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.
December 13, 1937
There was nothing peculiar about that day: the biting frost cloaked withering blades of grass and the trees cast eerie shadows in the light of the fading sun. Shivering, I shut the window to escape the late-night breeze and retreated to my candle lit desk. Bundled in my blanket of red patchwork squares, I sank into my chair. Homework awaited.
"Mailin, dinner's ready!" Mother called.
"Wait!" I groaned, leafing through a chunk of unannotated pages.
"Now! Your food is getting cold!"
Sighing, I reluctantly rolled out of my warm sanctuary and tumbled across the hallway, braids bouncing upon my shoulders.
In the kitchen, my father, fashioning a straw hat and grimmy clothes, sat with my younger brother, who slouched on a chair picking his nose; my mother, an elegant lady with perfect crescent eyes and pearl-rose skin, passed out the chopsticks. On the table sat bowls of steaming rice, strips of leftover Cantonese sausages and shining boiled eggs. It wasn't much, but it was all my parents could afford.
Nonetheless, we were happy.
"How was your day, Mailin?" my father inquired with a smile as he scooped a ball of rice into his mouth. After a long day at work, he sought refuge in the stories I would tell about what I learned at school, a privilege he was never able to experience.
As I ate, I described the hilarious skit in Drama in which I played a millionaire businessman, the exhausting lecture in Calculus about concepts I couldn't entirely grasp and finally the astounding documentary in History about Zheng He's magical ships.
Mid-sentence, I was rudely interrupted by the doorbell.
"Do we have guests coming over?" Mother asked.
"We'll see…" Father replied as he rose from the table. "Hold on, I want to hear the rest in a sec." He held up a finger and walked around the corner.
The door creaked open. "Hello, sir. Can I help you? Yes of course, we have plenty. Come in." A period of shuffling followed and, later, a few heavy footsteps.
Were they coming?
I jumped. What was that?
A ringing echoed in my ears and the color left my face as a pool of blood crept across the white-tiled floor and a straw hat fluttered to the ground seconds before Mother shoved my brother and I out the back door.
And that was how I lost them all.
* * *
For nearly two months, Japanese soldiers terrorized Nanjing and its residents: burning down houses, torturing thousands and killing everyone in sight. Deemed "recreational practice targets," the Chinese were trapped in the jaws of hell.
* * *
December 25, 1937
To Nai Nai and Yé Yé's house we fled, tripping over our feet in panic. We arrived only to find nothing but a single, bloody handprint on the white-plastered wall.
There, we huddled around a hand-cranked radio from which we first heard about the Nanjing Safety Zone miles away— a demilitarized base where foreign missionaries provided refuge for the Chinese. Some described it as a gift from heaven while others, a temporary solution of peace. Nonetheless, it was great news.
Brother gave me a crooked smile as if he wanted to say, "We're going to be OK," but that flare of hope couldn't ease my wandering mind. Dad was dead. My grandparents were dead. Mother would probably soon die of grief, too. What if I lost Brother too?
Even worse, the little food we managed scour from an abandoned market ran dangerously low. As Brother gnawed on the last jerky stick, my throat, already two days without water, was parched. Meanwhile, Mother simply stared into empty space.
"Ma, we need to go. The soldiers are changing shifts. Now is the time."
It took a while of convincing, but she relented, knowing that this "heaven" offered the greatest chance of survival even if reaching it would be like tip-toeing on landmines.
With tears brimming her eyes, she cupped my face and whispered
"I trust you, Mailin. Take us home."