A runner arrived at Xinchun Village two days after the fall of Taiyuan. Out of breath, his Kuomintang uniform soaked in sweat, the soldier collapsed into a fly-infested ditch on the edge of a sorghum field. That evening, San saw him on her way back from tending her family’s two goats, the man lying there snoring, and when she told her parents about him, they didn’t believe her. San, nine years old, often lied to her parents. One week she’d say the Japanese were here, the Russians the next. Her parents knew San hated shepherding and dismissed her pleas to save the young man from becoming pig fodder. After putting her to bed, San’s father slung a hoe over his shoulder and walked across his fields under moonlight to the place his daughter had mentioned. He couldn’t lift the man out of the mud by himself, even after taking off his own shoes and using his bare feet for traction. He ran to the village chief, who sent a neighbor to help him. Together with one man lifting the head and another the legs, they carried him to the granary and dropped him beside sacks of recently harvested sorghum.
The man remained unconscious the entire time. The villagers, observing the soldier clearly in the light, saw that he was only a boy: a scrawny, malnourished teen in a faded uniform and an oversized cap.
“I can’t believe how heavy that kid was,” Bu Dan said, wiping muddy sweat from his brow. Bu Dan’s family farmed the land to the very west of Xinchun and he was his parents’ only son. The strongest man in the village, he was often called upon to perform tasks that others couldn’t: push a stubborn mule, transport tub-sized jugs of rice wine, carry replacement limestones for those worn away at the ancestral shrine.
“The mud weighed him down,” said the village chief. He pointed to the canisters that rattled on the boy’s belt. “We should’ve undressed him first.”
Bu Dan slapped the boy a few times and still he would not wake. The village herbalist was called in and only after inserting slices of ginger into his nose did the boy finally start to shudder. He coughed out thick, brown water. San’s father brought a bowl of rice porridge up to the boy’s mouth and the boy extended his thin neck to drink it.
After thanking the villagers squatting in the darkness in front of him, he broke into tears. “It’s over,” he said. “The Japanese flooded the Yellow River. Taiyuan was sacked.”
The villagers glanced at each other. “What do you want us to do?” the village chief asked.
“I don’t know,” the boy said. He wiped his nose with his sleeve and sank his head below his shoulders. “My lieutenant never tells me anything. I think the Chinese army wants you to stay where you are.”
“That’s a strange message,” San’s father said.
“Useless,” Bu Dan added, running his fingers over his scalp. “So we shouldn’t flee?”
Michael X. Wang was born in Fenyang, China. He received his MFA from Purdue, has a PhD in creative writing from Florida State University, and won a 2010 AWP Intro Award in fiction. His work has appeared or is forthcoming in Hayden’s Ferry Review, Cimarron Review, Prick of the Spindle, Day One, Driftwood Press, and Juked, among others. His chapbook, A Minor Revolution, is available from Amazon. He will begin teaching at Spring Hill College in Mobile, Alabama, in the fall. Read more about Michael X. Wang in our Behind the Byline series.
Image by Allen Forrest, German Expressionism Revisted Lyonel Feininger 2