Published in Jun. 2020 (Issue 121) | 8468 words
© 2014 by Ken Liu. Originally published in Dead Man’s Hand, edited by John Joseph Adams. Reprinted by permission of the author.
Idaho Territory, Circa 1890
The ray of light came over the eastern horizon like a sunrise, like the door to a dank jail cell cracking open, like the sweeping fiery sword before an angel of judgment. It elongated into a thin, bright, yellow wedge that washed out the stars and revealed the shining parallel tracks before it, dividing the vast, dark continent into halves, leaving behind the endless vegetal sea of the Great Plains and plunging heedlessly toward the craggy, ancient, impassive peaks of the Rockies.
Only then did the piercing cry of the steam whistle finally reach Amos Turner on the hill a half-mile away. His mass of untrimmed white beard and shaggy hair was momentarily illuminated, making his face—full of deep lines carved by the winds of many winters and summers spent in a saddle in the open—seem like a snow-capped mountain in the wilderness.
“Whoa,” Amos said, and patted Mustard’s neck as the mare snorted and skittered back a few steps. The ground trembled as the locomotive rushed by, pulling behind it cars laden with the goods and people of the East, contentedly dreaming of free land and fresh starts.
But to Amos, the train seemed a malignant serpent, a belching, unfeeling monster, a long and heavy chain that ended in shackles.
“Time to go on.”
Gently, he turned Mustard west and began the long journey into the unknown. Soon, the sound and light of the locomotive faded away, and he was again alone with his thoughts under a sky studded with brilliant stars, the way he preferred.
• • • •
The ponderosa pines and Douglas firs grew denser as the days passed. This used to be gold-mining country, and from time to time the horse and rider came upon abandoned mining camps next to streams, now full of the late spring meltwater. Some nights, Amos chose to camp in one of them, sitting alone amidst the abandoned shacks while he fed Mustard a handful of oats; chewed a rabbit leg or sipped venison stew; and puffed on his pipe long into the night as he sat by his lone fire, the light dancing against the shadowy cliffs of his face, the crackling of logs the only sound in the darkness.
This particular morning, the fog had rolled in, and Amos felt as though he and Mustard were floating in a sea. The deer trail that they had been following also seemed to dip and twist more than usual. Since he had no particular destination in mind, he allowed Mustard to go wherever she pleased.
“Slow down, girl,” Amos advised. “Don’t rush and hurt yourself.” He felt uneasy, being unable to see more than a few yards into the fog.
But Mustard liked the taste of the grasses and shoots along the trail, many of which were new to her, and she picked her way slowly through the mist and carefully sniffed each plant to be sure it wasn’t poisonous.
“Smart,” Amos said, leaning forward and lightly scratching her withers.
He looked up at the sky, trying to see the sun, but the fog refracted the light so that it came from every direction at once, and he could not tell east from west.
A passing breeze momentarily revealed a ghostly figure in the mist, like a fish seen through murky water.
“Who goes there?”
There was no response. Amos straightened in the saddle and reached for his Winchester. Is it a mule deer, a bear, or a Shoshoni hunter?
A stronger breeze tore away more of the mist, and a man appeared, standing between two trees. He was tall and lean, and there was a long white scar dividing his face diagonally. He politely tipped his hat to Amos, but Amos noted the gleaming handles of the pistols at his belt, ready to be drawn.
Amos drew back on Mustard’s reins, signaling her to back up. He kept the rifle pointed at the sky.
“Just passing through,” Amos said. “Fog here always this thick?”
The man between the trees chuckled. “It’s especially bad today.” But his voice held no mirth. “Not the best day for hunting,” he muttered in a lower voice.
The man’s tense posture hinted at something darker. Amos didn’t want to linger. “I’ll be on my way then. Anyone else down the trail I should know of? Don’t want to be shooting at shadows in the fog.”
“There are a few more of us if you go down that way,” the man said. “We’re hunting vermin. You don’t want to be hurt accidentally. Best you go back the way you came.”
Amos sat still on his saddle. “I reckon it’s best I keep going where I’m headed. You see, I’ve already been where I came from.”
“Suit yourself,” the man said. “But don’t get involved in business which ain’t yours.”
• • • •
As Amos went on, the trees grew denser, the trail turned more twisty and the fog thicker. Mustard moved forward gingerly.
He noticed bits of paper fluttering in the branches lining the trail. Reaching out, he took hold of a few. They were full of dense, tiny print, and appeared to be pages from law pamphlets of some kind.
Whereas, in the opinion of the Government of the United States the coming of Chinese laborers to this country endangers the good order of certain localities within the territory thereof . . .
. . . the coming of Chinese laborers to the United States be, and the same is hereby, suspended; and during such suspension it shall not be lawful for any Chinese laborer to come, or, having so come after the expiration of said ninety days, to remain within the United States . . .
Like most matters pertaining to the law, the crooked, impenetrable sentences seemed to Amos to pile one upon another, twisting and turning, writhy and snakish, growing foggier and foggier the more he read. He threw the papers away.
