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The Well Meaning

By: Jeffrey Stevenson

Liu Peng sat alone in self-assured silence as he watched through his spectacles an
early spring breeze that cradled and then released the vast rice fields. Unimpressive to the
undiscerning eye, the seemingly infinite rows of symmetrically planted bright green
plants that barely grew above the ankle had sustained his small village of Bancang for
generations. The history of these fields goes back even further than the stories he‘d been
told of his ancestors as a child. The powder blue of the midday sky expanded as far as his
vision could carry; thus providing a perfect companion to the infinity of the fields and
internally Liu was very thankful for the lack of clouds that day which allowed the
heavens above to appear before him without being obscured. His soft pot-belly folded in
on itself as he sat cross-legged on a bolder and simply enjoyed the fresh, crisp air in a
state of completely undisturbed tranquility. The current tranquilities’ at hand were forged
in non-violent combat that defied the turmoil of his current surroundings.
It is difficult to imagine that just short few weeks prior to reaching this moment of
serenity Liu’s older brother Anying, who’s handsome face and unrivaled work ethic had
once inspired him to have hope for himself, had been dragged away screaming and
undoubtedly murdered by PRC agents due to their ridiculous belief that his impressive
physique may have one day contributed to an anti-Maoist revolution of some sort.
Anying, unlike Liu, had grown to be exceptionally tall for his time and lineage and was
easily isolated from the more commonly stubby village-folk as a potential threat to the
leaders of the new government. The names and faces of these leaders were completely
unknown to Anying aside from The Great Mao, who was known to all, and yet the
mystery of their identities was never present in his mind even as an afterthought. Instead,
Anying was content with life as he joyfully toiled daily in blissful ignorance of the
volatile politics swirling around him for the simple honor brought on by the enrichment
of his family and neighbors. Their father Changji, the original strongman of Bancang, had
grown older and tired much more quickly than he’d used to and Anying had delighted in
doing whatever he could to reduce his fathers’ physical workload even as a small child.
As he became increasingly unable to ignore his muscles and joints failing in areas
where they once used to excel Changji also began to realize that his impressive strength
never truly vacated his body but had simply began migrating to his mind. Even as he
aged well into his fifties and beyond Changji was still very much filled with the spirit and
desire to help others. Although not born into wealth or nobility Changji was taught from
an early age that a man can only be measured by what he gives to the world, not what he
collects from it; and as he grew into an older man his increasing wisdom slowly but
surely became more useful to himself and the people of the village than anything he
could do with his aching hands, so he simply began to offer that instead. Much like his
son Anying in taking up his old mantle, Changji began this new journey by aiding in a
quasi-apprentice role the current source of wisdom for the village, his mother Kaihui, the
most honorable and respected of those living in Bancang whose daily life consisted of
instructing the young and old how to live a decent life.
Kaihui was once known for being the most beautiful and graceful young lady in
all of the surrounding lands. It was a village legend that from birth her hair had grown
longer than any before her and shined more magnificently than the starlight enjoyed by
those blessed to be born in areas where artificial lights had yet to pollute them. Her skin
was as white as unadulterated snow and up to the present time remained miraculously
free from blemishes even in her old age and despite her never having been one to shy
away from her fair share of a days’ work. It has been said in the legends told by the elders
of the village to entertain children that her immaculate skin was respected even by the
universally feared hornets that dwelled in the forests nearby. They would say her perfect
skin was acknowledged even by nature in that the hornets refused to sting her even when
she stumbled upon a nest of them while exploring as a child. Ever modest, Kaihui would
always maintain up until her passing that she recalled no such episode. These claims were
then traditionally attacked by the laughing male elders of the village who would then bare
their scars and painful recounts of the rescue mission to the then-delighted children as
evidence of their claims’ validity. The days of these stories being told would eventually
fade away with the men who’d once told them but what remained was an unquestioned
moral authority held by Kaihui over then men and women of the village who’d grown up
listening to them.
As a young boy Liu loved the stories told of the deceased ancestors of his village
as well as the people who held onto them as they worked diligently to provide for their
families. He had always wanted dearly to live a long, honorable life so that one day there
would be legends told of him. Bancang was never a very large nor prominent village in
China and yet it had produced some of the greatest human beings ever to tread on its’
earth. The homes and buildings constructed there were modest and small but filled with
irreplaceable tokens of the rich history written by the lives of the pantheon of great
individuals Liu one day hoped to join.
