My grandmother is eight years old when she sees her birthmother’s ovaries bleed into a wooden bucket. She hears moaning. Melting. Something godless as the blood pours like congealed tea from a flask.
Forty hours later, the light unfastens tenderly from her birthmother’s eyes.
Months after her birth, my grandmother is sold to a family with food and a stillborn daughter. They live on the other side of the mountains, away from Chongqing, away from the war. They will love a ghost. Clothe her. Feed her. She will swipe scraps in the dark, find a way to send them back to her five blood siblings.
The family with food is a textile tycoon. It yawns, rich from the blood of others. Before her eyes know to lower, her voice to cool, my grandmother asks where the swollen lilies are born. Her milk mother holds her like a glass doll. Cotton is a dream, my angel. Never question the mother of dreams.
It is December 13, 1937, a day as timeworn as bloodless winter light. My grandmother is beginning to forget the shape of her birthmother’s voice when they descend: the Japanese, their gun-licked fingers, their salt-smoked lips.
Three hundred thousand Chinese will sprinkle these streets. Unborn children glued to the tips of bayonets. Bodies in the dust. Most are women with bellies sliced open like flayed salmon, purple-bruised legs splayed out in invitation.
My grandmother’s milk mother leaves her textile factory in Jiangsu hours before the Rape of Nanjing, only to die weeks later of the influenza. My grandmother will call it the miracle that knifed her in the heart.
At seven years old, my grandmother leaves the empty house of textiles. With a cotton bag of prayers and morsels, she walks three hundred li through the remains of the Sichuan countryside. One hundred miles through a world of feral fear. All around her are volcanoes of upturned dirt, frosted shells of peasants, broken faith. Sometimes she kisses her hands to the dusty fields so her tears can sting the earth.
After two suns and moons pass, a mountain ridge creeps toward her with no beginning or end. She sees a dip down the middle, a gorgeous wound. A memory surfaces: her milk mother’s warning. Bandits roam the place where the mountain sinks.
But the pangs of hunger cut her, devour her, become her. Her bamboo sandals carve rivers of blood on the soles of her feet as she runs. Ascends. Presses on. Dusk swallows the luster of the day. She persists. Sweat licks her cotton bag, the spaces where her face meets hair. Her eyes shudder, but she forces them open. Pretends they are orbs of fire. Soon the sun drips scarlet blood on the canvas of the sky.
A year after my grandmother returns to her homeland, her birthmother bleeds endlessly. My grandmother learns to pack, then unpack a box of ice around her heart. Allows an ugly hunger to become the pulse of her life.
Eventually her eldest sister embraces Chairman Mao, and the five blood siblings are fed well and taught the ways of the world. They spring fire from wet matches. Attend Chongqing University. The Japanese exchange students and professors inflame my grandmother at first, but on a fateful day of downpour, she slips in a pool of mud. A tender hand stretches before her eyes. She holds it. She will never let go of the professor who shows her that a nation does not define its people, that forgiveness is the only weapon that can end war.
In 1967, my grandmother flees a Chongqing ruptured by opposition factions within Chairman Mao’s paramilitary. Eight One Five captures the northern bank of the Jialing River, while Opposition Until Death sticks guns through the southern cherry laurels of Chongqing University. My grandmother wraps her daughter in her arms. Scales the mountain behind the University. Eight One Five’s bullets sail toward their fading bodies. She is breathless. Boneless. Pockets of earth erupt inches away. In her mind, she is again on the mountain of her youth. That gorgeous wound. She is drinking the story of her blood, cresting the mountain to the place where the sun will rise.