Dreams of the Red Phoenix

BOOK: Dreams of the Red Phoenix
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Dreams of the Red Phoenix

by

Virginia Pye

This is a work of fiction. The names, characters, places and incidents are either the

product of the author's imagination or are used fictitiously, and any resemblance

to actual persons living or dead, business establishments, events,

or locales is entirely coincidental.

Unbridled Books

Copyright © 2015 by Virginia Pye

All rights reserved. This book, or parts thereof,

may not be reproduced in any form

without permission.

Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data

Pye, Virginia.

Dreams of the Red Phoenix : a novel by / Virginia Pye.

pages ; cm

ISBN 978-1-60953-123-2

I. Title.

PS3616.Y44D74 2015

813'.6--dc23

2015011742

1 3 5 7 9 10 8 6 4 2

Book Design by SH • CV

First Printing

For John,
 
after all and before much more

“But whether true or false, my opinion is that in the world of
 
knowledge the idea of good appears last of all.”

Plato

“If I knew for certain that a man was coming to my house with
 
the conscious desire of doing me good, I should run for my life.”

H. D. Thoreau

“If you want to know the taste of a pear, you must change the
 
pear by eating it yourself. If you want to know the theory and
 
methods of revolution, you must take part in revolution. All
 
genuine knowledge originates in direct experience.”

Chairman Mao
 

N O R T H    C H I N A 
S U M M E R 
1 9 3 7
Part One
One

A
t dusk, the pigeons came home to roost in a flurry of white wings
and damp air. The rains had finally stopped, and Charles and
Han waited on top of the wall to reward them with seeds from their
palms. After the birds landed and strutted about, the boys gripped
their trembling bodies and stuffed them into the coop.

“You were right,” Charles said. “They came back.”

Out beyond the upturned tile roofs of the town stretched fields
of millet and hemp that had never produced a bountiful harvest.
The pear and apricot orchards begrudgingly offered up shriveled
fruit each summer, and further in all directions stretched rocky
ground that to the west ended in forbidding mountains. In winter,
wind swept across the plains, carrying dust from the Gobi Desert.
The ground stayed hard and crusted with snow for months, crack
ing into fissures that healed only with the spring rains.

But on this day, the arid earth glowed as new leaves softened
the landscape. This brief, bright, promising moment in June
wouldn't last long. Soon the sun would beat down and turn the
fields brown, the trees limp. Rain might return in autumn, al
though the farmers knew not to count on it. This part of North
China remained dry and desolate for much of the year, nothing
like the lush visions Charles carried in his mind of America,
where he had seen fields of tasseled corn so green it hurt his eyes.

As he gazed out at the countryside now, he felt more con
vinced than ever that he belonged in that other, distant place he
still called home. The harsh landscape before him had caused the
Carson family nothing but heartache. Six weeks before, Charles's
father had died on the trail in the mountains west of town, his
body not yet recovered. Reports pointed to a deadly fall in a mud
slide, the cruel earth swallowing the Reverend Caleb Carson and
offering little in return.

At his funeral, his fellow ministers had reminded the congre
gation that he was in a better place now: heaven, they said, not
the hard ground, held the Reverend in its embrace. Charles had
been raised to believe that, but it seemed just as likely to him that
his father hovered somewhere over the plains like the terrifying
characters in his amah Lian's bedtime stories. Those frightening
spirits swooped down and skimmed the earth, flying senselessly
from place to place, impossible to catch and impossible to contain.
Charles feared that his father's spirit would be forever trapped in
this restless purgatory known as North China.

“Where the devil is our last bird?” he asked his friend now.

“You have to be prepared to lose one or two on the first run,”
Han said. “They fly off into the wilds, or someone from the market
snatches them and claims them as his own. It is to be expected.”

“But not our Little Fat One. He's too clever to be caught.”

“No, not Hsiao P'angtze. He will return.”

“I would never let anyone steal my birds.” Charles crossed his
arms over his narrow chest. “You can't let people walk all over
you, Han. You need backbone.”

“So you have said, Charles.”

“It's high time you people got rid of these bastards. It's been
more than five years since the Japanese occupied the North, and
no one's doing anything about it. This would never happen in
America. Every farmer in Ohio would tote out his rifle and shoot
the Japs right off his land.”

Han let out a little puff of air and turned again to the country
side, his eyes scanning the horizon. Charles knew his friend saw
things out there that he never could. The Chinese were uncanny
like that, which was why the situation seemed so galling.

“You think maybe the Reds will finally get rid of them?”
Charles asked. “Guerrilla tactics seem the way to go.”

The corners of Han's mouth rose, and he let out a slight laugh.
“What do you know about the Communists, Charles?”

“Not much.” He shrugged. “Father said they're hiding up in
the hills to the west.”

“You should believe what Father says. Reverend Carson was
a very wise man.”

“But I want to know what
you
think, Han. There's something
you're not telling me. Like what are all these Reds doing in our
town all of a sudden?”

“Putting on plays.”

Now it was Charles's turn to laugh. “Those are the strang
est performances I've ever seen. Imagine thinking that people
would want to watch a play about land reform? Back home
in America, they'd be hooted off the stage, but here, everyone
loves it.”

“That show was not so good. The one about the death of the
landlord was much better.”

“The Reds must be doing more than just putting on plays. I
bet they're itching for a fight.”

“And on what basis do you make this deduction?” Han asked.

Charles threw up his hands and said, “I don't know. May
be I'm itching for one. I wish something would happen around
here.” Then, to show Han he meant what he said, Charles stepped
forward, tossed back his head, and spat over the wall.

