“How many did we lose?” said the voice drifting on empty winds.
“I haven't counted, but I hear we lost all of Tsien Hua's squad.” said another on the choked air.
Wu Hong ambled through the streets of the village. The weight of his rifle hung with the dead weight of a severed arm in his hand. He felt detached from his own body as he shuffled about with plodding steps. The side of his face was covered in thick plasma. He didn't think it was his blood. Or he hoped it wasn't. He couldn't feel most of his body. He felt loose and ragged. His flesh simply hanging from his body like a rag. He stared out from stunned eyes as he looked across the graveyard intersection.
Crossed timbers of corpses lay stretched and crumpled. Their arms reaching out as if to hail the soldier. Their eyes glassy and faded. Frozen in mid-speech, their mouths hung open and some yawned in an eternal doze, their eyes half lidded. At least one stared back at him through a leaking third eye scooped out of his forehead. The back of his skull empty like a bowl. He could see through as the morning light poured in revealing the black bloodied universe that lay behind the man's eyes.
His heart beat lazily in his chest. He could feel each pulse in his throat. The junk ecstasy of adrenaline having long faded, his body was captured by the cold numbing drum of its withdrawal.
Far and ahead in the butcher knife ridges of trees, columns of black smoke crashed upwards into the sky in great waterfalls of charcoal black streams. Filling the clear blue with a hazy black miasma. The bending and dancing smudges of ash winded and bent in a flowing stream of twisting protoplasm on the high winds as they were pulled lazily across the sky. From above, the heavier particles drifted down in a snowfall of gray ash, littering the ground at Wu Hong's feet. It gathered in his hair and on his shoulders blackening his skin. As he rubbed at his face and his eyes he smeared it, mixing the charcoal with the blood turning his skin Ethiopian black.
“There is perhaps... twenty. Thirty dead.” said the voice of ghosts.
“Thirty? Did you count right?”
“I said perhaps.”
“Maybe you included the Russians.”
“It's hard to tell when you can't see their faces anymore. Have you ever seen a face with both eyes gone from a single bullet?”
“What about the uniforms?”
“Too muddied. The doctors will figure it out.”
“We have medics left?”
“I suppose so.”
“Have you checked?”
“Shen said he was.”
“Where is Shen?”
“Who knows. Did you find his finger?”
“We were looking?”
What was there left to know? Everything was up in the air. Detached ghosts lost in the world, as Wu Hong. He wondered again, what had happened to his squad? He couldn't remember. Then a light came on his head. He remembered he was looking for them. His feet lifted and he was back on the move once again. Each foot falling hard as he shambled along. He felt undead down to his bones. Was he in fact a ghost now? He felt like it. Strangley sick. Gut empty. His stomach lay muted in his belly, a heavy dry rock. His bowels empty. His heart was alive, a slow beating throb felt in his throat. Lungs too, weighted by the very weight of the air he breathed. Piss, shit, blood, and ash.
He walked on. Here and there along the road side lay the discarded dolls of the previous night. Their faces pale as porcelain and cold. Their lips purple and open in rubbery expressions of permanent fear. When their ghosts woke up, would they be as terrified as they were?
Absentmindedly he began counting. One, two, three... he got as high as five before his mind drifted. He felt tired, and the weight of everything bore on his shoulders. He succumbed to the weight, and collapsed on the ground laying his head against the warm walls of a cabin. Sprawling out and letting the full weight pull him down, his muscles relaxing hazy eyes fell to the dead animals that littered the street, chickens and half dead horses.
He felt numb. Not necessarily in any peace. But numb. He lay his rifle across his lap, using the last of strength for that before he let his hand drop and lay still, caressing the warm wood of the stock. His chest rose and fell in heavy hot breaths. His teeth rattled with each draw, whistling through his lips. The focus of his eyes dropped to the blood muddied street, the dirt black and oily. He could take a nap here, the search could wait.
As his eyes closed and the darkness of exhaustion came over a pair of boots stepped into his vision. The disembodied limbs turning to meet him as he fell back into darkness. In his sleep he still saw the gray light of the settling ash around him.
