If you take a wander up through the hilly regions north of Binzhou, you will find some stretches of very beautiful landscape. They feature in no guidebooks, though that’s not a matter of mystery or concealment; the place just isn’t thought noteworthy or accessible enough. Soft, lilting hills mottled with violet flowers, fruits. But there is nothing very specific to see. Maybe loveliness in a place like that is augmented by being so comfortable, so under control. You wouldn’t feel you could take someone there on purpose, not unless they understood the necessity for understatement.
The people there are straightforward and kind, and, come to think of it, I saw no beggars, nor was haggling the practice; I lost the usual bitter taste of being slightly cheated. Most women wear traditional pins in their hair, and sometimes the fronts of houses have mosaics in blue and green, made from a matte pretty stone. They speak an impenetrable dialect and have the vaguest ideas about Beijing and Shanghai, and there are hours of scenery (neither spoilt nor quite memorable) where you can pretend, if you like, that you are some kind of Victorian tea merchant or a Tang literatus, exiled to the periphery, to the silence. The life expectancy is not high, I would imagine, and infrastructure is minimal, but it seems to me the locals are quite happy despite it all. I know that’s wishful thinking, but wishful thoughts aren’t less real on account of that.
On my fifth day walking, about 100 kilometers to the north of the county seat, I started out too early and felt exhausted around noon. I passed no settlement, and began to look for a place to rest. My back was aching and the little roadside patches, edged with wildly modest flowers, began to look pretty inviting. Preoccupied with my own problems—the dramas I was trying to walk my way out of—I had barely noticed that the mandarin orange trees had been gradually yielding to whole orchards of peaches. An old woman, two basketsful yoked across her back, refused to sell me one. “I’ll sell them in the city. Pick one yourself! They’re not worth money here, look at them all.”
“Don’t they belong to someone? The fruit company?”
“Nonsense!” she laughed ferociously. “Don’t be a child! Pick one.”
So I picked one, dispatched it in a gobble and a half, and felt only the hungrier. I picked another, and finally sat down. I don’t even remember actually collapsing; there was still a meaty morsel of peach in my cheek when I awoke. The feeling of rising was accompanied by an odd sense of ambition, of entrustment. But this evaporated as soon as I answered the impulse of I must go with the questions where, why and to do what? Still, even as my mission, my sense of election, disappeared, I felt a new lightness and limberness in all my joints. Looking at the sky, I saw that it was late, and I realised—tardily, as usual—that I ought to be concerned. I had climbed considerably in elevation over the last few days, and temperatures were cold overnight. Of course I hadn’t brought a sleeping bag, and if I couldn’t get to somewhere with walls soon I would have an unpleasant night of it.
“Are you a new one?” asked a child, who passed by, not waiting for an answer. But then again, mountain dialects are bizarre. Perhaps “new one” simply meant “outsider”?
“I sure am. Green behind the ears! New as these peaches,” I said, picking another one.
“Welcome!” answered the child, turning back without breaking her stride.
“Are there houses up ahead?”
The child said there were, and I believed her. But how far ahead?
Before long, the sunlight began to soften and fail and mold the hilltops, and an evening scent, almost of honey, arose from the roadside groves. Somehow, I could not maintain my anxiety, and it faltered. Instead, I was amused by little, pointless things: a snail I saw hanging coyly on a fern, lines of ants carrying off proportionately enormous chunks of rotten fruit. Just as I was trying to be serious and consider how I might really construct some kind of shelter from moss and fronds, a small house came into view, nestled on a gentle slope among the trees. There was no sign up, but I supposed that I could get directions from the proprietors or else beg some kind of lodgings.
