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The Sun that Shines Over Manchuria
“Oh how beautiful our Manchuria... Oh how lovely our Manchuria is. Cold winters but warm hearts... The red sun shines over you now....”
A boy walked the streets of Pingfang, Harbin. It was in the province of Manchuria. The Japanese had called it ‘Manchukou’. It was January, 1st, 1939. Manchukou was a puppet government of the imperialist Japanese. The boy was malnourished; he looked 10 when in reality he was 15. He had rags for clothes and smelled a mixture of dead fish and cat pee and a host of other smells due to the fact he hadn’t bathe in a while. It was rather appalling. His black hair was greasy and all over the place. He walked with his little sister who was just going on five. She looked not much better than he did. She held onto his hand tightly. Her hand looked skeletal. Her skin clung to her bones. The streets bustled with a mixture of Chinese, Japanese soldiers, and some Russians. The Japanese soldiers always seemed to have a sly grin on their faces or at least some did.
The children wandered the streets with no one to come home to, the sky gray and lifeless. All he had was his little sister Huan to protect. She stared at him with her dark brown eyes, “Will we be able to find a place to stay Zhen? It’s going to get cold very cold.” Tears fell from her eyes and onto her cheeks.
“We will, I promise.” His voice was nothing but a whisper. His voice had become weak from all the crying he had done recently. He knew he had parents but he doesn’t remember what happened to them. He doesn’t remember much before the occupation. He remembers why they named him Zhen thought. His mother apparently named him that because how pure he was to her. It was only in the afternoon but they had to find shelter before evening.
A couple of drunken Japanese soldiers walked passed them. They laughed and their voices were very loud, “Who wants to see who can find the most marutas for the boss? The loser has to pay the tab for our next bar escapades!” The one who said that had longish hair and a scar on his right cheek. He was several feet taller than Zhen. His eyes looked more like snake eyes than human eyes.
“Alright but I bet I will get more of those logs than any of you!” The drunkest said. His cheeks were a bright fire engine red. He was the shortest of the bunch. Zhen pulled his sister into a nearby alleyway. He did not want to be part of the soldiers’ game. Marutas was another word for human for them. Human beings who were non-Japanese were just wood to them and nothing more. Rumor has it that the people who become marutas are never seen again. When he was sure that the soldiers had left he got out of the alleyway. He didn’t know what was scarier the alleyway or members of the Japanese army.
The two found an abandon-looking house. There were other children like them in the house. They had made a fire to combat the cold. It was smell and contained in the old fireplace in the house. He sat next to a girl who looked about his age maybe a little older. She was much cleaner than he was and decently dressed. Tears ran down her cheek.
“Hello, let me guess you lost your parents to those soldiers as well?” She sniffled and whipped her runny nose on her sleeve. The house if you could call it that had several kids lying around the fire. Most were Chinese with some Russian children mixed within the crowd.
“I think so. I don’t quite remember.” The fire made his face feel warm. It was getting dark and the only light left was the fire.
She huddled closer to him, “I see you have a cute little sister. What’s her name?”
“Huan,” He replied, “She’s been a trooper for someone so young. Sometimes she’s stronger than me.” He looked at the fire.
“That’s a beautiful name!” She said, “So what’s yours?”
“Zhen, what’s your name?” He asked.
“Lan Mei, my dad was a successful business owner before the occupation. He was sent to prison for “suspicious activities” not too long ago. I haven’t heard from him since then. My mom somehow escaped to the US and got asylum,” She said.
It was midnight by the time they went to bed. Huan clung to Zhen’s arm as they slept. They both slept on the cold hard ground. Mei had found an old mattress in the house and slept on that. Zhen had the same nightmare as he did the night before. He dreamt of being chased by what looked like wolves with army uniforms. He woke up as they were about to catch him.
He awoke. The sun hadn’t even come out yet and the crickets were still chirping. He decided to explore the house. He went to the room next to the one they stayed in. It was a small office. There were some books lying around. It looked like it had been looted. Anything that was of value was gone. He walked up to a desk to see a family picture. He picked it up and examined it. A mother and a father and their two kids were in the picture. They were dressed formally and they smiled. He stared at the picture wondering what happened to the family that lived there. He noticed a sloppy written note on the desk as well. It was hidden beneath several papers.
Dear My Family,
They want me to help build this huge building, them meaning the Japanese army. They say it’s going to be a lumber mill but I don’t really believe them. It’s just this gut feeling I have. I don’t know when I’ll be back or if. I have a bad feeling about this. But anyway I love all of you.
He looked at the note. He stared at it for a few seconds. He then put it down and went back to the room where everybody else was. The sky was a light gray. Mei was already up. She rubbed her eyes and ran her fingers through her hair. A new fire had been made with a couple of sticks they found outside. A Russian girl called Svetlana watched the fire. Zhen found her absolutely gorgeous and couldn’t stop staring.
“How was your night?” She asked. She went up to him and tapped him on the shoulder.
“Sleepless,” He replied. He stopped staring and looked at Mei.
“Want to go with me to look for food?” Mei asked, “Don’t worry Huan is okay. She’s still sleeping and this place is safe.”
“Sure.” They left and searched around town. Sometimes there were pieces of food on the ground. While trying to find food they found a flashlight just lying there. Mei picked it up.
