The people of China refer to the coursing waters of the Yellow River as China’s Sorrow, for it has claimed so many lives. The victims of flood, murder, war and suicide all sink to its depths, hurried along its length broken and blind to be washed ashore, cleaned and buried by weeping loved ones, or else too far gone, lost forever to water and darkness.
It began when her son went missing, because she was determined to find the body. Into the warm haze of evening he had travelled, as the last light faded, to the shores of the Yellow River and there the darkness swallowed him.
The river itself flowed half a kilometre from her home, which stood solitary surrounded by grass and fields and rich, muddy landscape dotted with crooked trees with neat pink petals like a city lady’s painted lips, while the city of Lanzhou eighty kilometres upstream attracted a rumbling rhythm of traffic that slithered along the nearby road and rattled the rail tracks.
When days hurried through the weeks into autumn, she knew that China’s Sorrow had become her own, and he would not return. As red and gold swept through the natural world like blood blotting a handkerchief and crisp auburn leaves fell in great torrents to the ground, so she began her search for him. She walked the riverbanks, hoping to find him washed ashore, but there lay only red rocks that began as haphazard rubble and grew to an impassable roasted umber cliff face, so she chose instead to buy a narrow boat and paddle the depths of the river, mile upon mile, searching and searching.
Through a damp spring and lush green summer she did not find her son, but the river quickly acquiesced to giving up many of its souls to her. The sons and daughters of others became her own as she discovered their bodies; they came to her often, some purple and bloated, some wounded, their battered skulls and gashed arms turned to pale, bloodless flesh. All came dead-eyed, greying, soft-skinned and oddly beautiful in their mystery and sad wisdom, gained by knowing that which the living are yet to discover.
Under the virgin white blooms of the Catalpa trees she lay the adults, quiet, respectable graves that she dug in the surrounding land, the rushing whispers of the Yellow River audible over the swooping cries of birdsong thrown from tree to tree. She had no interest in the adults, as their own agonies and passions had driven them to the silty, caking mud of the riverbed, but the children held a deeper interest for her, their fate unclear from the sodden figures she dredged from the lake and carried home.
Her home struggled to accommodate the sudden influx of children; sitting upright in dining chairs, eyes gently closed as they lay, enveloped in blankets, in beds and cots. Like a doll’s house they were positioned, frozen in time but for the tell-tale decay that crept across their bare hands and faces; slowly in the deepening winter but clear, the dark spots and red-purple haze that washed the still white bodies. Their gums reeled back from their teeth and blackened, blood and bile gathered at the corners of their mouths in dry, rust-coloured clumps. The children rotted from the inside out, and she combed their hair, straightened their clothes and loved them.