Down in Flames
Coppell, Texas, USA
Coppell High School
Liwei let his head fall against the mossy wall of the neighboring house as he watched the scene unfold in front of him. The lock-step of soldiers struck the dark cobbles, a bounding rhythm in time to the blood pulsing in his ears. A line of people barricaded the entrance to his home. Shadows obscured their faces, but he knew their figures by heart.
Mama. Baba. Uncle. Old Bingwen.
Fight off the invaders, he thought. Let us come home again.
A retinue broke off from the contingent, and his uncle walked out to meet them. There came an exchange Liwei could not quite hear, followed by his father spitting at the soldiers’ feet.
A rush of pride filled his heart, and he let himself fall into the fantasy he had been building in his mind since Baba had ordered him to escape the city. As long as his family fought with courage, they would win against the enemy. The general would heap medals and honors upon them in Beijing, just like the soldiers he read about in the papers.
Saviors of the village. Heroes of China.
Old Bingwen gave a battle cry and launched himself at the Japanese. His knife raced down in a brutal arc.
A crack echoed in the space, so loud Liwei thought he might have gone deaf from the noise. When the smoke cleared, Bingwen fell back with his hands clasped over a hole in his chest. Mama and Uncle rushed to catch him.
Baba made his own charge, but the soldiers cut him down with ease. His head severed clean from his body, arterial blood splashing against the house. One of the men kicked it to the side.
Nausea roiled in Liwei’s stomach.
A terrible scream echoed through the streets, the bloodcurdling wail of a newly-made widow, the pain of lost love and despair pulsing through the dawn with the strength of a thousand lions. His heart pounded with the same fury, and he braced himself against the wall as his knees went weak.
Mama stabbed at the soldiers, weeping, but they laughed and flung her to the ground. Her dress tore in their grip, exposing the white flesh of her breast.
Liwei averted his eyes.
“Ge-Ge,” his sister whined beside him. “I want to go home.”
He tightened his grip around her arm. “Hush.”
“But I left Mei-Mei on my bed.”
He forced a smile. “Mama has your bear, Qi-Qi. She’ll give it to you once we meet up in Jinshan. Right now, we get to go on an adventure, just the two of us.”
His sister tried to peek around the corner, but Liwei held her tight to his chest.
The scene played out in his mind again. A spurt of mercury-red blood, Baba’s body collapsing like a puppet after a mummer’s show, his head rolling to a stop at Mama’s feet.
Qi-Qi would scream if she saw the bodies. They couldn’t afford to draw attention with the soldiers close by.
“Hey,” he said softly. “Did you hear about how little Hao-An recited the entire San Zi Jing? Everyone in the market was talking about it.”
She folded her arms. “I can do that.”
“Maybe, but he did it with his eyes closed. I bet you can’t come close.”
“I won’t believe you unless you prove it.”
“Well.” Qi-Qi frowned and stared at her feet. “I don’t know all of San Zi Jing, but I’m way better than Hao-An at reciting other stuff.”
“Show me then. I don’t think I could even manage something like that.” Liwei gripped the fabric of his pants to still his trembling hands. “Here, I’ll carry you so you don’t stumble into a wall.”
Qi-Qi clapped her hands with unfettered delight and jumped onto his back. Liwei stumbled under her weight.
“Eyes closed and whisper,” he said. “Otherwise it’s cheating.”
The soldiers marched down the main roads, but Liwei had spent enough time running around the town to know of shortcuts around them. Turning down an alleyway, he gave into the temptation to look back at his home one last time.
Blood trickled from the bodies in a scarlet lattice. Mama laid naked beside them, batting away the soldiers with trembling arms. Flames ate away at the foundation, men laughing as they flicked matches onto the blaze.
Fear wrapped around Liwei’s chest like a python, followed by a deep flush of shame. With Baba and Uncle gone, he was the man of the family. He should protect their homes, fight off the soldiers, and die with honor.
Instead, he bolted in the opposite direction.
“The art of war is of vital importance to the state,” Qi-Qi’s voice rang with the airy solemnity of a child reciting words they did not understand.
Liwei almost jerked his sister into the wall. Polished boots marched around the corner. He held his breath, waiting for them to pass before darting onto the main street.
Could this be war? It was nothing like Sun-Tzu promised.
