We called the white woman ‘Nurse’ because when we first received her, she was dressed in a tight white cotton uniform. We called her ‘American’ because whenever we asked her questions, she always answered the same way: No.
We knew the English word for No from the smuggled Western films we watched projected onto a pillowcase in the 40th battalion headquarters in Andong on Saturday evenings. Deng said we should examine the films to study the behavior of the enemy. But we cared little for the frivolous story lines; we couldn’t tear our eyes from the milky necks of the actresses, their black eyelashes batting, their mouths parting seductively for a kiss, perfect Os calling to us. We nearly fell into the makeshift screen, that dark cavern behind those soft tongues. Around the campfires, we traded playing cards displaying women like those actresses: women’s full white breasts swelling toward the camera, their legs spread to expose the shaded triangle hidden beneath flared skirts. We joked this must have been American Nurse’s profession—acting in American films—before she entered the war and became a pawn of the imperialists, before she was separated from her battalion and ended up in our hands, in Deng’s.
American Nurse became our possession, the Party headquarters in Beijing told us, for only a week before Deng decided what to do with her—whether or not she could return to the Korean side of the border or if she’d stay in Andong. We wanted to know everything about her and we devised stories as we squatted over the putrid earthen holes in the latrine, in the canteen over meals of rice congee.
She must be a showgirl from New York City.
I bet the cavern between her legs smells like the underbelly of a cow.
Perhaps she’s a spy sent by the Americans listening to everything we say.
“Maybe she’s Russian,” Fat Chen said one night as we watched American Nurse’s shadow falling asleep inside Deng’s tent; for the third night since I first saw her along the Yalu River, she sat alone, tied with hemp rope to a chair beside a gas lamp lit for our leader to read his daily dispatches from the capital. Deng said that most of all, he liked to smell her whenever he walked into his bunk. He said she smelled different from Chinese women. More like Manchurian whores, he told us over supper one night. Jasmine petals and cinnamon sticks.
I’d never known Manchurian whores until I came to Andong—‘Peaceful City.’ This city felt foreign to me and not particularly at peace: the Yalu with its green-black depths said to swirl perilously high in spring, and the brightly-painted women clustered like pigeons around parks, train stations, and public bathhouses with their whispers that followed you home, clung to your ears like winter air (Shall we dance, Comrade? Two yuan for a kiss of this virginal neck . . .).
We’d been watching American Nurse for over an hour while Deng was out “on assignment,” which really meant he was partaking in the local Manchurian fare, getting his fill of that smell—“untamed Northeastern pussy,” he regularly assured us.
We’d been watching American Nurse for over an hour while Deng was out “on assignment,” which really meant he was partaking in the local Manchurian fare, getting his fill of that smell—“untamed Northeastern pussy,” he regularly assured us. We sat around a fire fashioned from twigs and unused food ration boxes. Across from us, American Nurse’s shadow hadn’t moved in minutes. We assumed she was sleeping. I imagined all those women from the movies, wondering what it would feel like to run my hand along their white cheeks, down their long white necks. Aside from the films and the one-time grope of a classmate’s breast in my high school bathroom, I hadn’t had much physical contact with women. As soon as I got too close to one, I was overwhelmed by the difference in odor—a woman never smelled as animal as a man, the female scent was more complex, like soil and sky, elements we saw every day but still didn’t understand inherently.
Fat Chen passed a cigarette to Liu Xiaodong, the oldest of our troop and the comedian among us; Liu had once been a police officer under the Nationalist regime and joined the Communists when they took over his hometown of Jilin. Having served under two governments, he knew how to work a bureaucracy. Even though he had the look of a clean-cut soldier, as soon as the cigarette was lit and held to his mouth, he became someone else altogether: rougher, looser, and frayed. I envied the ease with which he transitioned from youth to manhood and back again. I always felt too young, the fat around my cheeks too easily giving away my youth among this group of elder soldiers. Still, they respected my expertise, renaming me “Hawkeye” for my ability to perfect a telescope’s view, for all the seemingly innate knowledge I had about glass grinding and lens shapes. I never told them about my father’s legacy, the hours I’d spent mirroring him at the grinding machine, our bodies slumped, fingers blistered; our personal histories had no place in these ranks.
Comedian Liu elbowed Fat Chen. “Did you hear the one about the chickens in the north?” he asked. I expected a joke, but his eyes didn’t smile. In the firelight, he looked like a folk doctor dispensing warnings about bad spirits and I could tell Fat Chen didn’t like being outshined. Liu continued: “All over Zhen’an, the cocks are dropping to the ground like dead flies. Villagers say the Imperialists poisoned them, that the bastards are infiltrating our motherland’s food supply.” His shoulders raised with a fighting spirit as he flicked his cigarette into the fire, the flames reaching to consume his discard. He waited for the sparks to disperse, for our frowns to fade, then nodded toward the tent with a shrug and said: “I say we pay American Nurse a visit. She looks lonely.”
