Deus ex Ucraina

The Lost Ones

Оповідь українською

Story by Marichka Melnyk

Illustrated by Mykhailo Aleksandrov

“Good mor-ning, tea-cher!”

The students stood at attention next to their desks, chanting in near unison with only a few of them off-tempo. Their greeting was directed at the obese woman wearing a brown-colored wrap dress and a neat bun on her head held together by bamboo hairpins, who had entered the classroom just as the bell rang.

“Sit down,” Mrs Mao replied coldly. Leaning on her cane, she limped over to the teacher’s desk and stopped to stand next to it. Her intense gaze swept across the six parallel rows of single desks, where her class of second graders was waiting for her, fresh from recess.

“I certainly hope everyone has turned off their electronic devices and put them away?” she asked after a five second pause, more like ordering than requesting, as she stood there patting down the black strands of hair near her left temple, trying to conceal the annoying grey roots peeking through her dyed black hair.

“You know very well smartphones, tablets, smartwatches, and other digital toys aren’t allowed in my classroom…”

Mao hadn’t finished her sentence when seven absent-minded eight-year-olds jumped up from their chairs located in different corners of the spacious classroom and rushed to the cabinet next to the wooden chalkboard. The lower three of its four drawers were already stuffed and overflowing with all sorts of “digital toys.” The bottom one didn’t close completely and the girl who reached the cabinet last had no choice but to leave it half-open.

Disgusted with the students, Mao drew in a deep breath and exhaled it loudly enough to be heard in the furthest reaches of the classroom. She turned away and walked over to the chalkboard. Standing with her back to the students, the woman switched her cane from her right hand to her left, opened the top drawer of the cabinet to take out a piece of white chalk, and began writing numbers on the dark green board. In one column she wrote equations: 41 + 18; 48 ÷ 3; 93 – 46; 37 + 38; 29 + 54; 14 × 4; 78 – 69… and in the other column opposite the first she wrote the solutions in random order so the student she called on would have to draw an arrow pairing the equation with the solution.

A deadly silence fell over the second graders, one nobody would ever dare break, especially in Mrs Mao’s class. Other teachers would occasionally turn a blind eye to the children’s innocent pranks, but Mao was steadfastly intolerant of childish mischief of any kind. With a deep frown creasing the space between her eyebrows and not a hint of a smile, her scowl had warned the students of her nature during their first encounter. But not every kid was equally adept at reading non-verbal signals. It took only a few lessons at the start of the 2024 school year for most of them to realize simply sniffling in Mrs Mao’s class was a gross violation of discipline and an egregious display of disrespect. Now, nearing the end of the second semester, she had trained the schoolchildren to behave like angels. Having learned from the bitter experience of pieces of chalk targeting their heads with surgical precision, the students sat as quietly as mice, obediently waiting for the teacher to finish writing the equations. The silence was broken only by the unpleasant screeching of the chalk on the board from the pressure of her heavy hand.

Mao wasn’t supposed to be teaching. As the director of the Model Boarding School №1 and head of the Association of Boarding Schools, which opened one after another in the Chinese Occupation Zone of Moscow in autumn 2023, Li Mao had enough responsibilities on her shoulders. Managing an institution in which 2,647 students live and study isn’t easy. Not to mention coordinating an additional six schools. The students under her daily care were not orphans without families. The children were those of high-ranking military officers, analysts, economists, finance experts, engineers, construction company owners, doctors, food industry specialists, and others. The specialists had flown from Beijing to the former capital of the Russian Federation on May 9, 2023, the day after the decision was announced at the Smolensk Conference to take control of and organize services in the Chinese occupation zone. Although it wasn’t sufficient compensation for the annexation of Taiwan by the Americans, the newly acquired Russian territory did provide a valuable opportunity to protect the interests of Chinese workers.

Mao only wrote on the top half of the chalkboard. Unlike most people who become hunched with age, her back was so stiff she could barely bend over. This would seem like enough of a reason to decrease her workload – after all, she was 76 years old. But Li Mao refused to stop teaching and simply be an administrator. At least not now, when she’s reached the peak of her career. She couldn’t show weakness at any cost. She wouldn’t let anything undermine the authority she worked so long and hard to build. That’s why all the elementary school classrooms where Mao taught had step stools, three stairs high, so the children, most of them no taller than her waist, had a fighting chance to reach the equations on the chalkboard.

Mao’s hand froze in place when the sound of rustling paper coming from the first row of desks broke the silence. One of the students had torn sheets of paper from their notebook and was now obviously making something out of the paper. A few of the children giggled quietly.

“Stop your racket!” Mao commanded in a deceptively calm but inflexible tone. The students immediately piped down after this first warning, and she continued with her lesson.

Yet, the children were barely able to contain themselves for more than thirty seconds. She heard a creaking behind her back, as if someone had stood on their chair. Without turning around, Mao knew who it was. Only Hector would have the guts to continue fooling around after her warning. The other students instantly capitulated and usually didn’t move or let out a peep for the rest of the lesson.

Paper rustled again nearby and someone in the back of the classroom, unable to hold back, burst out with laughter. Then another child’s voice giggled, then another, and another – and soon the laughter had infected almost everyone. “I shouldn’t have cut him any slack before. Now he thinks he can walk all over me. I’ll have to increase his dose today! I can’t stand these shenanigans any longer. Nobody else dares to behave this way with teachers…Or with me!” she thought to herself as the wave of restless commotion from the students’ desks reached her shore.

The contagious merriment was cut short by an unexpected loud thwack. Mao had banged her cane on the hollow step stool next to her.

“You uncultured brats!” she shouted at the top of her lung, turning to face the second graders. “How dare you show such disrespect? Your behavior will help me determine your final grades in two weeks! And believe me, every minute we lost at the beginning of the lesson because of your inability to follow instructions and are now losing because of your giggling, will be taken away from you during recess!”

Sixty-three pairs of children’s eyes stared silently at her. Some of the kids were scared, covering their faces with their hands, and peeking through the gaps between their fingers; others scratched their heads in puzzlement, while still others froze in place with their mouths gaping open in confusion.

“And you, you little scoundrel,” she said, waving her index finger menacingly and taking a few steps towards Hector, who was still standing on top of the second desk by the window. “You’ll be sorry!”

Standing in the hot embrace of the afternoon sun stood a small, bewildered boy. Although he looked about the same size as the rest of his classmates, he was in fact two years older. He was crumpling a mock-up of a panda dressed in a brown robe he had made from the torn-out sheets of paper. The panda oddly resembled his fat, and at first glance, cloddish math teacher, Mrs Mao.

“So that’s why you’re all sniggering! No more clowning around. Just you wait, I’ll teach you how to respect your elders!” The boy didn’t even try to duck when Mao swung her cane at him. He simply went stone-still, as if he had been caught in Medusa’s gaze.

“Finally, he’s scared,” Mao thought. The woman was about to unleash all her anger on this violator of discipline when everything went dark, and she felt the classroom spinning like a whirlwind. Her grip slackened and Mao dropped her cane, where, shortly thereafter, she collapsed alongside it on the floor.

She was right. Hector was genuinely scared and so were the rest of his classmates. Not because the righteously furious teacher nearly hit him, but because her scribbles on the chalkboard were indecipherable, she was moaning incoherently, and there was a skewed appearance to her face, the right side of which was drooping. When she hit the floor, Mao’s prosthetic finger, which she used to hide the absence of two bones on her left pinkie, fell off. Not knowing it was a prosthesis, the wide-eyed boy watched in horror as the teacher’s finger slowly rolled across the floor towards the radiator. And with that, the terrified boy fainted, landing on the floor next to Mao.

The woman regained consciousness as four men – a paramedic and male nurse who had responded to the emergency call and two teachers from the boarding school – were lifting her onto a stretcher. Standing next to them was the school doctor Tsai Ai holding Tan Meiling’s hand. She was the student who had kept her wits about her and pressed the alarm button, located under the teacher’s desk in every classroom.

“That ungrateful boy gave me a heart attack! And after all I did for him…” Li Mao was thinking clearly in her mind, but the sounds coming out of her mouth bore no resemblance to actual words. “Th.. un…ful b.. ..ave m… a…art …ack!..d af… I…did f…im,” is what the ambulance crew heard instead while wheeling the woman through the hallways towards the exit where the ambulance was parked.