My hail-stranger shouts were answered by an old man who, looking me over from the doorway, neither spat nor grunted, but simply ushered me inside. He was gruff and emphatic, if not very verbal—but the principal thing was that he had some rice ready, and some cold stewed leaves which might have been spinach, though bearing a kind of purple hue. He watched me eat and at length I deciphered commentary on my chopstick skills and on the excellence of his food. I must say that his dialect seemed to have kept its retroflex stops separate from its affricates, and I felt a distant revolutionary excitement, like the sound of a battle three counties away, because the region (like most others in China) generally merged the two in the Middle Ages. I began on my usual train of speculation, of people to ask and papers to write, before I could stop myself, remind myself that this was over and done with. I was walking, wandering, to get lost, to get away from linguistics, from language, from words—and so I pushed my inquiry away with my rice bowl, felt the glow of abnegation, and asked the old man about rice, family, and hills.
He brought his stool up closer to the table, and with the sorghum wine quickening my understanding, he became quite personable. When I complimented the peaches, he quoted several poets but opined that the peach trees here were by no means the area’s finest, and that if I liked he would take me off-road, to see the local sights, the next day. I readily agreed, and he showed me to a spartan though not uncomfortable room. There were bamboo covers to lie on to keep me cool, and a blanket to keep me warm. At the door was a funny tattered poster of an old scholar with flowers in his hair; I couldn’t make out the couplets. I ran through the list of candidates in my head, fell back and asleep in what seemed like a final way, warm with wine and walls and hospitality and high above the ordinary life in my new orchard-world.
In the morning, we left the inn behind (what is there to steal? he answered when I wondered aloud whether he shouldn’t lock up) and soon reached a broad but indolent stream. The man had a pleasantly rickety boat moored up there, and in this he paddled me first through some meadows, then into a series of caves, dimly gorgeous, revealing their natural sculpture (he pointed out the conventional shapes—sleeping fairy, pomegranate, crane) as the eye adjusted. At one point, he leaned on the paddle and began to holler. This genuinely alarmed me until he pointed at the roof of the cave, cackling, and I realized that he wanted me to appreciate the eerie echoes. “Oh!” I hollered with him, and heard myself echoed back Oh! O. Au. uuuuu…That’s how I would have sounded at the mouth of the caves; there is the estranging quality of the echo—even if its claim is to be merely reproducing.
Coming out the other side, we entered a green, rather lovely flatland, where he moored us to a tree and we disembarked. In the distance were forgotten indigo hills, and he confirmed that we were in a wide valley, the carvings of a great river dwindled to a brook. As he had promised, the peaches were indeed larger and juicier—almost excessively so—but there were also dates and mangoes, and enormous rice paddies where young people stooped, planting rice at a leisurely pace, or stood chatting barefoot in small groups. Whenever we came within earshot, my hoary guide held up his hand and shouted a greeting. The sun, which I had found so oppressive among the county seat’s concrete mock-prosperity, seemed here never to progress beyond the pleasant warmth of mid-morning. Even at two or three in the afternoon there was no sense of stickiness, and when I grew thirsty, my guide assured me that the water was safe to drink; the source was only a little ways upstream. My cupped hands blurred and broke my own image; I gulped the sweet water down.
We stopped with some young people, abnormally well-made, dining in the grass. They gave us some rice from a basket to go with the abundant fruit; there was no sign of chopsticks, and everyone used their hands. The people were lightly and dirtily clad, but did not seem harried. They laughed when I asked if they owned their own land. What struck me were the eyes: even the women looked a person straight in the face, but without challenge, afterthought, or invitation. I told my guide that where I was from men and women looked at each other’s noses when we spoke, in order to avoid the terrible communication of the eyes, and he repeated this back to me seven times that day, giggling.
It was several hours of walking before I realized two things: firstly, that the inhabitants had diminished in age the further we moved up the stream—and now we saw only adolescents and older children. And secondly, that among them were now many with golden or frizzy hair, with blue and green eyes, or with flat noses and dark skin; in short, there were children who looked unmistakeably un-Chinese, who could have stepped out of anywhere and everywhere, Africans, Europeans, Americans, island peoples…I wondered, suppressed my wonder, and made no remark. The children waved and waved, and despite the sun and the beauty I wished I were far away and home.