Mustard splashed across a small stream. Amos gazed at the water, looking for fish. Maybe this would be a good place to camp for the evening. It was getting late, and Idaho spring nights were chilly.
A clump of bushes rustled somewhere up the hill.
Amos was just about to shout out a warning not to shoot, that he was no vermin, when the bushes parted, and a human figure stumbled out and rushed at him.
He almost shot at the figure before realizing that it was a woman, who wasn’t dressed like the Indians and not like the settlers either. She had on a loose, gray dress, cut in a manner Amos had never seen, long strips of cloth that wrapped around her legs like large bandages, and black cloth shoes.
A few steps from him, she collapsed to the ground, and a knife fell from her hand.
The woman thrashed and struggled to sit up.
They stared into each other’s eyes.
Amos saw that she was probably in her fifties, short and lean. Her clothes were drenched in mud and her left shoulder was a bloody mess.
Some kind of Oriental, Amos thought.
“Damn it,” the woman croaked. “Thought the words would hold you longer.” Then she collapsed and stopped moving.
In her dream she was again fifteen, a Hakka girl lying—dying really—under the hot sun.
But she did not sweat. The field she was in was as dry as her body. It hadn’t rained for three years, but the governor still refused to release the grain from the Imperial warehouses.
All around her, the lifeless land was stripped bare, as though a swarm of locusts had passed over it. Every shred of tree bark, every blade of grass had been eaten, and the bodies of men and women were strewn about, their bellies filled with dirt, the last meal of desperation to assuage the demons of hunger.
Could it be? A line of ants appeared in the distance. She licked her lips, her tongue dry and heavy as a stone. She would wait until the ants got closer, and then she would eat them.
The ants came closer, grew, and became a line of marching men, their banners flapping and shimmering in the heat. She watched them approach, thinking they were like soldiers descended from heaven, like wandering hsiake that the traveling storytellers always spoke of, who toured the land to right wrongs.
“Drink, Sister,” one of the men said, and held a cup to her lips. She drank and tasted rice, as cool and nourishing as ganlu dripped by Guanyin, the Goddess of Mercy. She felt every pore in her body scream with the almost-forgotten pleasure of food and water.
“We’re soldiers of the Heavenly State of Taiping,” the man said. “We worship the Heavenly Father and Jesus, His Son. Tienwang, Jesus’s Brother, has been sent to deliver us from the Manchus.”
Yun remembered the tax collectors who had come the fall before, warning the villagers about the Taiping Rebels and their dangerous leader Hung Hsiu-ch’üan, who called himself Tienwang, the Heavenly King. Anyone who dared to oppose the Manchu Emperor and support the rebels—really just brazen bandits—would be put to death by being sliced a thousand times by a knife. And oh, of course the Emperor’s taxes still had to be paid, even if it meant taking away the last cup of rice left in the family’s grain jar.
“Thank you, Master,” she tried to imitate the unfamiliar words of the man. “If you give me another drink, I will join the Heavenly State of Taiping and become your servant forever.”
The man laughed. “Call me Brother, and you shall be my Sister. In the Heavenly State of Taiping, there are no masters and servants. All of us are equal before the Heavenly Father.”
“All of us?” This made no sense to her. The world was made up of chains, hierarchies, rules that ranked superiors and inferiors. At the top was the Emperor, his Throne held up by the noble Manchus; below them came the servile Han Chinese, with the Hakka lowest of all among them, their lot to till the rockiest fields. And a Hakka woman? She was like a worm, a nothing, barely worth the air she breathed.
“All of us,” the man affirmed. “Men and women, Han and Chuang, Cantonese and Hakka, we’re all equals. Tienwang even has armies made up of women soldiers, who can rise to become generals and dukes just like men. Now drink to your heart’s fill, and let us pray of toppling the Manchu Emperor and opening his storehouses so that all of us can eat white rice!”
And she drank, and drank, and the cold rice porridge tasted like heaven.
• • • •
Still drinking from the cup held to her lips, Yun opened her eyes.
A face, framed by unkempt hair and a bushy beard, hovered a foot or so from hers. In the flickering firelight, it looked like the face of one of the men who had attacked the camp, killed Ah San and Gan and the others, and then chased her all the way here.
She shuddered and tried to push herself away, but she was too weak and only managed to spill the water all over herself.
“Easy now,” the man said. “I won’t hurt you.”
It was his voice, more than the words, that calmed her. She could hear in it a gentle weariness, like an old mountain that had been worn down by eons of ice and water. She saw now that, though the man was white, he was much older than the five who had come to her camp.
“You a lawyer?” Yun asked.
“No,” he said, and chuckled. “Though I tried studying to be one, a long time ago.”
“Then how did you get through my maze so quickly?” she asked, gesturing at the dark, dense woods, the twisty trails, the thick mist that made the fire crackle and turned the sparks into glowing fireflies. She spoke slowly, so that he could understand her accent.
