All the family heads were sat surrounding Zheng Yuen-Lia, but he was silent. The women had just left the room after closing the windows and curtains, and now only the lights of a few candles revealed the concern faces around me. I didn’t know why I was there and even most important, how I had ended inside that room. After all, I was just a prisoner with less priviliges than a cow or a pig.
Zheng Yeun-Lia’s semblance was as plain and cold as stone. His small eyes showed no more than deep blue darkness. If eyes were the window of the soul, he had none. I could sense the tension in the air, the questions the rest of people in the room wanted so fervently to ask and their fear about the answers they could obtain. In any other situation I hadn’t felt myself part of that, but now I knew my own neck was in danger. But Zheng Yeun-Lia finally spoke, and when he did it, he could not suppress the outrage in his voice.
“They call us the “New Territories”, as if they had discovered us. Those foreign devils have won the Opium War and have Hong Kong is their hands, but we won’t allow them to take our village. We are descendants of the Emperor Gaozong of the Song Dynasty! Our ancestors protected Kat Hing Wai and we will do the same. If they want to pass through our walls, they will do it covered in their own blood.”
The rest of the family heads supported his words with nodding vehement. Some of their eyes shone with excitement but I could see also a sparkle of fear and insecurity in some faces. They all knew how powerful the British Army was and they all had heard the news of more and more villages succumbing under their strength every day.
“When will they come, Yuen-Lia?” a man asked.
“They will be here in two days”, he answered. “We need to prepare ourselves. I want the entire village be ready, including women and young boys and girls.”
“Wouldn’t it be too risky?”
“Yes, but it is necessary.”
“May I ask, Yuen-Lia, why is he here?” someone asked then, pointing at me.
I stopped looking at him and bowed until my front touched the floor.
“Niwa Kusari”, Zheng Yuen-Lia said. “I knew you would serve me better if I kept you alive, and now it’s the moment to use you. If you manage to accomplish the task I will entrust you, you will be able to leave your cell and live in a house, though you will be still a prisoner and you will be under surveillance. Look at me.”
I obeyed, trembling. I was afraid to hear the task Zheng Yuen-Lia wanted me to carry out. It should entail a great risk and danger if he didn’t want his own men to do it. His frozen eyes locked in mine and I thought I was more comfortable before, knelt down as a mere slave.
“Tomorrow night you will leave the village to spy the British people and then, you will come back.”
Those words were a clear sentence of death. Of course he would reward me if I was capable of returning alive; the possibilities were so remote that they were practically non-existent. I was perfect for the task: just a Japanese prisoner whose death was wished for the majority of the family heads in the village. I’d rather preferred to live the rest of my days in the prison cell than accept the mission, but unfortunately, I had no option. If I refused, I was dead. I didn’t say anything, because it wasn’t necessary. Zheng Yuen-Lia dismissed me and a pair of his men grabbed me for under my shoulders, taking me out of the room.
Again inside my cell, I lay down over the cold and humid ground and looked through the iron bars of the small window, to see the moon and the stars shining brightly and unaware above us. I tried to think of the best way to welcome my own death, to be prepared for it, but it was impossible. I didn’t want to die. My wish every night, while contemplating the firmament, had been to be free, but I knew I was hoping for improbable miracle. I missed so many things... that I was now sure I would never see again. If the British caught me... I could try to save my neck by using an exchange of information, but I was tired of being loyal to nothing, of cheating and dishonoring my own principles. If the price required to avoid death was to betray my ideals and to join those foreigners, I would die willingly, even for the Kam Tin people. That thought gave me some peace and allowed me to get asleep.
The next day followed too fast. When I woke up the sun was already high in the sky and somebody was staring at me through the small hole in the door of my cell, two eyes that I knew well, hazel and warm. I had never heard her speak, but she was in charge to bring me food. That day, instead of just water and bread, she gave me milk and green tea, fruit and a small piece of sesame cake. It seemed that Zheng Yuen-Lia had a certain interest about the information I could give him if I came back alive, after all.
The time passed quickly and silently, and when I raised my head to look through the window, the sun wasn’t visible anymore and the clouds were crimson and purple. I heard approaching footsteps and then the door was opened. In front of me stood one of Zheng Yuen-Lia’s sons, Sha Yuen-Lia, holding a lantern and new clothes under his arm. His expression was inescrutable as he threw the cloths and ordered me to put them on. He didn’t give me a weapon, of course. The fact that I could kill a member of the British Army only would get the situation worse.
“Go west”, he said before turning himself and disappearing into darkness.
Zheng Yuen-Lia’s men accompanied me up to the gates of the village without saying a word. It was a beautiful night outside my cell; the stars seemed to sing quietly, beating slowly, not a bad one to meet death. The gates opened, I left the village and they closed them after me. I was alone and I had no time to waste.