He woke up with an antiseptic smell in his nose. A strong plastic smell filled the air with the moans of mangled people. Shuffling on a bare mattress he found he was naked except for his under pants. A sick feeling in his stomach he turned to look a sleeping babe in an adult's body across from him. As he collected himself he could see more into the room, a dark lit space save for only the beams of thick heavy light saturated with dust and smoke particles from sick green lamps. He flapped his arms around him until he found the neatly folded lump of his uniform and he sat up on his elbows.
He stood up, the tattered olive-green rags of his thin quilted uniform between his fingers. The haziness that had occupied his head was long faded and Wu Hong felt as though he could see clearly again. And he feel. His body was not so dumb and heavy. There was a dull throbbing in his flesh, the ground zeroes of which felt to be a spot on his arm. Before he donned his shirt he looked down and ran a finger up along his arm. Wrapped in twisted knots and crowned with a rose seal of blood was a wound in his arm, which no doubt twisted and tore deep into his flesh. His fingers played around the spot, but he didn't feel any pain, merely a dense throb of irritation.
The sight of the wound made Hong sick in his throat and he felt his neck tighten. Gagging at the thought, he turned away cursing himself as he threw on the uniform. Summoned by his raised arms, an doctor with the impossibly long and thin arms of a crane walked over. “Are we awake?” he asked, obviously.
Wu Hong looked up at him with a dumb look and nodded. “Very well.” the medic said. He knelt down at his side, “You need help?”
Wu Hong glanced about at the room. They must have appropriated this house. But it looked familiar. But with the furniture thrown to the side it was hard to tell. But the hand of dejavu brushed down his neck with one of her cold fingers with the sickly eroticism of forgotten familiarity. With rote unthinking he lay a hand on the medic's shoulders and he was helped up to his feet. His bare legs shaking under him. He was suddenly reminded of his hunger and he placed a hand over his stomach and messaged the gnashing beast inside.
“Thank you.” he said. His voice sounding distant and dry. He threw the shirt over his shoulders and dropped it down, hiding his thin farm boy's body and winced at the numbness in his shoulders and arms.
“If you could,” the medic advised, “I would try to stay out of the fighting. The bullet tore into your arm and it might hurt to feel the kick of the rifle in so much as the shoulder.”
Wu Hong nodded. All he wanted was to get out, to see if his companions were alive. For now he could bare the pain. Perhaps he could get a chance to sit back. Or they'd throw something at him to help with the pain. It was to him all a mystery as he stepped into his pants and died up his boots. By this point, the doctor had scuttled away like a spider in the dim light of the make shift infirmary.
Looking out at the door though he saw nothing but the bodies of the wounded or the ill. Laid out on rags or the mattresses the army could scavenge many of the worst filled the floor of the small family room of the village cabin. In the dim light he could see their pale glowing eyes looking up at him from pallid shrunken faces. Some held their hands to their guts where a heavy brace of bandages held something to their bleeding stomachs as they lay stoned out on pain killer and anesthetic. Others he noticed simply looked up, cradling broken arms or hands. A few civilians were here too, mothers holding children close to their chest, empty of tears or children holding their parents.
He tipped toed over and around them, shambling out of the door. The sun burned his eyes and he turned away, holding up his bad arm to shield his face. But even under local anesthetic a tearing pain rippled in his arm and he was forced to lower it, holding it tight against him as he shuffled out with his head down. In the was mid afternoon. The ash still hung in the air. So maybe it was the same day, or the fires somewhere were still going.
As his eyes acclimated to the stinging low light of Siberia he found a group of soldiers sitting around a radio operator, passing around cigarettes as they leaned into the radio. Its hawkish operator bouncing in his seat alongside of it. Small beady eyes looked up and caught Wu Hong on his approach and he gestured with a nod to take a position.
“River Yu e'route along Ullanbataar. Open plains from there. The high Wei says to hold positions. Cavalry banners rallying for detachment.” the radio's voice squealed, its breaking voice crackling and popping as the operator spoke the words slowly. An officer turned to Wu Hong as he came close and made space for the injured soldier as he sat near the machine.
