“The Mud Girl” by Michael John Grist
The day Maokai met the mud girl he was drunk and ready to die.
He stood at the edge of his spa’s mudcrete roof and wondered if the jump would kill him. Before him spread the drought-blasted courtyard of his father’s dream, now barren and cracked by the city’s thirst. He toed the roof’s sun-burnt clay, falling apart now just like everything else.
“You were right, Shun Foy,” he mumbled, taking the last step to the edge. “I am a fool.” A dry and dusty wind whispered around him. A short fall, a good solid thunk to the head, and all his troubles would be over.
“Wait!” called a voice from behind.
Surprise nearly tipped him over the edge. For a moment he teetered, before staggering a half-step back and turning to the source. There was a pretty girl standing on the roof behind him.
Maokai squinted at her against the dusty yellow sun, weaving in place. She was dressed in muddy rags, with a shock of unkempt black hair, and vibrant green eyes the color of peeled lychees.
“Who are you?” he slurred.
“I need your help,” she said hurriedly. “Please, Maokai, don’t jump.”
“What do you – what? How do you know my name?”
“I grew up here,” she said, spreading her arms to encompass the spa. “This is my home as much as it is yours. I’ve watched you for so long, and I can’t let you jump now.”
He blinked, rubbed his eyes, peered at her again. Nothing she said made any sense.
“I’ve never seen you before.”
She took a step closer, hesitant, reaching out. “I know. It’s taken me years to get here.”
He frowned, rubbed at his eyes some more, looked at the bottle in his hand. How much had he drunk?
“But you said — ”
“I don’t have time to explain. Even standing here like this hurts. I’ve been walking from the Yellow River since the dawn, because I need your help. And I have something to offer. I can bring back the water.”
Maokai’s ears pricked up.
“What about the water?”
“The courtyard,” she said, pointing a dark-skinned arm down. “Clear the concrete, let the earth see the sun, and you’ll save us both.”
He regarded her for a long dizzy moment.
“You don’t like the concrete?”
“Wake up, Maokai!” she snapped, stamping her foot. “I don’t have time to argue.”
He held up his hands vaguely, as though warding off an attack.
“What? Why are you shouting?”
She took a deep breath, visibly calmed herself, and set those glimmery green eyes on him again. “Please, Maokai. You don’t know how much it hurts. Help me.”
He left one hand palm-out towards her as if to hold her off, rubbed his temples with the other. What was happening?
“So you want me to dig?” he asked.
“Lift the concrete, yes. That’s all.”
“And the water will come?”
He glared at her a time longer. She was so pretty. Her clothes were rags and her hair was a mess, but those eyes were truly beautiful. No matter what she said, she didn’t belong there, on his roof. Why would a pretty girl be on his roof?
Then he understood. It all made sense. And it made him feel ill.
“Shun Foy sent you,” he said.
Her eyes widened. “Shun Foy? He did not! I come for myself.”
“Is he here?” Maokai wheeled about, scanning the spa. The world spun nauseatingly around him. “Is he laughing at me?” He spread his arms wide, staggered sideways, then shouted across the roof. “Shun, are you laughing?”
“Shun Foy is not here,” persisted the girl. “You must-”
“I must nothing!” Maokai stabbed a wavering finger at her, cutting her off. “I may be a fool, but I’ll not be his fool. You tell him that!”
She started to answer, but he was already turning away. The wind was so warm on his cheeks. He looked over the distant city, saw its buildings leering back at him like a mouth full of dirty teeth, then down to the dry courtyard below. Such a long way.
“I’m sorry, father,” he whispered. Then he dived, head-first, towards the courtyard.
Darkness, and cold.
Then shimmers of light, like brightly colored carp in the darkness. They flitted before him. Was one of them his father, come to upbraid him? Maokai reached out, tried to hold it by the fin, but it dashed away.
Then light cracked in the darkness.
Skies. His face was wet. He shaded his eyes against the sun, and saw Shun Foy’s green-eyed girl standing over him. He was lying on his back in the courtyard.
He wasn’t dead, then. Yet.
He groaned, rubbed his eyes, and something smeared on his face like grainy oil.
The girl was panting. He looked at her through the blear in his eyes and saw she was pale as smoke, wet with sweat and shaking, her green eyes turned dull and sick.
“You jumped,” she gasped. “I caught you.”
He tried to push himself up, but his knees slipped underneath him.
“What the — ?” He blinked furiously to clear the gunge from his eyes. Beneath him lay the courtyard, but layered with something dark and glistening.
“Mud?” he wondered aloud. Humusy black stuff spread thickly all around him. He scooped some and his hand rose up black with it. He stared at it for a long moment, eyes unfocused and bleary. He held it out to her as though offering her a bite. “Is this mud?”
She nodded. She was shuddering as though it were winter. “All that I had,” she blurted.
“What’s wrong with you?”
“I pushed it through the concrete. I nearly, I mean I — ”
“Did what?” he asked, running his hands over the concrete beneath him. The mud slid around, thick and wet, more moisture than his spa had seen for months, but he found no sign of a crack.
“My hand,” she said, holding up her right hand to him. It was almost completely white and shaking harder than the rest of her.
He gazed back at her numbly, totally confused. “You pushed your hand, through the concrete? And there’s mud?”
“But you were — ” he began, then looked at her blankly, struggling to comprehend. His head pounded like a well-hammer, but somehow there was no pain. He had dived head-first at the stone, but somehow he was alive, and the girl looked like she was dying.
“You caught me?” he asked weakly, questioning.
She nodded. The trembling was fading now, the color returning to her skin somewhat.
“Like a geyser,” she said. Her voice sounded drunk too. “My hand, pushed up through the gaps in the stone.”
He nodded slowly, working what she said through his fuzzy mind, ignoring the things that made no sense. A geyser was remotely possible, even though the water table was half a mile down. The spa was built on a natural spring after all. A geyser with the strength to cushion his fall was utterly unlikely, unless…
The nonsense fell away and he focused on the thing that mattered.
“There’s water in the table?” he whispered.
“I suppose — ” began the girl, but Maokai was already stumbling over to the mudcrete well at the center of the courtyard. He brushed past the scratchy limbs of withered brown cacti, leaned over the lip, and peered down the chute.
It was empty.
He sagged down beside the well wall.
“No water,” he said.
The girl wended her way through the cacti to stand before him. She seemed thinner now, weaker, a ghost of the girl from the roof, her green eyes dull. “Dig for it, Maokai,” she implored. “In the courtyard. Please.”
“I already have, a hundred times. Don’t you think I have? But there’s nothing there! The city sucked it dry, just like Shun Foy said it would. There’s nothing to dig for.”
“Dig for me,” said the girl, “please.”
He waved a hand at her. Nothing she said made any sense. “Leave me alone, will you? Just leave me alone.”
The girl didn’t move. Her eyes now were warm, sympathetic, accusing. “So you can jump again? Is that your plan?”
He glared back at her. Why was he angry? “No. First I’ll drink some more. Then I’ll jump.”
She sagged. “Then we’ll both die. Both of us. Broken like your father.”
