Dusk, like a thick curtain, concealed the quiet fields of the Number Five Military Farm near Jinghong County in Yunnan Province, China. The hot and damp air of an August evening hovered over soybean plants and clung to the barbed-wire fence. Rusted iron posts ran from the bush patches, along the trees, and outlined a path that sprawled into the faraway woods. Under a massive fir tree, a young man and woman, both about twenty years old, stood silently.
“Nina, why don’t you say something?”
The girl bit her lip. “What else can I say?” She jerked her head upward, looking him in the eyes. “Dahai, do you love me?”
“Yes, but I can’t go with you,” Dahai said, his hand fanning mosquitoes away from Nina’s face. “Love isn’t everything. I must join the Vietcong.” He paused and then said, “I don’t think it’s right to sneak across the border to Hong Kong.”
“You are going to sneak across the border to Vietnam, too.” Nina grasped his hand. When she thought about the Vietcong, she shook her head. They are communists, too. “Think twice. I’m afraid you’ll regret it.”
“I’m heading for a brighter future,” Dahai said.
Nina had doubted the revolution since her father’s death. “The land across the Pacific Ocean means freedom to me. I can’t stand the Cultural Revolution anymore,” Nina said, her hands on his chest, her eyes imploring him to change his mind.
“Maybe both of us are wrong. Who knows?” A twinge of sadness pierced Dahai’s heart. He pulled Nina gently toward himself and embraced her. “I’m sorry. I can’t go with you.” Dahai was thinking that he didn’t want to follow the path his parents had taken. His parents were labelled as enemies of the Communist Party, but he believed in communism. “Maybe I can prove it’s wrong to say ‘the hero father raises a revolutionary son, and the reactionary father has an anti-revolutionary bastard.’ Joining in the anti-American war is a chance to prove I’m not like my folks.”
“You’re so headstrong.” Nina quavered and withdrew herself from his arms. “What’s the use of proving you are different from your folks? Nobody treats us as decent human beings because of our family backgrounds.” She shook her head, her bobbed hair swinging back and forth. “We’ve been trying hard to remold ourselves here, but we will always be second-class citizens no matter how hard we try. I’d rather take my chances someplace where I can be free.”
“Right, take your chance.” Dahai nodded. “In case…”
“In case what?” Nina stared into his brown eyes.
“If I die, tell my brother and sister my story if you see them.”
“If I die, go find my mother, but don’t say a word about me,” Nina said, irritated.
“Enough, let’s stop it.” Dahai hesitated, but reached out his arms again to draw Nina close. At the prospect of leaving her, his heart sank into a dark well, but he couldn’t relinquish his plan of going to Vietnam—his only chance to prove himself.
Nina clenched her fists and punched his palms. “I’ll blame you forever.” She sobbed, unable to speak anymore.
Dahai cuddled her. “Forgive me. I’ll never pardon myself till I die—”
“Oh no, we won’t die.” Nina stopped weeping. With her hand over his mouth, she cried out. “We deserve a better life. Something’s wrong with this society, not us. I fear you’re making a mistake for not going with me.” While leaning her head on his chest, Nina was calmed by the beating of his heart against her ear.
A gust of wind wrapped itself around their bodies, and they shivered under the darkening sky. The sound of a dog’s barking brought the reality of their future steps closer. Nina remembered she had a meeting with her girlfriend, Zeng, to plan for the next day’s trip to Kunming. She whispered to Dahai with a sudden urgency. “I’ve got to go,”
“You go.” Dahai clasped her head with his palms, and his lips covered hers. His mother’s words echoed in his ears, and despite his usual aversion to it, he repeated it now, “God bless you.”
Nina pulled herself away from him with a muffled “Goodbye.” She hurried away toward the end of the path. When she turned her head, she could barely distinguish his lanky figure; he was engulfed in the darkness. However, she still kept striding away on the dirt passage.
