Disclaimer: While characters are purely fictional, events described are based on surviving witness testimonies recounting the Nanjing Massacre that plagued China from December 1937 to January 1938. Viewer discretion is advised.
Read part one here.
December 26, 1937
We embarked at midnight, silent as shadows. Devoid of the usual sound of squabbling winter birds, the streets were sinisterly still. The light snow seemed to veil the reality that tormented Nanjing, but as we neared the main street of ZhongHua, the sight ahead made me almost welcome death.
Corpses sprawled on both sides of the road. To the left, a myriad of limbs, torsos, and heads lay scrambled like eggs in a pool of dark liquid. To the right, a large rectangular pit, freshly dug, overflowed with Chinese men, some with slashed throats and others with gutted bellies. A horrid odor wafted toward us as if it hungered for our souls.
My mother shielded my brother with her cloak and hurried forward. At first, the journey was calm— not a soldier in sight. Bullet casings littered pavement, and further along, I managed to scrap a loaded pistol, which I hid inside my patchwork jacket: my last resort.
Suddenly, laughter, more like chants scattered with punctured screams, emerged from the trees. My brother and I exchanged a nervous glance. We neared a circular ring of torches at the bottom of a small ditch. From above, we crouched behind a bush and watched.
Japanese soldiers, perhaps 20, sneered at a row of Chinese prisoners, stripped naked and tied to a wooden rack from their feet like pigs in a supermarket. Arms bound, an old man squirmed as a vein bulged from his temple; a middle-aged woman cried desperately for her child, who hung next to her, motionless.
"Kill and count! Kill and count!" a sergeant ordered and raised his fist. The soldiers laughed boldly.
"You're up, shorty."
A lanky boy in black was pushed forward. He hesitated and shrank into his uniform, shaking like a leaf. He was young, at most 20. I couldn't help but feel the slightest twinge of sympathy for the soldier.
"Hurry up!" the Sergeant barked. The boy charged, only to stop halfway as tears leaked from his eyes. Before he could turn, the Sergeant kicked the soldier's back, plunging the bayonet into the woman's stomach. The boy gasped in horror as she screamed bloody murder. Red spilled down her chest. Within seconds, she was an empty shell, drained.
Mother seized up and lost her footing on the rocky outcrop. She scrambled, nails digging into soil; I reached out to clasp her hand, only for it to slip away as she tumbled into the ditch.
"Ma—!" I slapped a hand over Brother's mouth and pulled him further behind the bush.
"What do we have here?" the Sergeant remarked, slightly surprised by the unexpected visitor, but more so delighted. Mother said nothing and crouched in the dirt.
"Ah, beautiful gu niang," he praised, yanking the cloak from around her shoulders. "Milky skin, ebony hair, silky lips, you could be of great use." He palmed her chin and examined her complexion.
"But right now," he whispered, leaning in, "You know what's more beautiful?"
Mother looked blankly.
"Bright, red blood."
A final scream was the last we heard of Mother as Brother and I fled for our lives.
* * *
December 31, 1937
Days later, the Safety Zone was still out of reach, but we were close: its chain-linked fence just peaked the enclave of pines.
Outside the meat shop where we slept, Japanese soldiers patrolled the streets like hawks. Tonight, however, the world held its breath.
There was something about the night, the way the shadows danced across the buildings, or maybe it was the moon, a silver globe, once so pure, now tainted by the atrocities I witnessed. The air was calm, yet my mind was a warzone.
The memories buried within my darkest corners resurfaced like a raging fire: the feeling of the crisp autumn wind, the hums of my favorite song, the rush of Mother's brush through my hair, the warmth of Nai Nai's smile, the love of Yé Yé's enveloping hug, and the sound of Father's beating heart.
I leaned toward the glass, eyes blurred with salty tears. I had lost too much. There was no one left to love me, to comfort me, to miss me when I'm gone. I had nothing but decaying corpses, a diseased mind, and one final resort.
I reached within my coat and felt the sleek, cool metal. The pistol— sweet poison.
What was there to live for? The world, engulfed in chaos, held nothing of my liking. I raised my glistening cheeks toward to sky with a prayer for guidance, but when the clouds moved to cloak the moon, I took that as my final answer. My future was black.
With a click of the safety trigger, I brought the gun up to my temple. "I'm sorry. I couldn't make it," I whispered and tightened my grip. As I bid farewell, something caught my breath: a brief vision enough to bring me to my knees.
Brother, a bundle of joy, was a light to the family. I remembered when we splashed in the creek catching tadpoles and devoured mango popsicles only to leave them dangling from our tongues. He was always there in the past; he would always be here in the present, but this time, alone.
It was almost cruel how fate seemed to work: selfishness only brought sorrow; love only loneliness; death only life.
The gun trembled, and I furrowed my brow as heavy sobs burst from my chest. Tears splattered onto the floor below, casting reflected orbs of silver moonlight.
"Mailin?"I whirled around to see Brother, so fragile, so small; there was no chance of his survival here without me. His hair matted with dirt, his ribs protruding from underneath his sweatshirt, and his spirit crushed by the Japanese filled me with a surge of emotions. I wrapped him in a tight hug and let the tears spill. I put the gun down, and, as if to retrieve my broken halo, I made up my mind: I had one thing left to live for. Him.