At evening, we paused to pick some dates from the trees, and eat rice wrapped in bamboo leaves brought to us by children. Even when we were full, they brought us more and more sumptuous fruit, and we had to assure them that we simply couldn’t swallow another bite. But unlike our previous acquaintances, these children did not depart, and a group began to assemble and encircle me. In their voices was another note: there was an urgency in their addresses, which seemed to be formulated in a strange farrago of languages. Was I affected by sunstroke? Perhaps, for wasn’t that…Russian, from the blonde little girl? With those clicks, surely that black child was speaking some Bantu language?
“What is this?” I asked my guide, more in sadness than fury. “Who are these children?”
“Most of the inhabitants of this land are children,” he answered, taking the tone one must take when speaking to those who cannot be expected to understand.
“But they look so different from one another. And where are their parents?”
“They’re from all over. Therefore, their parents are all over, too. Or nowhere.”
“I don’t understand.” I looked at my guide with suspicion. The mass of curious children kept on growing and growing around me. I could no longer see light between the tiny bodies.
“Where did they come from? What do they want? These children aren’t Chinese. Is this some kind of…?”
“Some kind of what…?”
“What is this…is this some kind of…plot?” I asked.
“Ha! This is countless horrible plots,” he laughed, supporting himself on his knee. “Everyone here—how shall I explain it? Although in fact, it is very simple; they are just the disappeared children, growing up, grown up.”
Now a child pressed my hand, asking, Monsieur…avez-vous vu?…avez-vous vu? and another child, mojego papu? and another child ibu-bapakku? and another child mi madre…mi mama? …and another 我爸呢？
Finally, finally, it dawned on me. This is where they came, the missing children, into this generous valley, free of fear and ringed by high mountains. “So they all come here, the children?” I asked, giddily, and the guide nodded. “I was one, too,” he went on, grinning like an eight-year-old child who has tricked an adult. “I’m a missing child. We all are.”
People think linguists know languages but the tragedy is we only know about languages. And so insufficiently. I could not really understand them, and if I had, I could not have responded to their questions. There was nothing I could tell them, and eventually they felt silent. A dark-haired child squatted and said, não sabe nada… não sabe nada…I understood the stocky little girl who shouted der kann uns doch nicht helfen! There was no one to comfort her, or any of them, but the guide rattled something—perhaps a remonstration—and somehow the moment of melancholy passed. Leaving me with a shadow of recrimination, they went back to their games.
My guide told me about the place: schoolrooms and village heads and inoculations and irrigation. Some of the children concluded their game, sat beside me and chatted easily with me. Many of them remembered the outside world too well to want to return, though they all talked about their parents. But parents seemed to them something as vague as deities, nothing provable, just one more legend of childhood they were preparing to shed. I wanted at least to get their names, to bring news to the world beyond, to check the coherence of this world against my own, but my worthy companion was very strict about the regulations. “It must remain perfectly secret, or the valley will change; be compromised. Believe you me—it’s all been tried. Everything has been tried!”
Then it was time to go. I left the place with regret, for it was sweet with the dreams of children and free from adult imperfections. They gathered round and waved me goodbye as I—
But no—no, my mistake. I was confused for a moment. I remember now. That isn’t where the missing children go. There can’t be any such valley, because often enough of course we find the children, we find their remains in ravines, we find them in cellars and riverbeds. Very often we don’t find them at all, but even that doesn’t situate them in sunlit valleys. I must have had heatstroke or something after all. That’s what I realized when I was back in Binzhou, recovering, feeling weak once again, my troubles rushing back in on me. The doctor thinks it may have been delirium; perhaps I ate a bad leaf or drank from the wrong spring. Or perhaps I tried to get too far away, and have been pulled back. The peaches in the city are not the same, of course. I could have guessed as much.
JOSH STENBERG is a Vancouver-born writer, translator and academic. He teaches Chinese literature and language at the University of Sydney and has worked with Chinese theatres, filmmakers, journals and literary events on international projects.