The Taste of Red

by Octavius


They were bright hard things, shouldering through markets, butting heads with rifles, swiping New Year’s oranges from displays, and singing Nanniwan is a beautiful place, it’s the best Jiangnan in north Shaanxi softly like a prayer.

“Zhijan! Zhijan!” You think you can almost see him up at the gate slouching against the red pillar, his spine bent like the butcher’s meat hook, and the rifle leaned on the wall next to him. The street noise just jumps up from around you — the long drawl of the locksmith’s stall, the paper fan flap from the lotus root woman sitting in the shade, and of course the ring of bicycles.

When you get to the gate Zhijan asks, “Where the fuck have you been?” but he’s smiling and reaches out to pull you down next to him. You’ve got two pork buns and rice wrapped in banana leaves stuffed down your fatigue front. It’s nice sitting like this shoulder-to-shoulder and thigh to thigh cutting the twine with the edge of a bayonet, peeling back the leaves until they’re spread like the pictures of the lotus blossom. Layers of taste: breaking open the pork buns and the sweetness of their pink insides, the grit of the street, mung beans stuck in your teeth, fingerfulls of hot steamed rice sticking to your palate and burning your mouth, the salt and blood taste of the fatty beef Zhijan lets you have in favor of the water chestnut. It’s not quite the last taste. Zhijan digs into his sleeve and produces four pickled plums wrapped in wax paper and from that day on you remember sun and market places like this — the vinegar sweetness of plum, and all along the edges a vegetable bitterness from the banana leaves. It makes you unexpectedly homesick for certain moments like spying on mother cooking in the afternoon, pickled green apricots in great glass jars on the shelf, the crackle of wax paper plum candy opened as a kid. But then you’re 18 years old sitting next to your best friend fighting for the reform of your country and you’ve got no time for home.

“Come on,” Zhijan says and drags at your arm, reaches up to muss your hair like he knows what you’re thinking. “It’ll be fine. We’re building a new country, making a great leap forward. Any mom would be proud to have such a son.” It’s easier to elbow him in the ribs than talk, and you reach up to fix your cap and pull the red star to the front. Up the street someone’s blowing a whistle to bring everyone back to the barracks so you grab your rifle, slip on your pack and head out.

Someone had pasted a picture of a Shanghai beauty on the wall facing the door. It’s rumored that in the America and Europe you can buy pictures of girls entirely naked. Older soldier’s scoff at this and drop hints that if they want to see a real woman all they had to do is go down the street to the hotel. But the younger boys spend time fantasizing over their perfect beauty, “Hair like a rooster’s black feathers, and skin like ivory, mouth like a red envelope at New Years.”

“Is that all you want an ‘envelope’ for?” someone asks and fights ensue, rolling over blankets, breaking the small brown wood closets and stools around the door. They shape out women with their hands, seducing the air into hips and curves, breasts the size of oranges, and round tight thighs.

You look at the woman on the wall. She’s not facing the camera. There is the long white plain of neck that disappears before it hits her collar. You like her face, the gentle point of her chin, the artful paintbrush lines of her lowered lids, and her bent and demure head like a white crane waiting in the field. Behind her the umbrella and embroidered dress are plumage, and tail feathers. You ask Zhijan about his perfect woman and he draws pieces of her — cuts her height off at his shoulder, measures her bust in hand spans — and what you like most of all is the way his broad palms slip over the place her waist would be, and then down to form her calves in a caress. At night you try to move your hands like that around the girl on the wall, but instead you get Zhijan’s broad shoulders, the sharp angular cuts of a man’s chest and body, strong bones, a flat chest and a warm neck with a jutting pulse.

Winter comes and your battalion gets sent North to monitor the monasteries, government farms, and local villages. Everyone says they’re lucky not to be sent up North to deal with the Kuomingtan, and even luckier when a crate arrives at the barracks full of long green army jackets the color of tea leaves. Your jacket fits awkwardly because you’re wipcord thin and almost as tall as Zhijan. The boys joke that it’s the emperor’s dressing gown. The fabric’s rough and there are holes in all the elbows that shows they’ve been worn before, but it snows the next week and everyone is thankful.