But unlike his father and older brother, Liu had not grown into a strong,
handsome man and although he was still in his early teens it was quite easy to assume
that he would forever be short, pudgy, and spectacled despite the advice and
encouragement of those around him. While he was growing up Liu’s aunt Jiang Qing,
always well-meaning, would constantly funnel into him grotesque concoctions along with
tips about his exercise and diet that would supposedly produce the statuesque, muscular
physique he desired. Simultaneously skeptical and desperate, Liu would undertake any
absurd venture offered by his aunt to no avail until he eventually became despondent in
regards to his physical appearance altogether. Instead of becoming miserable or envious
as he watched his elder sibling growing into the type of man he wanted to become Liu
taught himself to tell jokes and pull pranks in order to keep his chin up.
One of his classic pranks was getting up before sunrise so he would go undetected
while putting ginseng in a local farmers’ cattle feed which produced a hilariously
destructive effect that ended in a joyous uproar engulfing the entire village, even the
targeted farmer couldn’t contain his laughter farmer once he realized the entirety of the
situation. Although constantly lacking in evidence Changji always knew his youngest son
was the culprit in tomfoolery such as this and was very vocal in his disapproval of Liu’s
extracurricular activities. Anying seemed to be the only one in the village who truly
shared Liu’s sense of humor with his favorite joke being Liu’s practice of playfully
referring to him as “My brother from the fields” in response to one day being ordered by
their father to call in his brother from working in the rice plantation. This joke eventually
became so commonplace between them that Anying wouldn’t recognize his own name
when spoken in his kid brothers’ voice and would actually prefer to be called “My brother
from the fields” by all in order to avoid the confusion. Even though Liu was perceived to
be lazy and troublesome by his father and most others in the village, Anying could see
past Liu’s lack of affection for physical labor and understood that his younger sibling had
a greater appreciation for putting oneself in a position to make others laugh than anyone
else he knew.
In the times after his older brothers’ abduction Liu did not have the time, urge, nor
the proper audience to laugh or joke around. The agents that left with him in tow had
stated before departing that this would be only the first of many evaluations for perceived
inhibitors to the goals of the government and that they would be returning sometime in
the coming months to interview every male inhabitant over ten years old for their
worthiness to continue on living in Mao’s Peoples Republic. Ever since that especially
cold day in the latter half of the winter every family in the village feared for the safety of
their remaining male representatives, especially Liu. Each day various members of his
family and village, always well-meaning, would visit his home and pressure Liu into
changing something small about himself in order to increase his chances of returning
home alive from the evaluations.
Changji had offered to help Liu train so that he would not look as weak as he
normally did when he faced the inspectors and then tearfully withdrew this idea when he
recalled the fate of his eldest son. Liu was told by Jiang to be to sure that he wear his
spectacles when meeting with the agents in order to appear more as an intellectual, and
then he was conversely told by Kaihui to leave them at home that day because she’d
heard rumors that intellectuals would be among those targeted for execution. Aside from
the obvious, several neighbors came by and offered to help Liu with a myriad of fallacies
about himself he’d been unaware of; Liu was told that he needed to work on his speech
which was sometimes muffed by a lack of confidence, that his gait was plagued by
unsure footing, that his skin had blemishes that had gone unexposed and therefore
untreated up until this point, that his posture was resembling of a much more slovenly
individual, that his hair was thinner than the ideal, and lastly that he didn’t want to appear
too nonchalant which was an air that he apparently emanated naturally.
Despite the fact that everyone who offered suggestions did so with the best
possible intent, meaning well, each new issue presented to Liu only helped to push
further into his mind the almost-inevitable truth that he would not return home from the
evaluations. He was obviously too weak to become a soldier or worker, despite the
stigma his glasses brought on he had never had much interest in his schooling and
wouldn’t make it into the top universities, and even his keen sense of humor would do
nothing to impress the stone faced agents he had seen take his brother away. Those men
who seemed to have had all of the lighter human emotions stripped from them by force.
Eventually he panicked and withdrew into a state of complete despair as he accepted the
reality of his position. Changji, Kaihui, and a disgruntled Jiang took over his daily chores
as they dared not disturb Liu while he sat alone in quiet disarray as he maligned his
nearing death and imagined countless scenarios of how he would meet his demise. His
usually robust appetite dwindled until he ate only out of respect for those who’d worked
to provide and prepare his food. He remained among the living dead until he found
inspiration from the most unlikely of sources.
After several weeks of eating only the bare minimum Liu noted by happenstance
that his potbelly had remained completely unchanged instead of shrinking as he assumed
it would. Instead of lamenting this, the humorous spirit within him couldn’t help but to
finally force him to chuckle at his own bodies’ adamant steadfastness. Immediately after
this he was confronted with thoughts of Anying and the great ancestors that had lived
before him. Liu then rose and emerged from the small bedroom he used to share with his
brother for the first time since he’d been dragged away, aside from using the restroom.
