By: Haiqi Zhou
Neighbors who came across the old colonel lately, on one or several of his many saunters along the banks of the Suzhou river, often described him as drifting in some dreamy trance. Indeed, having devoted his youth to a life, literally, on bullets and knives, it was not in the colonel’s nature to settle down. In the past, neighbors observed, the colonel had an unspoken habit to never sit during his walks, inching a foot in front another as briskly as a man of his age can, with the help of a crimson spruce walking stick that thuds rhythmically against the ground. But just yesterday afternoon, multiple witnesses reported spotting the colonel rest upon a dilapidated wooden bench facing the river, staring at perhaps the monotonous ripples of water, and seemed not to hear greetings from neighbors for the first ten seconds he was spoken to.
The neighborhood was small, its residents generally rich, which left them few chores to attend to during the day—two prime components for gossip to spread with range and alacrity. By the time the old colonel’s son returned from work, rottenly exhausted, he was the last in the household of four—that is, himself, the colonel, his wife, and his son, Yu—to be in on the discovery of the colonel’s shifting way, save for the colonel himself. Soon as the man trudged over the door, his wife started unleashing all the day’s accumulated chatter, but the man merely nodded along at random times as she spoke, propped his working bag against the wall, and sank into the sofa, eyes closed.
Son of a prominent colonel, the pervasive hardships of the Republic’s early days were often knowledge derived from lore of less fortunate contemporaries. Like the river that constantly to his four-story mansion, like the vrooming vehicles streaming down the adjacent highway, adversity, in the shape of grievous struggle, had never slowed his life.
Despite his fortune, he was cultivated not as a flimsy flower in the greenhouse, but rather raised going through artificial ordeals, like a rose tended by a malicious gardener, sometimes receiving too much water, sometimes too little. His colonel father, during the liberation war, had seen the worst of it, had been through living hell. The colonel was privy to the ingredients that mold a man, the conditions suitable for the forging of will and soul. So he permitted no academic failings of any kind, sent his son to military training camps in the rare free times during summer, and made sure his son completed all capable tasks on his own, which finally, as he saw in earnest, earned his son a rise to the top.
* * *
The wife wanted to talk. She was a kettle that just started to boil. How’s your day, she said. I bought some grapes for all of us. Some mangoes, too. You heard about Grandpa? Thought he’d never get old. So many battles, and still can’t fight time, can he.
The man kept his eyelids shut. Of course the Colonel was getting old. No need to fuss about that. But the stream of mouse clicks and keyboard hits that have been flowing from Yu’s room for a while now—that was what impeded the man’s work, and troubled his sleep.
For the greater number of Yu’s eleven years he had led an unrestrained life, largely due to a grandfather who commanded far less authority than his former title indicated and a father busier than the president, a circumstance eliciting envy from the bulk of Yu’s overworked peers. Other than the plethora of video games that he engages himself with, which for him usually ended in more defeats than victory, he had, in a large measure, obtained what he wanted from the world—unnecessarily pricey skateboards (not that he actually skates), desktops too advanced for his age, a pure and adorable ragdoll cat, amid other things of the sort. He was not so much spoiled as he was oblivious to the other walks of life, and as a result of perpetual contentment, knew life to hold no grander purpose. So when Yu was told of holiday plans to go mountain climbing, he was not quite sure if he had heard right.
Mountain climbing? said Yu, even looking away from the flashing screen for a second, to locate the origin of this absurd suggestion, his voice a mix of incredulity and sarcasm. The virtual figure on his screen that was expecting orders went stiff for a split second and, after a wave of remorseless enemy fire, dissolved into darkness. The once color-filled screen entered a depressing state of black and white.
Yes, mountain climbing, the father replied. His son could take some time away from his video games, he himself could use some rest before more work, and the colonel could get some more exercise in now that such opportunities dwindle with his time.
Attributing the source of stupor entirely to Yu’s inertia would be a great injustice, for the usual destination of his travels were among the likes of Disneyland and Universal Studio, places that guaranteed iced shakes every ten steps and air-conditioned chambers every five more. Even then the day ran the possibility of falling short, for Yu’s unrefined legs, after extended periods of labor, had the tendency to sink into the ground like melted cheese. On such occasions the family had to unavoidably accommodate Yu’s need for a proper resting of feet. It follows that the prospect of mountain climbing posed both a psychological nuisance and a physical impossibility.
