As Good As Real

Lintong is about twenty miles from Xi’an and my father lives six miles outside the town. Out here in the country the farmers wear no watches. Seeing them estimate the hour with their noses in the air, you might think time were a scent spread across the day.

I’ve been back home for a week. During the day my father would leave for long stretches at a time, but after dinner we would walk together along the dirt path that led from our house to the main road and back. Sometimes we’d see one or two farmers squatting next to their crops, smoking. Since mom died I had hoped that my father would speak freely about certain things but he never said two words on these walks. Still, I went with him every evening, until one day my father left the house as soon as we had eaten and was still out when I went to bed.

Hushed voices woke me in the night. I couldn’t tell how many there were but they were men. Then there was a thump. I rolled off the bed onto my bare feet. The frigid floor shocked me to my senses but I left my shoes aside. I needed the element of surprise. I unplugged my table lamp slowly and wrapped the cord around my hand, then I held it upside down and hefted the metal base in the dark.

Suddenly I heard my father cry out. I rushed to the door and threw it open.  Two men I’ve never seen before stood over my father, who was on the floor with an outstretched leg. I raised the lamp and lunged.

“Stop!” My father shouted. He clenched his jaw. The man I almost hit took off his newsboy cap and wiped his brow. I eased off.

“My leg,” my father breathed through his teeth.

I put down the lamp and knelt next to him. With a pair of scissors, my father cut away the pant leg. There was no open wound, just a large bump on the shin over a dark shiny bruise.

“We need to go to the hospital,” I said.

The man with the hat looked to my father and then to the other man.

“We’re going,” I said.

“Wait,” my father panted. “Get Lao Chen.”

I looked at him. He turned to the man with the hat.

“Go,” he raised his voice. The man turned and left through the kitchen door.

I poured my father a glass of water and he took a gulp. Then he asked me to go get the bottle of baijiu from the kitchen cabinet.

“Take this.” He drank from the bottle and then passed it back.

“What the hell happened?” I looked at the dry dirt all over his pants.

Nobody answered. I turned to the man propping him up. The man looked down at our floor.

“Who are you?”

“Take this,” my father said. I stared at him for a moment but he shut his eyes and asked to be laid flat. I wet a towel and cleaned his face.

Counting generations, my father ought to call Lao Chen uncle, but nobody knew anything about Lao Chen’s family. He lived by himself and sometimes sat with the kids in the summer and told them stories from the ancient times. I have only vague memories of him, but one thing I remember was filling up a burlap sack with broken pieces of a plate along with straws, then watching Lao Chen reassemble the plate inside the sack by the feel of his hands. I’ve never seen anything like that before or since.

An hour passed before we heard a knock on the door. Lao Chen walked in first, legs stiff as stilts. He swept the room with his eyes and nodded at us before bending down to examine my father.

“Get him onto the bed.” His voice was a guttural mumble. 

Without a word, my father rolled up his handkerchief and put it in between his teeth. I lowered myself and hung his arm around my neck. The man beside me did the same. We each put an arm around my father’s back and another below his hip. Then the other man circled to the front and lifted my father’s legs.

Once we set him down, Lao Chen moved to the edge of the bed and put his hands over the bruise. He closed his fingers around the bone gently. I could see my father’s jaws clench like a vise. For a moment, Lao Chen took my father’s wrist and felt his pulse. Then he closed his eyes and began to move his hands up the leg, pressing and squeezing, feeling for the fracture in the bone. He took his time repeating this motion. My father rolled his face away from us. The tendons and veins in his neck bulged at moments when he bit down the hardest. At one point, Lao Chen asked me to pull on my father’s foot at the end of the bed. I tugged at it and heard my father groan but Lao Chen ordered me to pull even harder. “Fast!” He shouted, “Again! Again!” until I thought I would rip my father’s leg clean off. But in that moment Lao Chen pressed down on both thumbs with a sharp inward jerk of the bone. My father bucked up. Lao Chen locked down the leg with the weight of his body, his face full of sweat and his knobby fingers like gnarled tree roots around my father’s shin.

My father, besides being an occasional drinker and brawler, was the first person to attend university from our village. It was a matter of public pride yet private disappointment for my grandfather. For generations, the Zhangs of Lintong had been brick makers and brick makers only, so to leave not only the village but also the family trade was in more than one way a betrayal.