Mention of his father felt like a knee in his gut, knocking the wind out of him. He opened his mouth to tell her to shut up, but the words didn’t come. How could they, when she was right? The ruin of his father’s dream surrounded him. Past the girl were the spa’s cracked windows, rotten roofing, yellow dust mounding against the walls; his father’s dream dried up just like his broken body.
“Go away,” he mumbled, as tears pricked at his eyes. “Go away.”
She didn’t go. Instead she leaned in closer, her weak green eyes fastened on his, until he smelled the sweat on her skin, like earthy river loam. “Would you die for pride?” she asked, “when I can offer so much more?”
He turned away, and hid his face with his hands.
“Please, Maokai,” she begged, “please.”
Sometime in the night he roused. His head pounded and he felt hollowed out inside. There was no reason to wait. He climbed again to the rooftop.
The city shone in the valley like a brazen hussy in the markets of Peijun, its gaudy lights glowing with pollution. He was too dry even to spit.
Down below was the dark mud patch where he’d fallen. He rubbed his eyes; peered at its contours. A fist of mud, she’d said, a geyser rising to catch him.
The girl. He thought of her blazing green eyes, her earth-smell of the river, and wondered if she was mad.
“Dig,” he murmured. It made no sense, even for a mad girl. There was the well, and it was dry. Digging would do nothing. He’d already dug the well down deeper than any of the others in the village. Why would she even want him to try?
Her last words flowed through his mind.
“Would you die for pride?”
They made less sense than any of it. He had no pride left. He’d tried to kill himself, and failed! There was nothing left for him to lose.
The village spread down the hill before him, dark and silent now in the moonlight. He remembered the day Shun Foy left, the way that had felt. Gone to the city, like the water. Like everything.
Some time later, wandering as though he were some faint witness in a dream, Maokai climbed down from the roof, and took a sturdy pickaxe from the tool shed. In the courtyard he lifted it over his head, then brought it sparking down on the concrete.
He woke in water. He opened his eyes to a swamp.
Cold wet mud surrounded him in a jagged circle, glinting wetly with the dawn, spotted with shards of broken concrete. His jaw lolled open in disbelief.
The girl with the lychee eyes stood at the chipped swamp edge. She wore no shoes, her hair was yet wild and her clothes still ragged, but in the dawn light she seemed beautiful again.
“Thank you,” she said.
He stared at her, at the water all around him, too awed to speak. It was impossible, the water table was too deep.
She turned to walk away. He unstuck his tongue and called after her.
She didn’t. He tried to push himself to his feet, but the mud sucked him back, pulled off his shoes and swallowed them, tripped him and yanked him down to all fours. His head ached from too much liquor and his body ached from the labor, but still it seemed vital that he catch her. He had to thank her, at the least. He sprawled and splashed across the mud like some slobbering beast, reaching the edge just as she passed through the spa entrance.
“Wait,” he called again, “who are you? How did you do this?”
She turned briefly, a faint smile flickering on her dark lips. “I didn’t do it. You did.” Then she walked out and onto the hill road.
Maokai yanked himself from the mud and ran over the last of the courtyard, his muddy socks slapping madly on the concrete. Through the entrance he emerged onto the hill road, scanned all around, but couldn’t see her.
There was the village spreading down the hill road, and beyond that the dried-up lake and rice paddies where the city’s pipes and water towers now stood, and far beyond that the jagged outline of the city itself, barely visible through the factory haze. But no sign of the girl.
She was gone.
That afternoon he took the long bus ride to the city. He walked in to the bank with a Polaroid photo of his muddy courtyard and a pickle jar full of dark water. He walked out with a provisional loan with exorbitant interest and the hope for his father’s dream alive again in his heart.
In the following weeks he barely slept at all.
He hacked away the last of the courtyard’s concrete and installed in its place deep mud-baths. He re-glazed all the windows and swabbed every surface with fresh white stucco and paint, swept away the dust, replaced the well with a fountain, plumbed in a sauna, and hired mud masseuses to train the local village teens.
When he did sleep, hours snatched at irregular moments while the paint dried or the stucco set, he dreamed of the girl with the lychee eyes, and his jump into the mud. She stood over him with that faint smile flickering on her lips, hiding a secret he wished he understood.
Each time he woke, he felt alone, and threw himself back into the work.
Weeks passed, and as word spread about his oasis springing up in the dry lower villages, reporters began to come. In sun-dizzied moments, half-mad with lack of sleep, he told them of the girl with the lychee eyes, of the hand of mud that shot up to save as though some kind of godly sign that he ought to live.
They lapped it up. They came back for more, with equipment, with colleagues from far-off cities Maokai had never heard of, with film crews that followed him about as he baked mud-bricks in the sun or cut limestone with a hand-saw, asking him about gods and geysers and the will of the land.
They asked him for his story again and again, until even to him it began to seem more fable than fact, a thing received from far in the past, impossible though the water was real. He worked as though his life were a dream, answering questions and telling his story until it seemed reporters welled up from the ground as surely and thoroughly as the mud.
Three days before the grand opening, the dream was shattered.
The sky was thick with yellow dust that day, and the last of the day’s reporters had long left. Maokai stood thigh-deep in mud, a paper mask over his mouth, potting miniature lychee trees in the barrier between baths, as the sound of car engines filing up the hill road carried through the smog.
More reporters, he mused. He didn’t look up as their footfalls clacked through the entrance. Only when they stood beside him by the mud bath, waiting for his attention.
He turned, and saw Shun Foy. His heart skipped a beat, and he dropped the lychee plant he was holding into the mud. Shun was tall and thin and dressed in government blue, the dark band around his arm naming him a ward politician. Behind him three men in white lab coats followed, holding glass jars and clipboards.
“Hello, brother,” said Shun Foy.
Maokai looked up at him. It had been so long since Shun Foy had left, after their father had died, but his eyes were the same. They still held the hardness of that day, the cold and bitter anger, coiled like a sleeping dragon. He was thinner, older, harder. He was a Party man.
“Shun Foy,” said Maokai. He pulled down the mask to speak. “You’ve changed.”
Shun grimaced. “I’m not here for pleasantries, Maokai. I thought that would be obvious.”
“No,” said Maokai, looking over the men around him. “Of course not. You’re with the Party?”
“Regional underseer,” said Shun Foy, his face stiffening to a formal mask. “They sent me to smooth things here, but I don’t know what I can smooth from this.”
“What do you mean?” asked Maokai. He remembered the lychee tree he’d dropped, and reached down into the mud for it. Already, though, it had sunk too deep and he couldn’t find it. In moments the roots would saturate and the tree would die.
“What are you doing?” snapped Shun Foy, “trying to cover up the evidence? There’s no hope of that.”
“Evidence of what?”
Shun Foy snorted.
“Don’t play the fool, Maokai. Stolen water. They’ll flog you for it, if you persist. I won’t be able to help.”
“What are you talking about?”
Shun’s lip twitched. “Don’t play games. Tell me which of the pipes you’ve hacked right now, and I might be able to help.”
Maokai felt the world shift beneath him, as though the mud underfoot were no longer solid. “Hacked pipes? I’ve hacked none. Of course I haven’t! It’s a natural spring.”
“There are no springs here,” said Shun coldly. “The water table is half a mile down. You above all know that.”