“Don’t try to talk. You’ve probably had a stroke. It caused motor aphasia. Stay calm, we’re here to help you. By the way, the boy is on his way to the hospital. Another ambulance took him away a minute ago.” The male nurse’s attempts to calm Mao had the opposite effect. She continued jerking from side to side, struggling, without success, to ask “What? What happened to Hector? Why did they take him to the hospital?” She gave up trying to get an answer when she developed a sudden onset of double vision, her mouth filled with bitter, salty saliva, and she felt like she was getting sucked into a whirlpool again.

As the ambulance drove to the stroke center, announcing itself with a blaring siren, the woman’s vision would clear and then go dark again erratically, though all the while she remained conscious. Mao had never felt so helpless in her life. During those moments when she emerged from the dark abyss, she felt like the sole passenger on a boat which had lost its sails and oars in a storm and was drifting in a boundless expanse of water with no hope of being rescued. In desperation, she convulsively grabbed at her absent cane – her only protection, her saving grace. But her efforts were in vain; her body refused to cooperate. Mao stared in doom at the white ceiling of the ambulance, where a light directly above her flashed bright red every second or two.

Leaning towards the microphone on the table in front of him next to a nameplate with the word “Germany,” a balding man wearing a black suit with a blue and white tie pressed the button on the microphone stand and, confirming the red LED light was on, began speaking:

“Colleagues, we have gathered in Smolensk to make an historic decision. After six days of long and at times heated debate, we have, unfortunately, failed to reach an agreement on the origin of the current situation in the Russian Federation, which cannot be labeled as anything other than chaos…”

“I hope this is not another attempt by our Western European colleagues to unjustly lay all the blame on Ukraine,” interrupted one of the other 12 participants of the conference gathered in the meeting room – the only one clad in a khaki t-shirt and pants. “Because let me repeat, once again, in case my previous statements weren’t explicit enough: we, unlike Russia, do not engage in terrorism! Everything we do is dictated by our national security interests.” He turned off his microphone as abruptly as he had turned it on and forcefully leaned back in his chair. Two of his neighbors to the right with nameplates “Estonia” and “Latvia” nodded their heads in agreement, while the one to his left, representing “Lithuania,” reached out and gently squeezed his shoulder.

“Be that as it may,” the speaker continued after a brief pause, “we have to conclude, there is no force within the Russian Federation which could stabilize the situation at this time.” The man took a white handkerchief from his inside pocket and wiped a few drops of sweat from his forehead. The air conditioning in the large conference room, which for security reasons didn’t have windows, had not been working since the morning. Some of the participants had loosened their ties and unbuttoned their collars. Two had taken off their suit jackets and hung them on the backs of their chairs. But the representative from Germany maintained protocol to the very end. “We all witnessed what can happen when there is a government power vacuum. The consequences of the Winter Crisis affected every one of us in one way or another…”

“So, perhaps we should move on to the vote?” asked another one of the participants at the negotiations politely, though insistently, interrupting the speaker for a second time. “How much time can we waste? We’ve already agreed on the preliminary division of responsibilities.” The man smiled and feigned a relaxed confidence to conceal his actual internal tension. Then he scanned the room with a questioning look. The nameplate in front of him read “China.”

There was a reason Xi Jinping was pushing for a quick resolution to the negotiations. He didn’t want to wait any longer. What if suddenly the participants of the Smolensk Conference changed their minds and refused to award the People’s Republic of China a piece of the delicious and long-desired pie that was the Russian Federation?

Xi Jinping had lucked out. As of this meeting, neither Ukraine and the Baltic states nor any of the other Europeans had found glaring evidence of Sino-Russian cooperation during the war in Ukraine in 2022-2023. There was only a suspicion “someone, somewhere, somehow” supposedly helped Putin and his short-lived successor to circumvent Western sanctions. But it was just idle chatter. Their word against Xi Jinping’s. Everyone knew it, and were therefore forced to agree to China’s occupation of the Far East and the former northern, northeastern, eastern, southeastern, and southern districts of Moscow. The proposal regarding the New Silk Road also played a key role. “Just imagine how much shorter the route will be and how much faster Chinese goods will reach Europe once we no longer have to bypass Russian territory,” the president of China slyly whispered to the presidents of France, Germany, and Italy behind the scenes of the negotiations. And they eagerly took the bait.

“These Europeans are so predictable,” Xi Jinping said to his assistant, raising a glass of white wine on his private plane as it left Smolensk for Beijing late in the evening of May 8, 2023. He was extremely pleased to be returning home triumphant, having acquired vast expanses with valuable natural resources for China. It was much more than the territory the Qing Dynasty had ceded under the Treaties of Aigun and Beijing.

Mao stopped at the crosswalk and waited for the light to turn green. In the one and a half minutes she stood there, some thirty people had gathered around her. They were mostly young people, dressed in business attire and carrying briefcases. A few danced in place to their favorite music in their headphones. Others were finishing their morning coffee while reading something on their smartphones. A girl, skinny as a pole and with an acid-blue streak in her brown hair, was standing next to Mao. She took a mirror and comb from the side pocket of her briefcase and started straightening her bob haircut. Most of the pedestrians, however, simply shifted nervously from foot to foot, checking the time on their smartwatches and fitness bracelets.

As soon as the light turned yellow, the crowd around the woman with the cane rushed to cross the street, nearly dragging her along with them.

“Damn children! What is wrong with you?” Mao said angrily to herself as she trailed after them, trying with her left hand in vain to smooth her blue blouse, which had been perfectly ironed before the jostling at the crosswalk. Cursing the white-collar workers running late for the office in the morning, willing to take down anyone in their path, the woman hobbled the final 15 meters to her destination: a nine-story building covered in light gray tiles with large panoramic windows.

Mao went through the revolving glass doors into the lobby, got a pass from the security desk, and took the elevator up to the second floor.

“Li Mao to see the minister,” she announced to the young man at the reception desk directly across from the elevator, skipping the formalities. “We have a meeting at 9:15,” she said before he could open his mouth. Holding her chin up, it was obvious from the tone of her voice the woman thought highly of herself.

“Good morning! Please come in. They’re waiting for you,” the young man pointed to a door to Mao’s left and sprang up from behind his desk. He rushed forward, two steps ahead of the woman with the cane, to open the door.

As she limped toward the minister’s office, from the corner of her eye, Mao saw something move to her right. In the waiting area by the window, four upholstered chairs with high backs stood in a semicircle around an oval glass table. There was someone sitting in one of the chairs, but she couldn’t tell who it was because they were facing the window. She only caught a glimpse of something blue. Just then the door opened wide, and she had no time to look more closely to satisfy her curiosity.

“Hello, Mr. Minister!” Putting on a sweet, fake smile, Mao bowed slightly to the fifty-year-old man, who didn’t bother to rise from his chair and greet his guest.

“Please, take a seat,” he motioned to one of the two chairs next to his desk. “You have an impressive resume, Mrs Mao.” While she settled into a chair and placed her cane next to her seat, he took a dozen or so sheets of typed paper from a folder and fanned them out in front of him. “Higher education. Almost 40 years of teaching experience. Never failed a teacher’s qualification exam. In the last decade your name was never absent from the national list of exemplary teachers selected from among tens of thousands of educators across the country. Correct?”

“Yes, Mr. Minister.” Mao sat straight in the chair with her hands folded in her lap like a model student.

“And the loss of a child didn’t hold you back,” the man said tactlessly, staring her straight in the eye.

“Or the loss of my husband,” the woman added coldly, holding his gaze. She didn’t flinch. Her entire demeanor told him, his provocation had failed.

For a moment there was an awkward pause. The minister was the first to lower his gaze, acknowledging the mild rebuke. He picked up one of the sheets of paper and scanned it as though he was looking for something.

“For two years in the early 1990s you interned at the Patrice Lumumba Peoples’ Friendship University of Russia, gdye izuchili russkiy yazyk, where you studied to speak Russian…” His eyebrows arched questionably as he looked directly at the woman.

“That is correct, Mr. Minister,” she said in Russian, following his cue.

“As you see, your efforts weren’t in vain. The time has come to use the knowledge. Of course, many Russians fled. But not all, unfortunately.” The minister paused briefly. He let the paper drop out of his hands to float onto his desk, speeding the paper’s descent by slamming it down with a heavy outstretched palm. “And we can’t afford to delay, like the others are doing. We need to incorporate ourselves into the new territories. Thousands of our experts were relocated to Moscow and have been working there since May 9. Recognizing this process won’t be completed in a day, the president has allowed the experts to bring their families with them. Your institution will be closed to visitors and the children will stay there 24 hours a day Monday through Saturday, so their parents won’t be distracted from their duties. Construction will start in June and the school will open on September 1. You will fly out in a week, on May 30, to monitor the process, starting with the first laid brick. Are you sure you can handle it?”