A wild teen during the Cultural Revolution, my father earned a few scars on his face. Pushing sixty, he began to sport a pair of thick-framed spectacles fashionable in the 80s. The glasses, the scars, plus the stubble that never seemed to grow nor gray, made his students at the Northwest University of Xi’an twice as wary in his class as in any other.

That life, however, was behind him now. After mom died, he took an early retirement and returned to Lintong. He moved into the house he once abandoned, the house of his father, and grew a beard that mom would’ve hated. The first chance I had I came back to see how he was doing.

The old man has grown gaunt. His shirt hung off his shoulders as though on a coat hanger, but when he squeezed my arm I was surprised by the vigor in his grip and even more by the rough pads of callus that lined his palm.

“A few things have changed around here.” He took me to what was to be my room. I put down my duffel bag. We said goodnight.

 Next morning, we got up early to see the Terracotta Warriors before the tourists arrived. It’s been five years since my last visit. The museum doubled in size, the warriors remained the same. The curator, who was a childhood friend of my father’s, stood me next to a towering warrior while my father snapped a photo.

“You used to only reach here.” The curator pointed at a spot. My father smiled through his beard.

The three of us walked from one pit to the next. The emperor’s soldiers stood row on row, life size, slate gray, varying in head dresses that signified rank and function, ashy with age. When I was little, the curator told me that the warriors were real men frozen by magic and that they rose at night to protect their emperor.

“Look.” He would draw me close. “Eight thousand figures, no two alike.”

I recalled that as I passed a pile of broken clay pieces. The curator glanced at it and shook his head. “Grave robbers. If only they were better at their job.”

We walked around for another half an hour in the great empty mausoleum before it opened to the public. At the exit, we bade the curator goodbye. Then we found a bench outside and sat down in our winter coats.

“How are your studies?” My father lit a cigarette in a hollow fist.

“Fine,” I said. Then, to fill the silence, I began to tell him about Boston. The Common in the summer. The kayaks like water striders on the Charles River. The old crooked bifurcating streets in Harvard Square. “Impossible to drive there,” I said. “The roads are built on cow paths.”

I turned to see if my father would laugh, but he nodded thoughtfully and rubbed his hands. We sat in the cold a while longer.

“What’ve you been doing?” I asked.

“Oh I’ve kept busy.”

I waited but he offered no more. Smoke curled up from my father’s lips, mingled with his breath, and I watched the red glow at the shortening tip.

“Been taking care of yourself?”

“Son,” he laughed. “You’re growing up to be your mother.”

Then he stood up and said, “This time you’re back, I want to show you a few things.”

A week was all I planned to spend here. My flight was in two days and classes were to start the day after I landed. I sat by my father’s bed and called the airline to cancel my ticket. As I spoke to the agent in English, Lao Chen and the two men stood in a corner and listened though I knew they couldn’t understand a thing. I wished they would talk among themselves but the room remained silent except for my own voice. I looked at my father. I felt like a foreigner.

The first time I left Lintong was the year I turned five. My father had secretly bought books to prepare for the national college entrance exam. Whenever my grandfather visited, my father would bury his books in the large ceramic vat under a layer of rice. Once my grandfather was gone, he would shake them out, dust off the rice powder and study beneath the candlelight. My mother, who couldn’t read her own name, stayed up with him every night and embroidered flowers onto our pillowcases.

            When July came, my father made up an excuse to go to Xi’an. He stayed with some cousins and took the exam over two days. As we waited for him on the second day, a magpie perched on our window sill. My mother prophesied that good news was on its way and, sure enough, my father was admitted in the fall.

We left when the farmers were the busiest. My grandfather never came out to say goodbye and my father didn’t look back once in the truck. But by February of the following year, Mom and I were sent back to Lintong because the rent was too expensive in the city. I still remember my mother’s tightly pressed lips as our bus passed by the endless wheat fields. She held my hand in both of hers and looked out the dirt-smeared window. We were the last ones to get off.

Soon, rumors started in the village that my father abandoned us for some harlot in the city. Women stared at my mother in the morning market. Some pitied her, some jeered. More flowers bloomed on our pillowcases. My grandfather never came to see us but sent Uncle Moon to bring us pork once a week.

“Sis, ask him to come back,” Uncle Moon told my mother. “We’re trades people. You have to know where you belong.”