“But what pipes? Shun Foy, do you see any pipes near the spa?”
“They must be buried.”
“How would I bury pipes? With what income?”
Shun Foy sighed, and gestured around at the sparkling spa. “With what income have you rebuilt this fool’s errand? With what income did you bait all those papers, to gossip about your girl and your magical geyser? Do you think me a fool, Maokai?”
He hawked and spat into the mud. The green glob sat on the surface a long moment, before slowly sinking out of sight. “You were always like this. Head full of dreams, like father. You haven’t changed at all.”
“I swear — ”
“You sound just like him,” snapped Shun Foy, “still swearing when your guilt is plain to see. It’s pathetic.” Then he turned to the men around him, and pointed them to three spots around the mud-baths. They walked over knelt to fill their glass jars with mud.
“What are they doing?”
Shun Foy squatted by the bath-side. “They’re taking samples, brother. When they match them to water from our pipes, you’ll be arrested, and your foolish dream will be over. Unless you confess now, I won’t be able to help you. They’ll strip you of this land and break you in a cell, just like father. Do you want to die as pathetic as him?”
Maokai flinched, as memories of their father rose up; hobbled by the tiny cell they’d kept him in for years, near blind, hardly able to breathe in the dust-thick air. Maokai had tried not to think of that for so long.
Shun Foy nodded as he saw the reality dawning on Maokai’s face.
“Confess, and I’ll protect you.”
Maokai shook his head to clear it, looking down into the thick black mud as though seeking something solid to hold on to. He wasn’t a thief, no matter what Shun Foy said. He wasn’t a fool. Not since the jump, and the girl. He smoothed the mud’s mottled surface. A geyser might be impossible, but the water was not stolen.
His hand caught on something, poking up from the mud. It was bright red, gleaming up at him. He pulled at it, and felt the delicate branches of the lychee tree beneath his fingers. He lifted it sucking out of the bath. It had been just under the surface all along.
The mud girl. He looked up at his brother, at his ugly frown, and thought of the mud girl. She had brought him this water. It wasn’t his to give away.
“Get out,” he said firmly. “You and your men. Out of my spa.”
Shun Foy’s frown turned to surprise. “Surely you’re not that stupid?”
“Get out now.”
The sleeping dragon in Shun’s eyes seethed, and he spat again. “Idiot. You’ll rot just like father.” Then he gestured to his men, and strode from the spa.
Maokai stood in the mud for a time, as the sound of their car engines rumbled down the hill road. He thought of the girl with the lychee eyes, and also of his father, and wondered if either of them would be proud of him for what he’d just done.
Two days later, and his work was completed. The spa was ready. He stood on the roof and looked over what he’d done.
Everything glistened and shone. White marble walkways lay latticed across the open mud-bath courtyard, lined with the crimson pop of miniature lychee trees. All around was the earthy, fresh smell of mud.
Looking out over the village, down the hill road to the empty rice fields and the river far beyond, he wondered about the girl. He remembered her vividly, her dirty and ragged clothes, her bare feet, the look in her green eyes as she thanked him. But no one else had seen her. No one knew her.
Had he dreamed the whole thing?
A slow melancholy welled inside him. The spa with no work to do seemed an empty place, almost as empty as before the water came back.
Walking down the hill road, nodding to his few remaining neighbors at their windows, he thought back to her smell; the earthy loam of the riverbank. The spa would open tomorrow. After that he would have no time at all.
At the old bus stop he sat beside a wizened old man munching dried apricots.
“You’re the spa boy,” said the old man, peering up at him.
“I knew your father. Good man.”
The old man spat out an apricot seed noisily. “Didn’t deserve what they did to him. Poor bastard. Country’s run away with itself.”
“Thank you,” said Maokai.
The old man shrugged. “For what? It’s no burden to tell the truth.”
They sat in silence a time longer, interrupted only by the old man spitting out his seeds.
“You going to see your girl?” he asked at last, as the dirty gray bus drew near up the winding valley road.
Maokai’s pulse quickened. “What girl?”
“The one with the lychee eyes. That told you to dig.”
His heart settled. “You saw me on the news.”
The old man spat seeds, shrugged. “Everyone saw that.”
Maokai said nothing.
“Flowers,” said the old man. “Girls like ’em.”
Then the bus pulled up, with a few dusty old farmers on board, some corralling caged chickens. Maokai boarded, paid his fare. The old man didn’t get on, merely stayed sitting by the bus stop, spitting seeds. He waved as the bus pulled away.
The journey took over an hour. It was a wild chance, based on the smell of river-loam, but that didn’t seem to matter. Anything was better than sitting at the spa alone, waiting.
At the last stop, the Yellow River spread before him, wide and no longer beautiful. It had changed since his father brought him here as a boy; more factories had sprung up like weeds on the opposite bank, until it seemed scarcely a patch was clear and green. They all spewed fumes into the dusty yellow sky and belched slime into the water.
He breathed in, out. The air was awful here, toxic. That was the price of progress, he knew. The same price his spa paid in barren soil.
There were a few small fishermen’s huts of wood and tin siding clumped up by the riverside. Perhaps she lived there.
Mindful of the old man’s advice, Maokai meandered down to the riverside and scooped up a handful of pale river lilies, then wiped away the accreted soot from their petals until his fingers were black with it.
He knocked at the first shack’s door. A bent-over old woman answered.
“I’m looking for a girl,” he said. “She has green eyes, and she lives by the river.”
“I don’t know.”
The woman frowned. “Come looking for a girl and you don’t know her name?”
“She never told me.”
She eyed his flowers. “Stalker, are you?”
“No, I’m not! She, uh, helped me, at a difficult time.”
“Well, there’s no green eyes here.”
The door slammed in his face.
He tried the other huts in the clump, but no one knew her. As the gray morning faded to a gray afternoon, he trudged down to the river one last time, and laid the flowers on the greasy water. Half of them sank, the other half carried away on the current.
“I didn’t expect to see you again,” came a voice from behind.
He turned. The mud girl was standing behind him, wearing a simple brown fisherman’s smock, her eyes shining like green glow-bugs in her sun-darkened face. He gulped.
“You,” he said. His mind went blank. “You’re real.”
Her eyes narrowed. “Of course I’m real. What did you expect?”
“I don’t, I thought — ” he began, but his tongue tripped over itself. The patience in her gaze only made it worse.
“I asked at those huts for you,” he said stiffly. “None of them knew you.”
“They wouldn’t. I don’t live with them.”
“Where do you live?”
She didn’t answer. Instead she pointed after the bobbing lily stems.
“Were those flowers for me?”
“They used to grow all along these banks. I remember you used to come here with your father. It was better then. Still beautiful. Now it’s hard to even breathe.”
Maokai considered this for a moment.
“How would you know I came here?” he asked. “And how would you know my father? You can’t be any older than me.”
She smiled wistfully. “I’m not your sister, Maokai, if that’s what you’re wondering. Your father didn’t come to see me. But still, I’m glad you didn’t jump again.”
He studied her pale green eyes, wondering on what she’d seen, on what she knew of him. She was definitely a puzzle.
“I came to thank you for what you did,” he said. “I don’t know how you know me, but you saved my life. You saved my father’s spa.”
