Robert awoke choking. His rib cage ached. He thought he might have lost a limb in the fight. He made an effort to lift his arms and discovered with relief that he still had them. He stared at his hands and wiggled his fingers to see if they worked. Then he saw his bare feet. He wondered where his boots were.
“Ayaou,” he called. There was no answer. Was she dead? A crushing depression threatened to sink him. It was his fault. If it hadn't been for him, she would have been safe in Shanghai. How could he live with himself? Maybe he should find a way to take his life and end it now.
“Don't be stupid,” he told himself. “Wait until you know the facts.”
The underside of a dry, straw roof greeted him. A narrow, low opening appeared to his right and moonlight leaked into the place. It looked like he was in a peasant’s hut. Was he a prisoner?
There were dry rustling sounds of mice and rats inside the straw walls of the hut. From outside came the noise of frogs and crickets, which told Robert there were no people close by, or the insects would have been quiet.
He rolled onto his side and gasped. A burning pain raced the length of his ribs. He still managed to prop himself up on one elbow. His right arm was strapped to his body, so he used his left to explore. He touched a rag that was wrapped around the top of his head. There were several bowls filled with water in reach. He picked one up and sipped the water and relished it as it trickled down his parched throat. He coughed and closed his eyes. He felt weak. His flesh burned. To quench the fever he poured a bowl of water over his head.
* * * *
The next time he opened his eyes Ayaou was sitting beside him.
“Oh, merciful Buddha,” she said, and smiled with happy tears in her eyes. She held out an egg. “You’ve lost weight. I’m going to open this raw egg and pour it into you. I’ve also got apples, some peaches and tomatoes, and a few squash I took from the fields.”
“Are the Taipings letting you cook? They didn’t strike me as the type.”
“We can’t cook because the Taipings might see the smoke and discover us.”
“So, we’re not prisoners.” That was a relief. “How close to Sungkiang are we?” he asked.
Robert opened his mouth. She poured the raw, slimy egg in. He gagged but swallowed anyway. She used his dagger to cut an apple into slices and fed them to him one at a time. Energy started to trickle back. “How long have we been here?” he asked.
“Several days,” she said in a rush of pent up words, “and you were unconscious with a fever. You talked in your sleep. I couldn’t understand what you said, and I’m worried that Ward will find us.”
“Not to worry,” Robert replied. “Ward will think we’re dead. He might be dead, and if he isn’t, the Tapings are more dangerous right now.”
She lifted the Colt. “It’s loaded. If any Taipings find us, I’ll take care of them.” She pointed toward a dark corner. “And I saved your rifle.”
He saw it in the corner next to his boots.
She lifted his head onto her lap. “You fought like a demon,” she smiled, “until one Taiping jumped on your back and hit you on the side of your head with a rock. I thought he killed you. There was so much blood. I emptied the pistol into them. The ones I didn’t shoot ran. Then I dragged you away before they returned. I remembered what you said about the gully. Later I paid a peasant to let me use his donkey. We were fortunate the owner of this hut had fled. We have no money left.”
Robert felt his pockets and discovered they were empty. She could’ve robbed him and saved herself. Instead she risked her life for him. A lump of gratitude mixed with love gathered in his throat. Ayaou’s loyalty touched him deeply. He valued loyalty and hard work above all else.
Her eyes filled with tears. “Buddha has been with us,” she said. There was a moment of stunned silence when they saw the tears on both their faces. Then they laughed. It felt good to be alive. He lifted his good arm and slipped it around her. He wanted to know that she was not a dream. He wanted to hold her, because it anchored him in this world that he almost left.
“Are you a Buddhist?” Robert asked.
“Why would you ask that?”
“Because that’s the second time I’ve heard you mention his name.”
“Oh.” She laughed. “I don’t think I’m a Buddhist. It’s just something we say when there is trouble. We are always willing to be helped by Buddha when we need him. My father took us on pilgrimage to the Pootoo Islands off the coast of Ningpo. Once we went on the annual pilgrimage to Miaofengshan in the north. I remember thousands of pilgrims, old and young, men and women, on the trail carrying sticks and yellow bags. We traveled day and night to reach the sacred temple. What I remember most was the vegetarian meals the monks served. After my mother died, we stopped going.”
