Don’t , I sign to him. We need to assess the extent of your injuries.
Carefully, I help him sit up. I make him test the functionality of each limb, and amazingly, nothing appears to be broken. There is some tenderness in the foot he landed on, but he’s still able to put weight on it. Rather than falling straight down, he slid a fair amount of the way on the rocky wall. It saved him from the brunt of the impact but tore up his exposed skin and his clothes. If he’d come down at a different angle or if we’d been just a little higher in elevation, I know this story wouldn’t have had a happy ending. As it is, it’s clear Li Wei is still in a lot of pain, though, as usual, he’s trying to appear tough.
An outcropping of rock provides a protective roof, and I decide this area will be our camp. Although the afternoon skies are clear, there’s a psychological safety to being under some cover—especially if any more rocks come falling. I leave Li Wei resting there and venture out into some of the scraggly trees nearby in search of wood, so that we can make a fire when night comes. I have to break a few larger limbs in half, but for the most part, there is an ample supply of fallen branches. When I have an armful of firewood, I decide to search for a water source to refill our canteens.
I haven’t gone very far when I hear the snapping of a branch behind me. I spin around in alarm, relaxing when I see Li Wei. Surprised, he asks, How did you know I was here?
I heard you , I tell him, briefly setting my firewood down. What are you doing here? You’re supposed to be resting.
I’m no delicate flower , he teases. I raise an eyebrow at that, and he explains, more seriously, I was worried. You were gone awhile.
I wanted to find some water.
Our supply will last a little longer , he says. Wait until I can come look with you.
I nearly snap back that he’s coddling me again, but after his near-death experience, I find it difficult to chastise him. It’s still hard for me to shake the pall cast by those terrifying moments, when I saw his body lying motionless on the rocks below. Looking him over now, I see that his concern isn’t because he thinks I’m incapable but simply because he cares about me. That realization stirs up the already conflicting emotions within me, and I avert my eyes.
Okay , I say. Let’s go back to camp.
Back by the shelter of the cliff, we each eat one of the lunch packs and try not to think about how little food there is left. The terrain on this plateau seems as inhospitable to growing food as our own village, so it’s unlikely we’re going to find anything in the wild. We’ll just have to wait until we get to the bottom of the mountain. Surely the township must have a reliable way of sustaining its food supply.
This is good , Li Wei says, gesturing to the food in front of him. Almost worth going on this crazy climb and getting myself killed.
You shouldn’t joke about that , I say. But it’s hard not to smile. You know . . . that’s why I climbed the shed that day. For food.
He tilts his head curiously. What do you mean?
His gaze holds mine, and I try not to blush as I explain. There was this story going around about how there was a stash of food being hidden on the roof. I think it was just something the older kids made up to tease us, but I believed it. Zhang Jing was sick at the time, and I thought she’d feel better if she had more to eat. So I climbed up to see if the story was true.
And you found out that the only true thing was that the shed really was in bad shape , he finishes. I nod, expecting him to laugh at me. But he only asks, Why didn’t you ever tell me this before? I always thought you did it for the thrill of it.
I know , I say. And I’ve always known. . . . I’ve always known you thought I was brave because of it, even back then. I guess I liked you thinking of me that way. I was afraid of you knowing the truth.
That you did it to help your sister? You don’t think that’s brave too?
It doesn’t sound as exciting , I say. Certainly not when you’re six.
You care about her a lot , he remarks.
I lift my head so I can squarely meet his eyes. You know I do.
That’s why you’re here. And why you joined the artists—to give her a better life.
It’s more than that , I tell him. Painting is part of me. It’s more than a job. It gives me meaning and makes me feel complete.
I can see he doesn’t understand, and I don’t blame him. Mining is the only vocation he’s ever had available to him, and there’s no love in it. As he said before, it’s obligation. If he doesn’t mine, others starve.
He stifles a yawn, and I urge him to sleep while I keep watch. He doesn’t argue and stretches out on his side of the fire, soon falling asleep with ease. I watch him for a long time, studying the lines of his face and noting how strands of dark hair have come loose from their bindings. They rest gently on his cheek, and I have an overwhelming desire to brush them aside.
No good can come of that, so I try to distract myself by taking in the other sights and sounds around me. The observer in me is still doing her job, still wanting to make note of every detail so that I can paint them into the record. Already I can imagine how I’d depict what’s happened to us so far, which scenes I’d draw and how I’d annotate with calligraphy. My fingers itch for paint and brush, but there’s nothing but rock and barren trees. Looking down at my hands—bloodied and scraped from the rope, even with gloves on—I wonder if I’d be able to do much even if I had the right tools.
When Li Wei wakes, he claims to be feeling better, but we both agree to spend the night here. He says it’ll be better for us to go when the light returns, but I’m still worried about his foot and ankle. The climb is treacherous enough without injury. He assures me he’ll be fine and encourages me to sleep while he takes a turn at keeping watch.