He looked around at the foggy forest again, like a man who suddenly found himself in an unfamiliar place. “This fog, the trees, the trails—you did all this?”
“With these,” she said, and reached inside a fold in her dress to pull out a few sheets of paper, full of tiny, dense print.
Of course the man wouldn’t understand.
She sighed. So much had happened. So much to explain. Words, she needed words to help her, words in this beautiful, foreign tongue that she loved but would always wield like an unfamiliar sword.
“Excuse me,” she said, and struggled to sit up straight. Slowly, carefully, she bowed to Amos. She tried to put grace and deliberateness into her movements, as though she were sitting at a formal banquet, dressed in ceremonial armor draped with silk. “We haven’t met properly. I am Liew Yun, formerly a general of the Heavenly State of Taiping, and now placer gold miner of Idaho.”
• • • •
The five men had come to her camp in the evening.
Hey, Chinamen, said the one with the scar across his face. His name was Pike, and he had been threatening the Chinese miners in the valley all spring. Didn’t we tell you to get out of here last week? This is my mine.
The mine’s ours, Ah San explained. I told you, you can go to the courthouse and check our claim.
Well, lookee here! We got ourselves a law-abiding Chinaman! Pike exclaimed. You want to talk about the law? The law?
Then Pike explained to the Chinese miners that Congress had already decided that all Chinamen needed to be gone from these mountains and go back to where they came from. Indeed, all law-abiding citizens had a right and duty to deport—he savored the word—the Chinamen into the sea.
One of Pike’s men took out a sheaf of papers and shook them in the miners’ faces. These are laws, he said. Some old, some new. You Chinamen are scared of laws, aren’t you? Then you better pack and run.
Yun grabbed the sheaf of papers out of his hand and started to read from them aloud:
. . . and may be arrested, by any United States customs official, collector of internal revenue or his deputies, United States marshal or his deputies, and taken before a United States judge, whose duty it shall be to order that he be deported from the United States as hereinbefore provided . . .
I don’t understand, she said. I can’t make any sense of these words. Do any of you really understand them?
Pike’s gang gaped at her, amazed that she could read.
One of the men recovered. The law says that you have to pick up and leave before we make you.
Before we shoot you like vermin, Pike added.
Gan was the first to take a swing at him, and the first to be shot. Then chaos was all around Yun as deafening gunshots and flowing blood seemed to put her in another time, another place.
Run! Ah San screamed, and pushed her.
She saw Ah San’s head explode into a bloody flower before her eyes as she turned to run into the woods. Something hit her left shoulder hard and made her stumble, and she knew that she had been shot. But she kept on running along the deer trail, as fast as she could.
She heard more shots fired after her, more cries that suddenly became silent, and then, the sounds of pursuit.
She said a prayer to God and Guanyin each. I’m hurt. But I can’t die. Not yet. I still have a mission.
And she saw that she still clutched the pamphlets that the men had brought to the camp with them, pamphlets full of words that none of them could understand, words that made up laws they claimed said she was unwelcome in this land.
They were her last chance.
She ripped the papers into strips and scattered them behind her. As she passed, trees gathered behind her, the mist rose, and the path bent, forked, and curled around itself.
The sounds of pursuit scattered and grew fainter.
“You can do magic with words?” Amos asked.
“Words hold magic for the desperate and the hopeful,” Yun said.
Amos looked at her, certain that the woman was mad. A general of the Heavenly State of Taiping. He shook his head.
When she had been asleep, her face had been relaxed and peaceful, almost smiling. He had thought she looked a bit like one of the taciturn but friendly Shoshoni women on the plains of Wyoming sitting around the fire on those cold nights he had sought shelter with them.
But now her eyes, feverish, intense, bore into his face like a pair of locomotive headlights.
A wolf howled in the distance, soon echoed by others.
Then followed the sound of a gunshot, and the howling ceased.
“They’re getting close,” Yun said, gazing into the dark mist. “It’s this fire. You’ve led them straight to me.”
Amos picked up the kettle and poured water on the hissing fire to put it out. Soon they were wrapped in darkness, lit only by the light of the moon through the fog.
“I can carry you on Mustard,” Amos said.
Yun shook her head. “I’m not leaving.”
Yun’s glance flickered to a small mound some distance away. Amos squinted and made out a conical shelter made out of chopped tree branches leaning against each other.
“It’s the gold, isn’t it?” Amos asked. “That’s why you ran here.”
After a second, Yun nodded. “We moved it out here when Pike’s gang started to harass us this spring. All the gold we’ve mined and saved for two years is here.”
Amos’s heart grew heavy. “You can always get more gold.”
She shook her head.
“This is not my fight,” Amos said.
Amos felt a wave of disappointment that turned into anger. He strode over to Mustard and mounted. Gently, he nudged the mare with his calves and rode away from the hill, away from the howling wolves and the pursuing men.
• • • •
Amos held Mustard’s reins loosely, lost in his thoughts.
She can’t let go of that gold, he thought. A fool. He had seen far too many die from greed out here.
