Back at the mine, the number of captured villagers has swelled, and the chained prisoners who came up the mountain have joined the group. It looks as though there are still some people hiding within the mines, but the soldiers are busy keeping the gathered prisoners in line and seem to be engaged in some type of sorting. One of the soldiers in our group shouts something, attracting the attention of a man who seems to be in charge. He glances over at us, looking surprised. My guess is that they probably thought they’d captured everyone by now. A party our size is unexpected.
He strolls over and assesses us, making some quick decisions. With a few gestures, he splits us into two groups. One is me, Zhang Jing, the boy whose clothes I took, and another young girl. Li Wei is with the others in the second group. I realize immediately that we’ve been sorted by size and strength, and the soldier indicates that Li Wei’s group should join another similarly sized group. Zhang Jing and I are sent to a cluster of prisoners consisting mostly of smaller-sized women and young children. I catch Li Wei’s eye as we move in different directions, and the message is clear: The plan must proceed.
Beyond him, I see the soldier in charge speaking with one of the prisoners from the plateau. The soldier makes those unintelligible sounds, and the prisoner follows his face avidly. I realize this must be the man who can read lips. Moments later, he turns and speaks to Li Wei’s group, using the same sign language Nuan did: They are going to send you into the mines to work. They say if you are diligent and do as you’re told, your lives will be spared. Although his signs say one thing, his expression conveys something entirely different. The other prisoners notice this.
Is that really true? Li Wei asks.
The man hesitates only a moment before answering: Probably not. But what choice do we have?
I turn to look at the group clustered near me. There are soldiers surrounding us, but we are not under as heavy a guard as Li Wei’s group. We are not chained. Because we are smaller, they probably see us as less of a threat. Knowing that this is the moment we’ve been waiting for, I signal to a group of women on the other side of Zhang Jing. I keep my motions small, so as not to attract much attention from the guards. I think few of them can understand us, but I don’t want to take the chance.
Pay attention , I say. There is a way to save us all, but it requires everyone participating. When I give the signal, you must all cry out.
One woman looks at me as if I am crazy. Cry out? she questions.
I can’t blame her. Although we make involuntary cries and screams all the time—in fact, there is a great deal of sorrowful sound around me even now—it is not something my people deliberately do. After all, none of us can hear the sounds when others make them. Instead, it is a residual instinct, something we acknowledge we do in times of great emotion. There is nothing more to it—until now.
Yes , I say. Cry out. Scream. Give voice to your pain. You must all do it at the same time, and you must do it . . . I pause, remembering to put it in terms they’ll understand. You must do it with great intensity. You know the vibrations you feel in your throat? You must make sure they are very intense. Make your throat . . . shake as much as you can. Do you understand?
They stare at me in confusion, but one little girl bravely steps forward. I understand.
Her mother draws her back and asks, To what end? What can this possibly do? We are lost.
No , I say adamantly. We are not. I can’t explain what this will do, but you must trust me that it will work. It is our best shot at salvation—but it is imperative we all work together.
I work my way through the group, passing on the message. Looking across the clearing, I see Li Wei doing the same thing, discreetly signing so as not to attract the guards’ attention. It looks like he’s met with the same reaction. Most of the people are scared and skeptical that this bizarre request can accomplish anything. Yet, at the same time, they are desperate and see no hope around them and so are willing to take any chance offered to them, no matter how farfetched.
Trust me , I say for what feels like the hundredth time. This will work if we do it together. Put all your emotion into it—all your hope and fear, all your doubt and faith.
That particular word choice seems to resonate with the woman I’m currently speaking to. She nods, blinking back tears. Probably all she has left at this point are her emotions; giving voice to them, even if she can’t hear it, is all she can do. As I turn from her to see if there’s anyone I missed in this group, a flurry of hands draws attention in my periphery. An older woman wearing the clothes of a supplier is signing furiously.
It’s her! Fei! The one who started all this , she says. A few people near her do double takes, looking me over and starting with recognition.
Did she? asks another woman flatly. It seems to me it’s the township that started all this long ago.
Only if you believe her lies! exclaims the first woman. Someone call the guards over here! No doubt they are looking for her. If we turn her over, they will let the rest of us go!
Have you lost your wits along with everything else? I demand. They aren’t letting any of us go! They are going to work us all to death in order to deplete the mines. They’re starting with the strongest over there. When they’re wiped out, they’ll make us labor in their place. This plan—crying out as one—is our only hope.
But the woman who first recognized me is no longer paying attention. Unable to rally an immediate supporter, she has gone seeking a soldier herself. She finds one and tugs his sleeve, making signs he doesn’t understand. Irritated, he pushes her away, but she is insistent and resorts to simplified gestures, pointing at me through the crowd. The soldier regards me with a puzzled look. He doesn’t understand why she’s singling me out, but I am no longer beneath the soldiers’ notice. I wanted to stay incognito, but that moment has passed. The soldier enters the throng of women and begins working his way toward me.