My mother always agreed politely but when I asked her if she would, she said, “You know how birds learn to fly?” I shook my head. “They stretch their wings and fall.” Then she smoothed out her apron with her hands and tugged at my earlobe.

Two years later we moved back to the city for good.

Lao Chen prescribed my father no medicine, just sleep. “Give him chicken broth if he wants food,” he said. Then, after a glance, “and keep him in bed.” I nodded. The two other men left without notice and the house all of a sudden seemed abandoned. I turned on the space heater and put it close to my father’s bed.

“Walk with me,” Lao Chen said. When I looked over to my father, he added, “just to the end of your road.”

It was still early in the morning and not many people were up. The sun was veiled by a layer of clouds that would disperse by noon.

“That leg will take a while to heal,” Lao Chen said when we were half a mile out of the house.

“I’m staying to take care of him.”

“He’s not a very good healer.”

I glanced at him, hobbling with his cane in one hand.

“I’ve set that bone before,” he said. “It’ll take a long time to heal.”

I paused at that. “Mom always said he never broke a bone in his body.”

            Lao Chen moved his jaw like he was chewing.

“That father of yours, your grandma always said he wasn’t the kind of lamp that saved oil.”

I looked at him but he hobbled on.

We walked another half a mile until we reached the main road. Somewhere not too far up was my grandfather’s brickworks. Lao Chen stopped and turned to me.

“Your father’s getting old, kid. He doesn’t want to believe it but he will have to. What he was doing ten years ago, even five years ago, he can’t do that anymore. The work isn’t safe and neither are the people. He needs to quit while he’s still got his health.”

“What has he been doing?” I asked.

Lao Chen looked up the road and I saw him looking.

“At least tell me who those other guys are.”

“They’re not the ones you have to worry about.”

“But tell me who they are.”

Lao Chen sighed.

“They’re not from here.”

When I got back I checked on my father. I looked at his bushy beard and tried to imagine him as a kid. He once said I was much quieter than he was. I guess we went opposite ways.

I left a glass of water by his bed then went to his office. This was the room where Mom and he first lived as newlyweds before they could afford their own place. Now it’s full of history books. I bent my neck and read the titles. The Twenty-Four Histories, a guide to coin collecting, and various biographies of Mao. I pulled open the desk drawers but one was locked. In the drawer on the opposite side I found two keys on a ring, one big and one small.

The locked drawer contained photographs. Some were black and white and undated, some were in colour with handwritten labels on the back, and the more recent ones were paper printouts with a digital file name across the top. I found a photo of me as a kid standing next to a kneeling clay archer, the top of my head barely above the man’s shoulder. Then I found photos from the other visits we made over the years. I remember riding on my father’s shoulders when the museum got too crowded. He would wade through the tourists to the new excavations and put me down next to them while he fiddled with his camera.

As I reached deeper into the drawer, I pulled out the photo of me from a week ago. I stood almost as tall as the warrior and my sombre features made a strange sight next to all my younger selves. Beneath my picture there was an envelope of other photos. I shook them out and felt their weight on my palm. I thought these would be my father’s photos with his colleagues and I might find some hints about those two men, but they contained no people. They were all zoomed-in shots of the terracotta warriors’ pupil-less eyes, downturned mouths, or broad foreheads. I riffled through them. There must have been two dozen shots. I took a closer look into the drawer: similar envelopes lined the bottom. One by one, I emptied them and fanned the pictures in my hands. They were all close-ups of terracotta warriors, and almost all of them had detailed measurements and prices scribbled on the side.

I returned the photos to the drawer and sat back in my father’s chair.

Even as a kid, I knew my father lied about getting that scholarship when he brought us back to Xi’an. He had rented an apartment just outside of the city wall and it even came with a hot water shower. My mother seemed oblivious though I am no longer sure she was.

Over the years, I wondered about how my father afforded the apartment. One rumour I heard was that he made friends with the bureau chief of light industry in Xi’an – how, I couldn’t imagine – and managed to skim surplus leather coats off army-ordered shipments. The man who told me the story said he and my father used to strap boxes of these coats onto the underside of flatbeds and smuggle them from Harbin into Siberia. For every ten Russians you meet, he said as he spat on the ground, Nine will try to cheat you. Uncle Moon said the man is a storyteller and even if my father would do such a thing he would never do it with a bigmouth like that. 