In the years he had been wandering, he had grown more and more mistrustful of the hearts of women and men. Having more than a few of them together always seemed to lead to schemes, plots, robbery disguised as something more respectable. He would sometimes go warily to the towns to trade for goods that he could not do without, but he far preferred to be alone under an open sky, accompanied only by the howls of coyotes and wolves, dangers that he understood better and feared less than the dangers hidden behind the smiling faces of settled men.
In Kansas, he had seen the light of hope go out in the eyes of black families as they realized that they were free in name only. In New Mexico, he had seen the sorrow on the faces of the Indians forced to swallow their pride and anger as they learned of yet another betrayal. And now, it was the Chinamen’s turn.
He tried to push Yun out of his thoughts, but the grief and terror of her tale refused to let go. He shook his head angrily.
Every year, as the railroads expanded and ramified like the roots of some tenacious weed, they brought along with them the homesteaders, and farms turned into villages turned into towns turned into cities.
In his mind, Amos saw the railroads as chains yoking the land around him to an East that was full of noise and stale air and invisible bonds that weighed down a man’s spirit until nothing was left of it except the capacity for brutality in masses. Even the Chinamen were once welcomed out here, when the land was open and empty. But now that it was filling up and fewer mines were panning out, they became vermin.
Was it really greed? he thought. The look on her face when she had refused to leave wasn’t one of lust for the luster and weight of gold, but one of determination to live like a free woman, not hounded prey.
A Chinaman’s chance was bad enough. But a lone, crazy Chinawoman?
An image from long ago came unbidden to his mind. Help me, a young man’s voice croaked. Amos closed his eyes, trying to make the voice go away. Then he shuddered as he heard the gunshot again.
He opened his eyes. Somehow Mustard, who knew him better than he knew himself, had already turned around and was heading back the way they came.
• • • •
Amos dismounted, grabbed his rifle from the saddlebag, and walked over to Yun. The woman sat serenely and followed him with her eyes, not having moved since he left her.
“I knew you’d be back,” she said.
“You’re like a hsiake from back home in China.”
Amos laughed bitterly. “I’m no hero.”
The generals and politicians would eventually call it the Battle of Olustee, but for Amos Turner, it had been hell.
A young clerk struggling to learn the law in Boston, he had volunteered out of a sense of duty, a desire to end the sin that was slavery, the stain upon the honor of the Republic that the abolitionists denounced in the streets.
But in those Florida pine woods on that day, there were no beautiful ideals, no duty and honor, no God and country, only confusion and slaughter. Too frightened to even think, he charged mindlessly into hailstorms of bullets and screaming artillery even as his companions disintegrated on each side of him.
“Leave them!” He looked over and saw a white Union commander shouting at the remnants of some colored troops, who had barely been trained before entering the battle. The black men were reluctant to leave their wounded comrades behind, but the officer wanted them to haul away the artillery instead, in the hasty retreat.
Then the ground exploded near him, and Amos was thrown into oblivion.
When he awoke, it was evening. All around him, he could hear the intermittent cries of the wounded. Union or Rebel, they sounded equally pitiful. After a while, he realized that he was crying out, too, whether for rescue or the quick relief of a bullet to the head he knew not.
Then he saw the Rebels. In small groups, they scoured the field, methodically picking rings, watches, money from the wounded and stripping the clothes from the dead.
He saw some of the Rebels raise their bayonets and thrust down, and a cry would be silenced. The Rebels moved efficiently and mechanically, like marionettes.
They were murdering the wounded, Amos realized.
Desperately, he tried to crawl away, but his legs and elbows slipped in the mud.
“Help me,” a soldier nearby said, his voice rasping.
He saw that the soldier—one of the black men the Union commander had ordered abandoned—was very young, barely more than a boy.
“Quiet,” Amos whispered to him harshly. “You’ll draw them.”
The soldier turned his head and focused his eyes on Amos. “Help me,” he begged, louder.
A few Rebels turned in their direction.
Amos pushed the soldier down and crawled away as quickly as he could. He shifted a few corpses around and buried himself under them, praying that the ruse would work.
And then he forced himself to remain still as the men came closer. One of the Rebel officers stepped over the pile of bodies that Amos hid under and squatted next to the dying soldier.
“Help me,” the soldier said. “Please.”
“You dumb thing,” the officer said. “The devil has you now.” Amos willed himself to get up and say something, to stop what was happening, but his body refused to obey.
He heard the sound of a gunshot. And it echoed in his head for a long time.
Though many Union men were taken as prisoners on that day, very few were black.
Amos crawled away from the field in the night. He did not know for how many days he lay in a feverish dream, licking the water from the leaves that draped about him and sometimes chewing the leaves for sustenance.
When he was coherent again, he was consumed with shame at his cowardice. He was no better than the commander who had given the order to abandon the wounded black soldiers.
There was also rage, and fear. He could not understand how men who joked and drank and collapsed into fits of laughter over some bawdy tale could suddenly become automata, like interchangeable gears in a machine that they did not comprehend, and become as will-less as the guns in their hands. When the right orders were given, all men could murder in cold blood like devils.
