Emily Brink is primarily a poet, with occasional forays into fiction. She has published in Word Riot, Simply Haiku, SoMa Literary Review, and Shit Creek Review. She loves nature and music. Currently she is looking to volunteer overseas as a teacher or social worker.

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Something in me rose up like a firecracker,
where China fights mudstick men
and rides her demons of rape and failure
All her forbidden cities, her forbidden women
They pushed me up and out of the crowd
and I cried

Bow To Your Ancestors
June 3, 1989

I wake up in the morning with a terrible headache. My neighbors, all students, had kept me up all night with their after-exam revelry. The walls in my apartment are as thin as rice paper. I heard them say something about a big demonstration being planned in Tianenmen Square today. It's an idea that's been brewing ever since Hu Yaobing died.
Since I feel rather apathetic about politics, I don't plan on taking the day off work for it.
But in my heart I wish them success, and I admire their bravery. Despite the noise, it is exhilarating having students around you. They are so filled with optimism that it is hard for it not to rub off on you in some way.

I don't get off of work until nine p.m. Leaving work is always a good feeling. It is always good to breathe in the night air. Except this time, when I leave the factory, I smell death. Not the sweet smell when you are near a dead body, but the sinister smell of something bearing down, trying to crush the self. I switch on my transistor radio.

"….Police have successfully quashed a rebellion in Tianenmen square
tonight. There were no reports of death or injuries…."

I know that it's impossible, and I pedal faster on my bike. I rush up the stairs of my apartment and knock loudly on my neighbor's door. No answer. Then I start knocking on everybody's door. No answer. I run downstairs to the landlord's apartment. He is short, fat, and dark, with a beard and mustache. He looks like Mr. Miyagi in Karate Kid. When he answers the door I say "Where is everybody? What happened?"
He looks at me and shakes his head. He looks ashamed. "All dead" he says. Then, as if no further discussion were needed, he shuts the door. I am now the only tenant left in the apartment.

That night I cannot sleep. I feel guilt and regret for being alive, as well as for not having gotten to know my neighbors better. Here are some of the dead:

Ye Yang-19 years old. He was studying biology; the first of his generation to go to college. He had a girlfriend who he had been seeing for several years. He told me, just a week ago, that he was planning to propose.

Deng Zhaio--- 18 years old. Very bright. Always wanting to know what I thought of this or that political reform. He was studying international relations. Very unlucky in love, but he had a good heart-He volunteered to work with disabled children.

Sheng Chan-19 years old. Studying Art. Often expressed his frustration with the state's censorship of political art. Was planning on moving to America someday.

Chen Dewei-21 years old. Was studying Math. He was scheduled to graduate this year.

All I want to do is stay inside, but it is unbearable to sit within the silent hole left by the dead. I get up to make some breakfast, and I find the refrigerator empty. Shit. That means I have to go to the market. Reluctantly, I dress and pull on my boots. When I get outside, I am immediately taken aback by the state of turmoil outside. The street is filled with students and cops, as if they were the only citizens, and the rest had decided to stay home too. Making my way through the crowd is nearly impossible without brushing up against an officer or banging into a student. It takes me an extra twenty minutes to get to the market.

Everyone in the market is arguing about the protests. It is like a tsunami that released a fatal wave of emotion. I hurriedly buy my groceries, and start my way back down The Avenue of Peace.
Somehow, I get pulled along in the tide to the square. A huge line of tanks are making their way down the square toward us. My mouth goes dry and my eyes start to sting. I am sick of all of this I think. Everyone around me is either crying or screaming out slogans. What has happened to my city? I am filled with hatred of the tanks and of the police. It overwhelms me. I can't breathe. Something inside me is rising like vomit. The tanks are getting closer. I feel myself moving out of the crowd. I jump in front of the tank. I stand there, still holding my shopping bags. The tank tries to move around me. For some odd reason I think of Muhammed Ali saying "Float like a butterfly, sting like a bee." I jump onto the hood of the tank and scream at the stunned soldier: "Leave! Get out of my city! Because of you my city is in turmoil! I lost all of my neighbors last night! Get Out!"
The soldier doesn't know what to say. Finally he says: "Are you suicidal? Get down or I'll shoot!"
"I don't care motherfucker! Get out!"

I jump down from the tank. The tank tries one more time to get around me. I keep jumping in front of it. Then all of a sudden I feel myself being pulled away. Four men surround me and push back through the crowd. I am not scared. There are four of them. They handcuff me and lead me to a black car with tinted windows and shove me in. I think they are undercover officers, but I'm not sure. I assume that they are going to execute me.