“This is a great honor for me, Mr. Minister,” said Mao. She raised herself part way from where she was sitting and slightly bowed to him again. “I will make every effort, possible and impossible, to ensure my service benefits the party and the republic.”

“I appreciate your enthusiasm. I don’t think we could have found a better candidate… The only thing I’m a bit concerned about,” the man leaned back in the chair, placed his elbows on the armrests, and focused his eyes intently on her, “is your connection to Taiwan.”

“There’s nothing to worry about. I assure you, Mr. Minister, there are no connections. They broke off before they formed, back in 1949,” Mao replied slowly, emphasizing each word. A chill came over her. The most important promotion of her career could be in jeopardy. The unnatural smile still on her face transformed into a grimace.

“I was hoping to hear you say so, madam director. But we’ll keep our fingers on the pulse, just in case,” the man commented as he stood up from his chair and gathered the pages of her biography to put back into the folder. Having tucked the folder under his left arm, the minister rounded the desk to approach Mao, who had also risen from her chair. The minister extended his hand in a handshake. “We shouldn’t waste the opportunities opening for China. We have been planning this since 2014, when nobody imagined Russia could collapse because of their war with Ukraine…”

The Chinese Minister of Education said the last two sentences while escorting Mao to the door.

“Let’s stay in touch,” he suggested to her receding figure, having halted at the door to his office. Mao was halfway to the reception desk when she heard his voice behind her: “Yanfen! Take this, it will come in handy.”

Mao turned her head slightly to the right to watch in the window’s reflection how the minister handed a folder to a young woman in a white blouse and black pantsuit who had jumped up from her chair as soon as she heard her name. She looked young enough to be his granddaughter. The only thing that didn’t fit the woman’s otherwise business-like appearance was the blue streak in her hair.

Several months had passed before she got around to unpacking her personal belongings. Carol of the Bells and other Christmas melodies could be heard floating in from the adjacent UN Occupation Zone in Moscow when Mao asked not to be disturbed for at least half an hour so she could unpack and rearrange her office. Two equal-sized oil portraits were already hanging in the center of the wall to the right of her desk one depicting the first president of the People’s Republic of China and the other, the current president and general secretary of the Chinese Community Party. Both were in massive mahogany frames at least a meter tall, though only the second one was lovingly wrapped in a transparent white scarf with tassels hanging off the ends.

The woman hung her diplomas closer to the corner of the room, at a respectful distance from the portrait of Xi Dada, or “Uncle Xi.” One was her degree in mathematics from Nanjing University and the other in education management from the South China Pedagogical University in Guangdong province. On the table in front of her, waiting their turn to be hung on the wall, were her awards from the Chinese Teachers Development Fund.

Mao was choosing a spot on the wall for her “National Advanced Education Worker” certificate when the telephone rang in the reception area on the other side of the wall.

“Model Boarding School №1. My name is Wu Yanfen, how may I help you?” her secretary answered the call with her standard greeting before pausing to let the caller speak.

“Wait, please, let me check,” the young girl responded to the muffled male voice on the other end of the line. “Yes, we can,” she said a second later, after clicking a few keys on her computer keyboard and opening an Excel spreadsheet with endless rows of numbers in different colored cells.

“Ok, I’m starting.” Yanfen pressed a round green button on a black rectangle on her keyboard.

Mao could only guess what this was all about, but from the loud clattering in the neighboring room the director surmised her secretary was receiving a fax. The antediluvian apparatus groaned in pain as if its arms and legs were being stretched apart on a medieval rack. It began spitting out a sheet of paper with a black-and-white image at the pace of several millimeters per second.

Two minutes later there was a polite knock on Mao’s door before she nudged the door open.

“I’m very sorry, madam director,” Yanfen said hesitantly from behind the door, “but there is an urgent matter…”

“Come in,” Mao acquiesced. Seeing the cardboard folder in which her subordinate usually gave her documents to be signed, the woman put the framed certificate down on the table in front of her and extended her right hand expectantly.

As soon as the director took the folder, the secretary seemed to evaporate into thin air. Inside was a sheet of paper with the blurred outlines of a child’s photo. The brief text under the picture described how during an inspection of abandoned buildings in the former Southeastern District of Moscow, patrol officers found a six- or seven-year-old Caucasian boy. He was hungry, dehydrated, and had started developing frostbite on his extremities. The militarized police couldn’t get him to talk. When they searched the boy, the officers found a handwritten note on a sheet of paper, folded in four, in the inside pocket of his ragged jacket. The note contained columns of numbers and a few words written next to each of the numbers. The writing was probably Russian, but they couldn’t be certain, because the paper was accidentally misplaced. The child had no identifying marks other than a tattoo in the shape of a cross on his right wrist.

Annoyed, Mao flung the fax on the table and determinedly pulled the phone towards her. She grabbed the receiver and, without hesitating, began rapidly poking at the buttons to dial a number. Her short, chubby index finger pressed them mercilessly until she heard the call connecting on the other end.

“My institution is not for strays!” The woman went into battle mode as soon as she heard the voice on the other end greet her. “Only children of respectable people who are useful to society study here! You know my position about this is categorical, yet you still try throwing me your random junk from the street…” A vein on her neck throbbed in righteous anger and an unhealthy flush suffused her cheeks.

“Mrs Mao, I understand your anger, but right now there really is no other option. The August assassination of Patriarch Kirill, the head of the Russian Church, provoked a new wave of migration of Russians into Zone 5. We’re talking about tens of thousands of people who rushed across the Urals. And so far, it has been impossible to control this process. All the Moscow shelters under our jurisdiction are overcrowded by fifty percent or more, because in addition to the war orphans there are now lost or abandoned children – how could those Russians do such a thing?” Unmoved by Mao’s tirade, the man who had sent the fax two minutes earlier stated matter-of-factly. “This time I will not accept your refusal. Moreover, your secretary confirmed there is space in your boarding school. But if you insist, I will be forced to speak to…”

“But this boy isn’t Chinese,” Mao interrupted. “Why spend so much effort on him?” The boarding school director retorted with less enthusiasm, realizing she may have gone too far. You never know how this may come back to haunt you in the future. Sometimes you must control your temper and be flexible. Mao took this to heart during the Cultural Revolution; otherwise, she would never have reached her current status.

“Yes, he’s not Chinese,” the man agreed, and Mao had a flash of hope she had hit the right excuse to help get rid of the unwanted burden. However, her hope vanished as soon as she heard him continue with steely resolve in his voice. “Then make him Chinese! Isn’t that what your boarding school does? Judging by the company in which he was caught, he’s already gone through some preliminary training. The rest is up to you. And if your experiment is successful, we’ll discuss the introduction of a re-education program in all newly acquired territories. This is a very opportune time – it’s unlikely anyone will make a fuss, like with the Uyghurs and Tibetans. Don’t miss out on this opportunity!”

The man hung up without waiting for Mao’s reply. Shocked, she stood at her desk for another twenty seconds listening to the short intermittent beeps emanating from the phone. The call had ended and only the beeping sound disrupted the silence of her office. Once she finally put the receiver back in its place, the woman slowly sank into her chair and reached for her purse, where she kept a small medicine box.

She popped a pill out of its packaging and pressed the button for the reception desk.

“Listening, madam director,” the secretary answered.

“Bring me water. Hurry!” Mao ordered. A minute later, raising the glass of water brought to her by Yanfen, she paused for a second and, not able to contain her rage, railed, “You had to run off at the mouth and blurt out we had free spots? Now you deal with it. This feral boy is your problem. Do what you want with him… Now get out of my sight, you idiot!

Wu Yanfen was stomping her feet at the top of the brightly illuminated stairs leading to the main entrance of Model Boarding School №1. She was wearing a cream-colored eco-leather coat, black knee-high boots, blue furry earmuffs, and matching gloves.

“Oh, dear, what a crappy assignment. No one’s going to envy me, that’s for sure,” the young girl complained to herself, blowing into her clenched hands to warm them up. She may have continued had her thoughts not been interrupted by the muffled hum of a motor growing louder as it swiftly approached her.

An instant later, a police car emerged from the dimness of the evening twilight obscuring the view beyond the building’s edge, the vehicle’s tires screeching as they crushed the ice-covered snow. As soon as it stopped, the driver’s door flung open. A 35-year-old man in a dark green uniform emerged, placing a cap of the same color on his head. Without uttering a sound, he took a step towards the back door, jerked the handle sharply, opened it wide, leaned in, and forcibly dragged out the diminutive passenger.