Dahai watched Nina fade away and almost called after her, “Wait! I’ll come with you.” He felt frozen, heartbroken. That he might never see her again in his life was a tangible reality. He covered his eyes with his hand, but the tears dripped through his fingers. Like a puppet on strings, he shambled back to the hut he shared with twelve other young farm workers.
After breakfast the following morning, Nina didn’t follow other workers out to the field to pick ears of corn. She gripped the fictitious telegram sent by her cousin, Rei, from Guangzhou, and walked out of her dormitory building. She wore her yellow-green uniform: a worn-out shirt and pants with patched knees. It was a hot day. She had to roll up her long sleeves and pants. She rushed into the head office in a one-storey building. A middle-aged army officer sat at a desk with his greying head bending over a newspaper.
“Good morning, Chairman Yang,” she greeted him when she entered the office. “I’m sorry to disturb you. May I ask for a personal leave? It’s not the busy season now.”
Yang lifted his head from the paper and noticed Nina’s puffed eyelids and red-rimmed eyes. “What’s wrong, Nina?”
“My mother’s been hospitalized.” Nina handed her telegram to him. “Look at this.”
“‘Return home. Mother’s sick.’” Yang read it aloud and then scrutinized the date. “Well, it looks like you haven’t been home since you came here a year ago.” Yang seemed to mull over the issue, but his poker face didn’t show any sign.
Nina’s hands trembled, beads of sweat oozing from her forehead. She prayed he wouldn’t investigate her request. Her heart beat fast until he said, “Okay, but you must be back in three weeks.”
“Thank you so much!” Nina breathed a sigh of relief.
“Being away from the farm doesn’t mean you should stop reforming your thoughts. Follow Mao’s directives every day,” Yang said, his fingers tapping on the desk as if he were writing notes on a board.
Meekly, she replied, “Yes, Chairman Yang.” Nina left the office and hustled back to her dorm room, her steps springing.
Ten minutes later, Nina stepped out of the wooden hut and trudged along the road toward Jinghong County. She carried a worn green canvas handbag over her left shoulder and gripped the handles of a dark blue duffel bag with her right hand. She squinted in the blinding sunshine and surveyed the green crops blanketing the fields like huge rugs. She did not turn her head; she was afraid she would lose the courage. She could hear herself screaming from the bottom of her heart, “Farewell!” She quickened her pace to escape the pain at the thought about leaving Dahai.
Nina walked about ten minutes before she heard horseshoes tapping behind her. Zeng arrived with a horse-drawn cart as expected. Zeng lived with her parents who were local peasants. She borrowed the horse cart from her brigade.
“Get in.” Zeng halted the horse on the roadside. Her two long braids swung down in front of her when she reached down to take the packs from Nina, She flung them back and pulled Nina up over the side of the cart.
Nina dropped on to the hard seat. Free from the tension in her shoulders, she suddenly felt weary from the sleepless night over parting with Dahai. Gradually the rocking motion of the cart and clocking rhythm of the horse hoofs pounding the dirt road help her drift off to sleep.
When she woke from the nap, she found herself facing a starry sky. The horse’s snorting reminded her she was in the cart, which had stopped at the roadside.
“We’re close to Kunming,” Zeng said, leaning against the board of the cart. She handed Nina an opened canister. “Here’s something for you to eat. I’ve just had a snack.”
Her stomach growling, Nina grabbed a steamed bun from the metal container. “Thanks.” After quaffing the water from the canteen, Nina asked, “Do you think your boyfriend will be on duty with today’s train?”
“Not sure,” Zeng shook her head, her bobbed hair swinging. “His schedule changes all the time. You’re a couple of days late because of waiting for Dahai. I have no way to reach him and let him know you’re still going.”
“I’m sorry, Zeng,” Nina said. “What should I do?”
“Get on the train by yourself at first and find him when you need help.”
“Okay, I’ll take a chance.” Nina grasped Zeng’s hand. “I really appreciate your help. I will repay you in the future.”
“Don’t mention it.” Zeng waved her hand in front of Nina’s mouth. “Our moms are old friends. I think of you as my sister and wish you the best.”