“The central group is deployed from Mongolia.” the officer translated for him, “There's been no resistance, they're just driving north. We're holding our positions. Air support in bound.”
Wu Hong blinked, “How many did we lose?”
“Ten dead, thirty injured. Fifteen civilians were killed, another... I don't know; twenty injured. We tried to organize an evacuation for them, if they'll take it. Going to see if we have enough.”
Out of Khazakstan, the old Chinese bike popped and hummed down old dirt roads through high mountain valleys. Far from the brown steppe of the north the air here was cool and green with verdant pine forests dressing the slopping bosoms of the hills and mountains of a rich and pregnant land. Gusts of chill wind blew down from the mountains where the two young men on the bike marveled up at the sparkling ice caps and high glaciers of diamond pure white.
They passed into and out of rain curtains. Where the land was suddenly arid and dry it soon was lush again with green forests and alpine fields where goats grazed under the watchful eyes of mounted herdsmen and where deer ran across the road. The air here was fresh, and it felt clean. Days previously they had passed through Almaty, pregnant with its former imperial Russian glory. Its high Russian buildings, looking scooped out of a picture book of Moscow and transplanted at the foot hills of the mountains and at the river side looked out of place amid the gangs of narrowed eye, stooped Mongolians riding their horses or bikes through the town.
The two young men were watched with suspicion all the same by the dour blonde haired Russians who still lived in the city and clutched close their rifles as they came. Did they look like the foreign invaders they felt they were to this country? Or perhaps the hard Slavic men simply confused them for the high stepped Tatars of the countryside around them.
Chao and Guo both felt uninvited in the city, and they sped through it as fast as possible. Stopping briefly in a small park to rest their legs, long jostled by the rattling of their motorcycle and baked by the engine in the cool shade of apple trees. There they stretched and ate bread and the apples they picked from the tree. There was a wide variety of fruits and unknown growing from the branches. Some where heavy and sour, others light and sweat. Without discrimination the two filled their bags of the wild apples growing in the city's parks and left that imperial capital and continued south on into the mountains.
Beyond the city they stopped at a small creak that ran crystal clear over blue and gray stones in the high hills and filled their canteens. Washing their faces in the crystalline and pure water they again sat to dine momentarily on the fruits and foraged more from the even wilder trees that grew with twisted ruggedness like crone's fingers in the alpine heights. The fruits were juicy, and whether they bit back with a bitter shock or a sweat lovely embrace it was a refreshing taste from the plain bread, goat's butter, and spare rice that they had left with them. In so far as they stayed in these hills they could keep their food stocks full. But they had more road to cover, and they left those Kazakh groves behind and continued their adventures on into the mountains.
Neither Chao nor Guo knew when they crossed over into the land of the Kyrgyz. There was no sign saying so, no change in the roads. Simply rising all around them were the peaks of the mountains and the depths of the valleys. Shimmering creeks fed from melting glaciers above them and the calls of large eagles whose wings blotted out the sun.
They decamped in the mountains. Without any other light but the camp fire the stars above were a vibrant collection of jewels. Forming constellations and revealing the full galactic band. They nearly brought light to the mountains themselves, and the boughs and needles of the the trees glowed faintly with their diamond blue light.
“These are beautiful mountains.” Chao explained, fingering an apple he left at the edge of the fire to bake and caramelize in the heat, “What do you think is hidden out there?”
“What do you mean? Like wolves?” Guo asked in response.
“No- well yes. Wolves. Do you think they're very big?”
“I don't imagine they're there at all.”
“It's quiet.” said Guo, gesturing into the darkness.
“But do you think they might be there, stalking us in the shadows?” Chao looked unafraid, he in fact looked excited. A youthful child beamed from behind his lion's mane. A sudden change from his over all dour expression since leaving China, as if the oppression of the open and empty steppe had lifted from him when they entered wild mountains. Guo supposed that was it. He shrugged at his question.
“And what if there's some hidden kingdom here? Something the Russians or the English overlooked?”
“What sort of kingdom?”