Amos got up and walked west, hiding from anything that looked like an army patrol, until he had left behind the world of cities and laws and the men who crafted them and submitted to their power.
Was it not the world of strictly construed laws and glittering money and elegant clothes and refined speeches that had decided one man could be the property of another? Amos remembered. And it was that same world that had declared ritualized, anonymous slaughter sweet and fitting. It was that same world that would abandon the wounded, knowing what fate awaited them. What was the use of talk of freedom and ideals? Civilization was a lie, through and through.
And so he moved ever westward, searching for and escaping into the trail-less, wordless wilderness beyond the frontier line.
• • • •
“I don’t care what you did or didn’t do,” Yun said. “What matters is you’re here now.”
An owl hooted not too far away, startled from its perch.
“They’re coming,” Amos said. “We better get ready.”
He had already decided that the best spot for defense was between two fallen trees near the top of the hill. It would give them some cover and allow them to see the men approach.
“Get me there first,” Yun said, pointing to the conical shelter made out of sticks.
“It’s not gold you need right now.”
“It’s not gold I’m after,” Yun said impatiently. “It’s words. Magic.”
Amos had no choice but to help her over. Her legs were unsteady and her breathing was labored as they walked. She leaned into him, as light as a foal.
“Open it up,” she said. There was a natural authority to the way she spoke, as though she really was used to giving commands and having them obeyed.
Amos peeled back the branches to reveal a few wooden boxes underneath, on top of which lay a few bundles wrapped in oilcloth. Yun pointed at those. Amos handed them to her.
She unwrapped the bundles. They were filled with all kinds of printed material: pages torn from books, sheets of newsprint, picture cards with words on their backs.
Though worried about the approaching pursuers, Amos was intrigued. “What are they?”
She stroked the papers lovingly. “Another kind of treasure. Probably the better kind. Words I’ve read and liked.”
She picked up a page from the top and handed it to him. “I’m tired. Read it to me.”
By the faint light of the moon, Amos read:
The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation. What is called resignation is confirmed desperation. From the desperate city you go into the desperate country, and have to console yourself with the bravery of minks and muskrats.
“Wise words,” she said.
“Wise words are not enough,” he said, thinking of all the ugliness in the world.
“Are they not?” And before he could stop her, she snatched the page out of his hand, tore it into tiny pieces, and began to eat some of them.
“What are you doing?” He stared at her, dumbfounded.
“I am in desperate country,” she said, after swallowing, “and I need all the bravery I can get. But I will have nothing of resignation.” She spat out a wad of wet pulp.
And he saw a hardened set to her jaw that was new, and heard a strength in her voice that had been absent before. She seemed literally to have grown bolder.
“You read but do not believe,” she said.
“You do not know what I have seen,” he said. He thought of that young man long ago who had believed himself to be brave and noble until the truth was revealed to him.
She laughed. “I have seen words free the minds of men who thought they were slaves.”
The men who had rescued her brought her back to Tienching, the Heavenly City, capital of the Heavenly State, where she became a soldier just like all the other Taiping women. She was bright and worked hard, and soon she was selected to study how to read and write.
Her teacher, Sister Wen, was a former prostitute who had learned to read and write from her clients in Canton. She freely admitted that she did not know how to write like the scholars, only like a child. “But the magic of writing is strongest in the least skilled,” she said, “just as in the Bible it is the last that shall be first, and the first last.”
Sister Wen wrote the characters for the Heavenly State of Taiping on a slate.
“This is the character tien, which means ‘heaven,’” she said, pointing to the third character. “It is like a man standing with a beam over his head, which he must keep balanced over him.”
This made sense to Yun. It was her old life. A man was weighed down by the world of his superiors, and a woman’s burden was even heavier. Looking at the character, she could almost see the person’s back bend with the weight.
“It has been written this way for thousands of years, but no more.” Sister Wen erased the line at the top and redrew it, so that it tilted like the man was throwing off his weight.
“Tienwang decided that we can write ‘heaven’ like this, and already you can hear the Emperor in Peking quaking with fear.”
Yun looked at the character on the slate and felt her heart beat faster.
But still, she doubted.
“How can we just change it?” she asked. “Hadn’t our ancestors always written tien the old way?”
“Our ancestors are dead,” Sister Wen said. “But we are alive. If we want something, then we must take it and make it true. Have you ever known poor women like you and me to read and write, to fight with swords and arrows next to their brothers and fathers? Yet here we are.”
Yun could almost see the invisible strands of power rise from the slate into the hearts of all the men and women around her.
“If we wish to express that which has never been thought, we must create new characters. There will be no more concubines, no more bound feet, no more rich and poor, and no more shaved foreheads and queues to show our submission to the Manchu Emperor. We will be free.”
And Yun felt the ground tremble under her, and she was sure that the tremors could be felt in far away Peking.