Sadness crept into her smile. “But can you keep it alive? I know your brother visited. I know he’ll come back.”
He shrugged. Strangely, he wasn’t surprised that she knew about that. It seemed natural. “I’m not afraid of Shun Foy. The water isn’t stolen.”
“Your father felt the same way,” said the girl sadly. “And still, they came for him.”
Maokai nodded. She knew so much, but he didn’t feel the need to question it. Things had only improved since she’d come.
He thought back, to that hazy afternoon filled with liquor, looking over the husk of his spa. Everything had been dead, then there was her. With that, an idea fell into his head. It hadn’t been his plan, but now he had it, it made perfect sense.
“I came to invite you,” he said. “To the opening of my spa. You’ll be the guest of honor. It’s tomorrow.”
She narrowed her eyes.
“I don’t think that’s a good idea, Maokai.”
“Why not? Everybody will want to see you.”
She seemed unmoved. For a long moment she said nothing, only pierced him through with those sharp lychee eyes.
“And you? Do you want to see me too?”
Maokai answered before his cheeks had time to redden.
“Yes, of course.”
She inclined her head.
“Be sure of what you promise me, Maokai.”
She nodded. Her sad smile flickered with a hint of the excitement Maokai felt inside.
“Then I will come,” she said, and turned to walk away through the rushes.
“Wait,” he called, “I still don’t know your name.”
“It’s Qor,” she said over her shoulder.
“Qor,” he repeated, and watched as she disappeared amongst the rushes.
He caught the last bus to the village, and rode it through the dark and empty fields in a warm daze. Something about her made him fuzzy and thick-headed, as though he were drunk. He thought of her green eyes, and how she seemed to know him so well.
“I’m not your sister,” she’d said. He hadn’t even thought of that.
Walking back up the hill road, he wasn’t surprised when he saw the crowds waiting for him outside the spa. It seemed like the seamless continuation of a dream.
As he drew near they cheered for him. Faces pressed towards him out of the night; old people from his village, from surrounding villages, people he hadn’t seen since he was a child. They opened ranks to welcome him in.
“Thank you,” he said, smiling, as they gathered about him like carp upon the swell. “Thank you for coming.”
They thronged him, patted him on the back, shook his hand. They were all so happy. He moved through them as though in a dream, rediscovering faces long forgotten, sharing memories of good times long gone. Memories of his father, of the spa in its heyday at the heart of village life, when Maokai himself was just a small boy. Back when there was water. Among their ranks he felt warmer and happier than he had since his father was taken away.
Gradually they ebbed away, with more handshakes and promises to return in the morning. He watched as they slowly drained away to their homes or the homes they were staying at, of relatives dating back generations.
He climbed to the roof still in a daze, too overwhelmed to think clearly. The mud girl, Qor, and the villagers, and even his brother Shun Foy all shuffled through his mind, seeking their places and roles. Everything seemed so full of promise. For the first time in a very long time, everything seemed alive.
A warm wind blew grainy yellow sand across his face, and he thought of his father. Always before there had been the sense of shame, of seeing his father broken by the Party, mocked by Shun Foy. Now Maokai thought back on his father when he was strong, when he stood at the heart of village life and dug and pumped for water, and welcomed the villages into his spa.
Then the water had stopped coming. But still, his father had borne it. He worked harder at the pump, woke earlier and earlier to fill the baths, worked harder to keep the heart of the village alive.
Still, despite his efforts, the spa slowly creaked into obsolescence, and the lower villages with it. Maokai wondered how that must have felt. Tourists from the city came less and less, the village school closed down as all the young people left, heading for manufacturing jobs in the city stitching trainers for American conglomerates, and Shun Foy began to talk of leaving the past behind.
His father had taken to speaking out against the seizures. As all the fertile land was stolen, and sunk with wells and pipes ferrying their water away, he had asked the men doing the drilling, did they in the village not have a right to water too? What right did the city have to pipe away their livelihood? As time went by, he organized the villages, and filed petitions with the city.
Then the Party men came and took him away.
Maokai had seen Shun Foy crying, that day. Later, the tears turned to curses. Maokai understood. He thought they felt the same way. Only later did he realize the curses were aimed at their father.
“He was weak,” Shun Foy said one night on the rooftop, after drinking most of a bottle of rice wine. Now he drank most nights, with their father no longer around to stop him. “The Party is strong.”
Maokai argued. Shun Foy grew incensed. He threw a bottle down to smash in the courtyard below. Passion made his thin face dark and shadowy.
“I won’t be weak like him Maokai. Never again. Look out there, at the city. That’s where the power is. I’m going to get some of it.”
“But they took Father.”
“Because he was weak,” Shun Foy stormed. “He was a traitor! No wonder the water is leaving this place, with such roots in it. Come to the city and we’ll make a new life together. Come with me, Maokai, please!”
But Maokai wouldn’t go. He wouldn’t leave, not while they had his father. He had to wait.
Shun Foy became angry. He smashed another bottle, cursed and shouted, and at last, when Maokai would not be moved, he left.
Maokai sighed at the memory. For so long it had hurt so much. Now it just seemed sad.
Three years passed before their father came back, and each of those years was one worse. One summer Shun Foy came back with a girl dressed in a ridiculous red miniskirt, parading her about the village, drunk and calling out insults to anyone who looked at him. Another time he drove through the village in the middle of the night, honking his car horn, waiting for Maokai to come out, then cursing him and tearing away.
Three years, and at last the Party returned their father. He was broken. In their cells he had become a weak and shriveled thing, scarred and shivering at the slightest noise. He barely recognized Maokai, or the spa he’d built with his once-strong hands. Maokai fed him, and tended to him, and when he called out for Shun Foy, Maokai hid his hurt away.
Five months later he died. As eldest son, Shun Foy should have spoken at the funeral, but he was working in the factories of Peijun and could not get leave. Maokai gave the oration in his place.
A week later Shun Foy pulled him from his bed in the middle of the night and wept on his shoulder. He apologized for all he’d done, apologized for abandoning his brother, for missing the funeral, for shirking his responsibility, and he promised to return and help Maokai in the spa. Maokai wept too, because he thought his brother was back.
The next day Shun Foy marched into the spa and beat Maokai to the ground with his fists. He spat on him and called him a fool and a traitor like their father. When Maokai didn’t fight back, Shun Foy stormed away, and never came back.
Until a few days ago.
Maokai raised his gaze from the clustered streets and buildings of the village, to the city on the horizon. He’d hated it for so long, for taking everything from him. First the water, then his father, then his brother.
But now there was water again. There was a beautiful girl coming to his launch tomorrow. Life was getting better.
He woke early the next morning, and work began.
By mid-day all the mud-baths were bubbling, fresh-laundered towels filled the changing rooms, every lick of dust had been swept up, and every inch of metal polished until it gleamed. Sun broke through the clouds over the courtyard, and the lychee trees blazed crimson and green.
He stood at the gates with his staff of masseuses and ushers gathered about him. They could hear the buzz of anticipation from outside. Maokai could not suppress a grin.
“Good luck,” he said.
Some of them whooped and cheered. Maokai pushed open the gates.