Fat Chen didn’t respond. He kicked his pack of Panda cigarettes across the circle to Peng Lihai, our troop’s cartographer who’d left behind a pregnant wife at a grain farm in Shandong. Peng lit his cigarette, kicked the pack to my feet. I took the cue, struck a match, and inhaled the resinous tobacco, letting it seep into my tongue. Smoking was another habit I’d picked up in Andong, along with gambling for food rations and pornographic playing cards. In Shanghai, cigarettes were expensive, smoked only by the highest party cadres or the street boys who stole from the army surplus at Little World. I exhaled. Smoke: it cleared my thoughts in a way nothing before ever could, made me forget about my brother, who’d just enrolled in shipbuilding school in Shanghai. Made me set aside memories of my father and uncles slouched at the glass grinders, no longer allowed to sell their lenses and now living in the Zhejiang countryside where they’d reclaim their plots of land from before Liberation. I inhaled deeply and exhaled through my nose, relishing the slow nostril burn.
As I pulled the cigarette to my mouth for another drag, Fat Chen stood over us, his fists clenched at his sides. “They killed our chickens, eh?” He nodded in Liu’s direction. “Well time for revenge, I say. Let’s go, Hawkeye.” His sweaty palm squeezed my shoulder. “Liu’s right. American Nurse looks lonely.”
I shook my head, nodding at my cigarette.
Liu kicked the butt out of my hand, squelched it with his toe. “Let’s go,” he said. When I looked up, his fat face seemed hungry. “Let’s go,” he repeated, using the plural ‘we’—zamen—the ‘we’ that didn’t allow the listener any retort, the ‘we’ I’d known from my childhood in Shanghai, all those times I would mindlessly follow along with my brother’s every command like a dandelion seed caught on spring wind.
With Liu’s zamen ringing in my ears, I trailed my comrades into Deng’s tent. The men moved slowly and quietly, careful not to startle our commander’s possession. In the golden lamplight, American Nurse looked docile, a sleeping goddess. I’d never seen anything so beautiful and exotic; what surprised me most was how her skin was actually golden-pink, not white like the actresses I’d seen on screen.
Fat Chen lifted American Nurse’s head off her chest with the back of his hand. Her eyes flashed open, wide and white, irises the color of winter sky.
Fat Chen lifted American Nurse’s head off her chest with the back of his hand. Her eyes flashed open, wide and white, irises the color of winter sky. Mo-gui—the devil’s eyes in Shanghai’s Xiang Gong Temple, the evening my brother left me there alone, telling me it would grow hair on my chest, under my arms. All night, I’d shivered beneath the demon statues with their round eyes, fanged teeth, and sharpened spears. I’d waited, awake, until my brother arrived at the gates the next morning, smiling and checking my underarms for the hair he said must have sprouted there overnight. Not so—my underarms: ever bald as a baby’s head.
American Nurse’s mo-gui eyes blinked. Liu ripped a swatch of cotton from his shirtsleeve then slid it across her chin in a makeshift gag. She stomped her foot, whimpered. With his chopstick-thin fingers, he prodded beneath the fabric to touch her pink lips, then reached into her mouth, tracing her gums and teeth like a cartographer to a map.
“What do you got down there?” he asked in mock adoration.
She bit down.
“Cunt!” he shouted, recoiling and blowing air onto his injured hand. The makeshift gag fell to the ground where American Nurse stomped on it. He pushed her over so that her torso was still tied to the chair, her legs free. She kicked at his shins with a resilience I hadn’t seen in a long time.
“Be easy on her!” Peng said. He tried to help American Nurse into the chair to which she was tied, but she slapped his hand and he flinched, stung by her refusal of his assistance. She was stronger than any of us expected, didn’t yield easily like the actresses in the movies we loved.
I stood in the corner watching, unclear what role I should play. How could I react? I’d learned long before this night that interfering in another man’s story only brought misery: like that midnight the Nationalists stormed Cen Cang Yan, carrying fire-lit sticks and bursting through our feeble wooden doors as if they owned our homes. I’d cowered in the corner of our cluttered pingfang, a child unable to open my mouth, lips glued stubbornly, heartbeat rising into my throat, eyes clenched shut. A stout soldier with a gnarled hand smacked my mother to the floor. My brother stupidly rose to protect her and was just as summarily knocked off his feet; he fell so hard, he broke his arm. That night, the Nationalists ransacked our home, taking with them every possession but an old stool, its leg broken in the melee, and the silver thimble my mother shoved into her mouth when the jeeps approached, the same thimble now tucked into the chest pocket of my uniform.