It takes me awhile to realize that they are all wearing masks. "Who are you?" I ask.
"We were wondering who you where" says one man.
"What you did was very brave" says another.
"Why are you wearing masks?"
"We are a segment of the army that does not believe in Communism. You can call us counter-revolutionaries."
"Where are you taking me?"
"To a hiding place."
My relief at having my life saved faded when I realized that I would have to go into hiding forever.
"Maybe you should just shoot me," I said.
"Of course not. You are quite a hero. We want to keep you alive."

For the next eleven years, I hid under China's floorboards, in the homes of dissidents.
A fourteenth-century bandit to infinity.

I am in Mongolia now. There is a woman, Qulan, who takes care of me. She is the color of pale cornsilk and raw sugarcane. For years I hid in China, living under the floorboards, in attics and other hidden rooms. Here, I don't have to be so careful. The plains here are so vast that the eyes struggle to take them all in, and ultimately fail at completely absorbing their beauty. At night the moon hangs like the broken earring of some lady who takes refuge in the unflinching darkness. Qulan limps around the ger, pours water into the gleaming samovar for tea, which we will take with mare's milk. The ger is covered with gray felt, and many handwoven carpets decorate the walls.

Qulan has osteopetrosis, a bone disorder that causes the bones to thicken and break easily. For that reason she spends a lot of time in bed. There is nothing she or I can do about it-there are no doctors here. Doctors are paid only 70 dollars here, while receptionists make 150. Her bones ache a lot. She also has hepatitis C. She got it from a blood transfusion.
I ask her what the pain is like. She says "The pain is like a river, sometimes it brings mud, at others it brings treasure. The only way that I have lived with this disease is to let pain be a teacher."
I call her "rice sparrow", because she eats so little. Rice sparrows always come to eat the remains of Autumn's first rice harvest.

I am not sure that I believe in destiny. Oftentimes I wonder why I did what I did. Would someone else have done what I did, had I not taken a stand? It will forever be a mystery to me. I don't feel sorry for myself. I have my life, and that's it. And even that is an illusion.
Maybe someday I will see China again. I am not a sentimental person. I was born and raised in Beijing. My father worked in a window factory and my mother was a seamstress. That meant that even though we didn't always have enough food, we always had clothes and nice windows.
Before the tank incident, I wasn't much of a writer. But after I went into hiding, writing seemed to be the only conducive activity; it keeps the brain and the senses functioning. I write with ink-stained fingers. The harshness of the landscape here sometimes makes my mind go numb. I have all that I need here: Food, water, pen, ink, and tobacco. Sure, there is a wall separating China from me, but in my mind there are no walls, and she seems as fresh to me as if I were a newborn child. Someday my writing will find its way back to China, just like the Oracle bones of old. My first memory is of participating in the Ghost Festival, held during the seventh month, or what we call the Ghost Month. During this time the ghosts of our ancestors returned to walk the earth. My mother prepared a fine feast for the dead: Chinese dumplings, egg rolls, potstickers, fried-rice, sweet and sour chicken, and wantons. We bought Hell Notes for the dead and burned them over the graves. My mother made fine red silk clothes for our ancestors to wear in the afterlife.

My mother called heaven "The Land of 10,000 Swallows". I asked her how far away it was, and whether we could visit. She said it was very far away, and that I had to be a good boy if they were going to let me in. As I watched her pull the long crimson threads through her needle, she spoke of karma.
"Whatsoever you do, will return to you, either in this life or the next."

When I was a boy I was fascinated by the stealth and egalitarianism of ants. I would sit in the field and watch them for hours. Like little peasants, they carried bundles of food on their backs. Like construction workers, they built amazingly detailed underground tunnels. Their pragmatic approach to the world seemed like a Communist dream, yet, as I grew older and observed humanity, it seemed that humans were less strong than the ants.

My parents are both from Beijing. She and my father married in 1964 and I was born April 25, 1965. My grandparents were peasants from Huangshan Shi. My grandfather fought in the Sino-Japanese war on the Communist side. Once I asked him about it. He quoted the Tao: "The markings of tigers and leopards bring hunters; the quickness of monkeys and the hunting ability of dogs get them chained up." As a peasant who had taken part in several uprisings, he was a target for the Communist party, who wanted to recruit peasants to fight the Nationalists and the Japanese. "It is better to remain oblivious and unnoticeable" he advised me.