“Good evening, miss! Will you take custody of the juvenile delinquent?” the man quipped as he straightened his posture. Above the visor, his police cap was adorned with a badge of the Chinese People’s Armed Militia, composed of a shield decorated with rice and wheat inside of which was the coat of arms of China, towering above the Great Wall. To the man’s left, a freckled, brown-eyed boy shifted nervously from foot to foot, casting glances at his guard, who was tightly clutching his shoulder at the base of his neck.

“Good evening,” Yanfen muttered, not appreciating the policeman’s humor. “If I were you, I’d refrain from immediately labeling the child, especially in his presence,” the girl lectured him. She was interrupted by the explosion of fireworks rising rhythmically into the nearby sky and painting the darkness with thousands of shades of red, blue, and green.

As soon as he heard the first detonation, Hector tensed up and cast a wary glance in the direction of the sound. Realizing its origin, the boy immediately lost interest. Meanwhile, both adults, turned away from the subject of their conversation and stared mesmerized by the multi-colored bursts. The young girl descended a few steps so she could get a better view. The man turned halfway to watch and slightly loosened his grip on the boy. Right then, the young detainee jerked, trying to break free of the policeman’s grip. But his effort was in vain.

“You see what a trickster he is,” the man said to Yanfen. “He keeps trying to run away. Maybe it would be better to cuff him…”

“Are you serious?” the girl fumed. Her expression switched from anger to sympathy when her gaze moved from the smug policeman to the sulking boy. The lad was wearing a dirty tattered jacket whose sleeves were too short, torn pants a few sizes too big, and shoes that had seen countless days.

“Absolutely,” the man barked back rudely, giving up his attempt to start a pleasant, unofficial conversation with an attractive young lady. “Considering the neighborhood where we found him with his friends, covered in tattoos from head to toe, it wouldn’t hurt,” the policeman said, placing the boy in front of him like a shield and holding him firmly by both shoulders. “Look closer, it’s written all over him!” he shook the child, who was already shivering from the cold.

“Enough!” the girl cut him off, raising her voice. Quickly she ran to the bottom of the stairs and crouched in front of the boy. “Hi, little guy,” she said in Russian. “I’m Yanfen. What’s your name?” Up close, she saw he had a small scar above his left eyebrow, yellowish bruises on his right cheekbone and chin, battered fingers with dirt under the nails, and the cross on his right wrist mentioned in the fax.

“He also understands Chinese. He just pretends he doesn’t,” the policeman said, hearing the girl had switched to Russian. “I’m willing to bet he’s picked up a bunch of useful skills on those streets. Otherwise, he wouldn’t have survived out there.”

“Thank you, comrade know-in-all!” Yanfen seethed, looking up at the policeman from below. She stood, unruffled, and extended her left hand to the boy. “Come with me. It’s late. You should have been in bed a long time ago.” The boy, who had been gazing down at the snow while listening to the man, raised his eyes to first look timidly at the girl, then at the guard, then back at the girl again. After hesitating for a few seconds, he finally took a step forward, freeing himself from the policeman’s clutches, and gave his right hand to Yanfen.

The girl was almost at the top of the stairs when she turned around and shouted to the man about to get into the car:

“Hey! Did you try to call those numbers?”

“What numbers?” the policeman answered, pretending to be surprised.

“On the sheet of paper you found when you searched him,” Yanfen replied.

“There was nothing there. It was junk!” the man snapped, got into the car, and slammed the door.

“Got it…” the girl mumbled to herself. She gently squeezed the boy’s hand and walked towards the main entrance of the boarding school.

Yanfen opened the door and let the boy in first. He stopped, looked her in the eyes, and whispered softly to his new guardian, “Hector,”  as he squeezed her hand back. “Hector Kharabets.”

Leading the boy through the labyrinths of the school to the room in the dormitory wing where Yanfen had prepared a place for him, they bumped into Mao, who was limping to her quarters.

“Madam director, here is our newest child,” the girl gently nudged the boy forward, so he would step out of her shadow. But Mao refused to acknowledge Yanfen’s formal address and didn’t turn her head in their direction.

“I have to ask the other girls about Mao,” Yanfen thought to herself that evening lying in bed waiting to fall asleep. She kept trying to put pieces of the puzzle together, but they didn’t fit. Why choose an occupation that constantly reminds you of your loss? Does she get some strange sense of pleasure from pain, or does she simply feel nothing?

“L-l-leey, S-s-ia-o-b-b-bo, T-t-t-tin-f-feng…” Yanfen’s little charge sobbed on her shoulder as the Chinese New Year fireworks went off over Moscow. Having tightly embraced the girl’s neck with both arms and leaned his trembling body firmly against hers, the little boy was listing the names of his abusers.

Half an hour ago, around midnight, unable to sleep because of the loud festivities outside, Yanfen decided to check the room Hector shared with nine other children. She did this occasionally out of concern over how he was adapting to his new home. But today the boy’s bed was empty. Alarmed by his absence, the girl searched along the length of the corridor, illuminating her path with the flashlight on her smartphone. She stopped next to each bedroom and put her ear to the door to listen for any suspicious noises inside.

Suddenly her ear caught a dull, monotonous thumping. The girl followed the sound, which led her to the boys’ bathroom. She wondered for a second whether she should enter, but the desperate sobbing she heard from inside convinced her she should. Yanfen firmly pushed the door open and passed the row of mirrors and sinks in three strides. She rushed into a room with urinals lined up on one side and toilet stalls on the other. The crying was coming from one of the latter, barricaded from the outside by a mop and several stacked chairs. 

“Is that you, Hector?” Yanfen whispered. She turned off the flashlight, put the phone in her pocket, and started dismantling the barricade. Regardless of who was trapped inside, they had to be freed. 

The noise in the stall hushed for a moment.

Da…Yes!” came a tearful reply, followed by the scuffling of slippers on the tiles. The boy was trying to get some blood flowing back to his feet, which had gone numb while he was sitting on the floor. “Yenfen!” the bathroom captive yelled out when the door opened and then threw himself tearfully at her neck.

The girl hugged him with one arm and stroked his back consolingly with the other. She noticed he was wearing the panda pajamas she had given him as a holiday present. 

“Let’s get some cold water on you, it’ll make you feel better,” she suggested when he calmed down a little. She led him to the sinks and wiped his teary eyes and cheeks, having to repeatedly place her right hand under the faucet to set off the motion sensor. Finally, Yenfen asked him who had done this.

“Is it because of your canted Chinese?” the girl asked. They were now sitting side by side on the floor, leaning their backs against the wall across from the row of sinks.

“Nooo. Th-they dec-cidd-ed I’m a convict and so I should be behind bars…”

“Your cross?” Yanfen, careful not to startle Hector, took his right hand and gently stroked the ill-fated mark with her thumb. The boy nodded “yes” and yanked his hand away from her. “How did you get it? Will you tell me?” she gently pleaded in Russian.

Hector quieted. The girl thought he wouldn’t trust her with the truth, when suddenly he whispered, “M-mom and I were at…the camps. W-we w-waited for many, many d-days, because there was a s-sea of people…”

“Where was this camp?”

“B-by the school.”

“By the school in what city?”

“I d-don’t remember… Somewhere not far from Mari-u-pol,” the boy replied, rubbing his right wrist the whole time he was speaking.

“And that’s where they tattooed this cross?”

Hector hid his hand in the pocket of his pajama pants.

“And where was your dad?”

“They load-loaded everyone into the bus-busses and we left. I saw a sea through the window the whole time…” The boy’s voice leveled off and he stopped sobbing. “And then we got on a train.”

“And where did it go?” the girl continued to carefully untangle the web. “Where did it take you?”

Hector frowned.

“To Tver!” he cried out after a brief pause, proud of himself for remembering the name this time. But then he became sad again. “Mama went to Tver and I stayed here…”

“How did that happen?”

“I was sleeping in my mother’s arms when out of nowhere someone grabbed me. I woke up. My mom was screaming and wouldn’t let go,” the boy remembered bitterly. With each word his voice became softer. “Then the… bastard punched her in the face.” Tears welled up in the corner of his eyes again, so Yanfen decided to let his curse slide. “He turned around and carried me out of the train car… I tried to break free, but I couldn’t,” he whispered guiltily and wiped the tears running down his cheeks with his pajama sleeves.

