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Journal of Ma Tan

by G.Bone



September – 1919

I decree that I am now sick of these trains. They remind me of the jails they now have in my own village. The only thing is that they have windows to the godforsaken white. We boarded from Dongwang (for that is the port’s "new name" now) for the hinterlands. The train station was crumbling. Those walls that stood manly consisted of dirt, sandbags, and assorted rock. It was a rock house with the term ‘Vladivostok’ written – although that is what is told to me by a translator.


October – 1919

We are marching in snow now. We have hired a whole mess of support troops. We have officially bribed the "good" white men on our side. They are Czech, as they claim, showing a strange eagle, and jabber in something I cannot follow. One of them - having no difference with the Russians that we have captured - comes up to attempt in relating to us. He talks slowly - hesitatingly - and Mao snorts. I do not want to overtly offend the Czech. He is offering us a cigarette and one of those eagle embossed coins that are no better than what we have now as our currency. I have this striking push to pat his head and ask him what is the color of that tree next the Captain's Tent.

Then there are the locals that we hired with guns. That is even more offensive than the poor Czechs who should be called "mercenary" on their forehead. We should be kind to them - says the Captain. We should be kind to them.

The whole area is a depot for future action. You could have fooled me on this whole seizure of "Our Land". The whole terrain is white, as the Czechs say it as something that I mistaken as Alberta or New York. I always wanted to go to those places. It's a shame that the Cross-man had to go back home.

We have planes now. We have this now. I say this to Long – what will we have next – a free pass to snow? Long says that we are now going on adventure. Captain Zhu De (written so that he has a name and not just "The Captain") – one of those idealists that sing praises to the new regime – says that we will hit this particular village on this particular map we won from the "good" white men. We have translators a dozen but it just seems as a bad opera play that no one took the care to really refine. I cannot stop from grumbling. Mao, another idealist, says that I should stop pointing out the obvious. I look upon the wasteland and see black dots that bespeak of cities. There, at that particular point is where we will march to, past that large triangle of a mountain, and beyond.

I say, Hooray for the new regime!

It’s not my fault that I am still sick of trains. I must shape up. I do not want to be left behind with the "good" white men. We are starting a march. We are going to there, the "bad" white men’s name abandoned because it is too long and harsh to pronounce, essentially a wasteland without any names.


Long is dead. General Wu Peifu has walked along the troops, saying good job men, good job. I know this is the last time that I will cry with my tears not frozen. I cannot help it. I cannot help it.

November, --, 1919

Mao is dead. We were climbing over the ruined village of snow and eternal ice when he died. He is dead.

I cannot say how awful this place is. We went over the top to defeat the Russians in the plains of ice and snow. The blood sticks to the body. When one is wounded, one has to use a knife to peel the clothes off, often digging into one's flesh just to ease the pain. Some people let it infect in this great white space.

The Captain got the word that we were to take the village with the rest of the company. There are planes up ahead. They roll around in the snow. They are the aspects of the Ancestors, except that they spit out bullets in the harsh winter wind, occasionally dropping a packet of explosives, and vanish.

The artillery fired. The ground shook. You could see little breaths of the guns pass on by. There was a comment that even the air is regulated here, the bullet at half the speed of sound, slow enough for a person to flick it away before entering the body.

We climbed over the village with our guns blazing. Everything is flat. One skids over the ice without making any real progress. The guns peak out of the snow on their side, dulling what is blunted in the first place, a silent whomping of the bodies hitting and never getting up.

I am part of an army. It is hard to really put life into this entry because there isn't any. The company now stands at half alive half frozen. The dead are little trees unto themselves, a hand jutting out here, a leg poking out there, and one thinks they are tripping over a snow bank as they are going to kill Russians.

I do not understand this. The Emperor has decreed that we are going to take back what is ours. The Captain has his arm wounded so it falls to me to inform Mao's family he is dead. Mao is not important; I have others on the list to tell of.

The bullets from the machine guns cut into the snow. They do not have a sound except when they hit something. Then it ranges from a ping to a dulled sound if someone flicks their helmet just to cure the boredom waiting in the camp.

I took life. We charged up the machine gun nest. We charged to get rid of them. It was strange that they should be little bumps on the hill. There was that same sound of people falling into the snow. There were tracks of where people went, stood, and fell. There were cries. The offensive stopped for logic dictated that we should not do that particular action.

We went around. How can I say this? It was an opera of the grotesque. There were cries. There were sounds in the great whiteness of space. I can sketch out the mountains rising up as if they were dragons. That was one moment in time before we charged the machine gun nests, the faint brush stroke of the other battles across this frozen wasteland, in the majestic might of the new Emperor. Some had flags.

I took life. The barrel of the gun was and still is cold. You can feel it through the glove. I take out my knife; I peel back what loose clothing I can acquire in order to evade the frigid rattling of my bones, to make myself a moving mountain in the snow. This is the new low. We are no longer fighting with rifles but da dao's (the honorable officers) and spears.

It's hard pulling the bayonet out of frozen corpses.

There is the ducking behind the walls to evade the machine spat bullets at an indistinguishable speed, bucking the bricks of the ruined village, making a sound in the space.

We stab, we cut, we maul. The verbs mean nothing as this poor tragedy goes on. I saw Mao attempt the bravery. He was flanked by Fang and Wu. The Russian giants only outlined by the caps they wear shoot them with their revolvers. Bang is the only sound that I hear. We seize the machine gun with our own. I fell into the snow, get up, grab a rock, and throw it at one of them.

I am in a depression of snow. We pick up the dead and those that survive are too tired to resist. There is a river somewhere to the north of it, assumed a road, and I can see trucks and horse drawn carriages being driven over it. It is funny only in the fact that a Russian has hit me in the gut and I can no longer laugh without pain. We have the flags. All we need is the Imperial Heralds.