Of course, it was difficult to heed his advice when my hero was Bruce Lee. Once a month my father and I would go to the cinema and watch Bruce Lee movies. Trying to capture Bruce Lee was like pouring gasoline on a fire. Once at school I challenged my friend Chang to a Kung-Fu match. I was badly beaten. All my grandfather could say was "Told you so."

My grandfather took me fishing in the little mountain stream by his home. We always kept one or two fish for ourselves, and gave the rest away to people we met on the road. "When not one person goes hungry, that is success. If you keep all the fish for yourself, then people will gossip about you and call you greedy, and they will not help you when the day comes that you are hungry. By not keeping all of the fish, you ensure that there will always be fish."
"But in America, they sell fish, don't they?"
"Yes, but only those with money can buy the fish. This causes tension between those who have and those who have not. Also, sometimes they take so many fish that there is nothing left to catch."
My father disapproved of these fishing trips. "Why do you need to go fishing when the government already provides food for us? You are such a peasant, father!" he would ridicule. My grandfather didn't listen. He had grown up catching his own food and he wanted to pass this tradition onto me. After Deng Xiaoping came to power, people were allowed to sell the fish at fixed prices. Grandfather would always scoff at them when we went fishing. He died of a heart attack when I was ten. I went out to the stream by myself and caught many fish. I gave all but the biggest fish away. I saved the big one and placed it at his grave. I left school at the age of fifteen and joined my father in the window factory. I worked six days a week, sixteen hours a day.

I struck up a conversation with Qulan, and somehow the talk turned to the whereabouts of the Panchen Lama, who was kidnapped by the Chinese in 1995.
"How do you think they're treating him?" asked Qulan.
"The same way they treat the Chinese: Feeding him lychees in one hand and a Big Mac in the other."

"The Dalai Lama says that he will be reborn in a democratic country. How does he know that?"

"I'm not sure. But I hope he's right."

"Have you ever heard of the Dunhuang caves?"


"They are nearby. Close to the Mingsha San, or Dunes of the Singing Sands. In 366 A.D a monk carved these caves. 492 caves, filled with 50,000 manuscripts. Dunhuang was the town where the two branches of the silk road merged for the final leg into China's capital. The Dunhuang star chart is the oldest manuscript star map in the world and one of the most valuable treasures in astronomy. The first part of the document consists of a collection of predictions based on shapes of clouds. Also, the first dinosaur eggs were found in the Gobi desert. People and cultures are often judged by what we leave behind. I want to know that I left something behind when I die."
"You have your writing. And what you did was very courageous."
I can tell that she is deliberately avoiding mentioning the tank incident.
"You don't have to tip-toe around the subject, Qulan."

"I know… I'm just not sure how you feel about it."
"I'm not sure how I feel about it. I get both positive and negative feelings when I think about it. This generation of Chinese, who weren't around at that time, will not learn about Tianenman Square. Only the eyewitnesses know what happened."
"You should make a time capsule, and leave it in a cave somewhere."
"Ha! Maybe I will. That which we call real and everlasting slip away. I think the function of writing and art is to keep them in place."
"Don't worry-if they can find dinosaur eggs, they will find your writing."

Wild Grass

Qulan is a widow. She is the youngest widow I have ever met-only twenty-one years old. Her husband was killed over a year ago in a mining incident. Her hair is soft and wiry, like wild grass. No brush or comb can tame it, so she often braids it or puts it up with a clip.

I arrived here six months ago. I was smuggled in through a caravan bringing goods from China, like a fourteenth century bandit on the Silk Road. Qulan does not ask me about my situation. I am guessing that she knows something, because of her contacts in China. I have been busying myself by learning how to play the flute. I have a bamboo flute, given to me as a gift from the Shan family. For the past ten years I lived in their attic. Before that, I lived under the floorboards of the Yang family house. I am unable to disclose the precise location I was in, nor can I disclose exactly where I am now.

Tonight Qulan is making Khorkhog, a mutton stew cooked with stones. She uses dung as fuel. Nothing gets wasted here. She gathered these stones from the riverbed nearby. After she is done cooking with them, she will paint multiple colors on them, and set them on the Buddha shrine. She will also make a pile of stones outside. These are called ovoo, and they protect the land.

