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Bones Which Crack Like Dry Grass
In the simple swells of verdant mountains, which were delineated by the twin rivers Yangtze and her daughter Min, thatched huts gathered on even ground and coupled into towns. Each morning, draping itself over the mountain range, a mist left the grass tingling with fresh beads of dew. So deep in the mountains, water would seep into the dirt, licking at each rock and nourishing all vegetation. The air smelled of perpetual moisture. During the day, if one were to sit and paint the landscape, only earth-toned greens, muddy browns, and shades of mostly-grey blues would feature – masked by an ephemeral eggshell white.
Where Min joined the yawning waters of her mother, in the elbow of the rivers, a young boy named Ming lived alone. History can’t recount how the twelve-year-old Ming came to care for himself, but Death made sure that Ming’s story was a tragedy.
Like all little boys, Ming had at one point a father and a mother. If asked, he would not be able to tell you even a thing about their faces, or what became of them. Read on, however, to find out about the strange and peculiar life of Ming, the boy who lived alone.
Many may scoff while pointing out, “How could Ming have lived alone? He was a wee boy of twelve. He had no parents to teach him the ways. This is a foolish, crackpot excuse for a story.”
Ming was twelve, but boys don’t die because their mothers aren’t present to cradle their tiny palms. A human, my dear reader, even if he or she cannot walk or talk or see or smell or taste, can at least tenaciously keep breathing. Ming was healthy. He had bright eyes of great depth, likened to a pool made impossibly transparent by moonlight. His mind was cunning; his heart kind. From his backyard mountain, he gathered and ate greens. Some of his chickens, he ate, most of them he raised for eggs.
Ming’s hut was five strides at the longest; he lived off only what he needed. He rose with the sun and slept when the light winked out of sight beneath the horizon.
At the end of a month, he would paddle to the closest town on a boat gifted to him by a kind merchant, and trade in good eggs for a smattering of necessities. Many offered him a home and work, but Ming did not speak and kept to himself, likely because he knew little Chinese. He dealt in gestures and smiles. Those who met him often compared his smile to a fingernail sliver and no wider.
Summer was innocuous that year. It overflowed into a bountiful autumn. Ming clambered into his boat, which dipped with his weight and sent the water wrinkling like an old man’s forehead. He took up his paddle and rhythmically worked his way up river. Min was tranquil and parted like the air to his strokes.
Ming fell into a meditational state. Nothing existed to him aside from paddle, glide, paddle, glide, paddle glide.
Out of nowhere, Ming’s boat bumped into something solid. Ming continued rowing, thinking he could push it aside. He could not advance however, and what was preventing him from doing so only bobbed in the water. He raised his paddle out of the river; set it down, and with practiced slowness, eased his body up to the front of the boat. He bent over the prow to see what he could do with the situation.
Ming gasped sharply. He could only stare.
The woman floated face up. Black hair almost double the length of Ming’s arm fanned out in the water like dead spider legs. Only her face, shoulders and chest area were visible. The rest of her was submerged.
Ming could have grabbed his paddle and used it to poke the woman away–gently with the river she’d go–, but against all possible scenarios, he hauled the woman by her hair into his boat. Her slick skin was cold, and what clothing she once wore was torn beyond basic function. Water sluiced along the planes of her face, dripping out of her soaked hair and pooling beneath her.
Ming, through the solid decision making of a child, paddled the woman the rest of the way to the town. He docked his boat at the shore. Gathering his eggs, he left the woman in the boat and leapt the short distance from boat to land.
There were exactly thirteen houses in the town, not counting structures for communal use and private animal pens. Ming went to the usual doors. He exchanged his eggs for dried food, seasonings, and two fishing nets. He didn’t have enough for the precious wicker basket that the weaver boy Weilin proudly showed him, but Weilin promised to keep it reserved for Ming.
Ming hadn’t given all too much thought about the woman lying prone in his boat. He returned to the riverside and deposited his load beside the woman. She hadn’t moved. Scraps of cloth hung on the woman’s body like the shredded nest of a silkworm. A strange, horrible bloom of dark red stained her waist and abdomen. Ming couldn’t tell the difference between slumber and death. He had never been checked for pulse and had not learned how to check for one.
Ming sought for help in town. Leading Weilin to his boat, he gestured down at the woman.
Weilin gasped. His voice flattened. He asked, “Her, where did you find her?” Ming pointed at the river, after Weilin repeated himself two times.
Weilin had seen his share of the dead. He’d seen closed eyes. Most died with slack jaws. The gruesome, natural decay of flesh was nothing new. Blood was uncommon. It did not pay to send the dead down the Yangtze.
What he hadn’t seen, Weilin hoped to never lay eyes upon. A weaver boy wasn’t a specialized insect. He knew his way around a human body the same way he knew the intricate patterns of his ware.
Weilin could see flaps of skin around the woman’s abdomen, alluding to how inhumanely it was torn into. A prominent fissure of the flesh appeared to have been rent open by the vicious tug of one blade. The wound glistened wetly. Day old blood, washed pink by water, trickled sluggishly down the woman’s skin, no longer urged to flow by a pumping heart. Half of the woman’s stomach was shaded by what remained of her garb. Weilin could guess what lay beneath. He was almost glad that the stench of rot was smothered by the river.
It looked like the insides of her stomach had dropped to the ground, straight out of her body. The way no one had bothered to shut her glazed eyes disturbed Weilin a great amount. Her pupils were shrunken and reduced to tiny black pebbles, floating in pallid eye whites, framed by swollen eyelids.
Weilin didn’t gag. It was nothing new to him. Spines bowed to age and nature. Some humans were killed and - an uncountable amount - killed by other humans.
A lot of the deceased bore personal items close to their skin. A good few of the unspeakably mangled were citizens of the walled Nanjing. Weilin hated to think of the horror conducted in the east.
“This woman, throw her back in the river. I can’t help you,” Weilin said to Ming, miming a big arc toward the river, wanting Ming to listen for once and toss the carcass back where he’d found it. She’d float on, Weilin knew, nothing and no one disturbing her body. Eventually, the incessant force of the river would rip her body apart; a little of her wedged between this rock and that rock, a little more of her sinking deep into a placid lake.
Weilin took his leave with a curt nod. Ming cocked his head in confusion. He didn’t fully understand what Weilin had said.
Ming climbed into his boat and paddled home. Sullenness encased him. He did not know what to do with the woman, or how he could help her.
After mooring the boat, Ming folded up and stored his new fishing nets. He hoped for a good fat fish. The Yangtze was calm in autumn, encouraging fish to flick back and forth in its gentle waters. He organized the dried food and seasonings into his hut.
Ming took the woman by arm and hefted her out of the boat. Her feet splashed around and dragged limply in the water. He rolled her face-up on the lush grass. Southern China had a warm climate and Ming usually slept outside, rain permitting.
For dinner, Ming dipped a few strips of dried meat into soy sauce. He chewed very slowly, savouring a delicious salty flavor not offered by mountain greens.
That was the simple way Ming lived. He left the woman alone on the slope of his island, waiting for her to wake up. He waited like he did with his mother.
She was still for months. Her skin peeled off her body and seemed to disappear into the soil. He’d often look to see flies swarming above her. Ming never looked too closely. The smell drove him off.
Finally, she became bone. Her flesh and muscle had long melted into the earth. It seemed the grass flourished vibrant green beneath her and caressed her skeletal frame. What was left of her was carried off by nature. She left Ming’s memory as softly as she’d first crept into his awareness.
From time ago, we threw death into the great Yangtze. There is little wonder why that river runs so deeply red, for humans end only one way.