Child of the Republic
Reckless, stubborn, carefree
Sweet and precious crown jewel
Singing songs of a time so far gone
Don’t ever let your voice die out.
Summer 2012. Visit to Raoyang Province, China
The tipping Queen Anne stood, against the field of identical concrete houses with shingled asphalt tiles for roofs and two windows on either side of the front door, it stood out like a sore thumb drawing the eye to it whenever one was near. The mansion was visibly old, older than the other houses, and its walls were a dark ruby red, although chipped in some spaces, revealing eroding limestone underneath. It looked something like a haunted mansion from a horror story, ideally one that was based in the French countryside, and its piling layers laid sloppily, one on top of the other, so that from afar, looked like a three-tier cake that was falling apart.
But in the backyard, there were miles of vineyard, with the sweetest, plumpest, best grapes in all of Raoyang province, that surged up to the sky, like spinning globes that drooped amongst the broad leaves and thin creepers.
The whispers on the street were that the house and its vineyards were haunted, and inside was a witch, and a powerful one at that, who kept her grapes evergreen year round. How else could one nurture a full vineyard in a dry, cold climate like that of Raoyang?
It was rumored that summer that a boy in cousin Zi’s eighth grade class went on a dare to steal a cluster of them, and disappeared for a full week and a half.
“When he finally showed up at school, he had a black eye and a terrible welt that took up half of his face.
And there were many just like him, who came back with their own stories. My friends and I went up to the gate once, the one that separates our family’s orchard from her backyard. You wouldn’t know it. It’s hidden, and only I know how to find it. I climbed all the way to the top. Almost reached the bunch at the bottom, but I heard a sound from the house, and the backdoor unlocked and opened. I had no choice.” Zi gazed at her knuckles, dry and peeling in places. “I had to climb down, or else she might have seen me and taken me.”
“Did you see her, Zizi?” I asked, eyes wide in terror. I was only seven at the time, and willing to believe anything that came out of my eldest cousin’s mouth. Baby Jia, who had been contentedly disassembling the head of a rag doll up until then, sensed that some new entertaining prospect was about to be announced, and stopped to look at us. Zi gave the two of us a superior smirk, and the setting sun cast an eerie glow upon her face. Her right cheek was a wonderfully bright cherry red, save for the blue indent right in the center, a bruise from a fight at school a week ago.
“See the witch?” Zi laughed, her tone menacing and bitter as always.
Suddenly, the bedroom that I shared with my two cousins felt too small.
“The witch has never been seen. Nobody other than those who were taken hostage have ever been known to see her, not even a glimpse. She hasn’t left that house in more than twenty years.”
“Why hasn’t anyone ever seen her?” I whispered. Baby Jia had come down from the couch and was tugging apprehensively at my sleeve.
“Because she did a terrible, terrible thing to the people of Raoyang; no, to all the people of China. Grandmama won’t tell me what it is, but I’m sure that it was terrible. And because of that, people knew she was a witch, so to keep the rest of us safe, they locked her away in that house.
“Wouldn’t that be lonely? In a house all alone by yourself forever?”
“For humans, yes. But for witches, it isn’t. They don’t feel anything.”
I trudged along, following the two sisters until we reached the open field. Here, the once cheerful green grass withered and died, leaving only scathed yellow marks amongst the gray ground. The sounds of the tweeting chickadees and will o'wisps whooshing amongst the air died too, and there was almost a sacred silence.
As I lifted my head, in front of us appeared a gate similar to the one that marked the entrance of heaven, or hell. The bars were curved to depict images- a maiden with a cup of overflowing wine, a tier of fruits and candies, a fountain that spurted streams of water up to 6 feet high. And amongst the bars, there were vines. The wall of green tendrils nearly engulfed the fence but hanging from the top of the gate, the large dollops of fresh green grapes caused them to droop and hang in the opposite direction.
There was a rusted lock that held the two connected pieces tightly together, so that not even little Jia could fit through.
“Look at them.” Zi’s face had filled with an expression I’d never seen before. Her eyes were fixated on the green pearls nested amongst the leaves on the top bar of the gate. They glinted like jewels in the darkness, luring the beholder into their trap. Jia’s dry mouth had become slick with saliva, and like a little puppy she dashed back and forth between the gate and me, tugging at my hand.
