Om grew up in Loka village, beside mountains, wheat fields and orchards. Sometimes a late spring frost stunned the apple trees, and the young fruit bore thick brown bands that they wore into adulthood.
The tainted apples were no good for the market. Om and his brothers would be invited into Old La’s orchard to collect the gumdrop-sized jewels for their mother to make jam and jelly. The boys held contests to see who could eat the most. The tart little fruits puckered their lips and sapped the saliva from their mouths. Om always won. He slept soundly those nights with victory on his numb tongue.
His father raised sheep and his mother sewed, and together they brought up seven children. Om went to school in the next village, but only when they had money. When it rained too hard or not enough, he stayed home, and sucked on roots to distract his mind from the awful gnawing in his stomach.
When Om turned twenty, he traveled to the nearby township and attended classes for metalwork, and it was here where he met a girl who waitressed at a noodle shop. She had long, gentle eyes and a small mouth that pursed when she took orders. Her name was Lin.
One spring festival she took him home to spend the holiday with her family. He could just afford to bring plum wine, a frozen leg of lamb and a barrel of apples from his parents’ orchard, and the only way he knew to combat his humiliation was to drink and smoke until he forgot his name.
The men played cards until the early hours of the morning, and the night took him in a blur. He remembered very little, besides the steam that rose off the frozen cobblestones when he retched on the way back to his sleeping quarters, and the shame he felt the next morning when he saw that his mess had disappeared.
He married Lin that winter. By the following spring festival she had given birth to a girl, and they moved to town, where his brother found him a job as a clerk in a bank. Om never finished fourth level math. He didn’t know the first thing about numbers, but the pay was enough to give them a start. He began to trade liquor, and Lin sold hair accessories. Soon they accumulated enough stock to fill an entire corner of their one room home, beside the baby crib, radio and mini-freezer. The future looked bright.
After dinner, the leader’s booming voice piped into their warm little room. The voice told them that the national harvest was good that year, better than the year before. The voice said that their people were pushing back invaders and would soon add another twenty-four kilometers to the northern boundary. If they just tightened their waist belts a little more, they would surely be out of the dark times and by next year the streams would once again be filled with fish, and the meadows with flowers, the sky with birds.
Soon their little family grew from one child to four. The thought alone kept Om up at night and sapped his strength during the day, but it never diminishing his spirit, which soared with the leader’s confident words as he congratulated comrades for another week of honest work that would surely build their empire to new heights.
On Om’s thirty-third birthday, the leader unveiled his new plan. They were in need of men—young, strapping men, older men with skills, men who could apply their minds, men who loved their country, men willing to give their bodies. They asked for volunteers, but everyone knew that it was mandatory. Om bade Lin and his children goodbye, and left with the first round of recruits.
Within a fortnight he and sixty other men found themselves stationed at the north wall. Mostly they did nothing. Om whittled pieces of wood into figurines that he salvaged from the furnace. He made a fox for his eldest girl, fish for the middle ones, and a curved canoe for his youngest boy, who had Lin’s long eyes. The pile of figurines only grew with the months. The soldiers ate steamed white buns and boiled roots, and washed them down with melted snow. Every morning and night, they listened to the leader’s voice come on the radio, encouraging them and heaping on praise, as they shivered and thought of their warm beds back home, of good food and good wine, their wives growing barren and their children becoming adults.
Om learned two new dialects. He learned to prefer Anna Karenina to War and Peace. He found his knack for keeping peace.
Gradually it dawned on Om that there was no threat of attack. The men at the north wall were kept there not to defend the kingdom against a warring tribe, but to trap them and age them like bulls in a pen until they softened into withered and harmless beings. Om held the betrayal quietly in his heart, and he did not speak of it to anyone, but when the leader’s voice came on the radio he no longer greeted it with joy, but with growing resentment and anger.
Six years passed. News of the leader’s defeat finally reached the north wall. After the string was cut, the troops quickly disbanded. Om arrived home to find his town destroyed and his youngest dead from pneumonia. Lin’s hair had turned silver and hard as fishing wire. Within a month, she passed. Om took two stones to the nearby tarn, tossed them into the clearest part and slept for two nights on the mountain. Then he took his three remaining children back home to Loka.