Yet there was a tone of finality in his father’s voice, a swift determinant of fate that made Yu relinquish all rehearsed tantrums that he would usually throw. The wife was adamant about staying behind. Said she couldn’t bear leaving their adorable ragdoll cat alone at home. The father grudgingly agreed, realizing that the cat, over the years, had risen to become her major company. The departing train arrived half past eight on a Saturday; normally, Yu would have still been in his Victorian bed, hardly out of his sleep. But today the father had been determined, and insisted the three appear well-packed and ready to go, and wait on the platform for the bullet train to show up. In fact, the father had deliberately chosen a train over a plane, the latter being their usual mode of transportation. He recently read a report detailing the number of citizens who never enjoyed the privilege of being on a plane in his country, a shocking statistic which tapped directly upon his pool of impersonal sympathy. It was only after Yu boarded the train, and sought, to no avail, a designated seat for luggage and seating, did he hesitantly confront his father regarding this inexplicable mystery.
“I bought us standing tickets,” the father announced, excited and solemn,” really, it’s a good experience. Always nice to have a taste of different things.”
The colonel, though, was rightfully offered a seat in the first-class cabin. Even by old men standards he had been through a lot. He was still robust enough, but age had carved itself onto his face. His belly swelled like a parenthesis underneath his unimpressively gray woolen shirt, which hung loosely around his body. It was hard to deduce the glory of his former days from his current state, a mere relic of an outdated epoch. Strapped to his belt was a black pistol, an antique like himself. A general had bestowed the pistol to him for exceptional valor during the Changsha Counterattack, an object that had since acquired an enchanted value. The colonel received permission to carry it with him at all times, even after the war ended, but it had never once been fired, nor did anyone ever notice, with the gun being small and hidden behind clothing. Privately, Yu found it quite funny. He didn’t believe it even would still fire, and joked to himself that his grandpa carried it to ward off Death.
The colonel rested his head against the windowpane, its coldness tangible but refreshing, like a temporary antidote to his decelerating mind, which seemed to grow foggier each day. The train sped North, leaving behind forests of concrete and the throngs of human that inhabited it. Dunes of soil, brown, green, or sometimes gold, dominated the view outside. Now and then a herd of sheep and cattle caused a wave of exclamations from the passengers, who’d never before so much as seen real livestock with flesh and bones, but the animals themselves did not realize they had become the center of attention. They continued to chew on the grass, saturating the air with the stench of their manure that, for a moment, polluted the train cabin, inciting frowns and groans. Yet in a matter of seconds they vanished out of sight, disappearing from the lives of those exclaiming onlookers forever.
The family felt, rather saw, the looming presence of Mount Hua. The father was driving a Volkswagen Touareg rented after they got off the train, and as they closed in on their destination, a never-ending trickle of local merchants endeavored to tout them poorly manufactured binoculars and fridge magnets portraying famous local attractions, but the father was dubious if they could actually stick. Others tried to sell sugar-coated haws that had remained unsold for a century. The vendors waited by the roadsides, scouting tourists, like vultures biding their time to feed. They latched onto any unsuspecting cars, stopped them in their paths, then dove into a lengthy prattle on the divine worthiness of their identical products. The father soon became irritated, started telling them to go away and jammed the accelerator so he no longer posed an easy target. Yu, however, sitting in the back seat, didn’t mind that their trip was being slowed down. The two prolonged hours of standing on the train had been no fond experience, and of all people, he could use some time to breath before the start of another treacherous journey.
The colonel had been very much awake and aware on the train— a rare glimpse of land and livestock beyond city limits was not to be missed. A reminder of the Republic when it was first being built. But as the limousine traveled on, his eyelids drooped, eventually succumbing to a dreamy slumber. He was twenty-five, give or take a few years. The rifle in his hands weighed more than it should. He wrapped his fingers around the trigger, the other hand clutching the gun’s extending front overly tight. Bullets zizzed past his head; shouts exploded from all directions. He wasn’t sure which was louder, the nonstop firing or the deafening vibration of his screaming heart. His unit lured the enemy up a steep mountain passage, a holdout which they were determined to defend. He didn’t flinch when the bodies of comrades went limp beside him, all life sucked out, nor did he wince at the wails of agony, the aftermath of landed projectiles. His mind was purged of all thoughts, other than the one singular, remaining faith: Hold the enemy back at all cost.
The colonel woke to an indistinct humming of scattered conversations. For a moment, he wondered where he was and why he was there. Instinctively, his fingers reached for the pistol, which still leaned placidly on his belt. Its metallic texture never failed to soothe his nerves in times of agitation. They had reached an open field at the bottom of the mountain, where visitors parked their cars and proceeded toward the entrance of the scenic trails. Stepping down from the automobile with help from his son, a part of him still lingered in that recurring trance. Ever since he surpassed sixty years of age, nights and naps were whiled away in an unremembering darkness. No dreams had invigorated his sleep for years, save for that scene of battle on a mountain, which was a genuine memory he could recall, a fragment of time from the prime of his life. If his mind was a depleting lake, with all other memories fading like water being drained, that replay of his youth was the sedimentary fossil unearthed from the riverbed, growing clearer as it gradually surfaced behind all the fluids.