“Are you gonna climb?” I asked Zi. She ripped her gaze from the sweet temptation, and smiled at me wickedly.
“You know I can’t. The only way to get to the grapes is up, and my feet don’t fit in the holes anymore. I’ve already had my turn, and now it’s yours.”
I looked down, and nearly let go out of sheer amazement, I was so high up. From here, Zi and Jia looked just like my American girl dolls back at home.
Zi shouted something, this time with no glare, which was unusual. Her wide eyes and suppressed panic drifted away from my mind as I glanced back towards the prize at the final destination. I couldn’t hear her anymore.
Shouldn’t you go back down, little one?
But I’m already at the top. I can almost reach that grapevine-
Oh, but you won’t. You can’t. You don’t have it in you.
“Please come down!” Zi was screaming, and little Jia had spit out her pacifier and begun to cry.
I reached my little hand, palm up, outstretched as the Raoyang sky looked down upon me disapprovingly, the sun was making my head pulse in a slow, steady rhythm. My mouth was so dry, and suddenly I felt an immense wave of thirst, one deeper than any feeling in my life until then, and an urge to grasp the warm, sunkissed orbs and bite into the sweet flesh inside.
Finally, I managed to bridge the gap, and I felt something smooth with my fingertips. Like fine china, the thick skin broke, sweet juices spraying my skin, I was squeezing it too hard-
All air was forced out of my lungs, and for a moment an absolute stillness and peace came to me, brushing through my hair and kissing my forehead. I was going to be alright, mom and dad were going to stop fighting and be alright. I would be able to return home to America.
For just a moment, I was one with the dancing vines that soared up towards the sky - perhaps this was my chance to take off, to fly. To shed the rusting metal bars that caged me in and beat my wings so that I could leave the terrible, sticky hot mundanity of Raoyang summer and never look back. Maybe then, Zi would want to play with me more often. She sure was paying attention to me now, pale as a sheet she was.
But soon the glamour subsided. At an alarmingly increasing rate, green tugging creepers came closer and closer, surrounding my field of vision and ensnaring me so that I could no longer see the sky. My eye sockets burned and tears formed, a silent scream released itself from my throat, but was cut off abruptly as I choked on the harsh wind slapping my face. With a nasty thump I crash-landed face first, engulfed in a pile of hay. The stuff was itchy, nothing like what I had imagined the soft golden material to feel like. But it was just a patch, since ahead lay a maze of vines twice the length of my own size. It was then that I realized where I was.
There in front of me she stood, stonily silent to the point where I might have imagined her to be a statue towering over me. But the wind had picked up, and strands of her salt and pepper hair flew with the breeze across her wrinkled face. She wore an expression of surprise- lips slightly parted, eyes inquisitive. She wore a light blue gown, stained with purple and blue in some parts. She was so thin, her bony wrists and hollow cheekbones bore stories of endless strife.
Moments passed, and finally my mind returned to me.
I struggled to my feet, my hands shaking, and with a rush of adrenaline, scrambled towards the gate where I came from-
A searing pain ran up my left leg, and I cried out in pain before I could stop myself. The witch unfroze, and slowly but surely, approached me with an unreadable expression.
“Come here, child,” She reached for me, but I screamed and in the second that she paused, tried to get to my feet again.
And again, I fell.
“It’s no use.” She paused, and started again, speaking more to herself than to me:
“Please let me help you.”
I looked up at her in surprise.
“You know English?”
“Yes. Do you?” She seemed equally surprised, and a little bit of an accent appeared.
“Yes. I live in America.” I answered automatically,, then slapped my hand over my mouth, looking at her with apprehensive eyes. Was now the part where she would carry me into her house and boil me in a vat of poison?
“Don’t worry,” she laughed. “I won’t hurt you. Hold on, let me go get you a chair. You must be uncomfortable sitting in that pile of itchy hay.”
“You don’t look like what I expected you to look like.”
“Hmmm. What did you expect me to look like?”
“Are you going to boil me in a vat of poison?”
“No, I am not.”
“Well, are you going to make me drink your potions?”
“No I am not.”
“But my cousin told me you were a-
“A witch? A sorceress? A demon? The devil herself?”