“It’s not your fault,” the girl stroked Hector’s head. “Do you hear me, little panda? It’s not your fault… Your dad wasn’t with you?”

Nyet.” To Yanfen’s bewilderment the little boy responded with a resentful grunt and turned away sharply when she tried to touch his hair again. After a minute of silence, he added: “The brute said I now have a new family. He said I was lucky because I had been adopted by Muscovites… But they didn’t have any use for me,” his voice was tinged with anger.

“Those people were mean to you? They beat you?”

Hector shook his head and began to scratch his wrist, around the cross tattoo.

“They locked me in the pantry. With no light.”

“Is that why you ran away?” Yanfen asked. With every word the boy said, the girl felt a big lump growing in her throat, fighting back the urge to also start crying.

“No. They fled, and I…” Yanfen and Hector had been sitting on the floor shoulder-to-shoulder but at this point Hector moved away from her and stuck his hands between his knees.

Looking at the gap between them, the girl could no longer hold back her tears.

“I’ll be here. I won’t leave you,” she whispered, trying to build a bridge between them, but the boy didn’t react to her words. “Maybe you remember the phone number of one of your relatives? Your mom’s?” Hector abruptly stood up.

“Everything was on a piece of paper,” Hector said excitedly, looking down at Yanfen. “Mom wrote them all down while we waited our turn in the camp. She told me, ‘Be careful and don’t lose it!’”

“Well then, let’s call your mother!” the girl jumped to her feet too. Wiping away the tears, she started rummaging through the pockets of her dress for her smartphone. The boy took another step back. “What’s wrong? You don’t want to?”

“They also promised they would let me call her…”

“I’m not lying to you,” Yanfen interrupted the boy. “Look, here.” She pulled the smartphone out of her left pocket and offered it to Hector, but he didn’t move.

“…but the police arrested us,” he tried to finish his thought.

“Little panda, we can call your mom right away, this very minute” the girl interrupted, wasting no time, not bothering to listen to what the boy had to say. “It’s late, but she’ll definitely be happy to hear from you!”

“Yes, she will!” the boy said as he kicked the trash can under the paper towel holder by the sinks with all his might. “But the policeman who brought me here crumpled up the sheet of paper with the numbers and threw it away!” The trash can wobbled with a dull thudding but didn’t fall over.

Yanfen froze. Her hand holding the phone dropped to her side. Filled with pity for the boy and shocked by her own heartlessness, she didn’t know how to continue the conversation.

“Did your mom manage to tell you anything else?” she dared to ask, breaking the silence between them.

“Yes. She said she loves me. And I should only speak Russian…”

“Only Russian?” the girl asked, confused. “You know another language?”

“Grandma taught me…”

“He’s not like the others,” Mao thought, leaning against her cane in front of the panoramic window in the brightly lit wide corridor encircling the boarding school’s spacious inner courtyard. The woman watched the crowd of first graders playing during recess. Some of the kids were swinging on the swings, climbing ropes, trying to conquer the climbing walls; others tirelessly jumped on the trampolines or slid down the slides; and still others kicked balls or simply chased one another. They were all wearing white short-sleeved shirts, red handkerchiefs tied identically around their collars, and black and gray checkered skirts or shorts. The boarding school director firmly believed uniforms were an effective tool for disciplining children and introduced them from the very beginning, right when the school opened.

Mao noticed Hector out of the corner of her eye. He was building a tower out of Jenga wooden blocks under one of the slides, hiding from the commotion around him.

More than five months had passed since the stray boy was placed in her boarding school, but both the staff and children were having a very hard time establishing a rapport with him. The only person he let get close to him was her secretary. “The spy Yanfen,” Mao thought, her lips curling in contempt.

The director made a half turn, extended her tenacious claw and grabbed a random student by the arm, just above the elbow. The boy, who looked like a fifth grader, had been walking by, joking with his friends.

“Get Yanfen for me from the reception desk. Now!” Mao ordered the boy, who looked at her in shock.

Once he nodded, signaling he had heard and understood the director, she released her iron grip, leaving pale finger marks in the shape of her fingers imprinted on his shoulder. The fifth grader immediately rushed to carry out the order, as the woman stared intently out the window again.

“I don’t see any significant progress in Hector,” director Mao told the young girl who had appeared next to her after a short wait. “You seem to be having trouble with the duties you were assigned.”

“I’m very sorry, honorable Mrs Mao, but the boy is making some headway,” Yanfen proposed in her own defense, her voice trembling. “He can’t speak Chinese fluently yet, but he understands enough when people talk to him.” The secretary locked her hands behind her back, trying to somehow support herself in a moment of weakness. They both looked at Hector, who at that moment had stopped stacking the blocks to scratch his right wrist. “Hector just needs more time. To be honest, I’m a little worried about him. He seems to have had a deeply traumatic experience…”

“Hm,” Mao grimaced skeptically, causing the already prominent lines on her face to become as deep as ravines. “Like the channels of Dujiangyan,” Yanfen thought. “Is he the only one who is so ‘unique’?” The director’s caustic tone suggested to the girl this was a rhetorical question she shouldn’t try to answer.

Silence fell between them. Yanfen watched as one of Hector’s classmates, Xiaobo, standing in the center of a group of boys on the other side of the courtyard from the slide, pointed to the boy playing on his own, clearly inciting his classmates to pick on the loner.

“What can your generation, born in the 21st century, know about traumatic experiences?!” Mao thought angrily.

From the distant corners of her memory, a place the woman preferred never to look, recollections of the past flashed before her eyes like a kaleidoscope. The wretched orphanage in Yancheng District where her father abandoned her as an infant in 1949 when he fled from Chiang Kai-shek’s army to Taiwan. The endless taunts from the other children because of her congenital physical defect were only interrupted when they wanted to copy math assignments from her. Just as she seemed to be getting on her feet, the Cultural Revolution broke out. “The price of a person is 28 yuan,” Mao moved her lips silently, remembering a popular saying from those times. She knew it well, because she was one of those who had stood in a long line at the Nanjing Funeral Service to pay for the cremation of her husband, who had been beaten to death by the Hongweibin red guards. But the hardest blow was yet to come. She still curses the day when she allowed her seven-year-old son to go on the class trip…

“Maybe Hector would progress more quickly if he had some friends,” Yanfen’s cautious reply snapped Mao back to reality. “But the other schoolchildren… They see he’s different and doesn’t know the language well…I rescue him from being locked in the restroom almost every week. The last time he was stuck there nearly half the night.”

While the secretary carefully weighed every word she spoke to the director, Hector’s classmates went from discussing pranks to executing them. They surrounded the slide and, in an instant, destroyed the tower he had so diligently been building for the past 15 minutes.

“Poor little panda,” Yanfen thought, and instantly moved toward the door to the inner courtyard. She was going to stop her ward’s abusers, but Mao blocked the girl’s path with her cane.

“Hector will not bring any benefit to the Republic and the Chinese people if you continue to keep him under the umbrella of your protection! Let him learn to solve his own problems. Otherwise, as an adult he’ll break at the first obstacle; and we have enough weaklings already. Have you forgotten the main purpose of our institution?” the director hissed through her teeth. The secretary, who had felt Mao’s displeasure from her first day on the job, didn’t dare to openly disobey her, and froze in her tracks.

Through the panoramic window, the two of them watched as Hector, barely holding back his tears, began gathering the wreckage of his tower. But the little brats around him showed no mercy and began throwing the wooden blocks all around the playground. The leader of the group, Xiaobo, was the last to join in. As soon as he approached, Hector wiped the veil of tears from his eyes, clenched his hands into fists, and spoke a few words to him. Mao and Yanfen couldn’t hear what he said, but they watched as the other boys turned pale, their mocking smiles disappearing from their faces, and slowly together with Xiabo, backed away.

“Hm,” the director chuckled in satisfaction. “Maybe the stray isn’t a lost cause after all…”

“Stop fooling around!” Yanfen scolded Hector.

They were sitting on a black and white striped picnic blanket on the freshly mowed lawn in the shadow of an old ash tree. The girl, in a blue viscose jumpsuit with a square neckline, thin straps, and buttons on the chest, leaned her back against the tree trunk. In her hands, she held a set of flashcards with illustrations, words, and phrases she was using to help Hector improve his Chinese during the month-and-a-half long summer break. The boarding school was almost completely empty because most of the parents took their kids home for the holiday. Yanfen’s workload eased as well, and she was able to devote more time to the boy.