I went west, as Sha Yue-Lia had told me, but I didn’t know where the British Army would be camping. I hid myself as I could in the forest, but it didn’t offer me enough protection. Plants and trees were beginning to sprout and their small and green leaves were barely able to camouflage me. Accustomed to the silence of my cell, the forest seemed too noisy and wild. My steps sounded very loudly and the crack of pebbles and fallen branches were like screams in the middle of the night. But I wasn’t afraid, because I knew the forest very well; I had studied that territory when my people and I tried to attack Kat Hing Wai and failed. Now it was dark, but the shining moon helped me to see and though the air was cold, I was warm enough. I had agile feet and quick legs, a pair of strong arms and hands. Certainly they could be useless against a tiger, but I had my prayers for that very reason.
I run for hours, I didn’t know how many exactly, because the time seemed to have stopped. I couldn’t understand how my feet were able to keep running; except for that day, my meals had been of a very poor quality. Perhaps it was the adrenaline or the desire of feeling everything I could possibly feel in my last moments of life, even if it was the acute pain of all the muscles of my body. When I was completely breathless my legs couldn’t withstand me and I fell on the ground, all my limbs aching intensely. Only then, the idea of escaping crossed my mind, and I laughed softly. I wasn’t that naïve: that wasn’t even a remote option to consider. It would haven been possible to escape from Zheng Yuen-Lia and the British Army, but when I could go after that? In China there wasn’t a single place sure for me. And maybe the next group of Chinese that found me believed that I only deserved to die.
I heard something, a noise that didn’t belong to the forest. I didn’t move and stopped breathing, trying to listen more carefully. Whispers, some metres ahead. I raised my body and hid behind the trunk of a tree, spying in the distance. I could recognise two human figures walking near the limit of the forest, carrying a lantern: the British Army. I tried to calm down and think a strategy to approach their camp. I looked at the ground and picked up a large branch and some stones, and then I went closer as silently as I could without losing sight of the soldiers.
I threw the branch and the stones with all the strength I had left, that wasn’t enough. The distraction at least worked: the soldiers heard the noise and changed the direction of their steps. I didn’t miss the opportunity. I walked to the opposite way and crouched down in the grass to see something beyond the trees. And I saw it. So many tents that I couldn’t count them all, armed men and some sort of machine unknown to me, similar to little cannons. I heard a shout and sought refuge in the deep forest. For a moment, I didn’t know what to do next. Should I try to see something else or that was enough to please Zheng Yuen-Lia? Near voices and footsteps decided for me; my body reacted for itself. I was running again, to the place that in that very moment was almost as home.
Dawn was upon the hills when I finally arrived to the gates of Kat Hing Wai. I was totally exhausted, incapable of give another step, so I fell on my knees struggling to breath, over the bridge that crossed the moat of the village. I couldn’t see nor hear anything apart from my own fast beatings, but I noticed someone grabbing my arms and carrying me inside. They took me to Zheng Yuen-Lia immediately and only when I was in his main room, knelt in front of him, someone gave me a glass of water. I drank it as if I weren’t taste it in my whole life and although I was still thirsty after it, I didn’t ask for more. My sight was blurred and slightly distorted, and I was dizzy. I raised my eyes to look at Zheng Yuen-Lia.
“Did you manage to accomplish your task, Niwa Kusari?” he asked, severely.
“What did you see?”
“I saw many big tents, at least a dozen. Many armed men and weapons”.
“What sort of weapons?”
“I don’t know, I had never seen those weapons before. They seem cannons, but are smaller and thinner”.
“Did they see you?”
Zheng Yuen-Lia made a signal to one of their men and he gave me another glass of water.
“Do you think we have possibilities?”
I was surprised by that question, andI considered my words carefully before answering.
“Yes. But... if the information I heard here yesterday is correct, the British people have no intention of attacking the village now”.
“Yes, so far they have no intention to do that. But they believe us already part of their territory”.
“What I want to say it’s that perhaps you shouldn’t fight against them today. Of course you can show them they are not welcome here. But I think it’s more prudent to wait. You can fight today, though your people are not fully prepared, and win, but then the British Army won’t have mercy and they will destroy the village”.
As I stopped talking, I regretted it. Had I said too much? But Zheng Yuen-Lia didn’t seem furious; he seemed being considering what I had said seriously.
“So... what you are saying it’s that we should attack if they attack us first. And be prepared of that occasion”.
“As I promised you, Niwa Kusari, you will have now a place to live in the village and also a job. I hope you do it satisfactory”.
“I will do my best. Thank you”.
I was guided out of Zheng Yuen-Lia’s home and taken to a small house near the prison and Training School. The building was pretty modest and it wasn’t in a very good condition, but for me it was like a castle. It had only a kitchen, a living room and a bedroom, but it faced the garden of the Training School and I could see the blossoming of cherry trees. The floor was made of wood, the walls were painted in white and the furniture was austere. There was light inside the house when I entered, flanked by two of Zheng Yuen-Lia’s men.
