Mao loves to swim.
Beside Li-Min’s bed, above her nightstand, there is evidence. A yellowing newspaper clipping displays Mao Tse-tung’s perfectly round head and shining eyes, bobbing brilliantly out of the Yangtze’s dark waves. He had just swum the three great rivers of China, proving to all that he was not only as mighty as nature, but also handsome in a bathing suit.
Mao’s historic swim was ten years ago, in the spring of 1956. Li was only been five years old when Mao made the headlines, proclaiming his love for the waves. She was sitting on her father’s lap at the dinner table when he read the article to her. To her, the river was something much too large to comprehend. It wasn’t like the rain puddles that filled the streets of the Wuhan: if she were to stick her small toes in the river’s water, she would make no ripple. She imaged that the great river would suck at her toes, pulling her deep within its murky waves where old shoes and lame crabs tumbled near the bottom.
Her father put down his soup bowl, pointed to the newspaper with inky fingers, and whispered, “That man is bigger than the Yangtze, you know.”
She widened her eyes. “Is he bigger than me?”
Her father laughed, picking her up abruptly and placing her down on the floor.
“You tell me. Is God bigger than you?”
* * *
At fifteen, Li loved Mao more than anyone: her boyfriend, her parents. In the corners of her exercise notebook, next to the phrases she diligently copied down from her little red book, were little red hearts. Scribbled inside these red hearts were “I loves”: I love Mao, I love China, I love swimming, I love revolution, I love Mao, I love Mao. When Li saw a young girl shaking hands with a grinning Mao on a poster outside the dormitory hall, she ran back inside because she didn’t want anyone to see her tears. Did that girl in the poster, that stupid girl with the ugly thick glasses love Mao like she did? Li thought not.
During her government class, the teacher led the class in a chorus of Mao song. You are the red sun in our heart. We have so many intimate words to speak to you; we have so many enthusiastic songs to sing to you. Strong, high-pitched voices sang this song twice over, the young girls in the class beaming brilliantly in their blue uniforms and raising their thin arms into the summer air with so much vigor, the ceiling fan shuddered. Thousands of red hearts are thinking of Beijing, Thousands of smiling faces are turning toward the red sun. We heartily wish our leader Chairman Mao a long life! In the back, Li let open her dry mouth and sang along, a violin elegantly out of tune. Hidden behind the spirit of the other girls, she clenched her little fists and pressed her legs tightly together. The long red socks she donned awkwardly slipped down to her ankles. She tried desperately to think like the other girls, to think of the future of China.
But when Li sang, she felt a warmth rise from her toes to her thighs to her tightening chest. She breathed heavily, slowly, until she began to feel the afternoon sun from the window spill over her body, heating her curves. We have so many intimate words to speak to you. Closing her eyes, she imagined the voices and words of the girls flying upward into the spinning ceiling fan, turning the refrain into a rain of red falling upon her body. Before her, in the glowing redness of the delicious sun, she could see Mao’s face, smooth and ruddier than ever. That smiling face, that proud mole, that fullness. That man in the white bath robe.
A sharp voice. “Li-Min!” Mao’s face blurred, the sun melted, and the voices and words fell back into the girls’ ravenous mouths. Li opened her eyes.
“Comrade Li-Min, you’re not singing. Do you love Chairman Mao or do you not?” the teacher asked haughtily, her hands on her hips. The ceiling fan was painfully still. Her classmates turned in their brown loafers and stared at her with their red, laughing eyes.
Li-Min nodded quickly, wiping the sweat that dotted her nose.
* * *
On the carpeted floor were scattered articles of clothing: her boyfriend’s Red Guard uniform, her red knee socks, soiled underwear. He was murmuring a lustful language into her neck, clutching the side of her mosquito net tighter and tighter as he moved. In the blue wet of night, they were naked and she was thinking of Mao.
Her boyfriend Hsu-Chun was breathing heavily after he finished, letting go of the mosquito net. The sudden strangeness of their sweating bodies made her itch and open her eyes. She stared up at a man who never swam the Yangtze.
“I I grabbed the net again, I’m sorry,” he managed. His breath smelled of cabbage. He looked up at the mattress above them. “Your roommate, she’s not, uh”
“No, she’s not home,” Li said, carefully pushing him off of her.
Hsu-Chun looked curiously at her for a moment and then moved to pull his undershirt over his head. He clasped his hand with hers. His penis was slouched, a dead worm. “Do you want me to stay?” he asked. She shook her head quickly.
* * *
Under her bed was her personal collection of Mao’s poetry and writings. Li-Min reached for her book and turned to the creased fifth page. Her roommate, who was now in the bed above her, snuck in an hour after Yen left. Li could hear her snoring softly above her. Wiping her tears, Li steadied herself to read, to feel the weight of each word: “China’s daughters have high-aspiring minds, They love their battle array, not silks and satins.” Li pressed the book of poetry against her rising chest. She was silly for not fighting for the revolution. Chairman Mao would want her to be strong, to don “battle array.” But was it her fault that she loved Mao so much that she couldn’t? Then again, what would a man older than her father want with her–a man greater than the Yangtze itself? Was she crazy? She snaked her hands quietly underneath her covers.
* * *
Marching along the street, swarms of Red Guards were chanting in their faded army uniforms with red armbands. Hardened teenagers in uniforms their fathers wore years ago. They looked small and sweltering in these uniforms, the sleeves folded up where it was big. “Long live Chairman Mao!” they shouted into the mosquito heat, thrusting their red books upward until the pages flapped and sucked promiscuously at the air.
Li Min was at the capitalist’s house.
“Don’t look at her!” a classmate screamed.
The wet eyes of the old man rolled up to look at Li-Min. He stared at her for a long time, the cut underneath his eye, bright red. Li didn’t move when the man jerked roughly and bowed his head into the dirt ground.
She was dressed in her battle array, pinning a red armband tightly to her father’s old uniform. Her classmates, Hsu-Chun, and a few other people she didn’t recognize surrounded the bleeding man, waving wide sticks and thick belts. A capitalist pig. Despicable, her boyfriend spat in her ear. Despicable, she repeated, unsure of what she was referring to. He helped her pry a plank from the old man’s house, tossing the nails across the floor. Holding the splintering wood, so dangerously wonderful, Li wanted to confess all her sins.
But that man, that man in the sodden vest two sizes too large, had stared at her. That man that could be her father. If he hadn’t stared at her, hadn’t pleaded silently to her, she wouldn’t be trembling. Why did he pick her to stare at anyway? She felt her sweaty hands lose their grip on the plank.
A harder blow. Her wrist burned. The man’s body was already soft, like a dying cow. The filthy words scrawled on a board around his neck began to drip. The plank fell again and again until she could no longer feel her limbs. Communism is not love. Communism is a hammer which we use to crush the enemy. Haggard and faint, she breathed in deeply, letting the wood slip from her hands and fall to the soft ground. She thought about his flushed face, his gleaming eyes, his handsome build, his passionate words. Communism is not love. The words frightened her. Wasn’t that what it was all about? Soon, the students around her began to stuff gravel into their cupped shirts to throw as they prodded the man to dance down the street. He moved pathetically, his bloody footprints leaving the steps of a dying waltz.
She could no nothing but gather the finest gravel.
JANE WONG is a current Fulbright Fellow in Hong Kong, working on a short story collection. She is the recipient of awards from the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference, Naropa University’s Summer Writing Program, and the Bucknell Seminar for Younger Poets.