Her charge, in a baseball cap, white polo shirt, and shorts, sat cross-legged across from her and was goofing off. The girl opposite showed him a card with a picture of a teacup and jug of milk, then said a phrase in Russian he was supposed to repeat in Chinese. “Please add some beer to my tea!” Hector translated and burst out laughing, proud of his comedic quip.

“You can’t remember the word for ‘milk,’ but cussing and swearing come easy,” Yanfen reprimanded him, recalling the incident in the playground when Hector scared away all the bullies with one phrase. She had asked the other schoolchildren about the incident and learned what phrase he had used. He literally told them to “drop dead” – an extremely vulgar way of telling someone to go to hell. And more importantly, a very popular phrase among members of the Chinese organized crime triads.

Hector’s good spirits disappeared like the wind. He lowered his eyes, shrugged his shoulders, and folded his arms across his chest. “What happened, happened. There’s nothing you can do about it,” the boy’s body language spoke volumes.

“You should scowl less and try harder. Next spring all the second graders will go to China for the ‘In the Footsteps of Xi Jinping’ tour, and you won’t understand anything because the tour will be in literary Chinese, not your street talk!” Yanfen put the cards down and continued to gently pressure the child. “And director Mao will skin me alive,” she thought, keeping her fear to herself. “After all, soon there won’t be anyone left here who speaks Russian. Try harder if you don’t want to end up in Zone 5 with your Muscovites…”

The girl’s tirade was interrupted by the sound of a xylophone coming from her bag an arm’s length away. Yanfen reached for it, took out her smartphone, swiped the screen to unlock it, and pressed the green WeChat icon. “What’s new?” the message from an unknown number asked. “I’m doing the work Mao assigned for me,” she replied after a two-second pause, and then immediately deleted the chat.

All of a sudden, Hector cried out “It’s raining!” startling Yanfen. Springing to his feet, he turned around and realized there was nothing to worry about, the cool drops of water he felt on his back were from the automatic sprinklers. “May I?” he pleaded. Yanfen smiled gently in response and the boy began snaking around the lawn between the sprinkler fountains shooting up from the ground…

“Mathematics is the queen of all sciences,” Mao constantly told her students. And out of habit added to herself, “And I am the queen of mathematics.” She wasn’t exaggerating. In elementary school, the small, fragile little girl in the orphanage named in honor of Mao Tse-tung, the victor of the civil war – the “red star” and “wise head” of the multi-million strong Chinese people – won various math olympics and contests in Yancheng District and Jiangsu province. The extraordinary mathematical skills her old, long deceased teacher Zhang Lim tried to develop in her became the superpower which helped Mao build her own defense and successfully fight off the mean and cruel children she grew up with and who never missed an opportunity to bully her over her shorter left pinky finger. Many years later, already a grown woman, she would reflexively hide her finger in her pocket every time she was out in public so she wouldn’t have to deal with people’s stares, and worse, strangers’ inappropriate questions about what happened. “Did an alligator bite off your finger? Or did a panda chew it off? Ohhh, you were born with it… Poor thing! Don’t worry, it doesn’t look too bad!”

Mathematics is based on understandable algorithms and clear logic, which, when adhering to these principles, invariably leads one to an end goal, a concrete result. Solving equations gave the former orphan a sense of control over her own life, built her confidence, and provided some stability. This was the reason Mao loved math the way she never loved another living soul… except for her little Wei, of course. Her love for math was the deciding factor why the boarding school director hadn’t completely stopped teaching but instead kept a minimum number of hours to maintain her status. However, Mao also had a more practical reason to stay in the classroom. Teaching gave her a clear picture of what level her pupils were on, what she could expect from them, and on whom she could depend.

“Teacher, why did I only get a ‘satisfactory’ on the last exam?” Hector asked after waiting his turn to have a one-on-one meeting with the teacher after class.

Mao, wearing a blue Sun Yat-sen suit with a turned-down collar and four pockets, her sizable frame barely squeezed into the chair, was checking the students’ homework at her desk. The boy, with his hair now trimmed in a bowl cut and wearing the mandatory school uniform, was sitting on a chair too tall for his height and was impatiently dangling his feet to and fro. His Chinese had improved significantly and with it his social skills, which was a positive sign for the boarding school director. Perhaps it was possible to mold him into a Chinese – him and the rest of the Russian children, which would allow the People’s Republic of China to strengthen its influence in its zone of occupied Moscow.

During the first year Model Boarding School №1 was open in the Chinese Occupation Zone of Moscow, there were four second grade classes; now there were seven. Each one of them had an average of 60 students, one or two of which weren’t Chinese. Starting on September 1, 2024, the director chose two classes to teach and gave the rest to other educators. Like her, today the other math teachers were doing mandatory extracurricular work: preparing lesson plans, providing certain students with extra help to complete difficult assignments, writing feedback about their colleagues’ lessons – each at their own assigned desk.

When Hector spoke out, Mao was mercilessly crossing out the wrong answers in one of his classmate’s notebooks. Keeping her eyes on the childish scribbles in front of her, the woman pointed her pen at the wall. Hector followed her movement and ended up staring at… nothing. There was nothing in front of him at eye level, but higher, when the boy tilted his head back, he saw seven male portraits hung in a row.

The display started with two bearded men. One was completely white with disheveled hair, while the other was balding with the remaining gray hair neatly combed over the bald spots. They were both wearing European style suits. Another one was almost completely bald, egg-headed, with a goatee and red tie. Next to him was a mustached brown-haired man in a military uniform, who for some reason reminded the boy of an ugly black cockroach, so much so, Hector shuddered in disgust. He remembered seeing many of them in the basement where he and his mother hid from Russian shelling. Three Chinese men smiled at him slyly from the next portraits. Two of them were in clothes similar to director Mao’s, and the only one he recognized from the group – Xi Dada – was wearing a European suit.

Higher up, above the portraits, hanging from nails looking like they were about to fall off the wall was a red banner with white writing: “Learning without thinking is useless. Thinking without learning is dangerous.” Hector finally realized this was what his teacher was pointing to.

“But I was thinking… and learning,” the boy protested timidly. He was so worried he didn’t realize he was rubbing the cross on his right wrist in a circular motion with his thumb. “And I didn’t make any mistakes!”

“And obviously you’re very proud of yourself?” Mao said in a sly tone, pushing the notebook off to the side, where the others were evenly stacked in perfect order. “Yanfen’s excessive attention to him has spoiled the boy,” she thought to herself. “Or the snitch is deliberately turning him against me…” The woman clumsily turned in her chair to look straight at the child and reached for her cane as if she was going to stand up. “Do you think the grade I gave you was too low?”

“Yes!” Hector exclaimed nervously and leaned forward, grabbing the edge of the teacher’s desk with both hands. “It’s not fair! I’m better at math than anyone else in the class!”

“Nobody in this class is better at math than me!” Mao thundered and, not holding back, whacked the child’s small fingers with her cane full force. “These children know absolutely nothing about modesty and humility,” she raged inside. Towering over the boy, she gave no consideration to where her blows were landing. “Oh, I will teach you to respect a teacher!” Hector huddled in a ball, covered his head with his arms, and toppled off the chair. “You feral swine! How many times do I have to repeat it? You should be grateful for and appreciate  what you have!” The woman circled above him like a hawk and continued to have at him, despite the boy’s cries and tears.

Nobody else in the room tried to stick up for him. The teachers had witnessed director Mao’s tantrums on many occasions and concluded the best tactic was to grin and bear it. Her outbursts usually died down as suddenly as they started.

Moreover, it wasn’t just anyone, it was Hector. Mao’s subordinates noticed a long time ago her attitude towards this child was unique, different. She picked on him more than any other student. It resembled a “beat your own so the others will be afraid” tactic. And it worked very well.

But one had to admit, this stray wasn’t like the rest. The teachers had to show the Chinese children only once or twice the wooden paddle on each teacher’s desk used to punish those who disobeyed, and the kids behaved. But this boy could never seem to learn the lesson. Sometimes the teachers whispered to each other, trying to find the proper description for Hector. He’s too… freedom-loving? Rebellious? Fearless? Or maybe he’s just naïve? Or, despite being gifted in math, he’s actually slow-witted? 

Be that as it may, he was the one who most often spoke self-critically in front of his classmates, stayed after class to clean the room, and was punished with blows from the wooden paddle on his palms. Although corporal punishment and verbal abuse had been banned in schools in the People’s Republic of China back in 2021, Mao ignored the decision. After all, the Regulations on the Work of Elementary and Secondary School Teachers stated the director has the right to criticize and educate students in any manner deemed appropriate. And she was educating them. In most cases, by cracking the whip. And very seldomly, by giving them positive reinforcement.

