CHAPTER ONE

As a form of subjugation, one of the edicts of the emperors of the Qing Dynasty, a dynasty ruled by the Manchurians who had conquered China, was that every man in the country must grow a plait or single pigtail. Any who refused would have his head cut off.

In 1911, Dr Sun Yet-san uprooted the warlords' dynastic rule, and as a sign of rebellion, a massive wave of cutting off pigtails swept throughout the country, a time in history when the Japanese were invading China.

On the heels of a frigid winter, spring and its mosaic of colors and smells and sounds had come to the small town of Xinning, in Fusui County, Guangxi Provence. Class had hardly begun when nine-year-old Guoshi Mo's teacher sharpened the school scissors on a putty-colored stone in front of a dozen male pupils, stiff with fear. Students' brows furrowed as they watched their headmaster run a fat, stubby thumb along the shiny metallic blade, scraping a callous off his finger. Lips puckered, blowing short puffs from his mouth, the teacher's eyes danced as flecks of skin floated to the wood floor.

"Perfect," he said, examining his thumb. "Line up now." Students' queues quivered as one horrified boy after another bowed his head to receive the inevitable. Each swift snip proclaimed death to twelve braids, landing one on top of another with a thud. Fearful, sad, angry Guoshi Mo, embarrassed, felt a warm stream trickle down the inside of his leg.

***

"Stop searching, Guoshi," his father told him. "Your queue was snipped yesterday, gone, not on your head now or ever again." Annoyed, Guoshi's father reprimanded his son whenever the boy's hand felt for his queue. The front of Guoshi's skull had been shaved from his forehead to the crown of his head.

"I've lost myself, Father. I'm naked without it. I don't even look like the same me. My pigtail danced on my back; now I walk with a tilt."

"Hmm, a tilt? You'll get used to it, son. Write a poem about how you feel. Tomorrow we will go to Long Village to visit my second cousin Huang. Dress appropriately, and while we're there, don't fidget with an imaginary pigtail. You're smarter than the other boys, so act like you are."

"Yes, Father. May I ask what we will do in Long Village? Will I be able to play with my cousins? Will we eat there?"

"Hmm, too many questions. I'll discuss the activities on our way to cousin Huang's." Guoshi's father looked at his son as he thought, I love my son. He's a handful, a very intelligent handful. His curiosity is boundless. Such a sensitive boy.

Skipping ahead of his father, Guoshi picked up small rocks along the path to be added to his already bulging pocket. Amidst patches of late spring snow, sounds and smells of a crisp cloudless morning found father and son joyous on their one-mile journey to Long Village. A vendor hollered, "Sharpen your knives?" Walking past a Hutong, the boy stopped to admire a baby harrier hawk in a gold cage in the residential courtyard.

"Don't lag, son, or we'll be late." In typical Guoshi Mo fashion, the boy was very chatty, dressed in loose trousers belted tightly at the waist. His high mandarin collar rubbed a mark on his neck. Goushi's father wore a long silk robe with slits up the side to revel loose trousers, his black padded vest snug around his chest, and his silk skullcap pulled tight to his ears.

"Tell me why we're going to our neighboring village, Father. Is it someone's birthday? My cousin's? Is it your birthday, Father? Shouldn't we take gifts?"

Winking at his son, his father grinned, the identical electric grin that Guoshi had inherited. "No, son, no birthday. We've been invited to—"

An excited Guoshi couldn't contain himself. "Food? Father, will there be lots of food? Will there be candied crab apples on a stick?"

"There will be food, Guoshi, a big feast. We've been invited to a wedding banquet."

Guoshi's black eyes flashed. His father's facial expression implied that a far more significant event was in store. Not an ordinary wedding ceremony.

Walking the rutted path to Long Village, the father had tricked his son. Supposedly they were going to a wedding banquet to be home by nightfall. The banquet happened, but little did Guoshi Mo know that an additional event was set up for him to be betrothed to one of his cousins, Sister 13. Merriment filled the entire house, which was decorated in red, a symbol of happiness for all Chinese. Strings of firecrackers snapped and smoked, red lanterns swayed against the edge of a tiled roof, and colorful paper kites swung from orange trees. Guoshi kept his promise to his father. He would not fidget with an imaginary pigtail, thinking, I'm unhappy I can't play with my queue like my cousins, running around in circles, taunting me. What are you thinking, Guoshi? You don't have a queue any longer, gone, disappeared. I'm happy Father told me not to fumble at my back. These cousins do look stupid reaching for a non-existent dangle of braid.

***

According to tradition, at the end of the three-hour wedding ceremony children were allowed to play tricks on the bride and groom, bouncing on the massive bridal bed, grabbing candies, peanuts, and fresh dates. After the fun, father and son were asked to spend the night.

"I've never been away from home overnight, Father. What if I have bad dreams? What shall I do? I'm used to sleeping in our attic. I'm worried—where will I sleep, where will you sleep?"

Seated on a small wooden bench, Guoshi's father addressed his son. "Be a brave warrior, my boy; everything will be fine. I'm here to protect you and solve any problems you may encounter." Standing up, the father put an arm around his son and thought, My son's heart is huge. I worry about that boy. It would disturb me greatly if he was taken advantage of. Guoshi is special. His siblings are different; my son, the poet, lives in the natural world. He'll go out of his way not to injure any living thing. He follows my heart, only I'm not capable of expressing myself as he does.

Just as the sun kissed the tiles of the Huang house, the boy again went to his father. "When I woke, all the children had given me a new name, brother-in-law number 13."

"Hmm. Yes, Guoshi Mo, you are now a man."

It turned out the father had taken his son to the banquet to betroth him to a little girl his son's age, ranking thirteenth among the many children in her family. Simply named Sister 13, it would remain that for all her life. A bewildered Guoshi was not alright with his father's decision, but he knew it would be futile to speak up. The engagement was finalized by a verbal agreement between the two fathers. When Guoshi and his father left for home, Sister 13, wearing blue silk trousers underneath a jacket with a high mandarin collar, hobbled behind them and hid behind a tree, stealing looks at her betrothed. Both children were too shy to respond. To make her more desirable in finding a husband, Sister 13's feet had been broken and bound just months before her cousin's wedding banquet. Taking long strides, Guoshi lowered his head, not wanting Sister 13 to see him burrowing his nose into his chest, telling his father, "Her feet smell, her ankles were trembling, and there are flies all over the wrapping."

"Yes, son, her mother soaks Sister 13's feet in animal blood and herbs to soften them." Even at the tender age of nine Guoshi knew she suffered unlimited pain walking to the tree. Sister 13's gesture toward her betrothed would affect Guoshi Mo for the rest of his life.


Next (Chapter 18)