“A soldier must have forgotten it,” She said. They had found some rotten apples and some stale bread. They refused to take food from the soldiers. They found enough to feed Huan, Mei and Zhen. They got back to the house. They gave some of the apple to Huan and ate some themselves.
“Can we explore the house?” She asked. They nodded. The house was rather big and looked like it was quite grand before the invasion and occupation. They decided to go upstairs first. As they walked the halls Mei noticed something interesting.
“Look Zhen your name is on a door!” She said. The wooden door had cooper symbols spelling Zhen. He put his fingers across the symbol and stared at it for several sections. His memory was coming back now. His full name was Ning Zhen and Huan’s was Ning Huan. Their father went to work on the lumber mill. Zhen slowly opened the door. The room looked like it hadn’t been touched since he was 12.
The room had dark red walls with various posters on the wall. Books were scattered across the floor. His school uniform still in the closet, it looked like it hadn’t even been effected by the second Sino-Japanese War or the occupation. A picture of him and his parents were in the room. It was during his 9th birthday when they took it. His mom smiled widely in the picture while his father smile was small. He hugged the picture to his chest and begun to tear up.
“Mei, can you take Huan into her room?” Zhen asked. He whipped his eyes.
“Sure,” She said. She took Huan to explore her room. Huan was excited to see it. She jumped up and down smiling. Unlike Zhen and Mei she was obliviously to the horrors going on outside the house’s walls. Zhen could hear her going into her room.
As more of his memories came back he broke down. After his father left to go build the lumber mill for the Japanese he never returned. He remembered what his father before leaving.
“Don’t worry I’m going to be back soon. Stay strong and take care of your mother and sister for me, Promise?” Chen asked. He ruffled his son’s hair. Zhen hugged his dad tightly. He did not want to let go.
“I promise and please be back soon,” Zhen said. Tears streamed down his face. He told himself to be brave. He could smell the cheap cologne his father wore as he hugged him. The last he saw of his father was him kissing his mother’s cheek and holding Huan.
Zhen whipped his tears and took the picture out of its frame. He put it in his jean pocket. Mei and Huan came back in. Mei flung her arms around Zhen and she hugged him tightly. Zhen cried in her arms. He hadn’t even found out his mother’s fate but did he really want to.
For all he knows his mother Nuo could be in another part of China or the Japanese could have taken her. Questions raced through his head. While they were engrossed in their embrace Huan decided to run off. She had a bunny stuffed animal she loved so much that her mama gave her. She was overwhelmed with emotion too much for her five year old starving, self could handle. She ran into town and fell onto the nearest step to sob. One of the secret police came up to her.
“What’s wrong?” He asked faking concern, “My name is Yamato. Don’t worry I don’t bite.” He had just started his duties as secret police. He was tall and slim and overall not threatening. He had short black hair and a big nose. The clothes he wore were too big for him and he smelt of the same cheap cologne her father used.
“I lost my mama and my daddy and all I have left is this bunny stuff animal from my mama,” She said through the sniffles and tears. Yamato gave her a hug to try to calm her down. She whipped her eyes. The smell of the cologne calmed her.
“Do you want me to take you somewhere for a nice warm meal?” He asked. Huan accepted right away. She had not eaten since she had the rotten apple. She grabbed Yamato’s hand and they walked off.
After Zhen had calmed down he called out to Huan, “Huan!” He called her again and he got no answer.
“Where did she go?” Mei asked, “She couldn’t have gone far.”
“Let’s search the house and if she’s not here we will search all over Pingfang,” He said. He looked down at the floor. He blamed himself for his sister’s disappearance. They searched all over the house and found nothing. They went to go ask the other children if they had seen Huan. Svetlana comes over to them.
“A little girl not too long ago came out of the house crying,” Svetlana said, “I take it she’s your sister?”
“Yeah,” Zhen replied.
“I’ll help you look,” She said. The three of them went outside of the safety of the abandon house to look for Huan. It was nighttime now and there were less civilians out, no one to ask if they saw a little girl. Mei turned on the flashlight she found. After walking for a few miles they found Huan’s bunny. It was dirty and the arm was pulled off.
Zhen picked it up and examined it. It looked worse off it was when she was at home, “I think a Japanese soldier took her to the lumber mill. Usually when she runs away she doesn’t run far.” Zhen held the doll in his arms.
Svetlana said, “There is a way where we can get near the “lumber mill” to see if she really was taken. I’ll show you but we can’t be noticed or we’ll end up with a pretty ghastly fate.” Svetlana directed them through the path she found. They tried to be as quiet as possible. Mei ended up cutting herself on some shrubs.
They got close enough to see the building. It was a very intimidated and huge. Mei and Zhen gasped. It looked more like a prison than a lumber mill. Svetlana whispered, “I heard some Japanese talking and they said it’s called Unit 731 and in no way it’s a lumber mill. Experiments involving humans are common.” They couldn’t find Huan.
“She’s probably already inside,” Svetlana said, “I’m sorry.” Zhen didn’t know how to think or feel. He lost his only remaining family member to the unknown. He didn’t know whether he was alive, in pain or dead.
“What has our province become? Harbin used to be known as the Paris of Asia due to its influence from Russian territory. Now children just disappear out of nowhere and people are starving...” Mei watched the people in all white walking around the building. They looked like monsters. As Zhen watched them it made him feel sick. How could people get away with such things?