Liu went to Changji, who had just awoken from another night of troubled sleep,
and asked in an exhausted voice if he knew when the interviews began. After being told
that the village had received word that the governments’ evaluators would be arriving
within a days time Liu affixed his gaze into his fathers’ downtrodden, welling eyes and
refused to weep because he had never refrained from an opportunity to ease Changji’s
inner pains. Liu asked an obviously crumbling Changji who he should be when he
appeared before the agents. It was a surprise to Changji that he, and not Kaihui, was
presented with this very important question so he closed his eyes and paused for several
moments. After a very deep thought Changji opened his now spilling eyes and told his
last remaining child that he could only ever be himself, which was always more than
enough for him. With this Liu smiled brightly as if he’d been given the greatest of gifts or
told the funniest of jokes. Liu, with the first sense of excitement he’d felt in months,
hurriedly wrote a note that he said was not to be read by anyone but the government
agents when they arrived. He then hugged Changji tightly, told his father that he loved
him and that everything would be alright, and turned toward the front door. Kaihui, who
had heard and seen the entire exchange, continued to remain silent as Liu hugged and
professed his love for her as well before proceeding out of the house.
Just as to be expected for PRC agents, the governments’ evaluators arrived
precisely on time in a large armored vehicle. Strangely similar in height, build, and
demeanor they did not hesitate and were very mechanically efficient in the rounding up
of every male over the age of ten in Bancang, unhindered until they reached Changji’s
home. One of the agents recalled having seen a second son when they took away his first
born and when they discovered Liu was not there they assumed Changji was attempting
to conceal him. When the elderly man presented them with the letter Liu had written they
all took turns reading it and frowning oddly similar frowns until all their expressions once
again matched. After the last agent had a chance to read the letter they uniformly
commanded that Changji lead them to the villages’ rice fields immediately. Curious as to
what this meant and fearful of the repercussions for refusing, Changji led the to the fields.
Although much younger than him, the agents arrogantly pushed past Changji as soon as
they could see the fields, annoyed with the older man’s hobbling was slowing their
calculated pace. Despite his rickety frame Changji could have moved much quicker, but
he chose instead to take the longest path that he knew of to get to the rice fields and to
take up as much time as he could without appearing to stall in order to give his son some
extra time to escape in the likely event Liu had chosen to flee. When the agents reached
what they were meant to see they all froze in unison and the agent who’d been holding
the letter dropped it in disbelief.
Changji pushed between them to see what had stopped them in their tracks and
froze all the same when he saw. On a large rock at their forefront which overlooked the
vast rice fields, lying in the same state of tranquility in which he had once sat, was Liu.
Next to his body was an empty bottle of xiong haung wine, a poisonous beverage
normally served in careful moderation during the Duanwu festivals to remember the poet
Qu Yuan. Ironically, Qu Yuan had been used in PRC government propaganda as a perfect
example of patriotism while they simultaneously refused to recognize the holiday
established in his honor. After standing stunned for a moment Changji, on the verge of
tears, picked up with shaking hands the note Liu had written before his departure. It read
simply, “Sorry I am not here to meet with you, I have gone to retrieve My Brother From
the Fields”. Instead weeping as the agents assumed he would, Changji was overcome
with a fit of laughter, he laughed until tears of joy streamed down his face. The agents
looked to Changji with the utmost concern as it seemed as though he’d been driven
insane by the loss of his final son. Their genuinely confused stares and evenly tilted heads
only furthered the joke and as they walked back to the village with Changji was
snickering like a giddy young child the entire time. The agents chose not to have him
arrested out of pity for his loss and continued on with their evaluations without any
understanding of what was so funny.
According to legends, in the coming times of trouble and famine caused by Mao’s
Great Leap and other government misadventures, Changji was never in bad spirits. When
the Red Guard was rampaging through the country he could only chuckle at the absurdity
of it all. When he faced off with death itself at the funerals of his mother and other
innocent victims of the unnecessary struggle he could only smile. Even when he was
plagued by thoughts of the loss of his first-born son, before grief had the chance to wrap
its icy fingers around his heart once more, Changji would only have to remind himself of
the fate of his second born child and laughter would be the only response he could
muster. When his peers, both young and old, observed his amazing character and ability
to laugh even in the wake of the most horrid of situations they naturally inquired what it
was that kept his smile from succumbing to the evil forces around him. He would then
gather them all around, children the closest of course, and joyfully rattle off the often-
disputed legend of himself and his two sons, Changji the Strong, Anying the Stronger,
and Liu the Strongest.