise, the children weighed very little.
As I ventured further into the village, I gained speed. Wind wisped the hair away from my face. Shapes started to dance around me. Some people shouted, but the children’s laughter was louder. I did not care that blisters were forming on my hands or that my shoes were covered in mud, but that I was entertaining children who had very little to look forward to.
My pleasant thoughts distracted me. I tried slowing down, but the cart’s force was too strong. My toes gripped the ground, but the dirt provided little traction. My hands released from the cart, which pushed my body into a wall. The sound of splitting wood confirmed that the cart had crashed as well. I tried to get up but I couldn’t. So a child helped me. A little hand grabbed my hand and pulled. The frail figure could not possibly pull me up by itself, so I helped. The children smiled once I stood up. I tried to smile, but the sight of my uncle’s cart overpowered me. Three pieces of wood rested on the wall. The children understood my sorrow and led me to another opening in the wall.
As I sulked I felt worried. Then my sorrow disappeared. Why did I need to go home? I was surely not appreciated there. I surely did not appreciate my uncle letting us stay with him.
My blissful thoughts were interrupted. “Are you lost?” The man from the doll shop was there to save me, but I did not want to be saved.
He took me back to his shop and presented me with a cup of tea. Sitting behind his counter was a boy. He looked like the children I had just been with. He looked like my night visitor. He was my night visitor. He waved.
“Hello,” he said. “Did you enjoy your visit to the tent village?”
“Yes, I was in the tent village. It was nice. Were you following me?”
He laughed. “I think you were following me. That was my home you were in. That was my brother you were playing with.” He was amused by my dazed expression.
The friendly company relaxed me. I sat and chatted with my new friends.
“That is why I am in Zhangjiakou,” I said, after I told them some of my story.
“Your father, why did he leave?” The storekeeper, Bai, was puzzled by my family’s strange relationship.
“He owned a store and had to travel, a lot. He made friends while he was gone. He and his friends shared similar beliefs. They would meet often and discuss things, but I understood very little because they were speaking in a different language.” I wanted to reveal everything, but I could not risk him telling the government.
“Did it sound like this?” Bai began to speak in the language of my father.
I cried. I cried for my father. “Yes,” I answered in between sobs. “And his friends looked just like you and the boy and the children.”
“Kueng. Your father looked like me, Kueng, and my brother?” the night visitor said, giving me his name.
My visits with Kueng continued very regularly. Though I enjoyed my recreational activities, my home life worsened. My uncle was not pleased by my absence from home. He scolded me. He beat me. He forbid me to leave. I no longer had the privilege of delivering chickens every morning. I could not even see Kueng’s brother on the street. My daily activities only consisted of laundry, slaughtering, and cooking.
Tonight was special. It was warm and beads of sweat formed on my forehead. I sat outside of the window. The grass was white in the moonlight. So was Kueng’s face. I did not mind this illusion. I loved the sight of him.
His face was stern. “Would you like to learn the language of Mongolia?”
“What? No. Would you teach me? Well, maybe. Why?”
“You will need to learn it soon. You have another visitor.”
“My only visitor is you.”
“Well, maybe you will be the one visiting them.”
His mystery bothered me. So did his optimism.
“I will come back tomorrow and we can begin.”
Weeks passed, and I became conversational in Mongolian. I would sing to myself in my new language when the adults were gone. My voice attracted many visitors, but none of them were the visitor Kueng had mentioned. After neighbors applauded my performance, they would chant, “Down with Sung Ch’ao!” Their passion frightened me, yet I enjoyed the attention. I mentioned these events to Kueng, but they did not please him as they did me. They startled him and he left abruptly. He did not return that week. Or the next, or the week after that. My performances stopped and my life was drained of all enjoyment.
My little sister had arrived. My mother had foolishly mentioned the arrival of my first period to my aunt who willingly told her husband. His reaction was worse than I anticipated. I was to reside in the garden shack for the next week. I was told to clean the yard of chicken pellets, but other than that I was to stay in the shack until I was sanitary. My mother cried when she heard Uncle Akio’s request.
“She is just a girl. Don’t force her to go through this,” my mother pleaded for my freedom.
“She may look like a child, but she is not. She still lives in my house and she is to listen to me. I am the man.”
The bowl of rice I received every day was not enough. Hunger and sadness consumed me. My week was only halfway over.
My eyes squinted in sudden light. My pale face had been unaccustomed to light for the last three days.
“Come with me. Your visitor awaits you.” Kueng’s voice was a sweet lullaby to my ears.
I responded in Mongolian, “I am eager to meet this visitor. Will you tell him about me?”
I knew he would not spoil such a secret, so I followed obediently.
We first arrived at Bai’s shop. I was given a black cloth that I was ordered to put over my eyes. Then I was taken outside and placed into a cart, perhaps. Kueng pulled the cart, very quickly. My vision would have been blurred if I could have seen, instead my memories were. I saw my life from age five until this moment. My future could not be determined. The cart had stopped.
Kueng led me through an open piece of land. My eye mask was removed and I found myself inside the slum. Kueng’s brother stood in front of me. In his hands two dolls slept. They dreamed of days spent together underneath a katsura tree. I knew this because these were my dreams. My doll was wrapped in a pink dress. Her eyes were outlined in a charcoal paint. Next to her sat her father, his long dark hair pulled into a bun. His thin frame was covered by a blue wrap he wore whenever he was home. He was in mid-gesture, his arm reaching across his body, his hand holding a very pretty object. A hairpin. Little cherry blossoms had been drawn on it.
“You knew of the hairpin my father gave to me.”
“No. But your father did.” Kueng’s face broke into an enormous grin.
One of the tents opened. Inside lay a man. The bandages the man wore blocked his face. I approached him. He was just as anxious as I was. “You are beloved katsura blossom, more beautiful than any other plant, but smart and kind like me.” He chuckled at his own joke. “I have missed you and it broke my heart when I left you and your mother and your brothers. I had to.” He explained to me why he was forced to leave.
His beliefs were those of a Mongolian, for he was a Mongolian at heart. He knew the people of the country and longed to be with them. He often traveled across the border to trade supplies for his shop. He learned of the Mongolian leaders who planned on invading China and eventually ruling. He held war meetings in his shop. These gatherings were known. He was forced to burn the papers and documents that would prove his loyalty to the Mongolians.
He fled the village and went to live with his close friend, Bai. He told Bai many stories of his family. Bai knew who I was, but could not tell me of my father until my father would be respected by the government. The only government that would respect him would be the Mongolian leaders. The Mongols had taken over China two days ago. The year was 1276. He was now an advisor to Mongolian Emperor Kublai.
My emotions were high. The day continued to escalate. I left the tent and was greeted by Kueng. Beside him sat the hairpin, to his other side sat a pile of coins. “You know your uncle is controlled by money.” He grinned.
Three carriages entered Zhangjiakou. They were all decorated with red and gold painted dragons. The dragons wrapped around the chair legs of a throne. On top of that throne sat my father. He was now second advisor to the Mongolian emperor. The first carriage was already leaving. Its passengers consisted of my family. The second carriage held my closest friends, Bai and Kueng. The third carriage was full. Twenty excited children bounced inside. They were the children of the slum. The children who had given me so much hope and joy. We were ready to live a life of happiness together. A life where only we would determine our future.