You and most of the company are from Wuxi, but Zhijan is from the North around Beijing and he rushes out into the snow when it comes. His face is flushed, and beckons for you to come out and join him while the rest of the company watches from the open windows. You’re hesitating so he pegs you in the face with a snowball and then you punch him so you both go down in a heap of arms. The rest of the battalion jumps out of the window because there is nothing they love better than a good fight, and all of you slip through the muddy snow in the predawn grey.

That night Zhijan says, “I didn’t know you had it in you,” and dabs delicately at the bloody corner of his mouth grinning stupidly. You smile back wincing around your cut cheek and the guilt at the sick twist of lust when Zhijan had borne you to the ground, held your hands down in the dirt, sat across your hips, and looked down at you. You hope he mistakes it for the sting when the doctor says “turn” and draws a red smear of iodine down your cheek.

That’s what winter tastes like — winces, stolen glances, the monks deathly still faces as they enter a temple, the broken pieces of the Buddha statues they were ordered to smash with their guns, the bone ink smell of the party books they read each dawn, cold rice congee in the morning with pieces of carrot and peanut, at night home made noodles and grainy beef that slips around your mouth, dirty snow, and fear when Zhijan looks at you.

Spring hits suddenly, like the tiny pop of the lychee skin when you break it with a nail. Zhijan bought a whole branch from a fruit stall and you’re sitting together again, riding across the countryside down to the Southwest — away from the cities. The flesh is white and translucent and you suck it down slowly, enjoying the velvety softness and moving the hard pit to the side of your mouth. Zhijan’s arm is around your shoulder, hard and tanner than ever, like the back of a chair. He’s singing under his breath, “Nanniwan, Nanniwan crops everywhere and beautiful scenery. When the transport rumbles your knees brush over and over and over. ”

Their company has been sent out to protect the villages in this particular province. Everyday it’s patrols in the truck through towns that had never even seen a car until the war. They see classical scenes: the lunging muscle of the water buffalo, and its black bristle hair like so many shaved soldier heads — except your hair that was still long. Everywhere you look it’s green, a green that makes your heart ache for your childhood. The rice paddies stretch out for miles. Green shoots spring out from the brown water, and amid them young women with hats like golden pavilions and rough hands. You’ve passed any number of footless women all claimed up to the ankles in silt, but it’s never been so important for you and Zhijan and the rest of the company to whistle as the truck goes by. Far in the background they can see the crags of the HuangShan (the yellow mountains) wreathed in cloud. You tell Zhijan you want to go there someday, climb the thousand or so steps up to the top where the old gods sit.

The village they stop in on that particular day is the same as all the others. It is full of whitewash walls with big open windows — no glass — and shutters. Grannies sit in the kitchen with their daughters-in-law cutting chicken on big butcher blocks that were hewn from trees. The town leader comes to greet them, eyes crinkling, his daughter next to him. She’s so tiny, with her black hair braided back in red ribbon. Dongfeng , your captain, asks if she’s been practicing her school work for the party, and she runs behind her father without saying a word. You can’t imagine ever being that young, but as you look around everything here reminds you of being nine and ten, tending the fields and coming back every night to white walled houses just like these. Even the roofs here are the same –big black tiles like dragon scales, the curved edges like the dragon’s back and the gutter spout the mouth telling you to go East with the water to the cities.

There’s a stream that runs behind the back of their village, and farther up women are washing clothes Shhuck schuuk against the washboards. Across the stream is an old man sleeping in a straw mat by the shore, and the stones and pebbles build a mosaic around him. You start a little because you hadn’t even seen him there. His pack is by his head full of aluminum pans clanking together as he rises slowly, puppet-like, and turns toward you. His hair and beard are linen white, and his hat is like the Buddha’s temple, the top very high and golden, sides long and turned up to the sky. His skin is even browner than Zhijan’s, like the color had been baked into him. It’s the red earth they’ve been driving through for days now, the color of the soil beneath your feet. There are lines round and round his face, but his eyes are beetle black and friendly, crinkling up when he sees you standing and helpless. He reaches out and takes your rifle, looks down the barrel, puts it close to his ear and taps at it curiously, runs a hand down the long sight, and nods expectantly. His spoken Mandarin is garbled, and accented like he can’t quite get it out from behind his few teeth. So he nods and looks at you, and suddenly you feel so stupid, so amazingly childish carrying around these ideas, this gun that a peasant like this old man had never even seen before, wearing the same type of puffed and padded jacket your mother used to put on you as a kid. The old man walks off still nodding, beard waving in the wind and pots tinkling, and you are left in your boyhood which you thought long gone.

