We are from the top of the mountain , Li Wei explains.
Nuan looks so confused that for a moment I think she must not have understood his words. At last, she says, There are people at the top?
Our village , I say. We are miners, just like your village is. Was.
There is another mine? she asks, but she doesn’t wait for me to answer. Yes, of course. She pauses, gazing into space a few moments as she lets this new understanding settle in. That’s where the new metals are coming from. We’ve wondered for a long time how the supply lines were still running long after our village was shut down. Are you all like us? Deaf?
Yes , I say. And some people are going blind too. I draw the character for blind to make sure she understands, but she has already guessed. Looking saddened, she launches into a story, pausing when necessary to draw out words we don’t know.
It happened to us too. It’s the metals. There’s a contaminant that makes mining dangerous there. It gets into the air, in the water. Once removed from the earth, melting and other manipulation purifies the metal. But if you live and work around it? It’s deadly. It deprives us of our senses. Hearing is the first sense lost. Then, over many generations, blindness follows. It would not be worth the risk, except that the mountain is rich in precious metals—far richer than any other known source in the kingdom. And this king is even more ruthless about getting those riches out.
King Jianjun? I clarify.
Yes , she says. He and his predecessors have trapped people on the mountain for generations, forcing them to mine for their survival, masking it as kindness by sending up barely enough food to survive. And all the while, those closest to the metals suffer greatly.
Understanding hits me like a slap to the face. The shock is so strong, it’s a wonder I don’t go reeling. Zhang Jing , I say. Nuan looks confused, and I clarify. My sister. She isn’t a miner, but she has been losing her sight. But now it makes sense: Her observation post is in the mine. She is exposed to all the same toxins—just like you , I add, glancing at Li Wei.
I’ve worked in there for years and still have my sight , he tells Nuan.
She shrugs. It affects people differently. Some can fight it longer. And the direst effects take generations to build up. But it will only be a matter of time now. That’s how it was with our people. Once the first cases of blindness came, the ailment ran rampant within a year.
Li Wei and I look at each other again, both thinking about how the blindness in our village first became noticeable a few months ago. We need to get them out of there , I say. If you and I climbed down, so can the others. It will take time, but it will be worth it if it saves them.
Perhaps . . . but I think we’ll have a hard time convincing them , Li Wei says grimly. You’ve seen how they are. They resist change. And that’s if they even believe us!
We must make them believe , I say adamantly, thinking of Zhang Jing and Master Chen. Lives depend on it. We must get them out.
He shakes his head. Fei, it was hard enough getting the two of us down! How will you move three hundred? Especially with children and the elderly?
How can you talk like this? I demand. When we started this quest, you spoke about helping our whole village! You acted as though we could do the impossible. Do you only talk about courage when the task is easy?
A spark of anger flashes in his eyes. You know I’m up for difficult tasks—but that doesn’t mean I’m foolish either. Assuming we can miraculously get all those people down the mountain, where will they go? To tents like this? What kind of livelihood can they possibly have beyond the mines?
There must be other places to go in Beiguo , I insist. You saw all the travelers at the inn.
Nuan watches our conversation thoughtfully, carefully keeping out of our dispute. Is your mine still active? It’s not empty?
I look to Li Wei for confirmation, and he responds, Believe me, if we were running out, there’d be a panic.
Nuan sighs, and I’m fascinated at how a simple exhalation of breath can convey such sadness. It would be better for you if it were empty , she says unexpectedly. If you truly want your village to escape and find a new life. Once, in our history, a number of villagers attempted it, and the king’s men stopped them. They needed slaves to keep working our mine. It was only a year and a half ago, when the mine went empty just as the blindness came, that they didn’t bother stopping us anymore. There was no need. They had what they wanted from us and didn’t care where we went. So here we are. She lifts her hands, indicating the threadbare tent. Gone from one prison to another. Here we live in this squalor, second-class citizens who are scorned by the others. Sometimes we get work. Sometimes we simply live on scraps.
Li Wei looks at me expectantly as Nuan’s words confirm how difficult it will be to find a new existence for our people. I ignore him as I answer back. But there is food here . At least it’s available. And you’re away from the toxins in the metals. It would still be a better life for our people.
Nuan shakes her head. I’m telling you, they won’t let you go. They need your village to keep working the mine. The king covets those metals too much. It keeps him rich and in power.
But if our village goes blind, no one will be able to mine anything! I protest.
They don’t care , says Nuan. My villagers’ lives, yours . . . they are nothing compared to riches in the eyes of those more powerful than us.
We sit there and let those words sink in. Finally I turn to Li Wei. We must take this news back to our village. We must let them decide and weigh the options.
I can tell from his expression that he wants to protest, to tell me again that the task is impossible. But as he gazes into my eyes, he finally gives a reluctant nod. I will help you take this news back to the elders , he says. Perhaps they will have an idea we haven’t thought of. I can tell he doubts it.