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The people of China refer to the coursing waters of the Yellow River as China’s Sorrow, for it has claimed so many lives. The victims of flood, murder, war and suicide all sink to its depths, hurried along its length broken and blind to be washed ashore, cleaned and buried by weeping loved ones, or else too far gone, lost forever to water and darkness.
It began when her son went missing, because she was determined to find the body. Into the warm haze of evening he had travelled, as the last light faded, to the shores of the Yellow River and there the darkness swallowed him.
The river itself flowed half a kilometre from her home, which stood solitary surrounded by grass and fields and rich, muddy landscape dotted by crooked trees, neat pink petals like a city lady’s painted lips nod and drift, while the city of Lanzhou eighty kilometres upstream attracted a rumbling rhythm of traffic that slithered along the nearby road and rattled the rail tracks.
When days hurried through the weeks into autumn, she knew that China’s Sorrow had become her own, and he would not return. As red and gold swept through the natural world like blood blotting a handkerchief and crisp auburn leaves fell in great torrents to the ground, so she began her search for him. She walked the riverbanks, hoping to find him washed ashore, but there lay only red rocks that began as haphazard rubble and grew to an impassable roasted umber cliff face, so she chose instead to take the narrow boat and paddle the depths of the river, mile upon mile, searching and searching.
Through a damp spring and lush green summer she did not find her son, but the river quickly acquiesced to giving up many of its souls to her. The sons and daughters of others became her own as she discovered their bodies; they came to her often, some purple and bloated, some wounded, their battered skulls and gashed arms turned to pale, bloodless flesh. All came dead-eyed, greying, soft-skinned and oddly beautiful in their mystery and sorrow.
Under the virgin white blooms of the Catalpa trees she laid them, quiet, respectable graves that she dug in the surrounding land, the rushing whispers of the Yellow River just audible beneath the swooping cries of birdsong thrown from tree to tree. She had had no interest in the sad, soaked figures as their own agonies and passions had driven them to the caking mud of the riverbed, until one came and changed everything.
She dredged him from the lake as she had any other, dragging and heaving him from the shores, transferring him to the boat. She examined him closely, her face an inch from his as she stared into the grey glaze of his irises and he looked back at her, unseeing, silent. Laying him flat across her narrow raft, she dipped her oars into the honey–coloured waters and they paddled smoothly home.
Like a doll she positioned him, frozen in time but for the tell-tale decay that crept across his bare hands and face; slowly in the deepening winter but clear, the dark spots and red-purple haze that washed the still white body. His gums reeled back from the teeth and blackened; blood and bile gathered at the corners of his mouth and nostrils in dry, rust-coloured clumps. As he rotted slowly from the inside out, she combed his hair, straightened his clothes and loved him, but she knew that the earth was calling for his return, and in the coming days others still would claim him.
They came from the city, spat out of the crammed neon streets of Lanzhou into the wild calm of the country, as out of place and mysterious as frost in midsummer.
In smart white clothes of mourning with sombre faces they knocked at her door, said what they knew of her, offered her crisp paper notes. They told her they missed him, and believed him to have taken his own life; they told her he had been a gambler at the best of times and a thief at the worst. She said he did not sound familiar, but promised to search for him. She told them about her son. She turned them away. They left an address and the brief warmth of a disappointed handshake, and she nodded her farewell before slipping back into bed where he waited for her, limbs limp, mind unaware.
But his skin clung so loosely to his frame, and his hair shone with a washed, cared-for lustre against the mottled deathly pallor of his cheeks.
So she took him in her arms to the banks of the Sorrow, and he leaned on her in his heavy, damp weight smelling of cold and rot and dark all at once. They waded in together, the stroke of the watersound tickling icily past. There she entwined them together in a long, white sheet that cradled them like a baby’s blanket in its scent of home and cotton closeness to her skin and, without elegance, without grace, she hurled herself into the waters.
Tumbled, tossed and turned over and over, the chill fingers of the river dragged across her scalp. A blurred, muddy-yellow slipstream, the closeness of another’s form and the glimmer of day above and beyond.