• • • •
No way of thinking or doing, however ancient, can be trusted without proof.
She chewed on the words and swallowed them.
“I saw a single character shake the foundation of an Empire,” she said to Amos. “And you dare tell me that words are mere words. Now, eat.”
She handed him a slip of paper.
What a man thinks of himself, that it is which determines, or rather indicates, his fate.
He ate it, masticating the bitter pulp slowly.
She looked at him. “You could have left me to those men. Yet you stayed. Doesn’t matter if you want to be. You are a hsiake.”
A wave of heat rose from his stomach and suffused his body, gradually seeping even into his limbs and extremities. He felt as though he had the strength of many men flowing through him.
“Now, you see,” she said, her voice strong as a Douglas fir.
As the shadowy figures crossed the stream, Amos fired his first shot. It hit the water near the leader and made a big splash, the water glinting white in the moonlight.
“Go back!” Amos shouted.
The man in the lead—Pike—swore. “I told you to mind your own business, stranger!”
“There’s been enough killing,” Amos said.
“It’s her hoard, isn’t it? What did she promise you? Don’t be foolish. We can take it all, together, and pay you your share.”
The stream, reflecting the moon, gave him light to aim by. Amos shot again, closer to Pike’s feet. The men scrambled back onto the bank of the stream, fell back among the trees, and returned fire. In the darkness, their shots thudded into the fallen trees Amos and Yun hid behind, and bits of bark and dirt rained down around them.
“Foolish,” Yun said. “They’re wasting bullets.”
“They’re wiser than you think,” Amos said. He showed her a handful of brass cartridges. “These are all I’ve left. If they keep on drawing my fire, I’ll run out before they do.”
Yun shuffled through the papers in her bundles. “Here, I knew this would come in handy.”
Amos saw that she was holding a small poster showing a colored drawing of a Fourth of July celebration. Someone was making a speech. In the background, fireworks filled the night sky.
Yun flipped the poster over: the words to the Star Spangled Banner.
She tore the paper into strips, wet the strips with her mouth, and wrapped a few of the words around the cartridges: red glare, bombs, rocket.
Silently, Amos loaded the cartridges. The added bulk of the paper seemed to not hinder the smooth slide of metal on metal, but he was afraid that the doctored cartridges would misfire.
Muttering a prayer, he aimed and fired.
The first shot exploded into a bright ball of red fire in the woods on the other side of the stream. Pike’s men yelped and rolled on the ground to put out the flames on their clothes.
The next shot turned into a series of explosions that was so loud and bright that Amos was temporarily blind and deaf.
The return fire from the woods ceased.
“They’re not dead,” Yun said. “But this will stun them and make them think twice about shooting. Maybe they’ll be more reasonable in the morning.”
“I suppose we’re safe for the time being,” said Amos, still not quite believing what he had seen.
Satisfied, she sang in a low voice:
“Then conquer we must, when our cause it is just,
And this be our motto: ‘In God is our trust.’”
Amos settled in for the standoff.
“Tell me,” he said, “what happened to your rebellion?”
The Taiping armies were invincible. Wherever they went, the Emperor’s forces fell back like sheep before wolves. Half of China now belonged to the rebels. Tienwang spoke of sending emissaries to France and Britain, fellow Christian nations that would come to the Heavenly State’s aid.
But, gradually, rumors began to spread of how the commanders and generals had taken concubines and hoarded treasure for their own use, even Tienwang himself. While food was still plentiful in the capital, stories described men and women starving in far away provinces, just like they had under the Manchu Emperor. There was even talk of how the other Christian nations said Tienwang was a heretic, and they would support the heathen Manchus, who were amenable to European demands for concessions, and not the Taiping.
The Taiping armies began to lose battles.
Now a general herself, Yun steadfastly refused to believe those stories. She was always the first to lead a charge and the last to retreat. She kept none of the conquered goods but shared them all with her sisters and brothers. She prayed and preached, and taught everyone in her army how to write tien with a tilted roof.
Still, the convoys of supply wagons from the Heavenly City dwindled, and streams of refugees stole away from the Taiping territories at night like rats leaving a burning building. Yun noticed that the banners of the other commanders were becoming tattered, their character for “heaven” drooping, falling back into the old ways.
One night, Sister Wen came to her tent in the middle of the night and woke Yun.
It had been a few years since Yun had last seen her teacher, who had stayed behind in the capital. She was startled to see how white the older woman’s temples had grown and how stooped her once-straight back had become.
Sister Wen wore a thick coat meant for a long journey. Yun’s heart sank. “You’re leaving?” Yun could not keep the anger out of her voice. “You would abandon the Heavenly State in its hour of need?”
Instead of turning her face away in shame, Sister Wen looked at her calmly. “You visited the capital a year ago. Could you tell Tienwang’s palace apart from the Forbidden City in Peking?”
Yun had no answer to that.
“It’s not too late to leave,” Sister Wen said. “You can still escape to the remote mountains and hide in the bamboo groves, where the Manchus will never find you and you can leave this world to its own ugliness.”