The village was nearly empty. Most people had gone to the city, leaving only the elderly, so Om pedaled a tricycle and delivered milk to the toothless lot. In the afternoons, he repaired bicycles and alarm clocks and stereos to send his children to school. He buried his father in the late summer, and his mother in early fall. Two more stones in the tarn. His brightest girl caught a hard winter fever, and he had to wait until spring for the tarn to thaw before he could properly commemorate her.
He needed help; he was desperate. He took a poor, dark-skinned village girl for a wife, and she soon bore him another daughter. He cursed her for making another mouth to feed, and he went off to the city to look for work.
It took Om four months to find a job as a guard for a new mall. He slept in a six-person dorm in town and returned to the village on weekends. His dorm smelled of rancid oil, urine and unwashed bodies. He could not rid his blankets of the stink. He longed to see the stars of his childhood village, which were now snubbed out by plumes of coal factory soot. He dreamt of running naked through the millet fields that had become highways and parking lots. He wanted to feel small and protected by the mountains that now guarded his parents’ gravestones. He even missed hearing the great leader’s voice as he ate canteen food with the other men. He dreamed of returning to school to stimulate his mind, but there was never enough money or time for that.
The new government encouraged spending and trade, and soon all kinds of goods appeared. Om returned to the village every week with bright toys, new snacks and shiny gadgets that he found in the brightly lit stores. He bought his children a globe of the world and watched them mouth the names of places they heard at school: Moscow, Karachi, Barcelona. Their little fingers spread wide and spanned the distance from their home to these faraway lands. Om had never heard such places spoken aloud, and hearing them from his own children took away his breath.
His young wife fell sick so often that Om lost his security guard job in the city. He took to wandering the streets of town, knocking on doors, looking for work. He gravitated towards the river and often found himself in the middle of the bridge.
Om could lose himself in the rippling mass, seeing feasts and wine and the firm flesh of pretty young maidens. He would stay until policemen harassed him. “Go home, old man,” they yelled, and only then Om would think of his children, about their sticky hands and their wide eyes, and he sulked back to his pitiful sleeping mat, ashamed and anxious.
That winter was harsh, and the freeze had settled for weeks. He was cold, but could not afford coal for the heater. His ulcer burned, and his throat ached like a raw wound. The city was growing bigger and glossier all the time, with new buildings and roads appearing overnight, and cheery new shops where new signs and toys rotated constantly.
Om peered into restaurant after restaurant. He saw families huddled around steaming bowls of soup. Where was all this wealth coming from, and why didn’t he have any? He felt the river rise and the tarn overflow, and imagined himself being carried off by the rapids.
Om entered the next noodle shop he saw and sat down beside the window. A small plate of pickled radishes sat on the table. He picked up one vinegary sliver and put it into his mouth. Its tartness jerked his muscles awake, and sent him straight back to the stunted apples of his childhood, the ones ruined by their brown rings of frost.
A waitress appeared. Her cheeks were flushed from the heat of the kitchen.
He couldn’t leave now. He was too embarrassed. As she pursed her lips and tapped her foot, he took his time with the menu. He finally settled on a big bowl of noodles with two meat dishes, one mutton and one beef, and a plate of winter squash with boiled carrots, to which he added stewed beets, mulled wine and roasted peanuts. He watched her as she took down his order, but she revealed no reaction. She’s a village girl, he realized.
“Add another bottle of mulled wine,” he commanded, warming up now. He clinked the last of the coins in his coat pocket to an old patriotic tune and studied the other customers as if he were the shop-owner.
Later, left alone with his feast, he looked down at his purple hands. He cupped them around the hot noodle bowl and brought it up to his face. The hot broth scalded the tip of his tongue, but no bother. Slowly, ceremoniously, he began to eat.
Min Han was born in Beijing, raised in California and has traveled extensively in Africa and Asia. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in The Holborn, The Dudley Review, The Archive and two anthologies, Six Senses of Art (Peter Lang) and While We’re Here (Earnshaw). She was a finalist in the Brenda L. Smart Fiction Prize, and has received scholarships at the New York Summer Writers Institute and Boston-based Grubstreet. She writes from Cambridge, Mass and can be found on Twitter @MinHanMinds.