We have that too but they are our translators. They are frozen as well. There is that omniscient sound of people marching in the snow, cursing the ice, and the horribly horrid wind that makes us fools to even stand.

We move our camp not in the village but north of it. There are some people within the Russians that have the same eyes as us. There is some acting the part of "Why do you serve them?" and other propaganda of a free vassal state to the north.

Enough of the snow – I decree. I have been sighted as the one man with bravery. I killed their captain. How nice, seeing his body be stabbed by a rifle, the rock hitting his head, he now a corpse, falling into the snow.

We bury the dead.

I have the equal honored duty of writing the letters that no-one wants to write. I volunteered for it – a dirty word in my mouth. I feel that someone has to speak to them, for the dead that aren’t buried elsewhere in this great expanse, with the possibility of their limbs sticking out as individual grave markers to their futile duties on a godforsaken cursed wasteland of a potential vassal state.

I have the words –

"Dear -----

Your son was very good in battle today. He was shot with a revolver. The revolver stuck to the Russian officer’s hand. I cannot send it to you because his hand was frozen to the handle. I would have sent it to you as a trophy. We are marching towards the mythical town of Ulan-Ude {if even it exists} where there is color, I am told. Your son died in battle and I cannot disclose where he is temporarily buried. I am told that we will come later to bury the dead or some other unfortunate soul will do that duty. We are marching towards glory, towards gaining our land, and I cannot go any further else the censors wreak havoc upon my prose."

Or perhaps –

"Dear ----

Your son is dead. He died very well today. We were marching towards honor. We have learned greatly from the dispatches of the far West. Perhaps when he is moved his body will thaw."

I look at my drafts.

Will I be written this way?

This is no time for self reflection or poetry.

--------, --, 1919

We are marching yet again. We won a great victory we are told. They are now free, those that have our eyes, towards great victory. The wind blows.

------, --, 1919

I finally see color. It is the color of the mountains. It is the color of the trees. We have joined the rest of the army that walks towards honor. We have flags every so often. We constantly move else the cold gets to us.

How I wish often for huoguo. Everything is frozen including the tea. Our company is strong. I have become Mao’s replacement and in my bosom I carry the notification of his family that he is dead. I buried his corpse myself, seeing that his limbs do not stand out, and a decent marker upon his grave.

There is news of the West. It is ragged rumor within the ranks. In the meantime, we all make things up from the distant movies we may have seen or heard. I make up things as I hope the gruel heats up. I have read the tracts that they translate.

I am making something far beyond the stars. There is a space-ship that travels the heavens. A person from very far away gets marooned on a tropical island. He likes it so much that he invites his friends. They all frolic on the beaches. There is nothing but pleasure on this small island.

My story is the more popular one and there are now women, Western Women, and I must repeat it else it gets replaced by other people’s visions.

--------, --, 1919

I stare at this one tree. It would be a grand painting. There is bark. There is the written carved letters of someone who died. But there are telegraph wires with icicles hanging from the wire.

There are the mountains. There is a subtle difference of the ridges and trees. There is one ravine slowly jaggedly dashing along the immense weight of the earth. There is blue and there is gray.

I have a rank it seems. I have talked to the Captain and we will meet up with the rest of the Army, as if what we are in now isn’t one, at this one city that is under siege. He says that I shouldn’t get sucked into the great space of the snow. He attempts to sing a great opera that is now playing at Shanghai. He heard it from a Great White Woman to show that they have solidarity with us of the East.

I believe he is lying. He was, on the ground, after the meeting. We do not build tents but ragged shelters. There is no tea.

I tell more about the island. I call it the Emerald Green Island. It is near the Seven Immortals. There was some debate on if the Seven Immortals should allow this to happen. The Captain puts political presence on my island and I do not object. I create this one wandering doctor who falls in love with a Great White Woman who has lost her way. The Captain says I should make it out into a play. Ink freezes.

--------, --, 1919

There is word that we can finally communicate with the rest of the army. There is a long trail left behind in the snow. We are walking towards the pass. Instead of ink we have our bayonets. It’s strange that it becomes our everyday tool. The butt of a revolver becomes a hammer if the material is strong enough to resist.

I was honored today with the formal rank of Sergeant I say, Hooray, but I am more amused by what the other companies have. I get to finally send the letter off informing Mao’s family that he is dead. He didn’t say that he had family serving in other divisions. We were friends. I had one friend –Lin – who showed me a better way. He lies buried many days south from here. The whole progress of our offensive is a snake driving northward. I saw country – the trees not overburden with snow – never really whitened out in this desert of …space… and desolation.

It is so cold that when one hits the ice from a particular branch with a rock, it shatters as glass, falling to the ground. Sometimes there is no snow. It is a great relief to see dirt. This is a black rock. This is dirt. This is the stain of dirt on snow. We in the Company have a tendency to say Hooray for Dirt, Hooray for Rock, Hooray for something other than White, and other things.

To break out of this, the Company has decided to make a play out of my visions, with myself as the Captain of the Air ship. The Ship is always something that can get away from the White Space of the Snow. I say out loud the triumph of the ship to this Greenland. Hong plays the woman, his voice too deep, the motions of his bundled arms the only key thing to show that he is a woman. He is our artillery man.

There are many more in the play that make up their own plays. They sing to get rid of the miasma of white. There is some translation with the "turned" men. The other prisoners are to march with us when we meet with the rest of the army. They sit agape and amazed that we should make this up as we go along. Their words in Russian – for I only know English as my second – make good to fill in that white that matches so eloquently with the utter inhospitable wasteland that we are invading.

I say these words because I do not want to fall into a depression of white.


To Episode 10


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