“A witch, yes.”
“Ah, I see. Well, not everything you are told is the truth. That’s something you’d do good to remember in your future.”
“Well then, what are you?”
“I’m a human, just like you. Goodness, you seem to have broken your left leg. We need to get you to a hospital as soon as possible.”
“Then why did everyone say all those terrible things about you?”
“Because of who I am. How I am different from the rest of them.”
My family used to be rich. The richest in all of Raoyang. Maybe even the richest in all of the Hebei area. We were descendants of the royal bloodline within the Republic of China, and though our relationship was distant enough that I had never even met the royal family, still the blood flowed through my body and gave me, above everyone else, a right to power and riches and splendor. And for that reason, for the essence of what my family was made up of, we were rich.
After years of being diplomats in France and England, my family was sent to the countryside and given a fantastic estate, one that I would be born in, grow up and remain trapped in for the rest of my life.
Things were bad back then - everyday a new rebellion, every night, a new attempt to attack the palace. There was little that remained of what had made the country so great- not the money, but more the faith of the people in their government.
But then came the outside invaders with World War II, posing a bigger threat than our own civil war, and forcing the politically divided nation to pick up their weapons and fight alongside each other. My eldest brother fought, and then my second, and then my third. We shed the noble blood of our family, just as everyone else had. We were about to send off my father at the time the war finally ended.
Within all the turmoil of reconstruction after the war, my mother gave birth to a child, one who feasted on the leftovers of old, traditional China. I was the last relic of old money in Hebei, my blood the last of a long line of nobility. To the communists, I was a wild shrew, a nuisance that needed to be dealt with. I was the last remaining child of the republic, and I needed to be silenced. .
By 1950, half of my kin had fled to Taiwan. The other half were already arrested by the new Communist government. I was imprisoned within this house that I had once grown up in. I could not leave, nor could I communicate with the outside world in any way. I could never see my family again. I was the poster child of the old republic, and so I bore the weight of all our faults on my back, I wore the expressions of snobby nobility on my face. They devised for me a life worse than death.
Perhaps the people of Raoyang didn’t mean for my life to end up this way. Perhaps they didn’t mean for communism to take over their country either. But their anger- at the government for becoming corrupt and self-serving, at the war for taking away their loved ones, at China for failing them - all this anger needed to go somewhere.
And so they told themselves, if they just pretended that I was a witch, or a demon, or a spawn of satan, what they were doing would all be okay. If their families could live peacefully under communism, then whatever the government did would all be okay. If they could take the lives of just a few, then everyone else could all be okay.
I was a child of the republic, and therefore I was no longer a human.
I walked out of the gates again, this time with two wooden beams as crutches. Jia ceased her crying, and ran over to me, knocking me over again with a fierce embrace.
Zi stood there, lips parted in amazement as well as relief.
In my left hand dangled a bunch of sun-spotted grapes, mellow and translucent, their sweet scents lingering within the air between us. Intrigued by this new discovery, I inhaled once more, and the sweet scents of everlasting spring came to me again.
“Let’s go home.” Zi didn’t seem to notice the change in the air, a single bluebird flew in circles above the nearest tree, once ashen, but now budding new blossoms that were sure to bloom in the spring.
How did I not notice the first time around the smile of the kind maiden on the gate, the fireflies buzzing in excitement amongst the open clearing, their wings bringing to life little matches of flame, and the twinkling stars above who winked in and out of existence?
There was life here, though it was just a faint trace. And for one still moment, I turned myself around, back towards the lonely house, standing alone amongst the painted black backdrop.
And I shouted at the top of my lungs. I shouted as loud as I could, as much as I could, until finally Zi dragged me from the clearing.
MRS. LI, I WILL BE BACK SOON. PLEASE WAIT FOR ME. AND I REALLY, REALLY HOPE WE CAN BE FRIENDS.
If your small existence is glossed over with lies and ignorance, you might disappear forever.
But if someone, anyone, notices you, with a brave heart and an open mind, you can scrape away the lies, layer by layer, until what remains is only the truth in its most pure form.
Brave Mrs. Li, you had a life that was worth living, right to the very end. Your story will not be forgotten, for even now, I carry it with me at all times within my heart. May you Rest In Peace.