“Hello! Welcome to Liangjiahe, the village where Xi Jinping, our people’s leader, moved in the late 1960s and worked hard and conscientiously for seven years in his youth. My name is Tang Yunhua. I will be your guide today,” a delicate girl in her twenties, with a thick woolen skirt and oversized suit jacket, high-heeled sandals and holding an umbrella to protect her from the sun, stood before the hundred second graders from Moscow and their five chaperones.

“You are visiting here during very hot weather. Let’s move a little to the side,” the young guide took five steps back from the narrow sidewalk onto the well-trodden ground to let other visitors pass. The group of obedient schoolchildren followed her. “Every year during celebrations commemorating the Day of the Creation of the People’s Republic of China, the birthday of Xi Dada, or Labor Day, like today, we have a huge influx of visitors. But we don’t complain!” Nailed to the stone wall behind Yunhua was a large panel no less than 4 meters long and 1.5 meters wide depicting a young Xi Jinping surrounded by fellow members of the Communist Party of the People’s Republic of China. “It’s so great the young generation is interested in their own history and culture,” the girl’s lips stretched into a wide, friendly smile. She reached forward and kindheartedly ruffled the neat bowl cut hair of the boy closest to her. “And where did you come from?” the girl asked the children, trying to make a connection before the tour.

“From far away,” Mao cut her off rudely, not giving the schoolchildren a chance to make friends with the random acquaintance. “And, by the way, we didn’t fly 13 hours and then drive by bus over the mountains for who knows how many hours more to admire your crooked teeth! Get to the point!” Sitting in one position during the long trip hadn’t helped the woman’s mood, pain riddling her lower back the whole time, and now she was lashing out at anyone and everyone.

As soon as Mao started spewing her venom, the girl’s smile disappeared off her face and she straightened up, as if she had been reprimanded for slouching during the singing of the national anthem.

“During interviews, when asked about the origin of his views and ideas, Xi Jinping often says, ‘I am forever a son of the yellow earth. I left my heart in Liangjiahe. This village made me,’” the guide said. Her face and voice were now devoid of any hint of friendliness or excitement.

For the remainder of the tour, Yunhua, the tour guide, seemed more like a robot. The children furtively threw her confused looks while Mao nodded approvingly with both of her chins.

“An authentic relic found in our village is the yaodong or house cave in which Xi Jinping lived during the Cultural Revolution. We consider it our greatest treasure. It’s a bit tight inside, so not everyone will be able to enter at once. Please break into groups of 15 and take turns going inside,” Yunhua said. She folded her umbrella and slipped through the open wooden door into the vaulted room. The schoolchildren who were closest rushed in after her, as if they hadn’t heard her instructions.

“Don’t embarrass me!” Mao shouted, worrying her students were about to destroy the Great Leader’s sacred abode. “And you, get your heads out of the clouds!” the woman waved her cane at Yanfen and the other three teacher-chaperones. “Enough dawdling, time to organize these dimwits!”

One of the teachers to whom Mao was directing her ire moved to the door of the cave, grabbed a few of the second graders by their ears, and began dragging the extra ones out of the cave. The other three went to different spots and called the students over to them. The children didn’t follow the teachers’ instructions and just ran from one to the other, preventing them from forming groups.

Meanwhile, the children who ran inside first looked around the semi-darkness, bewildered. They had imagined the yaodong to contain spacious, bright rooms. Instead, they ended up in a long narrow room with an arched ceiling looking like a tunnel. Despite the two lightbulbs hanging from the ceiling, the only source of light was the windows by the door, which for some reason were covered from sill to ceiling in sheets of newspaper. The wall opposite the door and the floor were made of dirt. The other two walls, plastered in clay, flowed together to form an arch on the ceiling. White streaks hinted the walls may have been whitewashed with lime sometime in the past.

The children’s faces showed their disappointment. “We should have gone to an amusement park instead,” Hector thought, bored with the tour. “It would have been way more fun.”

A solid raised platform made of a single rectangular slab of stone and clay extended along the right wall, taking up about half the room, waist height for adults but shoulder height for the second graders. The five layers of thin woven cloth spread on its flat surface probably served as mattresses. At the head of these “beds” near the wall lay neatly folded blankets and cylindrical pillows. The wall the platform was attached to was also covered in yellowed Chinese newspaper clippings, same as the windows. The only spot of color among the clippings was a poster of Mao Zedong dressed in a military uniform. The late leader of the People’s Republic of China, standing in the crimson rays of the dawn, directed his crowd of followers holding red flags to work diligently in the people’s communes.

“The second bedspace on the left belonged to our great Xi Jinping,” the story being told by Yunhua was falling on deaf ears, because the schoolchildren had already stopped listening. “Mao Zedong sent him here from Beijing so as a young man he could experience the difficulties of the lives of poor farmers. Mao himself lived in similar caves in Yan’an in the late 1930s and early 1940s, when the city was the center of the Chinese Communist Revolution.”

“Stop!” the guide suddenly shouted, interrupting her story. She was addressing Hector, who had hopped up to grab the mattress and was trying to crawl onto the raised platform. “It is forbidden to touch anything here! What were you thinking?” Yunhua flew over to the boy, grabbed his t-shirt, and pulled him off the platform. He fell onto the floor, landing on his knees. “Get out of here!” the guide said to the boy, pointing to the door.

“This is total bullshit,” Hector mumbled to himself while leaving the house cave and brushing the dust off his knees. He hadn’t expected anyone to hear his comment, but Mao just happened to be nearby right when he said it.

“Nothing is sacred to you, is it?!” the woman snapped at him. “Your tongue should be cut off for that!” She reached for the boy with her left hand, intending to grab his shoulder and shake the nonsense out of him. Without warning, he broke free and ran away.

“I’ll go after him and calm him down,” Yanfen suggested. She was standing three meters from the entrance to the cave, surrounded by schoolchildren who were waiting their turn to go inside.

“I’ll go myself! You’ve already done enough,” the director barked at the secretary and jogged after Hector as fast as her aching back allowed. “Keep an eye on the rest of them!”

Mao found the runaway nearby, just around the corner. More precisely she only saw half the boy, the part below the waist. Hector was standing on his tiptoes and leaning over a round concrete ledge, peering into a well. There were 70-80 meters between him and the woman. If the child suddenly lost his balance and fell over the edge, she wouldn’t have had time to reach the well to save him.

Mao went cold inside. A chill ran through the old woman’s body, and she felt bile rise in her throat. “I won’t survive something like this again,” she thought, her heart pounding wildly in her chest. She stopped where she stood and tried to control her frantic heartbeat by inhaling and exhaling deeply. But it didn’t help. It made things worse. Her legs turned to mush, and she could barely keep her large frame upright. Mao had convinced herself she had sufficiently released her angst over her son’s death and could control her emotions. But her body’s instinctive behavior said otherwise.

“Maybe I shouldn’t have reacted so rashly,” Mao thought, trying unsuccessfully to swallow the lump in her throat. The woman didn’t notice her eyes had filled with tears. But, in the end, not a single drop rolled down her cheek. “There’s no reason to fret,” she told herself. “It’s his fault. He provoked me. Otherwise, I wouldn’t have shouted…”

She threw her cane aside so she wouldn’t frighten Hector and slowly walked up to the well drilled through the dense rock. Some idiot neglected to shut the cover closing the opening into the well. “Oh, I’ll make sure to write a whole bunch of ‘pleasantries’ about this in their guest book!” Mao thought, trying to block the image from the far distant past before her eyes when her little Wei slipped on a wet rock during a class trip and fell headfirst into a waterfall. “No school will ever come here again after what I write!”

“Stop what you’re doing!” The director walked up to Hector noiselessly, roughly grabbed him by the shoulder, and turned him around to face her. Gnashing her teeth, she crouched down in front of him. “You should listen to me!” For the first time, the woman looked the boy straight in the eyes instead of towering over him. But it wasn’t Hector’s face she saw in front of her. “If they had been watching you carefully, you’d be alive today.” Mao squeezed the small palms in her sweaty, cold hands with uncharacteristic gentleness. Nobody could have imagined she was capable of a gesture like that.

“Madam director, this isn’t Wei – it’s Hector,” Yanfen’s sympathetic soft voice behind Mao brought her back to reality.

