By Joanne Lindlof
San stopped suddenly, cocked her head and listened. Yes, she was sure he heard it—
the rustle of water coursing through some bushes. She looked to her left—nothing but the
rocky landscape and a few stunted trees. The red-brown road stretched long miles before
and beckoned her. But on the right was a clump of bushes and the edge of a green patch
of grass. She lifted her leaden feet to peer behind the bushes, where a stream flowed, turned
and flowed back in the direction it came from. Bending over one shallow pool was a great
tree, its branches whispering and beckoning to San. She lay down beneath the tree, gently
placing the child she carried beside her. Her dust-sore eyes could barely close and her head
throbbed with the heat of her long journey. Soon, however, the smell of wet grass and the
feeling of peace quieted her nerves, and she rested.
After a few moments she got up, knelt beside her baby Ming and removed her blue
cotton shawl. She tore off one corner of it and placed the remainder of the material over
Ming. Then she crawled to the water’s edge and dipped the corner of cloth in. She drew
the cloth over her tired eyes, her cracked lips, the lines of her weary face. Then she bent,
every muscle aching, and sipped thirstily. The water flooded down her throat and seemed
to clear her brain. She sat still for a moment, her face pensive; then she dipped the cloth
again. She brought it to the little sleeping boy, cradled him gently in her arms and washed
his sleeping face with deft, sure motions. She bent her head, kissed his almond-shaped
eyes and smoothed his silky patch of black hair. “Little Ming,” she murmered. “So much
like your father, so like Big Ming.” Slowly the baby opened his eyes and looked
questioningly at San. Then his lips parted, showing four small white teeth, and a gurgle
sounded from his throat. He was laughing.
San undid his blue robe, removed his cloth shoes and held the warm little body close
in her arms. She walked to the stream, knelt and placed Ming where the water could flow
over him, without frightening him. After a moment she dried him with her shawl and laid
him on a grassy knoll. She took out of a sack she carried a large rice cake and two clay bowls. She filled the bowl half with brook water and half with some evaporated milk from a can and broke the rice cake in two parts.
When they had finished their meal, San swaddled Ming in the blue shawl, settled
herself down on the grass and laid Ming’s head in the crook of her arm. Ming began to snore softly almost immediately, but San was too fatigued to sleep. San closed her eyes to the fading light in the West and listened to the distant sounds of exploding guns.
She remembered the first time those sounds had come into her life. Little Ming was just
a month old and was asleep inside the small peasant cottage. Big Ming had just come from the tea room in the village where he went once a week to gather the latest news and gossip.
If he discovered any problems, he’d talk it over with San. Tonight he and San were sitting
together on a rock, looking to the West, where the sun was sinking in a colorful sky, past
their soggy rice fields, past the pasture where they kept the single ox. Ming had his arms
around San’s shoulders. He said, “They in the village tell of huge silver birds in the sky which
drop great eggs; the eggs fall and burst, and fire comes from them. And when the smoke has cleared, there can be found a water hole, given by the gods. But some say these great birds do
no good but destroy many villages and towns of China’s to the East.” His eyes were troubled, and he waited for San to speak. She would tell him what to do about these birds. But before San could open her mouth to speak, they heard the buzz and zoom of a strange bird and saw something fall to the ground and burst like a lovely orange flower blossoming. Then the flowers were all over the landscape between them and the horizon, and there seemed to be hundreds of great birds swooping above them. In the village, deep in the valley below, they saw smoke and houses falling and people, dimly, running. Terrorized, San ran into the
cottage, clutched her baby to her, ran out to Ming and pulled him down beside her on the ground. She protected her child with her body and quieted his broken whimpering. She felt
the kind of helpless fear she had seen in animals’ eyes while they were being slaughtered. She found herself grabbing handfuls of grass and, holding to them fiercely. All around was the
screaming of bombs and their explosions and the rumble of shattered earth.
San didn’t know how long it was before the sky was peaceful with nothing in it but the
clouds closing over the shadow of a crescent moon. But before she had managed to get up and brush the earth off her tunic, a man came up to Ming, where he stood beside San. The words came out of his mouth as an excited jumble. Ming quieted him and listened to him gravely.
When the man had left and Little Ming was sleeping soundly again, they talked. Ming
said that he would have to leave with other men of the village. He would fight for China.
Could San manage the few acres of farmland alone? Of course, she wasn’t afraid to try. So,
a week later, Ming left bravely to fight for San and Little Ming.
All during the summer, San was alone, content with her son and the work on her farm.
She had no communication with her husband, but once a messenger had come to say that Ming
was well, that he sent his love to her and the child.
A few days later a letter came, the first San had ever received. As she read, the figures
grew dim before her eyes……Ming Wan, killed in action….honorable, posthumous award…
When fall came, San harvested the rice and soy beans, working alone til the day waned
Little Ming was young. He had a tooth and he could mumble small phrases. He looked
more and more each day like his father.
There were a few more bombings of the village, and San heard that the enemy was
taking villages and cities to the east.
In spring San planted the rice and felt in the air that something was going to happen
Then one day San looked down to the valley and heard gunfire. People were running
to and fro and streaming out of the west gate. She could see hundreds of men bursting the
San dressed her baby, packed a few belongings, closed the cottage and ran all the
steep road to the village. When she arrived, the gatekeeper hade obviously fled in terror.
She ran into the tea room, almost the only building left standing. The tables were knocked
all over, the chairs broken and scattered, the dishes broken and strewn about. Her heart
thumping, San looked out the window to the narrow street below. A few people were still
running toward the west gate, screaming, confused, frightened. The rhythmic clatter
of marching feet sounded and a group of soldiers turned the corner, disbanded and chased
the remaining people, knocking them down, slashing right and left with their bayonets.
Right below the window one aged man hobbled feebly toward the gate. An enemy
soldier grabbed him, shook him and then plunged his bayonet deep into the old man’s
chest. San saw the leering face of the enemy, a quick spurt of crimson, then turned away,
sick. She thought urgently of a plan. She ran down the back stairs of the tea room and
disappeared out the back door. She ran to the garden wall, placed Ming on top of it,
scrambled hastily over it, grabbed the child and crouched against the wall. She crept to
the end of the wall and looked around for enemy soldiers. She could see none, but a few
feet away lay the shining blade of a bayonet. She ran over to it and picked it up. It was
heavy, and her hand trembled to hold it. The point was covered with dripping crimson.
She resolved that if anyone tried to harm her or the child, she would use the bayonet, much
as the thought disgusted her.
San ran over the fields to the west, out the west gate. She was far behind the other
evacuees, but she followed their shuffled footprints.
San had left her home, her farm, her few possessions, small reminders of her husband.
Perhaps she’d never see these things again. Probably not. Still, she was safe, her son was
safe. Soon they could help fight for the things her husband had fought for. Soon she must
come to a town. There she’d find shelter and rest and then, something to do for her country.
When she had traveled a day and a night, snatching a few moments of rest here and there,
San had finally come to this resting place.
In the soft, still blackness of night, San held the living counterpart of Big Ming close
in her arms. And finally she felt the welcome numbness of sleep close about her.