People flooded in like a surge in the water table, crested with a tide of reporters who homed in on Maokai and surrounded him, cameras flashing, pressing microphones into his face. More guests flooded in, and Maokai found himself being asked questions endlessly, shaking hand after hand, accepting congratulations, thanks, doing his best to keep his wild grin from leaping off his face and dancing around the hall.
Gifts of food and wine from companies and officials he’d never heard of passed through his hands like items on a factory production line, bouquets of flowers heaped in his arms, made piles behind him, all to the sound of the cash registers ringing, car engines revving up the hill, and the happy splashing of people in the mud.
“Is that the girl?” one reporter asked him. “The girl with the lychee eyes?”
He turned, and saw her. She was standing in the gateway, flocked about by bustling families and doddering old grannies. She wore an elegant black gown that hugged the curve of her body, cut to reveal slashes of dark midriff, shoulder, that left Maokai’s mouth dry. Her thick dark hair was worked up in elaborate curls atop her head, and her eyes shone like blooming green seeds from her smooth dark face.
He realized his mouth was hanging open. It hardly seemed the same girl. Woman. He strode over to her, though for a long moment he didn’t know what to say, as flash-bulbs popped all around them and microphones jostled for position between them.
“Here,” he said at last, pushing a bouquet of flowers into her hands. He hadn’t even known he was holding them until that moment.
She smiled, lifted the flowers to her nose. “Amaryllis,” she said. “From one of the Yellow tributaries east of here. Lovely, thank you.”
He looked at her blankly a moment longer, not sure what was meant to come next. Just standing near her was a kind of stupefying drug.
“You look stunning,” he said at last.
She smiled. “As does the spa. You have done amazing work here, Maokai. Your father would truly be proud.” She extended her arm. “Now, shall we?”
He took it, dizzy at her proximity, dizzy at her mention of his father, and led her into the crowd of people. It opened before them, and closed behind them, shutting out the reporters. As they passed through, friendly faces grinned at him, some winking, some nudging him with their elbows. He introduced Qor to all of them, scarcely able to believe this gorgeous creature was holding onto his arm, standing by his side, nodding, yes, she is the girl with the lychee eyes, yes she told me where to dig, no — blushing — I don’t know if she’s married.
Throughout, Qor smiled and bobbed and said, “How do you do,” and “So nice to meet you.” She laughed at their jokes at Maokai’s expense; stories of him running about the spa naked to the skin as a boy, about the time he poured shampoo in all the baths just to see if he could make a castle out of foam.
He laughed along until his jaw was sore, until at last he and Qor found themselves in a quiet corner by the sauna, which was packed full of people trying hard to watch inconspicuously through the steamy glass.
“You have many good friends,” said Qor, her hand tightening on his arm. “You are a lucky man.”
His heart leaped at the contact, at her words. For a long quiet moment he looked out over the humming spa, working his tongue unstuck.
“I know,” he finally replied. “I’d forgotten that, until you came. You saved me.”
She shook her head slightly. “I helped you,” she said. “But you saved yourself. Look at this spa, Maokai, at all these people. You made this. I just showed you where to dig.”
He looked at her, as though by looking he might answer the question that had puzzled him for so long.
“How did you know that?” he asked. “Where to dig.”
Her smile ebbed a little.
“Do you need to know that? Isn’t it enough that I did?”
“I — ” he began, then paused. Looking into her green eyes, he thought he saw a glimmer of what he felt himself. A kind of fear, that everything that seemed so real now, that seemed so hopeful, might somehow be lost if he were to say the wrong words, do the wrong thing. He felt the balance of it between them like an almost physical thing, a wall they teetered upon together, over the edge of a deep, dark abyss.
But he had to know. He took her warm hand in his own. She didn’t pull away.
“I want to know.”
Before she could answer, a sharp percussive blast burst through the spa. All other sound fell away. Qor’s green eyes flashed wide with alarm and she dropped his hand.
“I have to go.”
A surprised clamor grew up around them, and a voice augmented by a loudspeaker started barking orders. There were too many people in the way to see, but Maokai knew the voice at once. Shun Foy.
Qor laid her hands to his cheeks, looked flush into his eyes, and pulled him into a kiss.
Somebody yelped from inside the sauna.
Maokai felt like yelping too. He was almost too shocked to enjoy it. He was overwhelmed by her lips, her touch, her hair that smelled of fresh flowers. She was so warm.
Then it was over. He felt dazed.
“You saved me too, Maokai,” she whispered in his ear, her dizzying cheek on his. “Remember that, and be strong.” Then she turned into the crowd.
Maokai stood a moment longer, recovering his senses. He was faintly aware of people around him shuffling about, herded by Shun Foy’s men.
She had kissed him. Nothing else seemed to matter, only that now she was gone. The wall had collapsed under them, and she was gone. The two didn’t seem to fit.
He went after her. The crowd broke open for him, and he pushed by bodies stiff with alarm, waiting to be told what to do, until he saw her running through a side-entrance, high-heeled shoes off and in her hands.
“Qor,” he shouted, “wait!”
Then Shun Foy was in front of him.
Maokai blinked. Shun Foy was in front of him, with a sneer on his face and the dark government band about his arm. His flat palm was on Maokai’s chest, blocking his path.
“By order of the Party — ” he began, but Maokai shoved him aside.
“Qor!” he called, running out of the spa after her, down a tight alleyway between ancient mudcrete homes descending the hill, until hands on his shoulder jerked him to a halt.
He spun to see Shun Foy holding him fast, gasping. Other men in blue Party suits ran to stand behind him. Some had their hands at their belts. There was shouting coming from the spa.
“What’s gotten into you?” shouted Shun Foy.
“Get off,” shouted Maokai, and tried to shove him away, but Shun Foy wouldn’t let go. Maokai could feel Qor fading into the village behind him. Without thinking he balled up a fist and threw it. It struck Shun Foy high in the cheek and staggered him backwards, broke his grip on Maokai’s shoulder. He sprinted after Qor.
Next he was on the ground with a burning pain in his thigh. A strange smell of fireworks filled the air, and there was something wrong with his ears. Someone twisted his arm up behind his back, the shouting was louder like a rising geyser, and in the distance he thought he saw the green flash of Qor’s eyes in the moonlight. He tried to call her name but somebody was pressing on his chest so hard he could barely breathe.
Shun Foy’s thin face filled his vision, blood trickling down his cheek from a cut by his eye.
“Fool,” he said, “you utter idiot fool.” Then he hit Maokai twice with a truncheon. The second blow knocked him out.
He woke to a gray and water-damaged ceiling. Porous holes, the spreading stain of humidity, the smell of old plaster.
“Hello!” he called out, but only muted echoes answered him. His head ached. The room was dim, faint light glowing through a dull gray blind. He tried to get up, but found his arms and legs pinioned to the bed with cold metal cuffs.
“Hello, Maokai,” came a voice. Shun Foy’s voice. A curtain drew back and bright light flooded in, silhouetting his brother.
“Where am I?” Maokai asked.
Shun Foy pulled a seat up by his side. His face was different somehow; distant, glazed.
“A prison hospital. You were shot for assaulting a member of the Party.”