The woman abruptly let go of Hector’s hands. The boy was staring at her confused. She put her hand on her lower back and slowly stood up.

“I don’t need you to tell me,” the director sadly observed, sighing loudly, not turning to look at her secretary. Instead, she confronted Hector, “If you don’t listen and obey, I’ll have to send you to Zone 5, to the other Russians. And nothing good awaits you there.” As usual, she didn’t have anything positive to say, but at least this time her tone wasn’t malicious. “It’s an endless proving ground for testing nuclear weapons,” Mao mumbled, more as a reminder to herself than to Hector.

Still breathing heavily, she slammed the well’s wooden cover, checked the latch was securely in place, and shuffled over to the spot where she had dropped her cane. The woman could feel her entire body trembling from the stress – from the neat bun atop her head held together by two intersecting bamboo hairpins, down to her black, square-toed, low-heeled, thin strapped slippers.

“Are you coming?” she looked back and asked the boy. Her face was so flushed it could probably have lit a match. Hector was frozen in place, wondering why Mao hadn’t hit him. But as soon as she started talking, he trailed after her. “Hand me my cane so I don’t have to bend over,” the director asked. The boy picked up the cane and gave it to her, still not fully recovered from her unexpected behavior.

Yanfen followed in their wake, deliberately staying a few meters behind. Struck by what she had just seen, the girl wondered what this would mean for her. It’s unlikely Mao would easily forgive her for witnessing this moment of weakness.

When all three returned to the group, Yunhua the tour guide was telling the second graders about how Xi Jinping was awarded a motorcycle for his hard work, but turned it down.

“He put the public interest ahead of his personal interest. Instead, they bought two corn threshers for the Liangjiahe commune,” the young guide continued, her stories mimicking the official propaganda.

“Hector should see a psychiatrist. He needs some kind of tranquilizers, because he’s a not a child, he’s a typhoon,” Mao thought, resting the cane on her bulbous stomach and massaging her right hand, which had suddenly gone numb.

“Let go! I was first”

“No, I was first!”

Hector could hear the yelling and jostling by the entrance to the school cafeteria before he got there. When he finally turned the corner of the corridor leading to the anteroom with sinks and mirrors on both sides, he saw a large crowd had already gathered. The children, hungry after a long night’s sleep, were ready to storm the doors behind which breakfast was waiting.

As soon as the clock showed 8:00, the lock clicked and a woman in a black and red uniform and tall chef’s hat flung open the doors and jumped aside to avoid being knocked over by the horde of invading second graders.

Hector didn’t rush into the cafeteria with everyone else. He waited while the crowd eased up a bit. His thoughts were all about math class at noon. Today was their yearly final exam, and when the boy was nervous, like now, he would rub the cross on his wrist.

“Your pills, Hector,” Dr. Tsai Ai snapped him out of his daydream. In one hand he held a small clear plastic cup with an oval blue pill and in the other a larger cup with water. Hector obediently took the smaller cup, brought it to his mouth and tilted it back, then washed the pill down with the water in the other cup. This was now a daily ritual since their trip to Liangjiahe.

Director Mao convinced him the pills would be good for him and  would make him more alert and focused, helping him do math faster and with less mistakes. After a few weeks the boy did feel different, but not in a good way. His natural energy and curiosity were gone and replaced by lethargy, sleepiness, and indifference. Mao assured him this was temporary and would soon pass. But Yanfen had more cunning advice, suggesting he pretend to swallow the pills by hiding them under his tongue or in his cheek and then spit them out. “The main thing is to be quieter and not argue with the school staff. Especially during Mao’s lessons,” the young girl advised the boy. And today he listened to her for the first time.

“Don’t take my food!” Hector heard some kids arguing at the other end of the table where he had sat down to have breakfast. The boy recognized the voice of his chief bully, Xiaobo, and leaned forward a little to check if it was him. It was.

“Then share your bread! You took five pieces, and I didn’t get any!” one of the members of Xiaobo’s gang insisted, rebelling against their leader.

“Here! Choke on it!” Xiaobo threw the bread followed by the scrambled eggs on his plate at the student who had asked him to share. A fight broke out between the boys at the table and soon other kids joined in. Within two minutes, half of Hector’s class was having a food fight. The boy quietly moved to the edge of the table, ate his breakfast, and pretended not to care who was pulling whose hair and smearing egg yolk on whose school uniform a few meters away.

Dr. Mo Feng took off his surgical gloves, gown, and cap, throwing them into the trash. Exhausted, he pushed open the door to the pre-op unit and went into the hallway. Telling loved ones about a patient’s death was nothing new for him, but it was still difficult. People in despair react in various ways. Some throw themselves around the neck of the person delivering the news in tears. Others faint. Sometimes they go into shock. And the only consolation he as a doctor can offer relatives of the deceased is, “We did everything we could.”

The man stopped for a second before entering the waiting room, took a deep breath, then pushed the door handle down and crossed the threshold.

“Who’s waiting for news about Li Mao?” he asked the people scattered about the room, nervously squeezing their hands. As soon as the doors opened, they looked up at him in anticipation. “Any relatives of Li Mao?” the doctor asked again, his gaze sweeping the faces in the room. “Li Mao was hospitalized today with a stroke…” Mo Feng reminded them, but nobody responded.

The doctor left, sighed in fatigue, and walked over to the stairs leading to the admissions department on the first floor.

“…Yes, H-e-c-t-o-r Kh-a-r-a-b-e-t-s. No, not with an H, with a Kh. That is correct. And Li Mao…” the man overheard snippets of the conversation from the registration desk. Having heard his patient’s name, he hurried to the desk despite being tired. As he approached, Mo Feng saw a thin plain-looking young woman with no distinguishing features other than a blue streak in her hair holding a wooden cane. “They were both brought here today, around noon. Who can I speak to about their condition?” Yanfen asked the woman in a blue lab coat, just as someone touched her shoulder lightly.

“Good evening. My name is Mo Feng,” the doctor introduced himself, clasping his hands behind his back. “I accidentally overheard you asking about Li Mao. She is my patient. What is your relationship to her?”

“I’m a colleague. I’m her secretary, to be more precise…” the girl turned around and took a step towards the man. “But you won’t find any closer relatives,” Yanfen blurted out, understanding where the doctor was going with this. “How is she doing?”

“I’m sorry to inform you Li Mao didn’t survive the operation.”

“And what about Hector?” Yanfen paled, leaning on the cane, and holding her breath, fearing more bad news.

“The boy is okay. He’s in room 227. You can go visit him,” the woman from the admissions department said as she leaned over the desk. Yanfen exhaled in relief and a slight smile lit her face.

“I can show you where it is. I’m going that way,” Mo Feng said, waving his hand in the general direction of Hector’s room. The girl accepted his offer without hesitation. They took the elevator to the second floor and entered the hospital wing on the opposite side of the waiting room. “If you want to say goodbye to Li Mao,” the man said to Yanfen outside the boy’s room, “you can do so in half an hour.” He took a watch out of his pocket and squinted as if counting something in his head. “Or perhaps a little later. They’ll wheel her out on a gurney into a room through those doors,” the doctor nodded towards the end of the corridor.

Thirty minutes later Yanfen and Hector were waiting in the designated spot.

“How are you?” the girl asked the boy in the wheelchair.

“I don’t know.”

“Are you sure you’ll be okay?”

“Yes, probably…” Just then the doors to the freight elevator opened and two orderlies rolled out a gurney with a body covered in a light blue disposable sheet.

“You have one minute,” one of the men said to Yanfen and the boy. “Do you want to see the face?” he asked. Hector shook his head, “No.” The man shrugged his shoulders and walked over to the windowsill to wait with his colleague.

The four of them remained silent and nobody moved. Finally, realizing their minute was almost up, the girl took a step towards the gurney. Just then the smartphone in her left pocket vibrated. It was a call from a number she didn’t recognize, the third missed call from the same number. Annoyed, she rejected the call and put Mao’s cane next to her on the gurney – the director had dropped it during the incident in the school.

“Don’t forget your talisman, madam director,” the girl whispered her parting words.

The orderlies were about to wheel the body away when Hector jumped up from the wheelchair, grabbed the cane off the gurney, and handed it to Yanfen.

Other stories by Marichka Melnyk

Other stories illustrated by Mykhailo Aleksandrov


The Son of Heaven

Noah’s arm was fiercely shaking as he tried to raise the wooden mug of beer to his mouth…

The Specter of Smuta

It’s never been seen nor heard; yet everyone carries a subconscious fear of encountering it…