“Oh, you know: maybe a remnant of Genghis Khan's empire. Some forgotten Golden Horde biding its time in the mountains. Or maybe we'll find the Monkey King's empire. He came this way, didn't he?”
“I think so.” Guo mused, “He's have to come through here to go to India. And what are we going to do if we find these lost kingdoms.”
Chao took a long time to answer. “Start a revolution, I think. Wouldn't that be fun?”
“And kill The Buddha?”
“I think he would like that.”
“I think he wouldn't mind if we killed him. I don't think anyone would.”
By the following morning they decamped, spread the smoldering ashes of their fire in the rocks and kicked off. The motor of the motorcycle puttering away along the mountain side, as soon as it was filled with a new tank of gas. Both noted that they may soon need to find a way to restock. But down the road would eventually be signs of civilization, a village of some sorts.
They continued on through winding mountain roads hugging precarious cliffs and mounted on the other side by sheer rises up, or steep boulder strewn ridges upwards. On the far side of the valley were alpine forests, green havens. The valley was alight with the sound of song birds in the dewy morning and as the sound of the engine waned the bird song grew in strength.
In the voyage through the valley they came to follow close the course of a turquoise blue river running white over hidden smooth stones. It's shining brilliance lighting up the afternoon air with quick silver glimmers.
“Where do you think it flows from?” Guo asked over the noise of the motorcycles old roaring.
“Some mountain somewhere.” answered Chao, looking briefly down at it.
“Say perhaps it flows from a jade palace. Hence its color.” Guo said.
Laughing, Chao answered back, “Why do you think this?”
“That's not an answer.”
“Does it need one?”
“Are you going to tell me you're going to write another fiction?”
“Maybe. When we find extra paper and pen. I don't want to intrude on your diary.”
Dragon DiariesLi ChaoSeptember 20th, 1960. Tuesday. Year of the Metal Rat
I don't know where we are anymore. But I don't think it matters. We left Almaty behind us, a smelly city. There's an air of horse shit and diesel in the streets and neither of us liked it very much. It's clear not much of the city is in working order as many of the lights were out when we passed over it at night. But there were a surprising many apple trees in the area. It was surprising to say the least. We must have filled our packs with them. Anything to avoid eating the same stale bread day in and day out until they become filled with maggots. The apples at least should help choke it down until they become bad, or bruised mush. We'll see what comes first.
But there's still more to be said about the apples. There were some which were small with a roughly knuckle appearance, deep red. They had a strong flavor. Somewhere between sweet and sour. I thought they tasted almost like lemons. Guo figured an orange or something. It was hard to place, but they were mostly seeds. Most of the time spent eating those was in pulling out the seeds as we ate, we couldn't decide it to eat the whole fruit or nibble at them.
There were others also banded with different shades of red. The texture was kind of soft and strange, like foam, without much of a flavor. But they were substantially larger. We didn't like them as much as the small ones, and not as much as the much larger ones, we found out we swear is as large as a melon! It's amazing it grew on the tree at all. But that was bitter to taste. Both of us spent time wondering if we would shit out the fruit in a few hours but I only really had gas, perhaps one was fermenting, there were so many of so many different textures and taste one might have been a little expired when we picked it up.
But looking forward to the mountains is something else. It's been a long time since we've seen any green. Guo seems to be uplifted but he isn't talking much. I don't know if he has eyes for home again. At this stage I don't know if he can escape, he's as trapped as I am. But who knows, he may try. How could either of us get home from here? Walk? I don't know if the mountains here can be crossed, or we might be able to walk into southern Xinjiang and find a train back to the east.
I do find myself thinking of hope. Perhaps it's unfair, but I find myself comparing home to the people here. Particularly the people of Amalty. They seemed all on edge. No one would talk to us, and we dared not try to have a conversation with anyone we passed. It must be something from the fall of the Empire. It's got everyone walking on egg shells. But most of everyone seems so isolated and seperate. In the time we spent in the city I would have expected to see a group doing Tai-Chi in the park, or old me playing Mahjong back home. But there was an absence of joy in Almaty. So we moved on.
I do not want to return.