I’m exhausted but have difficulties falling asleep. I didn’t think much about our situation when he was sleeping, but now I’m overwhelmed with the realization of how taboo it is for us to be out here alone together. It has nothing to do with rank either, though that simply increases the forbidden nature of it all. Elder Lian has lectured us many times on proper behavior between boys and girls, darkly warning of how “dangerous feelings” can arise. I’m not that worried about any feelings arising, though. They’re already here, no matter how I try to suppress them.
At last, I shift so that my back is to him, giving me a faint sense of privacy. Despite the uncomfortable ground, I finally fall asleep. Strange dreams fill my sleep, more puzzling than frightening. I keep hearing that noise that startled me so much that first night, when hearing returned to me, the sound I recognize now as many voices crying out. It’s paired with that sense of someone trying to reach me, but I’m still unable to determine who or why.
When I wake, the sun is setting. Li Wei has started a fire, and to my surprise, I see he has a knife out and is carving a piece of wood. A memory of the chrysanthemums he made for me returns, and I scoot over to watch him work. Beside him is a pile of small, round discs. I pick one up and smile when I see the character for soldier carved on it.
You’re making a xiangqi set? Sifting through the discs, I recognize other pieces from the game: general, advisor, and elephant.
Li Wei shrugs and sets his work down. I needed something to do. Maybe you can draw us a board, apprentice.
I set the pieces down and begin smoothing out the dirt in a flat area near the fire. I use a narrow, pointed branch as a stylus, and even with my injured hands, I find I can still draw a steady line. There is comfort in this kind of work, something familiar in an otherwise strange place. I draw all the lines with as much diligence as I would in painting the daily record. When I finish, I discover Li Wei watching me work. He seems embarrassed when I notice.
You really are good at that , he says. It is almost grudging.
Drawing in the dirt?
You know what I mean. Those lines are perfect. I can’t draw anything that straight.
I couldn’t do that , I say, nodding to the neat rows of game pieces he’s crafted. You’ve improved over the years.
It’s just a hobby , he says modestly. His face darkens a little. Something my father and I used to do to pass the time when we weren’t working.
You have a lot of skill , I say honestly. You should do something with it. . . .
I trail off, unable to finish the thought. There is no real need for artistic woodworking in our village. All construction is simply done with brute labor. The focus is on practicality, not aesthetics. My skills with brush and pen are coveted by the elders, but the record has no need for a carver. The sculptures that have survived in our village come from a different era. I think back to what I told Li Wei earlier, about how painting gives me meaning. I wonder if he’d feel the same way if he could make woodworking his vocation.
I’m of more use to our village hacking metals from the earth than coaxing beautiful things from wood , he says, guessing my thoughts.
I know , I reply. And it’s a shame.
A lull falls between us, marked only by the shifting of wood in the fire. I’ve made and watched countless fires burn throughout my life but never had any idea of the sounds they made. They’re fascinating, and I long to know the words to describe them. Li Wei gestures at the chess pieces. Shall we play before all the light is gone?
We don’t have a lot of time for recreation at the Peacock Court, just occasional holidays. Xiangqi boards are rare. Like carvings and sculpture, no one has the time or means to make them anymore. Li Wei beats me in our first game, and I insist upon a second—which I also lose.
I sign to my defeated army in exasperation: What are you doing to me? You lost us the game!
A sound draws my attention, and I look up sharply to see that Li Wei is laughing. Just as his cry of mourning conveyed grief so perfectly, his laughter is full of a joy that soon makes me start laughing too.
My little general , he says. Although he is teasing, there is something warm in his eyes that suddenly makes me acutely aware of how close we’ve drawn to each other. It was out of necessity, needing to be near the light as we played, but our arms practically touch as we lean over the board. Our fingertips are only a few inches away from each other. A rush of heat goes through me, and it has nothing to do with the fire.
We should get some more rest , I say, pulling away. I’ll take the first watch.
I’m pretty sure I can see a flush in his cheeks. He nods in agreement and soon curls up and sleeps. Once again, I have to fight the urge to watch him and find other things to distract myself. We switch halfway through the night, and I fall asleep easily, with no dreams this time.
When morning comes, I wake to find Li Wei gone. Panic hits me, and then I hear footfalls and see him approach through the lingering fog. Sorry , he says, seeing my expression. I just wanted to look around. You won’t believe what I found farther around the mountain.
What? I ask.
A mine entrance—an old one. It doesn’t look like it’s been used in a while.
There must have been people here then , I say, searching around as though I expect them too to appear through the mist.
At some point , he agrees. I didn’t go in, but the mine doesn’t look nearly as big as ours. Do you want to look around before we go?
I hesitate. We’re down to one meal pack, and lingering puts us farther away from getting to more food. And yet the mystery of the mine is too alluring. Who would have worked in it? Certainly no one from our village. Did workers come up from the township? Or is there some settlement here on this forested plateau?