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 a field of identical concrete houses with shingled asphalt roofs and twin windows on either side of their front doors. It stood out like a sore thumb, drawing the eye to it whenever one was near. It was visibly old, older than the other houses, and its walls were a dark ruby red, although chipped and revealing eroding limestone underneath. It looked something like a haunted mansion from a horror story, ideally one based in the French countryside, and its layers piled sloppily, one on top of the other, so that from afar, it looked like a three-tier cake that was slowly decomposing.
But secluded behind its formidable walls and eerie, outstretched, invisible hands, there were miles of vineyard, with the sweetest, plumpest, best grapes in all of Raoyang province. As if racing against the tall iron gates barricading them from the rest of the world, the grape vines surged up to the sky, like secret globes, secret little worlds drooped amongst the broad leaves and thin creepers.
The whispers on the street were that the house and its vineyards were haunted by a witch, 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?
That summer, rumors spread with the buzzing dragonflies, as they traveled through the tall grasses at the parameters of the mansion, down through the entire town. One boy in Zi’s eighth grade class went on a dare to steal a cluster of the witch's grapes, and he 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 are many just like him, who came back with their own stories. My friends and I went up all the way to the north side of it once, to the iron gate 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 big bunch of ripe ones at the bottom, but then 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, sensed that some new entertaining prospect was about to surface, and stopped to listen. 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 we shared as cousins felt all too small.
“The witch has never been seen, not even a glimpse, not by anybody. Other than those who claim they were taken hostage, and they all say something different so no one knows what she actually looks like. She hasn’t left that house in more than twenty years, so there's no way to confirm.”
“Why hasn’t she ever left?” 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 ever-present sounds of the tweeting chickadees, droning dragonflies, and whooshing will o'wisps died too, and there was almost a sacred silence.
As I lifted my head, a gate floated through summer heat into existence, similar to the one at church that symbolized the entrance of heaven, or maybe hell, I couldn't quite remember. 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 six feet high. And amongst the bars, there were vines. The wall of green tendrils nearly engulfed the fence, but their large dollops of fresh green grapes kept them from further growing, and they ultimately stopped at the top of the gate, nestling in the nooks of the arching iron bars.
There was a rusted lock that held the two connected halves tightly together, so tightly that not even Jia could fit through.
“Look at them.” Zi’s face took on a wonderful, terrible expression I’d never seen before. Her eyes were fixated on the green pearls, glinting like jewels amongst the dull foliage, 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 black-haired 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. Instead, I had a conversation with the maiden on the gate, her iron cup overrun with thirsty vines.
Shouldn’t you go back down, little one?
But I’m already at the top. I can almost reach that cluster-
Oh, but you won’t. You can’t. You don’t have it in you.
“Please come down!” Zi was screaming, and little Jia spit out her pacifier and began 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, an urge to gorge on the warm, sunkissed orbs and suck out the sweet flesh inside.
Finally, I managed to bridge the last gap, and hauled my heavy body over the top bar, grasping something smooth with my fingertips. Like fine china, the delicate 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 through the air, brushing through my hair and kissing my forehead. It was going to be alright. I would 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 and 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 of my fall 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 thin golden material to feel like. But I became acutely aware of my own luck landing in this patch of yellow when I spun my head around to see a mass of thorny vines just a couple feet behind me. It was then that I realized where I was.
She stood directly in front of me, stonily silent to the point where I could have imagined her to be a hyperrealistic statue if I didn't know better. 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 dress, stained with purple and blue in some parts. She was thin, her bony wrists and hollow cheekbones bearing 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, scrambled 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 carried me into her house and boiled 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?”
“Scary. With at least three horns. Zi told me the boy in her class who saw you said you had at least three horns but he couldn't count them all.”
“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 - this one that we're currently in.
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 made the country so great- by that, I don't mean the money, but rather 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 of people fighting each other to turn 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 brat, 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 was pictured with the expression of snobby nobility constantly 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.
“Let’s go home.” Zi didn’t seem to notice the change in the air, but I suddenly felt like this place was entirely different than what it seemed just before I climbed the fence. A single bluebird flew in circles above the nearest tree, which was budding new blossoms that were sure to bloom in the spring.
For the first time I noticed the smile of the kind maiden on the gate, the fireflies buzzing in excitement amongst the open clearing as the sun set, and the twinkling stars above who winked in and out of existence high above us.
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 a small existence is glossed over with lies and ignorance, it might disappear forever.
But if you are someone 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.