When you get back in an hour, Dongfeng is quizzing some young men on their patriotism. His voice is sharp and a little uneasy. Zhijan and the others are already sitting back in the truck waiting. You see the kid Dongfeng’s pissed at say something and he goes red, practically blows up in the kid’s face and everything goes to hell. There’s gunshots from one of the houses, and you’re running toward Dongfeng scrambling for the rifle on your shoulder, but your hands are the old man’s arthritic fumbling over the black shell trying to find the trigger. The kid is pulling something out of his pocket and the look on his face is one you’ve seen a million times before in the mirror, on all you’re comrade’s faces fighting for something they believed in -that young thirst for justice. Then Dongfeng is down and you can’t quite get in between fast enough. There’s blood everywhere slipping beneath your feet in the red red earth being churned to mud as you try to beat the knife out of the stupid boy’s hand. Behind you the men -boys- you think, are jumping out of the truck screaming and cursing. Zhijan is the loudest of all yelling your name “Shaozhu! Shaozhu!” He doesn’t have to yell, you think, as it all starts to fade to black , you might wake up the old man. But it wasn’t the old who needed awakening.

When you come to you are expecting the dark must of the apothecary. Instead you get clean white tiles, a squeaky wheeled bed, and the smell of chemicals and chrome, but for days afterward you keep tasting the wrinkled layers of mushroom ears, flat slats of sharkfin, paper thin slices of tubers, and crinkled roots like the hairs of the old man’s beard. Zhijan starts from his position by the bed when he sees you look at him. He looks terribly out of place in the hospital, rough and uncouth, but it feels right just the same, and you love his broad Northern cheekbones, smooth jaw, and defiant turn of chin. He’s hovering a little, twisting his cap, the red star hidden by his hands, and breath coming down on you from above. For once you’re not afraid because he’s the one in the weak position now. Zhijan opens his mouth to talk, but you get there first.

“What did he say?” you rasp out.


“The boy Dongfeng was talking to. What was it?”

“He-,” Zhijan looks away then back, “he wanted to know if they would be free this time.”

You feel sick and want to put your hands over your face, but you don’t have the strength so you just turn away to press your forehead into the pillow. Zhijan leans closer, puts his hand on the sheets next to yours, lets his murmurs wash over you.

“Turns out there were some veterans from the last war hiding out there, turning the kids into their own little faction. But why would he ask that? Everyone is free. Everyone takes care of everyone else. Besides by the Chairman’s plan we’ll catch up with the Americans for sure. It’ll be fine Shaozhu.”

You don’t say anything just turn over and throw up in the bedpan.

That’s how your first few days in the hospital go. Zhijan sits with you most of the time and acts out bits of the Xiyouji. You like his rendition of the Monkey King the best, his sing-song voice when the monkey talks, the bamboo broom handle as his staff. Once he and a few other officers had stolen a Durian and brought it with them. They’d had to eat the entire thing before it made the room smell and the nurses found out. The nurses are very young maybe 20, but “Very capable. We don’t need those old thinking doctors. We know how to do everything.” Except that when you break out in a fever the next day with your shoulder flaring up in infection they don’t really know what to do. You fade in and out for days with Zhijan’s face distorted, black eyes anxious, but always him.

When you awake again, your mouth is sand. Zhijan tries to give you a drink out of a cup, but it dribbles out of your mouth onto the pillow. There’s a red string around your neck and at the end a tiny loop of jade. You’ve seen Zhijan wear it hundreds of times, but it’s like someone painted a thin red line down to your heart and you can’t stop looking. Zhijan can’t stop looking either, not as he takes the water into his mouth, pushes two fingers past your teeth to pry you open, and leans down to press your mouths together and release. This is what early summer tastes like: antiseptic, dumplings in the shape of ducks and goldfish, the intricate feeling of tongue past your teeth, your chapped lips at the side of his mouth, and the slickness of water between both of you over and over.