Han grabbed his sleeve and yanked him away from the edge.
“What are you doing?” he shouted.

“They'll never know who did it. They're too dumb.”

“American fool,” Han said, his black bangs shaking from side
to side. “You'll get us in trouble. You're too impulsive. You never
think things through.”

“And you sound like a crotchety old maid. Are you Lian? Is
that who you are?”

Charles spun away from Han and spat again, this time with a
full mouth. The outraged cry of a Japanese soldier rose from the
street below, and Charles said, “Direct hit. Damn, I'm good.” He
could curse only with Han, and it always felt excellent.

“Damn
you
,” Han hissed as he crouched low. “You'll get us
killed!”

A shout came up to them. “Who for stands on our wall?”

“Not your wall,” Charles shouted back as he ducked down
beside his friend. “This wall is as American as I am. Belongs to
the Congregational board, headquartered at number 14 Beacon
Street, Boston, Massachusetts. You can write them a letter of
complaint if you want.”

“Go home, America!” the Japanese soldier shouted. “Get off
our wall.”

Charles popped up again and leaned over the side. He tipped
his golfing cap and said, “Hey, mister, can you spare a dime?”

The soldier shook his rifle in the air. “American missionary
boy very bad. Come down from our wall.”

“Told you, not your wall,” Charles said again. “It's one hun
dred percent American property.”

“We come up and arrest American boy and teach him whoso
ever owns wall.”

“‘Whosoever'?” Charles repeated. “Big word, soldier. But in
this instance, that whosoever is me.”

The Japanese soldier gave up on his sorry English and resort
ed to ranting in his native tongue. Charles smiled down at Han,
who still huddled on the brick walkway at the top of the wall.
Beads of sweat had appeared on Han's forehead, and he rapped
his knuckles against his knee. Charles switched to the local Chi
nese dialect to set his friend at ease. “Don't worry, they can't both
er me. I'm not the enemy. And besides, I'm going home soon.
You knew that, didn't you? Mother and I can't very well stay in
China with Father gone.”

“You are lucky to leave, Charles, and even luckier that no one
ever attacks your country,” Han said. “But you shouldn't be so
cocky.”

“Of course no one attacks America. They wouldn't dare,”
Charles said and began to whistle.

Down below, the voices of the Japanese soldiers blended with
the rattling of wooden carts over the rutted road, the calls of
peddlers heading to market, and the braying of mules in a field
nearby. The day carried on, uninterrupted. The Chinese went
about their difficult business, trade as paltry as ever. The Imperi
al Army had paved the road leading in and out of town, so now
more travelers stopped, though, finding little there, they quickly
moved on.

Still, even the lowliest of merchants felt he had gained from
the occupation. Opium dens, prostitutes, and bars selling rotgut
and sorghum wine did their best to unburden the Japanese sol
diers of their meager salaries. The Mandarins tried to play their
cards right, secretly pledging their allegiance to the invaders,
whom they declared their liberators, even as they were appoint
ed to be officers in the Chinese Nationalist Army. When Chiang
Kai-Shek placed the nephew of ancient Tupan Feng in charge of
his forces in the region, everyone knew that the warlord system
of bribes and levies would continue, only now with the constant
threat of conscription as well. As farmers and coolies shuffled
past the American mission compound on their way into town,
they kept their heads down to escape the interest of their own
army more than that of the Japanese.

“So where the devil is our Little Fat One?” Charles asked.

Han stood again. “Patience, Charles. He is coming.”

“How can you be so sure?”

Han might have offered any number of answers, for he had
learned a great deal about pigeons. His father, the Carson family
cook, had taught him before he'd headed out on the trail with
Reverend Carson. New pigeons must be treated with care. For
days before their release, the trainer should place cloths over
their heads so that the birds remained blind, their initial flight
as fraught as a baby's first steps. When they returned, they must
be rewarded amply, especially if the trainer intended to use them
again, and for a greater purpose.

The finest of the flock finally swooped down, and Han
reached into his pocket for seeds. Hsiao P'angtze glided over the
wall and landed. The pigeon's cooing grew louder as it paced and
then preened, cautious and yet eager—ready for whatever was
needed of it next. Han felt the same way. He fed the bird from his
open hand and prepared for what came next.

Two

A
final chord hung in the air as Shirley closed the lid on
the piano keys. The other ladies gathered up their things
and thanked her, then slipped across the front hall and out the
screen door. During practice, they had spoken in hushed tones
and hadn't even raised their voices on the stirring chorus. Shirley
appreciated their delicacy but realized that if the choir were to
regain its singing vigor, she would need to convince them that
she was all right now—or at least all right enough to endure a
full-throated rendition of a song. She doubted she'd ever be fully
all right again.

Mrs. Carr stacked the hymnals, and Mrs. Reed set the floral
Chinese teapot and cups on the lacquered tray for Lian to clear.
The missionary ladies knew a hundred ways to be of help, Shir
ley thought, and yet none of their efforts over the past weeks had
eased her pain. After word had come of her husband's death out
on the trail, the ladies had taken turns in shifts outside her bed
room door. But, receiving little encouragement from her, they
soon drifted off and sent their servants instead with suppers in
straw baskets and stacks of devotional readings—dog-eared pas
sages from the Gospel and scraps of sentimental poetry torn from
Christian ladies' magazines. None of it had suited Shirley, not
here in China nor back in the States, not while married nor now
as a widow.

BOOK: Dreams of the Red Phoenix
6.06Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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