Instead of answering, Yun took her sword and wrote the character tien on the ground, the bar at the top tilted like a ladder to the sky.
Sister Wen stared at the character. She was weary. “When the heart no longer believes, the magic of words is useless.”
And that was the last time Yun saw her.
• • • •
“When Tienching fell a few months later, the Manchu slaughter turned the streets into rivers of blood: men, women, children, the elderly, the wounded, none were spared.
“I and a few others escaped to islands scattered in the East Sea, and made our way to the Philippines. From there we got on a ship and came to America.”
“So the magic of words failed,” Amos said. He was disappointed. The story had seemed like a fairy tale, one that he wanted to believe in.
“No,” Yun said. “We just picked the wrong words.”
• • • •
Yun and her companions had never seen so much empty land.
The wilderness of Idaho was pristine, absolute. In China, every mu of land had been worked on and shaped by the plow for generations, but here, there were no marks but those of God. It was an empty page waiting for old ideas to be thrown away and new ones to be written.
(Later, she would learn about the Indians who had once been here. Every story was more complicated than it appeared at first, yet hope sprang eternal.)
Refugees from every land, following every creed, had come with the dream of striking gold. In this place with no rules, they became violent, soulful, self-reliant. They fought with the land, with the Indians, with each other, and yet they also discarded old animosities, welcomed strangers, gave the newcomers aid and succor when they needed them.
Yun and the other Taiping survivors worked hard to carve a fresh life in their new home, and in the evenings, she studied the language of this new land, as hardy as her mountains, as pungent as her forests, as varied as her population, as rich as her mines.
Along with gold, she discovered words, bountiful and beauteous words that sang of a love of freedom that beat in sympathy with her rebellious heart. Nowhere else were men so ready to embrace new words—pogonip, pai gow, cowboy—immigrating from other tongues, arising from inventive minds, becoming respectable despite origins in error. Like fresh trails crossing virgin territory, new words allowed thoughts to travel to glimpse new vistas.
Yun read and savored and built up a treasure trove of words that struck her. She saw that no people believed more in equality, in the power of ideas, in the right to take up arms against tyranny, than the people of America.
And she saw where the Taiping had erred.
• • • •
With a stick, she began to write on the ground.
“There are countless ways to write the last character in the name of the Taiping, kuo, which means ‘state.’ Tienwang could have chosen to write it like this—
“—composed of the character min—that means ‘the people’—inside the four borders. But instead he chose to write it like this—
“—composed of the character wang—that means ‘the king’—inside the four borders.”
“So he created the Heavenly Kingdom instead of the Heavenly Republic,” Amos said. It was an old story, and a familiar one. Those who sought freedom were tempted by power instead, and became indistinguishable from those they sought to overthrow.
“For years, decades now, we’ve mined gold and sent it back into China, where the money has kept the fire of rebellion alive. Right now, there’s a young man back there, Sun Yat-sen, the greatest magician with words I’ve ever seen. His pamphlets have given the people faith again, and struck terror into the heart of the Emperor. The gold in those boxes isn’t for me, but for him and his revolution.”
“What if he fails? What if this rebellion, like yours, also turns dark? You said that the magic of words is fragile, subject to the corrupt hearts of mortal men. What good is a lovely name if you can’t live up to it?”
“Then we’ll just try again, and if that fails, yet another time. It’s not so easy to shake off heavy chains. The Taiping Rebellion failed the same year that a war ended slavery here. Yet this country still feels the shadow of those shackles. China may not be free from the phantom of the Manchu yoke for a hundred years. But my time here has shown me what is possible when men believe.”
“How can you say that?” Amos wanted to grab her and shake her. “Have you not seen how Congress has decided that you’re to be deported, like rats for Pike and his men to slaughter?”
Yun looked him straight in the eye. “And yet here you are, defending a crazy Chinawoman against the likes of them.”
“I am just one man,” Amos said.
“Everything starts with one person, a man or a woman.” She paused, chose her words carefully, and went on. “You doubt because you see only the ugly words, the words of hypocrisy and fear. Dark laws grow out of confused hearts that have lost faith, and I hope one day to see Congress change its mind. But the words I love I found not in the smoky halls of power in great cities, but in the wilderness out here, among lonesome rebels, refugees, men with nothing to their names but hope.”
Amos closed his eyes. She seemed to say aloud what he had only thought. The Western frontier, like a kite high in the sky, is where the ideals of the Republic take flight and soar, with the stagnant East pulled behind it like a reluctant boy.
She caressed the papers in her lap lovingly. “Words do matter. Their magic comes from one mind reaching another across miles and years, and what one assumes the other shall also assume, what one believes the other shall also believe. Words take root and grow in the hearts of men, and from there faith springs eternal.”
He looked at the pages, at the woman, and at the land bathed in starlight around him. And he seemed to see the land itself as a laid-open book, a record of the long and winding struggle toward freedom by one people—out of many, one.