The father, mumbling some folksong, offered to purchase tickets. Yu quietly thanked the weather goddess for infecting his father with such cordial mood, that he did not object when Yu declined the invitation to purchase together, for Yu intended to busy himself with a mobile electronic battle game that he’d been itching to play all along. The momentary absence of his father unlocked his long suppressed urge. Under his command, a young soldier dexterously switched back and forth between shot guns, grenades, knives, rifles, dodging attacks of all kinds like an immaterial shadow. Yu’s fingers danced across the narrow phone screen, his eyes consumed by a remorseless determination to terminate all enemies. The number of opponents dwindled as the Rolex watch on his wrist ticked on, until he saw the approaching figure of his father return out of the corner of his eyes. No time to finish now, Yu thought, as he stuffed his phone back to his pocket to avoid a potential scolding, finally bringing down his puppet in the game, now immobile and at the mercy of all.
* * *
The trail, initially consisting of rows of flat wooden planks, wide and welcoming, grew increasingly narrow as it gained in elevation. Stairs, made of blocks of unpolished, moss-plagued granite, silently endured the weight of a thinning horde of travelers. The atmosphere reeked a blended scent of photosynthesis and decaying wood.
The father was in a great spirit to hike, strides sound, breathing rhythmic. His job, regardless of all the perks that came with it, rarely allowed the time for a brush with nature, or a rite of familial outing. He was the kind of person that maintained an applaudable level of fitness, despite a sedentary agenda which exercises were not a part of. Yu tagged along, not far behind his father. During the past hour he had asked for three water breaks and complained twice why it still wasn’t time to stop and turn back, but a mixture of pep talks, commands, and disguised coercion by his father prolonged his struggle. What intrigued him was the odd outburst of vigor his grandpa had begun to demonstrate. The colonel’s frail body frame had been emitting a disproportionate amount of energy ever since they entered the mountain trail. He showed no signs of weariness as the hour dragged on, was instead leading several turns ahead, almost out of vision.
It was one of the rare occasions where Yu got close to the truth. The colonel had noticed a faint surge of familiarity swell up, not long after they began to hike along the trail, and as he trudged on the feeling was only magnified. Of course, certain constructions of the trail were additions of a later time. That he knew. Yet the position of twists and turns—he recalled them when the path was still a muddy mess—the combination of trees, reflected something eerily recognizable from a past he remembered only too well. There! Half a tree trunk, entirely charred, laid horizontally on the forest ground, obstructing the right side of the walkway. The colonel recalled passing by a burnt tree trunk some forty years ago, one possibly struck by lightning. Surely it had fallen, after all these years standing erect, while dying slowing on the inside. No longer did he hold more doubts. It was the exact place he fought till the end as a private, the very mountain that haunted him through all the rewinding nights.
With each step the Colonel was recharged with an electrifying confidence. He could feel that long-absent adrenaline coursing through his veins, propelling his heart to crash against the ribcage, pounding to escape. When he was rescued by the main army, he never imagined returning, though the martyred bodies of his comrades were long branded into his soul. Fate was leading him back to the graveyard of a battlefield, he was sure of it; it had always been his duty to send his fellow soldiers to an eternally peaceful rest.
* * *
The mountain sky usually kept a stash of masks at her disposal, childishly switching one for another whenever she felt like it. What started as a gentle breeze soon transformed into a razor gale, swaying the trees, rocking their vociferous branches and leaves. The sun retired for the day and left the stage to adjoining gray clouds that covered the firmament. A drizzle, a shower, a downpour—rain’s evolution took no time at all and permitted no time to react. Within seconds the father and Yu were soaked, T-shirts adhering to their skin like swimming suits. The colonel was ahead of them, at the maximum range of sight and sound.
The father shouted to get his attention. Bellowed, waved like a clown. Even Yu chimed in. Grandpa. Come back. Grandpa. Time to go. Come back. Back.
Hearing sounds, but not words, the colonel turned. He saw two figures through the rain, the taller brandishing his gun, the shorter stood to the side, howling taunts. Enemies were cunning, cold-blooded fiends, and they were upon him. Further down track were more sinister shadows, obscure but advancing amid the shaded mist.
Behind him dwelt the spirits of blood-bonded comrades, bracing for a deathly skirmish. Behind him the sacred land of the republic stretched, demanding from him a final stand. No time to lose now—the colonel, trembling, reached for his pistol, and after taking aim, pulled the trigger, sensing the shot.