From his morning perch atop Gansu’s yellow cliffs, the New Year arrived with the pop hiss of firecrackers set on the valley’s crowded streets. Smoke rose above the rooftops like flocks of pigeons startled by an unexpected passerby. Following his colleagues at the camp, every morning Wang would scale the cliff to work in the terraced fields where only the mealiest of vegetables grew: potatoes, yams, squash, winter melons. Time, now, for the Spring harvest, or so said their fluttering calendar pages, the trusted tongshu with its lengthy, mis-cited almanacs (last month there wasn’t a pine’s height of snow as predicted, but three ice storms followed by the strangest summer-like January day—villagers crawled out of caves, bare arms extended to the sun as if Heaven itself bestowed this warmth). This was the season when good children and husbands returned home to eat long-life potatoes (that hot, stringy caramel sticking to teeth) and tell long-winded stories of the year interrupted only by shared laughter and sips of hot tea.
For weeks, Wang’s fellow Beijingers spoke of the New Year. How in just a few days they’d board the crowded eastbound trains to the capital. How they’d trade Gansu’s dry winds for the Gobi’s sandstorms. But not him. No, he sat every morning on his cliff, looking east, wondering where he could possibly go for the holidays this year. The possibilities were numbered:
One: a cluttered dormitory on his danwei factory campus in Beijing, shared toilet smell wafting down the hallway, past the tattered underwear and darned socks hung to dry on copper wires strung between cracked walls.
Two: a crumbling pingfang along the river in Cen Cang Yan, long assumed by neighboring villagers as the town’s only granary, stuffed to the ceiling with canvas bags of wheat, rice and millet, plump rats nibbling on the grains, his father meandering between Sword Temple and Square Bridge, losing his way and then finding it again with the tap of his cane.
Three: his brother’s Shanghai two-story with its flight of dented wooden stairs, the back room where his brother and he once slept while their father and his brothers worked the grinders, those uncles long-since buried on Xia Gai Mountain, beaten down by the latest Revolution’s thick red calligraphy.
“Little Brother Wang,” a foot nudged his ribs through the thick cotton beizi shielding him from Gansu’s icy nights, the perpetual bone-chipping chill of a cave dwelling. Of course it was his colleague Xiaodong lifting him from the reverie of a morning sunrise. Xiaodong had a wife and young son waiting at home for him in Beijing, eager for the New Year visit. Xiaodong had a mustache that he meticulously shaved into an up-stretched U every morning by the breakfast fire. Xiaodong had read Sun Tzu’s Art of War five times and now re-read Chairman Mao’s Strategic Problems of China’s Revolutionary War whenever he had a free moment between their work in the fields and their perfunctory meetings with the local villagers (where they puffed their chests and acted like knowledgeable city folk and the villagers slumped their shoulders, bowed feudally, and waited for them to stop talking so they could teach the urbanites how to milk goats). Xiaodong thought he knew everything about tactical warfare. Xiaodong didn’t know anything about war. But Wang didn’t have the heart to tell him. Despite the fact Wang was two years Xiaodong’s elder, Wang’s single status and lack of ‘loud-mouthed progeny’ as Xiaodong called them, made Wang a ‘Little Brother.’ Too much time had passed to correct him. Xiaodong poked Wang’s ribs again with the rubber-capped toe of his mud-caked boot.
“C’mon, Poet,” he tried. All Wang’s comrades called him ‘The Poet’ (or ‘Mr. Poet’ depending on their mood) since Li-Ming’s first letter arrived containing references to her favorite poet, Han Shan. They asked, “Did you find your tangle of cliffs? Your bird paths without trails?” His comrades snatched the letter from him one night and read it aloud for the entire camp, laughing at Li-Ming’s careful penmanship, her love for long-dead poets no one cared about anymore. Or did they laugh at him?
Wang pretended not to hear Xiaodong.
“Mr. Poet, get your lazy ass up! You have to see this.” It was so early Xiaodong’s mustache was not yet combed into its desired shape; instead, it was bushy and morning-rustled like a wild animal. Whatever Xiaodong wanted to see must have been worth missing his grooming rituals.
Wang stood, begrudgingly, his beizi wrapped around him, an overstuffed winter kimono.
Once outside their shallow cave with its makeshift tents, Xiaodong directed Wang’s attention toward a flock of red-crowned cranes [i] that had landed on an outcropping below them. The villagers, likewise, amassed below. As greedy as a pack of wild dogs, hunched and devout, the men and women scoured the yellow earth for small stones, for pebbles light but hard and rounded enough to spring from their slingshots.
“What are they…?” Wang asked Xiaodong, but as quickly as the words spilled off his tongue and frosted the cold, the villagers raised their shots, leveling their gazes. The cranes, likely resting after a night migrating the chilled western skies, were entirely caught off-guard by this amassing human front. In martial unison, the villagers gleefully released their rubber slingshots, arching improvised bullets toward the cliffs.
The pebbles ricocheted off the rocks around Wang and Xiaodong, puffing yellow dust into the morning air. The cranes reacted slowly, flapping their heavy white wings and attempting to lift their bodies into the sky. One by one they took to the air, successfully avoiding the shots of the villagers, soaring over village streets, weaving shadows down alleyways, along the silt-heavy Wei River. Wang never realized just how beautiful the scene could be from here—on most days he was preoccupied with the morning’s tasks (shaving his face over a pot of water heated by a campfire, using that same pot to warm rice gruel kept overnight in a cave, then scrambling down the rocks with his comrades to pluck shriveled corn from stalks growing in the valley’s barren soil). Wang’s gaze followed the cranes, how easily they traversed this suddenly-beautiful landscape. He felt a strange expression cresting his face: a smile rising as the cranes flew over the horizon, as the villagers’ pebbles, late to the chase, seared the wind, missing their targets. Wang’s beizi loosened and the warmth of his body filled the air surrounding him. Fly birds, fly. His bare shoulders donned the cloaked heat of the rising sun.