It was quiet for a moment, as they felt sad for the loss of her mother. Robert spoke first. “I want you to discover what happened to Ward and his army.”
She hesitated. “But I don’t want to leave.”
“Go early in the morning while it is still dark. Before we return to Shanghai, I have to know what happened.”
* * * *
After Ayaou left, the days dragged. Robert rested the revolver on his stomach and dozed. It was hot and stuffy inside that hut. It was difficult to sleep. A jar of water sat on his right side, and the food was on his left. Flies crawled on the leaves Ayaou had used to cover the food.
He pried back the makeshift bandages Ayaou had made and discovered that the sword wound down his side had not been deep. She’d packed the wound with what looked like spider webs and ground pepper. There was no sign of infection. He was healing.
Idle thoughts led him to realize he hadn’t attended a church service since leaving Ningpo. The minister from the Church of England, who Robert had trusted with his Belfast sins, would ask questions. Since Robert had confided in the man, what was he to say about his life now? Was he to tell this minister that he’d fallen overboard and was drowning in adulterous sin with a woman the minister considered a savage because she wasn’t a Christian? No, Robert couldn’t imagine himself sharing intimate information like that with any man of his kind.
* * * *
Ayaou returned early in the night. She knelt beside Robert and felt his head and the back of his neck. Her touch woke him. She said, “You aren’t eating enough. That worries me.” She went to the rice paddies where she caught several frogs. Back in the hut she pulled off their heads and skinned them. After sprinkling salt on the raw meat, she told him to eat.
“I don’t eat raw meat,” he said in protest, “and not a bloody frog that looks like a small human with four limbs.”
“But I insist. You have to get well by eating, because I can’t carry you to Shanghai. I’ve caught mice too. Mice are a Chinese delicacy—delicious.”
Oh god, Robert thought, I’m going to retch. She couldn’t seriously expect him to eat raw mice. “Tell me what you heard about Ward.” Robert tried to avoid watching Ayaou spitting out mice bones. He wondered if he could still kiss her after seeing her do that.
“It was easy,” she said. “Everyone in Shanghai was talking about it. When the survivors from Ward’s army reached Shanghai, they collected their pay and deserted. Ward survived without a wound. He has vowed revenge against the Taipings and is recruiting a second army. His posters are everywhere.”
This wasn’t what Robert wanted to hear. “Help me get outside,” he said, and struggled to stand. “I have to do something to get my strength back. When we reach Shanghai, I want to confront Ward.” He didn’t have much hope of defeating the mercenary general. Now that Robert had Ayaou, he wasn’t going to let her go. He’d die first.
It was cool and shadowy in the straw hut the next day, and Ayaou slept beside him. Robert couldn’t sleep, so he watched the peasants working the rice paddies like others had done for centuries—maybe for millennia. In the distance a waterwheel moved water from a stream or canal into the fields.
A man wearing a high, cone-shaped bamboo hat was turning the wheel with his legs. He sat high on top of the water wheel as if it were a unicycle. The wheel was made of rectangular buckets, which scooped the water out of the stream to lift over the dike and dump into the rice paddy. Robert watched the way the light reflected off the man’s muscular, bare legs as he turned the pedals.
China had been preserved like one of those thousand-year-old eggs he’d refused to eat soon after arriving in Hong Kong. The printing press, the crossbow and gunpowder had been invented here centuries before they appeared in Europe, but China had never used them like Europe had.
Robert had always thought of farmers as honest, hardworking people that lived simple lives. Because of the simplicity of what he was watching take place outside the hut, he wanted to capture the scene in a painting so he could preserve it.
Robert pondered the possibility of Ayaou and he taking up such a life but of course life wasn’t that easy. However poor or powerful you were, tragedy and hardships had a way of finding you.
A poem he’d read by the eighteenth century Chinese poet Yuan Mei came to mind:
On the Road to T’ien-T-Ai
Wrapped, surrounded by ten thousand mountains
Cut off, no place to go—
Until you’re here, there is no way to get here.
Once you’re here, there is no way to go.
Robert wondered if he had any place to go—if his life was about to end before it had a chance to begin.