“In the thigh. You’re lucky to get any treatment at all, especially with your father a known traitor. If it weren’t for me they’d have just cut off your leg and stuck a walking stick in the hole.”
Maokai tried to remember. He’d been chasing Qor. What had she said, he’d saved her life too?
Shun Foy laughed. “Who, the magic water girl? She ran away, Maokai. Give up on that. You’ll not see her again for a long, long time.”
“But I — ”
Shun Foy smacked him casually, hard on the forehead.
“You should have listened to me. You should have come with me when I asked.”
Maokai looked up at him, blinking back tears from the blow.
“They’ll soon break you of that,” said Shun Foy. “Like father.” Then he stood up, and walked towards the door. Maokai stared after him. At the door he spoke one last time.
“Goodbye, little brother. I hope I never see you again.”
They kept him sedated for what seemed like weeks. He dreamed of Qor endlessly, but she was always running away from him.
He woke once in a vehicle of some sort, maybe a train. His head was a fog. Next he was lying on a spattered metal bench, in a dark and tiny concrete-walled prison cell, alone. There was no window, and the air stank of shit.
A Party prison.
It was cold. He called out, for Shun Foy or anyone. Soon enough the door burst open and three men rushed in carrying clubs. They beat his arms, legs, and behind until his jaw ached from screaming. He begged them to stop but they ignored him, treating him like a piece of dough to be kneaded, continuing until he could no longer control his bladder and cold urine stung his legs, until his body quaked involuntarily on the cold stone floor. Then they stopped.
He curled up and wept.
“Shut up,” they said, prodding him with their boot-toes. “It’s night. Have some decency.” They spat on him. Everything hurt. The door slammed behind them, and he was alone again.
He sobbed all through the night, as the pain swelled up in waves. He could not stop it, though he clamped both hands over his mouth. He tried to muffle the sound with his thin linen shirt as a gag.
At some point he slept, and felt Qor’s warm touch at his back, perhaps even heard her soft voice.
“Help me,” he whispered to her. “Please. Help me.”
He felt her soft fingers trace the map of bruises over his body. “I can’t, Maokai. I’m so sorry. I can’t.”
When he woke the warmth was gone, leaving only pain, and the guards kicking him awake.
“Soiled himself in the night,” said one to the other. Their accents sounded strange to him, clipped and perfunctory. “Animals, these country rats are. Have to beat them into shape.”
He cowered at the thought of more pain. His body already groaned with deep black bruises. How had all this happened to him?
“Well, get up, rat.”
They poked him with truncheons, forced him over the room’s threshold, drove him down a long steel-walled corridor where strange faces leered at him from behind bars. In a featureless room they made him strip and blasted him with a high-pressure hose. They laughed as he tried to cover his nakedness, and ordered him to move his hands. At last he did, and they sprayed him everywhere. The pain made him want to buckle over, but he didn’t dare disobey.
When it was done they gave him fresh thin linens to wear.
“And don’t shit these this time, rat.”
Back down the hall, to his cell. He lay on the floor and cried.
Days passed. At night he dreamed of distant visions of Qor, but never so clear that he could hear what she was saying. All he felt upon waking was that he had failed, again. He was the fool that Shun Foy had called him. He was the traitor, and the Party prison would break him just like it had broken his father.
Sometimes he woke from a dream calling out Qor’s name. The men came in and beat him every time. Every time he lost control of his body in the pain of it, every time he lay in piss all night, every time the same humiliating ritual followed the next day. He was a rat. They all said it, he was a rat.
Weeks went by. He lost track of the progression of day to night in his windowless cell. Even thinking of Qor started to hurt him. Of what might have been.
He tried to kill himself, as he’d done once before. He leaped from the metal bench and landed head down on the stone floor. This time there was no mud to soften his fall. His neck twisted, he felt his shoulder crunch, and a strange coldness spread through his left side.
Then Qor came. He felt her at his back, her warm sun-darkened hands on his skin, her eyes bright and green in the darkness. He wanted to tell her he loved her, wanted to hold her close, but all he could do was beg.
“Please, Qor,” he moaned. “Please, take me away. Please.”
She held him and rocked him through the night.
“I can’t,” she whispered in his ear. “They stopped up the spa. I have no strength left.”
He sobbed into her arms. She held him.
“You have to be strong, Maokai.”
When the guards found him groaning there in the morning, his neck twisted and piss and drool on the stones, they laughed. For a week he couldn’t move his left arm and leg, and he wondered if he’d crippled himself for good.
Gradually though, the movement came back. He began to exercise through the day, thinking of Qor, of what she’d said. Instead of lying there cursing and crying, he did push-ups and sit-ups and ran in circles in his cell. He etched stories into the wall to occupy the hours, about all the times his father had done something he loved him for, about all the things to be proud of.
At meal times he tried talking to the guards, speaking in a mockery of his own accent to amuse them. He said the most ridiculous things to make them laugh. Gradually the beatings in the night stopped.
Like that, time passed by. As the bruises and weight fell from his body, he began to dream of the mud girl again. She ran along the opposite bank of the Yellow River, and he ran in tandem with her. They shouted across it to each other. He threw flowers into the current for her, but they never made it all the way across. They were always swept away by the sooty waters, though each time they came closer.
He woke, muttering her name as he rolled on the frigid stone floor.
At the last, some three years after they imprisoned him, he was released.
He did not know the town. Passing by a mobile phone shop he looked into the mirrored glass and did not recognize himself. He saw a gaunt man, pale face shrouded with ramshackle black hair, inset with intense dark eyes.
Even in three years, the world had changed without him. There were new train services in operation. He rode one with the pocket money the prison gave him, back to the city. The same old bus took him back to his village. On the bus, moving through barren rice fields, he rode opposite an old man sucking apricots.
“It’s you, isn’t it?” said the man.
Maokai looked away.
“Broke you, did they?”
He watched the dry brown dirt pass by underfoot.
“They’ll shut this route down next year,” said the old man conversationally, between spitting seeds into his handkerchief. “No water. Hardly anybody’s left. Just the die-hards.”
Maokai didn’t want to meet his eyes. He knew it was his fault.
The old man grunted. They rode the rest of the way in silence.
The village was near deserted. Walking up the dry hill road to his spa, he felt a few pairs of eyes at windows, watching him pass by. He didn’t look back. He had nothing to say.
Large silver pipes ran up the hill beside him, the sound of rushing water echoing from within.
He stood before the space where his spa had been, and felt nothing. He had already imagined what they’d done. He’d written the story of it a hundred times across the walls of his cell.
In place of his spa was a metal tank, some thirty foot high, plastered over with the blue warning signs of government. The silver pipes ran into it.
A hefty man stepped out of a small security box by the tank, his hand on the pistol at his waist. He wore the blue jumpsuit of government security. He said nothing, just eyed Maokai. Maokai dropped his gaze, turned, and walked back down the hill.
At the Yellow River he saw that two more factories had gone up on the far bank, flanked by large concrete car parks and roads. The flowers by the riverside were dirtier than ever. The clump of huts he’d once knocked at were already abandoned, in the early stages of collapse.
He walked up to the first. Its front door hung awkwardly on twisted metal hinges. Carved into the wood was a warning.
“Two dead from river water. Do not drink here.”