Fei. To fly. [ii]
Wang watched as the cranes departed, unperturbed by the pebbles, leaving white feathers drifting over rocks, evidence of an evening’s roost.
But no, Wang suddenly realized. As he stepped closer to the edge, toes enjoying the warmth of sun-swept soil, he saw that below, tucked beneath an overhang, a pair remained. They stood side by side, hobbling like nearly-felled trees and flapping their large, white wings unsuccessfully. Their necks craned in an unexpected dance, disbelieving this fate—how could they not now summon the strength for the one instinctual motion they’d known all their lives? A bird without flight. What was a bird without flight?
“You know,” Xiaodong said, shuffling closer to Wang and holding his fat, dry palm to Wang’s face so close he could smell breakfast’s wilted leeks. “A bird in your hand is worth a hundred in the forest!” He yelped, joining the whooping of the villagers who only now realized they’d injured at least one of the cranes. They packed their slingshots into the worn front pockets of their cotton-padded Mao jackets and climbed the cliffs to the rocks where the cranes danced the dance of the wounded: one crane’s wing drooped listlessly to its side as if unhinged, the other coiled an injured leg into his body, hopped awkwardly. As the hopping crane edged closer to his partner, he nudged his long neck into his partner’s wing, his crimson head growing a brighter red.
Xiaodong crouched beside Wang, searched for a rock to throw at the crane’s head.
“Help me,” Xiaodong pleaded without looking up, pulling on Wang’s pant leg. “C’mon, we’ll be able to eat bird meat for a week!” He scaled the rocks toward the cranes and the cluster of villagers.
They shouted for Wang to join. They wanted his help. But as the cranes interlocked their long black necks, as the sound of the masses burrowed through the cliff walls and to Wang, to the birds, he already knew: What use was there in helping? All this too like it happened before, was happening always—at river banks, precipices, Wang would forget his name, his tongue curling resolutely to reach for a familiar syllable, to run itself over the tip of slick teeth, searching, probing. He could be anyone.
He could be Zhang.
He could be Xiaodong with a wife at home stewing long-life potatoes in the kitchen, meticulously tending to the son’s latest skinned knee, snipping the boy’s overgrown hair by candlelight to save for a later date. For what?
“For what, Xiaodong?” he shouted to this man who was neither friend nor enemy but something more dangerous, the in between.
For the sound a dying bird makes?
For the sound of a villager gripping a knife, its silver reflecting the sun like a river’s surface?
A knife so sharp you see the toothy-edged glint, hear pulling flesh out and away from the body in mechanical motions, frenzied stabbings that seem to say:
Shhhhhhhhh, be still, shhhhhh, this won’t hurt one bit.
Wang Guanmiao simply stood above the strange unfolding of events, watching the world careen on with its ceaseless actions. He didn’t think of his mother, or the future he would one day make with the woman he thought, he’d lost to wind and Weifang, a city whose name he knew but not its springtime smells nor sunset architectures. For now, he was simply himself, or better put, he simply was. A man breathing into the cold morning a breath that would become visible and then, as if undesiring (undeserving?) of an existence in this world, would disappear. This was the most and the least Wang could be in a moment when he was called to action but couldn’t act. If he’d known this was a minute, more precisely, a collection of seconds, upon which he would later muse, build regret, rebuild an entire story upon, a scaffolding of words forming sentences and then forming thoughts to etch his limbs like an oracle bone’s fine markings, maybe he would’ve acted differently. Maybe he would’ve said “Cao, you fools.” Maybe he would have scaled the rocks. Would have told his daughter, the one he didn’t know yet: “This was my biggest failure.” But was it?[iii]
[i] “If I could be a crane, I wouldn’t have to ask for your help,” she said as I uncoiled the thick rope and placed it on her lap to show her the length recommended. “Don’t you think we’re going to look odd bringing rope onto the subway?” She laughed: “This is China. Everything is weird. Normal is what’s not.” At her side: the morphine tablet Baba left her each day, a pin-sized remedy for pain, but not the murmur in her lungs. “Cold Mountain has so many wonders; climbers all get scared,” she said, and for the first time since she launched our plan, I wanted to strangle her, to mute a mouth that proffered too much nonsense.
[ii] As in Han Shan:
“I sit beneath the cliff, quiet and alone.
Round moon in the middle of the sky’s a bird
all things are seen mere shadows in its brilliance,
that single wheel of perfect light . . .
Alone, its spirit naturally comes clear.
Swallowed in emptiness in this cave of darkest
because of the finger pointing, I saw the moon.
That moon became the pivot of my heart.”
(Trans. Red Pine)
[iii] Seven hundred and eighty-two steps to the subway entrance. She mapped them by memory, and although she infrequently traveled by subway, I trusted her estimation. “Isn’t there an elevator?” Hahahaha. Laughter above magpie song outside the window; in spring, they puff slate-blue feathers and masquerade as desirable mates.
From Empire of Glass. Used with permission of Ig Publishing. Copyright © 2017 by Kaitlin Solimine .