“There will be always someone watching you”, one of the men said, with hostility. “You can sleep two or three hours, but then you must go to the Temple. Do you understand?”
“You won’t live alone”, he added, pointing at the kitchen door.
I turned and saw a woman. She was younger than me, beautiful, and was wearing a traditional dress. I recognised her. Actually, I only recognised her eyes, warm and hazel: she was the woman who brought me food at the prison.
“She is one of the nieces of Zheng Yuen-Lia”, the man explained, and I could notice his disapproval. “She will be here during the day only and she will cook for you. Her name is Xia Lia-Hou. If you dare to touch her, you will die”.
I nodded and they left the house. My house now. Xia Lia-Hou and I stared at each other for a while until she bowed her head and disappeared into the kitchen. I observed the almost empty living room and then I went to the bedroom. The flame of the lighted candle there shivered when I closed the door. The room had bare walls, a wardrobe, a table and the only thing I cared about in that moment: a bed. I lay down without undressing myself and in less that a minute, I was completely asleep.
When Xia Lia-Hou woke me up, it was as if I just closed my eyes in that very moment. I felt disoriented at first, but all what had happened last night came to my mind in a second. Xia Lia-Hou put a tray over the table and I smelled the delicious aroma of hot rice cake and tea. My stomach roared.
“You must eat quickly and go to the Temple”, she said.
I couldn’t help to notice again how beautiful she was. I hadn’t seen a woman for a long time, but apart from that, she really was pretty. She had a slim figure, long and silky black hair, pale skin and those bright eyes. And she didn’t look at me with revulsion or fury. When she went out of the room, I got up and ate my breakfast. She was also a good cooker. When I finished it, I opened the wardrobe, but it was empty, so I went to the Temple with the same clothes Sha Yuen-Lia gave me when I left the prison. They were of a medium quality, but they were dirty: I had been running through the forest and I had been lying on the ground.
The way to the Temple wasn’t easy. I didn’t remember where it was, so I had to ask some people for indications. Zheng Yuen-Lia, if had not forgiven me, at least had ignored my past actions, but the rest of the village didn’t think the same. They looked at me with rejection clearly painted in their expressions, no one answered my questions and some of them even spat on my feet.
The Temple was a beautiful building, not very big though. It was surrounded by orchards and vegetable gardens, and in that moment the gongs were ringing. Monks were everywhere, dressed with orange tunics, lost in their own thoughts. Nobody paid me attention, except for a young man made me a gesture and began walking. I followed him.
I was leaded to a small room by a garden, where an old monk was waiting for me. The man was feeding some blue birds inside wood cages, whispering and singing softly. I bowed my head but didn’t speak, and I waited. The monk said nothing for five minutes.
“Zheng Yuen-Lia told me that you don’t know how to write Chinese”.
“You will learn here”, the old man said, looking at me... almost gently. “And then you will teach to our little children. Do you have anything to object?”
“No. I will be delighted”.
“I will be your master, but now I can’t...”
We heard someone running and then the young man that had come with me appeared again. He looked frightened.
“The foreigners are here”.
The old monk stared at me, thoughtfully. He didn’t seem nervious.
“Go to the entrance of the village”, he said.
I nodded and went out of the room. The monks didn’t leave the Temple; the majority of them acted as if nothing was happening, but some had worried faces. I hurried up, I was sort of anxious. What would be the plans of Zheng Yuen-Lia? The village wasn’t prepared for a battle and there wasn’t the spirit for a fight.
The main square in front of the gates was completely full: men, women, young and old people and even children. I could see Zheng Yuen-Lia and his entire family there, and I sighed relieved when I saw that they were not dressed for a battle. I recognised Xia Lia-Hou next to an elder woman, holding her hand. The people of the village were screaming “foreign devils” while beating their gongs and throwing rotten eggs to the British Army, at the other side of the gates. I dared to ask, to a man next to me.
“What is happening?”
“Those devils want to enter into the village”, he said me, without looking at me. “But Zheng Yuen-Lia...”
He couldn’t complete his answer because in that moment, a very powerful and terrifying sound silenced the shouts with brutality. I thought I stopped breathing for a minute. Some children began crying and then we heard a voice that didn’t understand very well; his Cantonese was pretty bad.
“I am Stewart Lockhart, the leader of this Commision and I am here by the request of the Governor of Hong Kong, Sir Henry Blake! I want you to know that I have seventy five men with me, British marines, and two Maxim Guns that I will not hesitate to use against you. If you do not open the gates, I will had to knock them down.”
All the people in the square turned to look at Zheng Yuen-Lia. He pressed his lips and frowned. He remained silent for what it seemed to me an eternity, but finally he raised his hand and nodded without saying anything. His men wavered for a second, but they obeyed and lifted the bridge and opened the gates.