When you recover the company is busy going along kicking open doors, arresting traitors and writers of subversive literature. Every morning you get up to the loudspeaker immersing you in propaganda, eat your morning porridge, and march. You only get trucks if you’re lucky because there are so many new recruits and new factions building up everywhere. You march so much that your jacket go flat and your shoes wear clean through. When you stop in a village someone takes watch while they have a seamstress patch their coat sleeves and elbows. At night in the barracks they cut soles out of thick posters, and re-stuff their jackets with newspaper. You have any number of propaganda to keep you warm.

But that’s not all of it. It’s also meeting Zhijan in the truck yard and being able to touch him. The other boys joke that you’re still thinner than a bean sprout, but you’re almost as tall as Zhijan. He likes to hold your face in his broad palms and draw kisses from you, and it’s still strange to have his tongue in your mouth, or to be able to touch his shoulders, grab his hair. It shouldn’t work really. You were always taught that man was formed from Earth and Stone and every time you’re with Zhijan you listen for the scrape and rasp of rock on rock, but it never comes. Instead you can’t believe they are capable of such softness, deep clumsy kisses that leave your lips obscene and slick wet, so that your mouth aches afterwards.

Late in the seventh month summer is finishing. The humidity is stacked in layers of calm heat as the truck stops outside the little village named for Water Buffalos. Zhijan is sucking on melon candy cool green crystallized sweetness. Everyone gets out, lines up, the new captain yells at you, bolsters you up with flimflam words and sends you in. You all march in unison, gear clacking, the cicadas deafening overhead, a straight line of little red stars pinned to caps. All these old towns were built with animals in mind to protect them, keep them safe from harm. You imagine the unnatural truck forcing it’s mouth open, the long thin bridge of stone the crosses the front lake its parched tongue, the great green lily pads a women could dance on as its molars, and your company some foreign disease. The town goes quiet once they get in and they follow the little stream all the way down, down the gullet of the Water Buffalo town to the round pond at the center that is its stomach. You and Zhijan go for the home of the Silk Merchant, hammer down the fine iron and wood door. Zhijan goes straight to the front door and starts to break it open. Inside is a little shaded courtyard with high walls and an orange tree that keeps everything cool and dark. Moss like old jade slips up the trunk, around the potted orchid and iris, and down into the rough rainwater tank. High above the door is a little mirror backed in red, now faded to palest pink still waiting to keep demons at bay. You hope to heaven as Zhijan breaks the last lock and you both step into the doorway, shoulder-to-shoulder, that it keeps you out.

The house is deserted. Zhijan whistles at the high ceiling, two stories high with carved screens that go all the way around for the women to sit behind. The eaves are shadowed dark wood, and the floor creaks whenever you move. The stillness is strange for a house littered with movement: unfinished embroidery thrown down, wooden shoes left in a corner, the incense still burning in front of a little pile of dry oranges. You tap the walls for a secret panel, and opening it find only old brooms and tatters. The room for the wives is dark too, a little light coming in through the carved panels of clouds, cicadas, birds with tail feathers like banners. To the right is the first wife’s room, the bed visible from the door — large, stately — with her own cabinet made of glass. To the left, the darker room, the consort. The door is closed but the shutters are open. There’s a faded Camilla painted on the wall, next to a woman with a white neck, and all around the top are courtiers painted in blue and green dress on a red back ground cracked and peeling. Zhijan pushes the door open, steps inside, and you follow. The bed is smaller, pushed farther back, carved around and above in dark wood. Between the tiny interlocking pieces you can see the red coverlet faded a little, a tired red like old meat and grey dust.