And what was the state? Was it the party of men who diddled with pens in the capital? Or was it the land around him now, covered in ash and blood?
“It is a matter of life and death, a road either to safety or to ruin.”
Gunshots echoed in the distance, each one a jerk to Liwei’s heart. Screams reverberated through the mud-streaked shops where he used to nab food from the vendor stalls. Madame Chen’s beads spilled from a splintered wicker basket, tiny pieces of glass rolling every which way on the cobblestone. If the war was meant to save the people, why was it slaughtering them instead?
These were the streets Liwei had walked all his life, the places where paper dragons chased lanterns through crowds thicker than honey and firecrackers rained red on children racing with sparklers through the night. Now, the belongings of the houses laid shattered on slick cobbles, and bodies slumped by the doorway, wrapping each other in tender embraces. None of them seemed to be sleeping.
Qi-Qi’s arms tightened around his shoulders. His only thought was to escape, to get away from the soldiers with their dark green uniforms and gut-slick guns, the katanas swinging from their belts like the heads of striking vipers.
Fires burned through the streets, their smoke rising to join the cries of the town. Liwei added his own silent voice to the chorus.
Old Bingwen. Uncle. Baba. Mama.
He saw the scene again—the bloodstain on old work clothes, the blast of the gun against a man’s chest, and the torn fabric of a rough spun dress turning scarlet in the streets.
His feet struck the stone, Qi-Qi warm and firm against his back. In this place of death, she was alive and so was he. It would have to be enough. The taste of iron invaded his senses, weighing on the back of his tongue.
Soldiers flashed between crumbling buildings, but Liwei kept going. He couldn’t afford to think about the hands that had packed the rolls into the embroidered handkerchiefs sitting like anchors in his pockets, the arms that had encircled his shoulders, or the lips that had pressed tearfully against his forehead.
He couldn’t bear to picture them lying before the house where he used to play dice with his uncle, where Qi-Qi’s doodles and his own elegant landscapes were now disappearing under the flames.
No, if he looked back, then he was lost.
“When you penetrate deeply into a country, it is serious ground,” Qi-Qi whispered. “When there is no place of refuge at all, it is desperate ground.”
The smoke cleared as the paved roads of the town gave way to wild salt grass and dog tail weeds tickling at his ankles. Biplanes whirred overhead with the rat-tat of machine guns.
Between the cover of the buildings and a thin copse of trees lay a stretch of empty field, six hundred meters of space where bullets and bombs could rain from overhead.
“So in war, the way is to avoid what is strong and strike at what is weak.”
The Japanese had bypassed the strongholds and hit farmers in the undefended countryside, knowing full well no heroes would come rushing to the rescue.
Perhaps Liwei’s village might have stood a chance back when there was honor in combat. But swords had turned to guns. Conflicts of skill became a competition of who could pack the most firepower into a lumbering barrel. Battle had turned to massacre.
The art of war—he suspected Sun-Tzu had been mocking them with the title. If war was an art, its canvas was painted in the scarlet blood of the people who fell prey to its jaws.
A child’s cap lay by the wayside, the yellow stars stained russet in a mockery of the flag torn down from the post in the center of town. Liwei set his sister down and hugged her to his chest.
Red-orange tongues licked along burning buildings, keeping pace with the scorched clouds stretching across the winter sky. The sun burst across the heavens in a gash of radiant light.
Qi-Qi trembled. “W-When you surround an army, leave an outlet free. Do not press a desperate foe too hard.”
To stay was to burn. To flee was to die. The enemy had left them no escape, and Liwei was tired of running when the end result was the same.
“We’ll be with Mama and Baba soon,” he murmured to Qi-Qi. “It’s going to be alright.”
As the flames roared, Liwei buried his face in his sister’s hair and dreamed of family dinners by the fireside.
The Art of War" builds a world hardened by war but softened by family and warmth, speaking to the lands of fantasy and reality, the spaces that can hold both what we love and what hurts us. Blossoming with tender imagery and suffused with the dialogue of grief, we are brought into a realm where "flames race before [us] like leaping dragons."
Mira Jiang is a student from Coppell, Texas. Her work has been published by Flash Fiction Online, Hobart, the Rising Phoenix Review, and other literary journals and recognized in contests from the Poetry Matters Project and the Geek Partnership Society. She can often be found reading in trees or dancing in the rain.
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