Peng danced, shaking off the unexpected slap.
Fat Chen joined in: “You take her shoulders, Peng. Liu, peg her arms and I’ll handle her legs.”
Just like that, Peng, Liu and Fat Chen stifled American Nurse’s movement the way a fisherman strangles a freshly caught trout.
“Hawkeye!” Peng wrapped his arms around American Nurse’s upper body. “You grab her head.”
I didn’t know what my comrades meant for me to do, but American Nurse’s hair was coiled at my feet like golden weeds, the curls sliding over the floor as she thrashed.
Her head? I didn’t know what my comrades meant for me to do, but American Nurse’s hair was coiled at my feet like golden weeds, the curls sliding over the floor as she thrashed.
Fat Chen pinned her legs with his knees. With a free hand, he unlatched his belt buckle. Then, with his other hand, he removed a knife from a sheath beneath his waist. “Just give me a minute, boys,” he said.
American Nurse had lost the battle. She didn’t have a knife. Her legs, her best hope for running away from us, flopped limp.
Her face: from where I stood, even upside down, she had a beauty like I’d never seen—long black eyelashes, pink cheeks, a round, smooth chin with a small dimple as if her mother pressed her thumb there when the girl was born and the indentation remained. Behind her ear was a scar, thin and rose-colored, the shape of a sunrise. What accident caused this mark? I thought of all the white-backlit scenes of the Soviet movies we watched in the camp. Had she spilled from the door of an automobile on a wide highway? Had she been struck by a tree branch while horseback riding? Had her father beaten her with his ivory cane?
You’ll have your turn next,” Fat Chen said, as if he could read my thoughts. He smiled up at me as I stood over American Nurse’s head, her mo-gui eyes now shut.
“You’ll have your turn next,” Fat Chen said, as if he could read my thoughts. He smiled up at me as I stood over American Nurse’s head, her mo-gui eyes now shut. She didn’t want to see anymore and I understood this reaction well. Fat Chen’s pants were at his knees, exposing his tight white underwear worn through to the point of showing the thin dark crack of his ass. Although five years my elder, with his pants like that, that grin on his face, he looked like he was thirteen.
“Go already,” Fat Chen said, nudging my shin with his shoulder.
Peng tugged on my sleeve. “Don’t worry, we’ll share.” His country boy’s smile lit the dark.
I wanted nothing more than to run, but I couldn’t. My feet shuffled slowly, as if through thick mud. I wanted to shake myself free and rise like the sun above Andong’s purple hills, but instead, I sat outside the tent and reached for one of Peng’s last cigarettes. I wanted to race past the Manchurian factories with their smokestacks, leaving behind the black Yalu, the golden tents, American Nurse’s perfect pink cheeks, the cigarette smell on my fingers, the telescopes and their long beige barrels that steadily pointed toward a distant shore that could look, at times, like a foggy dreamscape almost within an arm’s reach, like its sands could be caressed with one’s trembling hand.
But I sat. I smoked. I waited for my turn in a game whose rules I had only begun to understand.
Halfway through my second cigarette, after Fat Chen and Peng had each, in sequence, emerged from the tent buckling their belts, a triumphant smile pulling at the corners of their lips, Liu did the same. When he returned, he walked with his chest puffed, lingering for only a moment to look at the dark eastern sky, the Yalu’s silver crust, the white-swathed hills of Korea. We looked outward with him, aware, if only for a brief moment, that we were a part of something much, much larger.
“Your turn now,” he said, nudging my shin with his rubber-capped shoe. I gestured toward my cigarette but he quickly nabbed the butt from my fingers and tossed it into the dust. “No time for that,” he said, his eyes shining a white hunger. “A woman awaits.”
I nodded, pressing into the cold earth to lift myself to standing. I shook blood into my legs, marveling at the body’s ability to go numb at even the slightest suggestion of rest, before following Liu’s path toward the tent, lifting the front flap just long enough for moonlight to swagger in, lighting my way.
Kaitlin Solimine has considered China a second home for almost two decades. While an undergraduate at Harvard, she studied at Beijing University as a Harvard-Yenching scholar and wrote and edited Let’s Go China (St. Martin’s Press). In 2006-2007, she was a Fulbright Fellow in China. She was the Donald E. Axinn Scholar in Fiction at the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference and graduated from the MFA program in writing at UC-San Diego.