He walked down to the waterside, knelt to smudge the black from the wilted flower petals, but no matter how much he rubbed, thick veins of it would not be moved. He realized then that the black was inside the flower, growing within it like a cancer.
He had dreamt of this place so many times, of Qor on the far bank. But she was gone.
In the last light of day he carved a message into the hut’s door, beneath the warning about the poison water.
“I came back, mud girl.”
As evening thickened to dark, he ransacked the little clump of huts until he found a rusted length of sturdy iron. Then he set off for the village.
He arrived in the early hours before dawn, and approached the squat oblong water-tank from the side. Slipping through the shadows, he heard the low fuzz of the guard’s TV tuned to late night sports.
He walked in front of the booth, the iron bar held like a bat over his shoulder. The man inside had no time to react. The bar struck him on the head, his body jolted, and he fell to the ground.
Maokai took the man’s pistol and truncheon, blindfolded him, and cuffed him inside his booth. Then he set to work.
Some time before dawn he had pried open a crack in one of the big silver pipes. Fresh water ran down the dusty moonlit street. By sun-up the crack was wider, and the water becoming a stream.
The security guard woke up.
“What are you doing?” he shouted. “You’ll hang for this!”
Maokai used the man’s jacket for a gag and went back to work.
As dawn broke the few remaining villagers roused and gathered about in muttering clumps. The old man from the tram was among the first of them.
“Not broken then,” he said loudly. “Mad. We’ll all hang for this.”
“Then leave,” replied Maokai. It felt strange to hear his own voice, in this place. “You said the village is dead anyway. Go ride your bus.”
The man shuffled away. A few others gathered in his place, faces he’d last seen happy and bright at the re-launch of the spa. They were thinner and weaker now. They did not come to welcome him, to congratulate him, to shake his hand. They silently watched him work.
An hour later the old man returned, pushing a rusty wheelbarrow filled with tools. He shoved his way through the crowd. In front of Maokai he held up an old buzz-saw.
Maokai recognized it. It had been his father’s.
“Salvaged it, before they put up that god-ugly box,” said the old man. “Thought you might find a use for it.”
Maokai stared. It seemed a piece of the past, a world forgotten, that he’d last used when he was a different person, carving limestone for his baths.
The old man shrugged. “Couldn’t let that brother of yours have it, could I? Here.”
He held it out. Maokai took it reverently.
“Plug it in in his booth,” said the old man, nodding at the sullen security guard. “You’ll have it down within the day, I reckon. Lot easier to pull down than build.”
Maokai looked at him, at the others, and for the first time really understood what he meant to risk. Everything, on a dream.
“You’re right. I’m mad. You all should leave, or you’ll hang too.”
The old man chuckled, spat seeds. “It’s the mad ones I like.” From the barrow he pulled a butane torch, with tube and tank. He held up the nozzle, sparked the trigger, and the cutting jet hissed out blue.
He went to the tank and started cutting its base with the torch, shooting sparks. Maokai watched for a moment, then plugged in the saw, set it roaring to life.
In moments it cut the pipe clean in two, unleashing the water to tear down the hill road like the Yellow River itself.
The sun rose, and one by one other villagers took tools from the barrow. Some of them stopped by Maokai, to pinch his cheek, pat his shoulder, tell him his father would be proud.
He thanked them. He didn’t try to stop them. It was their choice to make.
Together they worked through the morning: drilling into concrete foundations, cutting and peeling back the skin of the water tank inch by inch as water splashed down around them, dismembering its skeleton. At lunch-time old ladies served preserved eggs on rice. They ate and laughed and even fed the security guard, though he ranted between mouthfuls.
When the call came through on the guard’s phone, they turned it off. By now the supply of water in the city would have showed the loss. The pipes were empty. The Party knew, and they would be coming.
By mid-afternoon Maokai and the villagers had carved out a third of the water tank’s wall. They laughed now and joked with each other. Old men took bets on whose neck would be the last to crack when they were hung.
As evening fell they tied ropes to the last sheets of metal tank hanging from the concrete pilings, cinched them one by one to an old tractor, and tore them off the spa.
The mud underneath stank like a festering wound, bubbled with sick yellow scum. Maokai waded into it, past the jagged pilings, too deeply anchored to uproot. They rose into the sky around Maokai like the ribs of a butchered animal.
“Qor!” he called.
But there was nobody there. He stood thigh-deep in the mud, until wrinkled arms led him away.
“It’s all right now,” said old faces, people he’d known since he was a child. “It’s all right.”
Bottles of rice wine were passed around, somebody brought out an old fiddle, and the last members of the village joined together before the spa. Jokes were told, and there was singing. Together they would hang, and it had been coming so long, they were not afraid at all. Maokai laughed with them, and clapped, and wondered that this was the true spa launch, the only one that had ever been possible.
The Party came in the morning.
Maokai woke round the embers of a fire, surrounded by old familiar faces. They pointed into the distance, towards the city. Maokai climbed the pile of water-tank debris, twisted metal and clumps of concrete, and saw four bitter-green troop carriers and a loudspeaker van winding up the dry valley road in a dusty convoy. He watched with a mounting sense of unreality. These men were the same men who had come for his father, and his brother. They had taken everything from him. Now they would take whatever was left.
He turned to the old faces around him. Such a long distance since that first night on the rooftop, before the spa re-opening over three years ago. So much had changed.
He climbed down, and together they walked to the old spa grounds. The stench of the mud was gone now. The frothy yellow scum had dissipated overnight, leaving only a healthy peat-brown, with a single green shoot sprouting in the middle.
Maokai voiced a silent prayer, to Qor, to the dream of the mud girl. Then he turned his back on the mud, and linked arms with the villagers, a human chain about the spa.
The convoy stopped at the bottom of the hill, and black-clad soldiers disgorged into the village. They spread out in a dark line amongst the buildings, their rifles raised, signaling to each other as they stormed up the alleys.
Watching them creep closer felt like the tail end of some strange dream. Perhaps all of it had been a dream, from Qor and the geyser to his long years of solitude in prison. All of it was for this, which was nothing, and maybe even that was all right. He was here now, where his father would have been, if he were alive. That was what mattered.
“I love you, Qor,” Maokai whispered, not caring that it made him the fool his brother had always called him.
The loudspeaker van rolled in front of the troops, halfway up the hill. Its hatch opened, and a head and shoulders rose up, holding a radio transceiver to its mouth. Shun Foy.
“Disperse to your homes, citizens,” he said, his amplified voice echoing about the village. “Disperse or be dispersed.”
The apricot man plucked a plastic loudspeaker cone from his cart, climbed painstakingly atop the heap of water tank rubble, and put it to his lips.
“Bugger off!” he shouted. “Bugger off, Shun Foy, or I’ll bend you over my knee and spank you.”
Shun Foy gave a signal, there was a loud crack, and the old man pitched to the ground, half his head torn away.
Maokai watched him fall. Blood sank into the tufted grass. So quickly, he thought absently. So fast.
“Disperse or you will be dispersed,” Shun Foy continued blankly, his van creeping up the hill, as though a man had not just died.