Another rumour was that my father joined a group of counterfeiters from Henan. They collected empty bottles of high-end liquors, mixed a lower-grade substitute with their bathtub formula and distributed the counterfeits through independent local vendors. I heard this from my mother’s cousin when she came to visit. She asked if there was a spot for her husband.

There was a third rumour. It involved a woman. I am not fond of that rumour and will not tell it here but I won’t deny its possibility. There was a time when my father would leave for long walks after dinner and come home well after I’d fallen asleep. That made me suspicious. But perhaps they were only walks and it was the rumour that put the seeds of suspicion in my mind. In any case, none of it was ever confirmed. My father graduated, found a teaching job, and saved up enough money to send me overseas for college.

I stared at the drawer full of photos and tried not to think too much. I tried to just keep my mind on one thing at a time. To breathe, then pause, then consider. But my synapses were going off like a string of fire crackers. I took a swig of the baijiu. It calmed me a little. As I felt its stinging warmth slithering down to the pit of my stomach, I knew there was really only one thing to do. I put on my jacket and grabbed the keys I found.

I’ve only ever been to the brickworks once when I was a kid. My cousin and I lit a small pile of newspaper in a ring of bricks to melt a penny. It didn’t work. Uncle Moon found us there alone with a fire and slapped both of our heads. Later, after my grandfather died, there was talk of selling the land but I guess nobody did. Tourists poured in and Lintong grew towards the other direction. Once in the middle of the town, my grandfather’s house now sits alone on the outskirt and the dirt road to the old brickworks hasn’t been used in years, if not decades. So when I saw the fresh wagon tracks on the ground I halted. A bird chirped in a nearby tree. I clenched my fists in my pockets and climbed up the slope.

The gate was dusty and cobwebbed but the lock was wiped clean, the shackle wide open.  There were a dozen coffin-size boxes standing against the brick wall. They looked roughly made but sturdy. On the ground were three such boxes filled with straw. One of them was nailed shut. Two hammers lay aside as though the workers dropped them in mid-swing. On the far side of the smithy stood my real concern: eight terracotta warriors, backs against the wall. I made my way over. Despite my visits to the museum I have never been so close to one of these before. I studied their eyes, cheeks, mouths, beards. I blew dust off their nose tips and wondered childishly if these men once lived.

The eight warriors peered past me across the drying yard. I couldn’t recall what the place looked like before but nothing here reminded me of it. Everything changed. More than that, things changed so long ago that even the changes bore the sepia of time. One layer of history folded over another as the years coiled. I rubbed my hands and looked around like a thief. Just beyond the old well, where my father probably fell, there was a shattered clay figure next to a fallen dolly. I could make out the fragments that still bore an eye, an ear, part of a foot. They looked like shingles discarded from a roof.

I was shocked and ashamed. There was no other way to put it. How many of these did he smuggle and sell? Worse yet, what did that money buy? Our entire life in Xi’an. The private hospital room my mother stayed in. My education. I was ashamed of all of it now. I thought of the elegant service at my mother’s funeral and the white marble headstone on her grave, then I looked again at the shattered terracotta.

There was nothing to do but bow my head and stare at the eight pairs of clay feet in front of me. I touched my finger to a stiff gray half-fist that once held a sword or spear and what I felt petrified me.

The fist was warm.

I stood still for a moment then grabbed the clay wrist. I felt a pulse. My hand snapped away like a tape measure and I stumbled back as a gush of cold air hit my lungs. My hands cupped over my mouth and I exhaled into them. It took me a moment to realize that the pulse I felt was really my own coming through my thumb. But the warmth? I reached out and put my fingers around the warrior’s fist again. The warmth was real. It seeped out of the clay as I shivered in the cold.

A noise from behind turned me around. The two men who left my house were leaning on a pile of bricks just a few yards away. My elbow slammed into the clay figure’s forearm and one of the men almost jumped up. “Careful!” he cried. The other man’s eyes darted to him and then to me. I turned to the arm. It was all right. Then I turned back to the men and did not know what to say.

After a while, the first man licked his chapped lips. “Come into the kiln. You’ll freeze out here.” They both stood up and stared at me, then they turned with hunched shoulders and jackets pushed high up the neck and disappeared behind the pile of bricks.

