Every day, before I begin my rounds, I stop at our home’s shrine to Zheng He, the one whose voyages over 300 years ago started us on this path. The statue shows a wise, strong face, although in reality this is more the sculptor’s art than accuracy – there exists no true picture of the admiral. It is nonetheless inspiring to be a part of the great man’s legacy as we bring civilization and decency to this barbaric place.
As I ride my horse down the dirt road, I admire the order that reigns over the land. Chickens pick at scattered feed. Hogs stand at their trough. Rice paddies sparkle in the bright sun. It’s only when I get to the fields farthest from my home that I notice disorder – a man, a woman and a child, crouching near the oak trees by the river that borders my land. When I approach, the male awkwardly puts his body in front of his family, and stretches out his arms.
I’ve never seen unfortunates like these in our province. It is amazing that they slipped past the border guards and walked this far south without capture. Most of them have been kept by the Yingguo ren so I don’t blame them for trying to flee a life of forced labor. But the Yingguo ren live far in the northern part of Xinde Tudì in the area the Emperor granted them in exchange for tribute at the end of the last war. Maybe these strangers fled the Cherokees, who are much closer? In any case, they should not be on my land.
I pretend to not see them. The terms of the treaty with the Yingguo ren leader compel us to report these occurrences, but somehow I cannot. I’m hopeful they will slip away at night and move on to another place to be another’s problem. When I return home, I simply tell my family to stay away from that part of the property.
The next morning, though, when I’m on my rounds, the trespassers are there again. I dismount and walk toward them, pistol in hand. As I get closer, I notice the man is lame, his right leg covered with a red-tinged bandage on which a swarm of flies have gathered. I pause for a moment then move toward them and use one of the few words I know in their tongue.
“Go!” I yell and wave the gun toward the north, hoping they’ll disappear back toward the Chattahooche or the Savannah.
The next day, unfortunately, they are still there. This time, the man does not stand when I approach; instead he feverishly mumbles something I do not understand. The woman strokes his arm and just looks at me.
And so, my hand forced, I ride four hours by palanquin to the Governor’s palace at Xīn Jiang xie. He is an old friend of mine from the war against the Xibanya ren, and receives me immediately. His palace is beautiful, run by an overly-serious eunuch who barely conceals annoyance at the impact of my unexpected presence on the ruler’s schedule. After pleasantries and recollections, the governor listens to my request and agrees to resolve the issue.
Thanking him, I head back to my house, not stopping at the town’s temple to Buddha since my duties this day do not allow me time to reflect and pray. As I pass the shrine, I see the orange-robed monks wafting incense by the massive silver statue, and can even smell the agarwood. I pull shut the green velvet curtains for the rest of the trip home.
It is not long before I find my friend’s word is trustworthy. By mid-afternoon of the following day, a small troop of horsemen arrive, dadaos glinting in the sun. When I walk out to meet them, their commander salutes crisply. I point them in the direction of the problem and watch from the porch through a spyglass as they reach the trio.
The soldiers dismount and confront the trespassers quickly, grabbing the man, ignoring his cries as they roughly pull him to his feet. The refugees give them no resistance, meekly allowing themselves to be tied together in a line and marched from my land.
It is my son’s eighth birthday – the cacophony of early fireworks disguises the single pistol shot, almost completely drowns out the faint sounds of weeping that float weakly across the river and fade as the woman and child start their trek back to where they belong.
Shortly afterward, our guests arrive at a dusk illuminated by lanterns and torches, and enter the Great Hall through the gilded doors. Slaughtered pigs and goats, expertly prepared, are presented in perfect order. Delighted faces fill the room. Later, maybe from happiness, I succumb to the lure of baiju, and drift to sleep through the alcohol.
It is then I dream of a different banquet, one in which my family and I are arrayed around the fugitive’s corpse, dining on his rancid flesh while his wife and child, seated at a table in the corner of the room, stare fixedly at us. As we eat, the room around us changes, turning from the Great Hall into a simple hut, and from a simple hut into a barren field, and from a barren field into fire, my family eating all the while as the survivors watch us.
I awaken, my skin coated with a light sweat. The night is utterly black and still. I take warm water from the basin in our room and splash it over my hands and face then walk to the front of the home.
A single candle flickers by Zheng He’s statue. The great man seems somehow distant and sad in the weak light. I look at him for a moment, then blow out the candle and feel my way back through darkness to sleep.