He comes up behind you, touches your hips, presses you to him. Your hair is so long now you have to tie it back to be out of the way, but he moves it slowly, kisses your neck so that your hands go still on the white water bowl. It’s still warm. The maids must have just filled it before they fled. You think about the woman who lived here, if when the husband came at night and made love to her if she made noise for the first wife that lived four feet away? Or was she quiet the way you are for Zhijan? A clench in your jaw when he unbuttons your shirt, slides a hand in to brush that dark areole. You turn, suck his bottom lip into your mouth and taste the sharp tang of blood and iron from where it had split the day before. He makes noise from someplace chest deep. You feel his stomach go taut with the effort of keeping it in, and his hands get rough — jerk your undershirt up so he can touch and feel more. His knuckles down your hips are gravelly, and they move up, touch your face tip your head to the side so he can get in at your mouth. You’ve only done this a handful of times, but you know this is where you turn around, suck on his tongue even though it burns, the join there too hot. This is where you move your hands down, palm his cock through his fatigues, slip open the buttons and get your hand in and around. Zhijan makes a tense little groan that you swallow. It’s nerve-wracking every time you’ve got Zhijan hot and hard in your hand. Your fingers feel clumsy, mind soaked in lust, limbs shaky. He’s grinding your mouths together, teeth clicking, crotch pushed up into the crook of your hip and your hand is there crushed between, knowing only how to touch, glide a thumb, hold something so hard and lovely and choke back noises.

You remember being a kid in school, writing the word for people — one long leg and one short. How you never quite got the way to hold the brush between middle and ring finger clenched down tight, or the tiny flick of wrist required at the end of the character so your instructor hit you across the back of the head. They told you, you needed inner strength, needed to set your shoulders straight, use the strength of your arm, but you don’t think so. You don’t think you needed any of that strength as you sink to your knees in front of Zhijan, take his cock in your mouth, let it slide between your lips, pull them tight over your teeth, let the cloudy water taste of precome in, and try not to gag. Above you in the gloom his eyes are star bright, his hands slick with sweat where they slide along your face, hair, hollow cheeks. Is this what the lady of this room saw every time the husband came to her in the night, the dark ceiling, the faded red paintings of courtiers with blank faces? Did she tell herself he would love her more after every time? Was this way you gave everything up to someone else. Let them take your heart.

You end up fucking in the red room. Zhijan leans you down on the red coverlet, pries you open gently and takes you hard and swift — boyishly. You lean up on your elbows, face the carvings on the head board, the tiny image of a bat, the wings spread open in exquisite detail, tiny puffs of cloud in the surrounding pattern of zigs and zags. He puts a hand on your shoulder blades, strokes your spine in time with his thrusts, and wraps one smooth hand around your dick to jerk you off. The air between both of you is stagnant burning except for a little wind that whispers Shaozhu Shaozhu Shaozhu. Your forearms slip out on the old silk, and yo come with rough embroidery scratching your cheek, mouth opening noiselessly into the coversheet.

He helps you clean up, ties your hair back, rights your cap for you, grins a little stupidly. He pulls you up by the shoulders and you kiss him a gingerly on the side of his mouth, then you both grab your rifles and head out.

The transport takes them all back to the city. Zhijan heads to some back alley street stall and buys a branch of Longan and you spend dusk prying open the little brown shells. He’s always been good at picking fruit and the flesh inside is a crisp milky white. You take turns seeing who can spit the black shiny pits the farthest against the wall, and elbow each other when you cheat. You’re already sure Zhijan likes women better, by the way he likes the feel and weight of your hair, how he touches your hips and chest first. He wouldn’t understand the old man, how young they still were, the all-consuming haze of the government that had been promised. But for now he’s looking at you, a warm solid weight at your side holding what you think is your heart. A few doors down an Old man comes out to light the string of lanterns around his door. He brings the red chambers to life one after the other, after the other, after the other, and maybe you’ll stay like this, with Zhijan, for a little longer.

A/N: I’m a little rusty at the original fic, so I’m sorry if the characterization is a bit sketchy. Let me set a few things straight first. This is not meant to be a political piece, or even meant to express the author’s opinion about communism in China, or her personal opinion about the Red Guard, the communist Army, or any sort of political justification/ramification. While there may be undercurrents of opinion, this story does not seek in any way to change your beliefs. It is merely a story of boys falling in love against a backdrop of war and political change. Take it easy, have a good one, hope you enjoyed!

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