I return to the memory of that mountain stream I played in as a boy. Chang and I built a bridge with river stones and driftwood. The bridge was only up for a few days before a local official confronted us.
"Who told you that you could build a bridge here? This bridge is illegal! You should both be in jail!" He forced us to dismantle the bridge right then and there.
I pick up my bamboo flute and play a sad tune.
"Why are you playing such sad music?" asks Qulan.
"I am thinking of the stone bridge my friend and I built as children. We were forced to destroy it."
She walked over to me and sat down. "When I was a girl, a missionary from America came to our home. He brought clothing and supplies. He told us that we were 'superstitious' and asked us if we were going to take the shrine down. When we said no he told us we were going to hell.
I never knew what he meant by that. Did he mean we were going to go underground? He brought toothpicks and I made a birdcage out of it. He brought flashlights, expecting that we would have batteries, but we had none. He wanted to build a well, but the ground was too hard. He left us bibles that we never read; we used them for the fire after he was gone."

"A missionary came to visit us, too. My grandfather asked him, 'If you and I are the same, then how could Jesus save one and not the other? How can he stop the law of karma?"
The missionary said there was no such thing as karma, and that each of us had an individual soul.
Grandfather asked him, 'How could Jesus truly know what it is like to be human, when he is only half-human?" The missionary did not know what to say then!"

When I look at Qulan I realize that what is softest in the world drives the hardest. She is the petal that speaks of thorn, the velvet peach that entwines the bramble. Just now someone has come running through the door. It is Temujin, the nine year old boy who lives next door. He comes and buries his face in Qulan's lap. He is weeping.
"What is the matter?" asks Qulan. The boy takes a while to calm down.
"Daddy asked mommy if dinner was ready. She said no and daddy got angry and hit her. I went to hide in my sleeping bag. Daddy cracked mommy's eyes. He drank all day. He went to look for me and I ran here as fast as I could." He buried his face once again in Qulan's arms.
"Its okay, Temujin, you are safe now. Don't go back home tonight. You are welcome to stay here."

Violence is a big problem around here. Boys grow up wrestling, and when they get older, many of them turn their anger out on women and children. Drinking is a big problem, too. Mongolians drink almost as much as Russians.

Children outnumber adults here. The boys fight and the girls help their mothers with their chores. All of the children are scrappy. They are never spoiled. After the Great Famine in China, parents, who usually had just one child in accordance with the One Child policy, spoiled their children, especially with food. Now when I hear that obesity is a big problem in China, I am not surprised.


After W. and Temujin go to bed, I go to the altar and assume my meditation position. Today I had "moderate" pain in my back, and some nausea. In meditation I can befriend the pain. I descend into ever-deeper silence. My leg joints are burning. I make a note of the burning. I am tempted to cry out. I make a note of the temptation. In Sanskrit 'dukkha' was compared to a potter's wheel that squeaked around. In pain, time is both too fast and too slow. It is like being pulled in two different directions at once. It is easy to panic in such a state, but to do so only means more pain. I close my eyes and chant the Bhaisajyaguru (Medicine Buddha) chant: (Tah-yah-tah) OM, beck-and-zay beck-and-zay,
mah-hah beck-and-zay beck-and-zay.
I feel the presence of a "third eye" that can see past the pain to infinity. For me, it is the same feeling one has gazing out from the top of a mountain. Everything becomes more thing-like. The stones become stones, the rain becomes rain, the flame becomes flame. Mountain bells continually breaking their silence, full and joy, full and joy. Endless rice fields, zither. Trackless snow. For me, the body is the hardest thing to forget, I who grew up so close to the earth, I who accompanied my mother as she tilled the hard earth and dropped seeds into the ground. My legs are now distant waves. I am throating blue moths. A worm of light warming the heart. Transistor stones bounce off the snow which is trying to organize itself into neat block surfaces. Skull-lotus. Heaven is no more a liberation than hell, demon-static is the twin of angel-laughter.

Fluenzas between sleeping gulls. The hospital is as crowded as a dream, and the service isn't any more logical. Crowded with boys who press matches to their hair to kill the lice. Young girls with oil-black hair pregnant with choices they don't know about. Amputees, their elbows molded into fists. The antenna picking up signals from Siberia; the body craters, space-shot as a reindeer.

Rice Sparrow, Singing Sands

I wake up one morning to find Qulan gone. I go outside, see her body crumpled by the well. I run to her. She is as cold and dead as the deer. She must have gotten up at night to get a drink of water, and her bones broke. She died of hypothermia. I pick her up gently and carry her back to the yurt.

It is time to go. I know what I must do. It is something I have been thinking of doing for a long time. I pack my notebooks in a sack and I load the horse. I tie Qulan to my back with rope. I am going to the caves of the Gobi desert. I will search for a cave, and when I find it, I will take Qulan and my notebooks. In a short time, the caves will be sealed with sand. I will die there, with my writing and Qulan. The sands will sing us to sleep, becoming oracle bones, becoming our ancestors.


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