Maokai went to the old man’s body and took the loudspeaker from his hand. His fingers uncurled from the handle easily. Climbing the same pile of debris, Maokai wondered if in moments he would be lying by the old man’s side. Atop the pile, the warm morning wind soothed against Maokai cheeks. From here he could see all the way to the ragged teeth of the city.
“For what, Shun Foy?” he called through the cone. “He was a friend, he was a good man, and you killed him. For what?”
There was a pause as Shun Foy squinted over his transceiver.
Another pause. “I should have let them take your leg.”
“It wouldn’t matter. He was right. What would father say if he saw you now?”
“Father’s dead,” called Shun Foy. He gave another signal, and the van rumbled forwards, followed by the soldiers, with his voice still blaring out, drowning out Maokai. “Disperse. Disperse and you will not be hurt.”
Maokai climbed down, rejoined the ring of villagers around the spa. The soldiers crested the hill, and Maokai took the hand of the old woman beside him. She smiled. Together they watched as the soldiers loomed closer, their faces hidden behind dark mirrored visors.
Shun Foy called the soldiers to a halt some ten paces away. “Disperse or be fired upon,” he said. None of the villagers budged.
“What happened to you?” asked Maokai. “Why are you so angry?”
The soldiers raised their rifles to their shoulders. Fingers clamped on triggers. Their gun muzzles were black holes to nothing.
“Don’t,” Maokai called, “please don’t do this brother.”
And it began.
Darkness, and cold.
An uprushing of something, enfolding him, encasing him.
Then shimmers of light, like jagged rents in the darkness. They roared before him, soundless bolts of lightning that stunned him, that bit into the black. Dragons breathing fire. He reached out blindly, tried to grasp their edges, to pull them close, to keep his world from falling apart.
Then light ripped in the darkness. He staggered under it, dizzy. The world around him rocked and reeled. A rushing wall of black mud twisted up around him, breaking in flashes of light as the ground rolled with his every step.
“Shun Foy!” he called into the depths of the black, rubbing the oily grime from his face, reaching out to his brother. Mud grimed his eyes, covered everything, washed around him as though he lay in the depths of the Yellow River while the thick muddy waters ran overhead. I’ve been here before, he thought numbly. I know this place.
His eyes opened wide, and he knew what it was that he saw, spiraling in the air overhead, growing and pulsing up from the hill-top, out of the open mouth of the spa.
A geyser of mud, spumed up from the earth beneath his feet. Through flashing gaps in the mud he caught glimpses of his brother, of the men in their black helmets, their rifles raised, their bullets making strange ripples in the mud as it fell around them, cocooned them, encased them. He watched as the mud lifted them into the air like dolls, their rifles and helmets torn away. Through the rushing tumult he just caught the faint high cries of his brother shouting, “Fire!”
Then the geyser spit up chunks of rock that smashed against Shun Foy’s van, breaking its windows and smashing its loudspeakers, stilling his voice. The rear of the van jerked into the air, and Shun Foy leapt clear, a pistol in his hand, pointing through the rents in the black at Maokai, firing.
The shots rippled in the mud, the blasts rang back to Maokai muted, and Shun Foy threw away the pistol and set to running through the up-rush towards him.
Maokai watched as the geyser wall before him began to change, to thicken into a single bole and take shape at its tip. As Shun Foy charged, it became an enormous fist, at the end of an enormous arm, and at once he knew what it meant.
“No!” he shouted. “Qor, no!”
Shun Foy burst through the wall of mud unaware, a rock raised in his fist and the dragons dancing in his eyes.
“Goodbye, brother,” he cried, and lunged.
The great fist slammed to earth like a hammer-blow, crumpling Shun Foy beneath it. Maokai fell under the impact, as mud exploded around him and the giant fist ground his brother’s body into the earth.
“Stop!” he cried.
And it stopped.
The uprush of the geyser halted, and for a long moment there was only the pattering sound of the last of its contents falling to earth. The great fist and arm dissolved, sending waves of mud washing to either side, flowing down the hill and sinking back into the earth.
Soon only the flat brown of the dirt street and a few scattered rifles and helmets remained. No sign of Shun Foy remained. The soldiers were fleeing through the fields, their troop carriers forgotten. The van was crumpled and dark with mud.
Maokai turned to the villagers, who still stood about the spa. They were unharmed, and staring back at him in shock. For a long moment silence hung over them all. What had just happened was impossible.
Then the cheering began. The villagers broke ranks and walked hesitantly out into the muddy street, to clap Maokai on the back, to hold rifles and helmets aloft, to laugh with the joy of having survived.
Maokai did not join them. He had eyes for only one thing, lying at the heart of the spa, surrounded by the ribs of broken metal pilings. Qor.
He lurched to his feet, and lunged into the settling mud of the spa. She lay atop the surface, pale white and trembling, barely breathing. Already she was sinking.
He raced out towards her, waded to her side. Her cheeks were sunken and hollow, her hair ragged and clumped, her green eyes barely open.
“Qor,” he called, but she didn’t hear. He tore his mud-splattered jacket from his back and wrapped it about her, stroked her face, but she didn’t see him. Tears raced down his cheeks as her breathing grew halting, choked. He tried to pull at her, to free her from the mud, but he couldn’t stop it.
“Don’t go,” he urged, holding her head just above the sucking mud. “Please, Qor.”
“I can’t stay,” came her voice. The mud was almost up to her lips, but her green eyes were on his, some kind of joy alight inside. “I used it all.”
“Don’t leave me here.”
“Then come,” she whispered, as the mud slid up over her mouth. He dug at it, but her eyes closed and her breathing stopped, and then she was gone.
He weaved in place, looking out over the village. Before him spread the mud-blasted hill road, drying in the sun. He reached deep into the mud before him, but it was empty now. She was gone.
“Qor,” he mumbled.
“We have to go, Maokai.”
Hands were at his sides. An old woman. He turned, looked up at her. Her face was flecked with mud. He remembered she had brought him flowers, when his father died.
“She’s gone,” he murmured.
“And so must we,” she said. “They’ll be back. I don’t think we’ll have a geyser like that again.”
He nodded numbly. “Geyser?”
“I wouldn’t believe it if I hadn’t seen it,” she said, bustling for his hand. “Come on.”
He shook his head.
She looked at him a long moment, then patted his cheek.
“You always were a good boy, Maokai.”
She turned and hurried away.
They left, and he was alone. He felt hollow inside. His brother was dead. Qor was gone. There was nothing left.
Then come, she had said.
Slowly, he lifted himself from the mud. The few water-tank pilings still towered above him like ribs, too deeply anchored for them to drag free. He laid hands on one, and began to climb.
At the top, the city hung across the valley like dirty gray teeth, waiting to bite down. He saw another convoy coming already, racing down the valley roads. He hoped all the villagers would escape.
Down below was the dark mud patch where Qor had left. He rubbed his eyes, peered at its contours. A hand, she’d said last time. A hand of mud, rising up to catch him.
He released his hold of the piling. He thought of her blazing green eyes, her earth-smell of the river, and the time that she kissed him in the spa.
“I’m coming, Qor,” he whispered. Then he dived, head-first, down to the mud.
|Michael John Grist has been published by Beneath Ceaseless Skies, Ideomancer, and Andromeda Spaceways.|