There was a covered entrance to a brick cave. It was warm and dry inside. One of the men shook out three cigarettes and extended one to me. He lit a match, we huddled and leaned in, then we all took a seat close to one another. The sun was out now. Light poured in through the entrance and a few slits along the arched ceiling. I squinted at the very back of the kiln and made out silhouettes of two more clay figures. The man who nearly jumped up said, “we just fired up that batch last night.”

I looked at him. He was younger than the other man but older than I had thought. The smoke from his cigarette curled up from where it dangled and the corners of my mouth curled with the smoke. I looked down and shook my head.

“It was warm,” I said. “I thought –”

“I know,” he chuckled. Then they both laughed and the sound echoed inside the shadowy recess.

We drew on our cigarettes. Wisps of smoke hung in silence as I considered how to ask these men about my father. But before I opened my mouth, the older man stood up. “We still have work to do.”

The two men dusted their pants and left the kiln.

“Who are you guys?” I followed.

“Grave robbers.” The older man fixed me with his eyes.

I looked over the pile of bricks at the eight warriors standing in the cold.

“That’s what we tell the buyers.” The younger man gave me a smile. “What we make is as good as real.”

So this is how the warriors are made: You take a hunk of red clay. You hoist it over your head and smash it down on a wooden board. You pound it with your fists. You square your feet and you swing at it. When you are tired you slide the board down to the ground and you pound the clay with your knees. You pound it flat and you fold it in two. Then you pound it again with your fists and elbows and knees and heels. You hit it with all you’ve got until it’s soft. Then you tear it into pieces and knead them with your palms. You kneel on the ground so you can lean in with your weight. You put yourself into it, press the heels of your palms hard into the clay to work out its lumps and knots, its roughness and frailties. Then you roll each piece into a strip and you build the body of a warrior. Replicas can be made in molds, but to make an original you must coil the strips of clay one layer on top of another so your inconsistencies become their uniqueness. You coil and smear, coil and mold, coil and wait. You let the clay dry so it can hold more weight. You let time do its work so you can do yours. And sometimes you have to mend and pray. Sometimes the prayers don’t work. 

I worked with the two men for fifteen days. Every couple of hours one of us would run back to the house to check on my father. At mealtimes we took turns to cook. I pushed and pulled through the days like a crosscut saw. I woke up sore, went to bed sore. My knuckles were raw from beating the clay and there was dirt under my nails that I no longer cared to clean. We worked long hours, then longer hours still when the men saw that I could be trusted to do the coiling alone. Then they began to sculpt. Clay shavings fell by the warrior’s feet. Slivers and curlicues. Their knives drew long smooth arcs like the wingtips of a swallow, carving out folds and creases in the warrior’s tunic. The sharpened ends fluted the clay for the square scales of the armour and then embossed the rivets on each scale. I kept on pounding and folding and rolling and, one day, when I climbed onto the folding ladder to lay yet another strip, my father stood by the door.

“You should sit.” I walked over to help.

He let me put a hand under his arm but did not remove his eyes from the warrior.

“You figured out the center of gravity.”

“It took a few tries.”

“It took me a year.”

I wondered which year.

One of the men brought my father a stool but he insisted on standing. He reached into the inside pocket of his coat and took out his cigarettes.

“Go ahead.” He offered me one.

“Mom would kill you if she saw this.”

“She had forgiven me for worse.”

My father gripped his crutches and turned around. He limped past the kiln to the well and sat down on the edge.

“You know,” he said. “Your great-grandfather used to bring your uncle and me here.”

I sat down next to him.

“This kiln made a thousand bricks at a time. Five days to dry the raw clay batch, then another five to fire them. It was unbearable in the summer. But the worst was the glazing. You had to wait until the chimney glowed red, then you sealed the kiln and soaked the top once every hour, day and night.”

His eyes shot to the dome and then swept across the brickworks.

“I hated it,” he said. “I didn’t want to be a brick maker and I didn’t want you to be a brick maker.”

I rubbed my fingers. Dry clay cracked where my knuckles bent.

He looked at me. For a moment, I thought he was going to say something, but instead he turned to the crack in the gate through which you could see the thick knotty trunk of a persimmon tree by the road.

A bird kicked off into the wintry air. The last remaining leaves careened from the top and fell by the roots, but the bright orange fruits will hang on the branches long into the winter.