Yes, it was true. Words did matter. A piece of paper from a court, a little novel, a proclamation, a few amendments to an old parchment—had these not torn a Republic apart and then sewn it back together?
For a while, there were occasional shots from the woods across the stream, as though Pike’s men were trying to keep them awake. But even that had stopped an hour ago.
The eastern sky was growing brighter.
“I think they’re gone,” Amos said.
Yun let out a deep breath and almost fell over. Amos was quick with his arm and held her up.
“It’s been a long night,” Yun said. She sounded exhausted. “Well, if you think we’re safe, maybe you can patch me up.” She winced as she tried to move her left arm.
“I’m no doctor.”
“Not that way,” Yun said. She picked up another sheet of paper from her bundle, turned it over so that the blank side faced up, and handed it to him along with a pencil she found in the folds of her dress. “Write down how you want me to feel.”
Amos stared at the paper, surprised and confused. “I don’t know how. Why can’t you just do the magic yourself?”
“It doesn’t work that way. The magic of words comes from two people: one writes, one reads. I can’t just write whatever I want and make it come true—that’s just wishful thinking. I can pull out the magic of words others print in books, and it works just as well if they write it by hand. But the writer has to believe what he writes, which is why I had to wait till now with you.”
Amos took the pencil and wrote:
“Sorry.” He paused. “I always write it as one word though it’s supposed to be two. Let me try again.”
“Write it the way you like,” Yun said. “Dictionaries and schoolmarms care only for binding words down with rules, fitting them into neat little grids where they can’t move. If they had their way, there’d be no new words and no new magic. Who knows, maybe your shorter word will heal me quicker.”
Amos laughed. And he wrote some more.
“Now that’s an American word, a real word of power.”
She took the paper from him, chewed it, and swallowed. Amos was pleased to see she had that contented, happy look again. A healthy glow returned to her face, and when she moved her arm again, there was no wince.
“See if you’re recovered enough to get on Mustard. When the sun’s up, we can get out of here.”
• • • •
While Yun shortened the stirrups and talked to Mustard to get acquainted, Amos sat by the fallen trees and flipped through the other papers in Yun’s bundle.
The runaway slave came to my house and stopt outside,
I heard his motions crackling the twigs of the woodpile,
Through the swung half-door of the kitchen I saw him limpsy and weak,
And went where he sat on a log and led him in and assured him . . .
Limpsy, he thought. Yun is right. This is a land of new words and new ideas, always renewed by the endless wilderness in which man can find solitude and faith in himself—
A loud shot shattered the peaceful air like thunder. Mustard whinnied and reared up on her hind legs. Yun barely hung on.
Amos looked down and saw the wound in his stomach, from which blood flowed freely, then the pain doubled him over and he dropped his rifle.
Pike and his men stood in a semi-circle about twenty feet away.
“You didn’t think we’d try crossing the stream upriver and come up behind you?” he sneered.
“You’re right,” Amos said. He felt waves of dizziness and struggled to stay sitting up. “You got us.”
“Now you can die with your Chinawoman.”
From the ground, Amos looked over at Yun, still sitting on Mustard. She made no attempt to get away. Indeed, he could tell that she was thinking of coming over to his aid, even if they would both die.
He locked eyes with her, and then quickly glanced over at the boxes of gold, making sure she remembered.
He dragged his left arm listlessly on the ground, through the leaves, the bits of bark, and the dark soil, as though he was in too much pain to control himself. As Yun stared at him, her eyes full of fire, he traced out the strokes of the character tien: one, two, three, and then the last stroke, a defiant diagonal, like a ladder to the sky, like lifting off the weight from a limpsy heart.
Her eyes grew wet. But she nodded, almost imperceptibly.
What I assume you shall assume.
“Now, run!” Amos shouted.
Yun dug her heels into Mustard’s sides, and the mare leaped down from the hill, galloping away toward the woods.
Pike’s men scrambled to aim their guns at her fleeing figure. No one was paying any attention to the dying old man.
With every bit of his remaining strength, Amos snatched up his rifle.
Yun had wrapped three cartridges in the words of the Star Spangled Banner: red glare, bombs, and rocket.
He had shot two, and now the last one was levered into place.
He pulled the trigger, and Pike and his gang—along with the smiling Amos—disappeared in a great ball of fire.
When Yun came back, she saw a little charred crater where the fallen trees had been.
She jumped off Mustard, who sniffed the ground, whinnied, and then kept her head low. Yun knelt next to the crater and bowed her head to the ground three times.
“Today, I have seen a true hsiake,” she whispered.
The wind carried a few pieces of paper, their edges burnt, to her feet. She picked one up:
They are alive and well somewhere,The smallest sprout shows there is really no death.
Author’s Note: The Heavenly Kingdom of Great Peace (1850–64), or Taiping Tianguo, did indeed modify the way the character tien is written in its name; however, the particular modification presented in this story was used only on coins minted in a particular province for a brief period. In general, Wade-Giles is used instead of pinyin to romanize Chinese names in this story for historical reasons.
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