The horse-drawn cart resumed its way toward the Western Hill Station. When Nina gazed into the hazy sky, the feeling of leaving her friends forever and facing an uncertain future came flooding back to her. She wept like a little girl under night’s curtains.
Zeng parked her cart near the Kunming station where a lonesome train whistle broke the quiet of dawn. Nina climbed out of the sideboard and opened her handbag. After rummaging through it, she pulled out a package covered in newspaper and placed it in Zeng’s hand. “This is for you; a silk scarf to remember me by. Be careful on your way back.”
Zeng nodded. Overwhelmed with warmth and affection, she held back her tears. “Don’t worry about me. Take care.”
Nina patted Zeng’s hand. “Goodbye! And thank you.” She spotted a side entrance near the gate under a dim streetlamp where train workers came and went, and headed toward it. Inside the window a man rested his head on the table, napping soundly. Without hesitation, Nina scampered past the security booth where a whiff of cigarette smoke drifted from the small opening and mingled with the odour of diesel.
When she reached the barren platform, she laid down her bag and sat on it to wait.
The train arrived an hour later. When she boarded it, nobody asked to see her ticket. However, she couldn’t find any space to sit and had to nudge the people in the aisle to reach the car’s end. After wading through car after car, she finally noticed an empty space near an old woman. She squeezed in her baggage and plunked herself on top of it. By the time she settled, many passengers had awakened. Some stretched their arms or legs, and others stumbled across the crowded aisle toward a washroom or the dining car. She watched a few crew members hurry past. She decided not to ask about Zeng’s boyfriend unless she was in a real pinch.
About an hour later, a loudspeaker announced a ticket check, which required the passengers’ co-operation. Nina stood with her bags, walked hastily into a nearby washroom and locked the door behind her. The damp stench of the voided bowels mixed with smoke forced into her nose. Thankfully the window was ajar, and the fresh air was a welcome relief to her. The noises of questioning, arguing, people moving around lasted ten minutes, then receded. Relieved, she left and returned to her spot.
“I thought you’d got a seat somewhere else,” the old woman said while she drew back her legs to leave Nina some space.
“Thank you. I went to the washroom. I had a stomach ache.” She decided not to share the real reason behind her retreat to the washroom.
“A lad was fined 50 yuan for not having a ticket. That money can feed four people for a month.” The woman sighed.
Nina drew in a breath. I’m lucky, she thought, my eight yuan wouldn’t have got me far. At least she had not needed to call on Zeng’s boyfriend and put him at risk too.
Three days later, Nina slept soundly in a dust-layered room on Lujing Road in Guangzhou City. In her dream, she was a child again, and her mother sat beside her in bed. Mother’s warm hand stroked Nina’s hair. But before she could look directly into her mother’s face, her childhood had faded like a shred of cloud merging into the sky.
She woke up. The dust particles danced in the afternoon sunshine coming through the window curtains. She heard a knock on the door. Knowing it was her cousin, Rei, she called out, “Come in.”
Eighteen-year-old Rei pushed the door open and walked in. “What time can we leave?”
“I … I…” Nina stammered. “I want to say goodbye to my mom, but am afraid of getting us into trouble.”
“It’s not a good idea,” Rei said, raising his eyebrows. “She might be charged with aiding the escape. It’s better if she knows nothing about it. If we fail, she’ll see us behind bars.”
“You’re right,” Nina said, reaching for her short-sleeved grey blouse and pants on the chair next to the bed. Rei turned his head and squatted to arrange his items in the corner: a pack with an air pump, two uninflated basketballs, a knife, plastic cords and string bags.
That evening Nina and Rei paced back and forth on Yuexiu Street North and gazed up at a building across the street. When Nina finally noticed a blurred figure in the lit window, she drew a deep breath.
Bye, dear mom! Nina turned her head and walked toward Rei. “Let’s get going.”
The two of them soon disappeared at the end of the street.