from THIRD DAUGHTER
Our country’s mother river began in the mountains in the far west, a clear stream that turned turbulent in high narrow gorges, becoming wide and slow and muddy, before ending in the eastern seas. The first time the Chairman swam across Long River, a decade ago, he proclaimed it was big, but not frightening – like many challenges our country faced. Each summer, thousands commemorated the anniversary of his swim, repeating his journey down the river, and this year, we would attend. The Chairman would shoot off a ceremonial pistol to start the race. When Secretary Sun arrived at our room to escort us to the sedan, the Chairman announced a change in plans.
“I’m swimming,” he said, magnificent in his white bathrobe, white swim trunks and leather sandals glowing against his tanned skin.
His time way from the capital, spent in the sunshine, our many swims and hearty meals, had invigorated him.
“I’m going too,” I said. This adventure seemed like one of his daring tales, and together, we would share this story.
“It’s time you swam in Long River,” the Chairman said. “It’s different than the pool, or the reservoir. You have to give yourself up to the current.”
“You can’t cling to the edge. There’s no stopping,” Secretary Sun warned.
“What do you know? You don’t even know how to swim,” the Chairman said.
The current might drag me into the center of the river, dark water closing over my head, but I had to follow him, not with my rival Fei Yu and the Madame determined to ruin me.
“Please reconsider,” Secretary Sun said, turning to the Chairman, though somehow directing his words at me. Each year, one or two people drowned during the race, dragged by the fast, swirling current, or snagged underwater by branches. He watched over me, and yet I had used him – invoked him – to extract promises from the Chairman.
“I’m stronger than ever,” the Chairman said.
“We need to make preparations,” Secretary Sun said. “There isn’t the security in place. Local officials will insist on precautions.”
“Precautions!” the Chairman snorted.
“The swimmers need to be instructed on what to do in your presence. There’s not enough time. The race starts in an hour.”
“There will never be enough time if you keep standing there,” the Chairman said.
The race was delayed by one hour, then two. We parked on a grassy bank that sloped up from the river, the driver and a bodyguard in the front seat, Secretary Sun, the Chairman, and myself in the rear. Trimmed in silver, the Chairman’s armored sedan seemed impenetrable as a fortress, its engine rumbling through my body like thunder. I ran my hands over the soft black leather seats. On my first day in the capital, riding high in the jeep, I thought being on display meant I was special, worthy, deserving. Now hidden in the sedan from the masses, I understood they imagined, desired, and sought me – making me more than I could ever be. I pushed aside brown curtains and rolled down the tinted window for a better view of a dozen steam-boats, their brass fittings bright and blinding. They chugged in place, billowing acrid, greasy coal smoke. Downstream, photographers jostled on a floating platform, their cameras glittering in the sunshine like a many-eyed monster.
Beneath huge tan parasols, the Madame stood on another platform with Fei Yu. Both had binoculars hanging around their necks, and matching sunglasses. I recoiled. Fei Yu must have made a full report about yesterday’s mahjong game, casting herself – the Madame’s emissary – as the victor. “She won’t last,” she would have assured the Madame. They wore green pantsuits, not dressed for a swim, which made me determined to follow the Chairman into the water. I adjusted the strap of my bathing suit, grown loose after much use.
Thousands of swimmers – I had never seen so many people – massed on the bank, the first few rows carrying huge crimson flags. Giant slogans, praising the Chairman and the revolution, had been carved into the hills. “Struggle against heaven and earth!” With three sharp blasts of a whistle, the flag-bearers plunged into the water, followed by firecrackers. As smoke twisted into the air, a man stumbled, his flag nearly dipping into the water before another swimmer swooped in to rescue it. Two long lines of soldiers treading water extended into the middle of Long River to protect the Chairman. Other swimmers jumped in, with festive, floating white and yellow balloons tied to their wrists, to mark their progress in the water.
“I’ve waited long enough,” the Chairman said to Secretary Sun. He climbed out of the sedan, grunting as he pushed off the seat. In a few minutes, I would follow. When the crowd spotted the Chairman, they surged toward the sedan.
“Stay back!” the head bodyguard shouted and fired a gun into the air. The crowd rippled but refused to be contained. Something that big never could be and that was what drew the Chairman, a chance to lose himself, as others lost themselves in him.
The Chairman’s bald spot glinted gold in the sunshine as he paused to shake hands and pat shoulders. He wanted to be carried along the stream of people, forget the sound of his labored breathing and his broken body and become something greater, a spark turned into a prairie fire. He flung off his robe and jumped into the river, throwing up a huge splash. His head dipped and when he re-emerged, paddling on his back, swimmers began chanting. “Long live the Chairman! A long long life to the Chairman!” The crowd followed, their black rubber caps turning them identical in the water, ants swarming toward honey.
The driver stepped out of the sedan and lit a cigarette before ambling toward the shore to watch the race. The sleeves of my robe – a castoff of the Chairman’s – dangled past my hand and slid off my shoulders. I pushed back the strap of my worn bathing suit, but not before Secretary Sun glimpsed my right nipple. He twisted away, as though I’d struck him. With the air-conditioning turned off, the temperature inside the sedan quickly heated up. Sweat trickled between my breasts, a slickness that I wanted Secretary Sun to trace down the length of my body. His hands: in the library, poised on my jaw to correct my accent, and in the garden of the Sea Palaces, wiping away my tears after I learned of my sister’s death.
The Chairman had awoken something in me, something I couldn’t admit until now that had nothing to do with him and entirely with me. I’d been delivered into the hands of the Chairman, and believed I desired no other, but I’d also been drawn to Secretary Sun for months, an attraction that I’d suppressed as forbidden, impossible, strange – how to want, without worship and without fear?
“You don’t have to swim, if you don’t want to,” Secretary Sun said. “The river is treacherous.”
“The Chairman wants me to go in.”
“He won’t know if you don’t go.
“I’ll know,” I said.
“Please,” he said. His hand on my shoulder, those gentle fingers, undid me. I sank onto him. He pulled away, resisting. If he’d been the Chairman, he would have torn my suit. I undid the buttons of his pants, though when I touched him – hard, hot as a feverish forehead – I recoiled.
His fingers slid beneath the leg band of my swimsuit and then inside me, touching, touching, and touching, delicate and insistent. He guided my hand to him and I stroked with my eyes closed. We moved together and as I cried out, he faintly gasped and hot wetness spilled against my hand. Dizzy, I leaned against the window, trying to still the roiling within me.
Secretary Sun pressed a handkerchief to my hand and I wiped off my fingers. Outside, the cheering swelled. After less than fifteen minutes the Chairman had reached the center of Long River, his massive head and sloping shoulders visible at the surface. The security detail kept a wide ring around him, and I had to leave now, or I would never catch him. I was reaching for the door handle when Secretary Sun told me that my mother had recovered. “Most of the village, too.”
I blinked, my confusion pierced by a single thought: my struggle here had mattered, if I’d saved my mother. Then I remembered Ma’s dowry bead, dangling from the end of Fei Yu’s braid. Soldiers, ripping the pouch from my mother’s hand. Ma, begging.
Was the Madame trying to harm my family, I asked, my fears taking shape and weight like a smoke into stone. It might be a long time until Secretary Sun and I had another chance to talk, before we trusted ourselves alone.
“You can expect more of this, as a model revolutionary,” he said. “Not only from the Madame. Your fame will invite attention to your family, from those who want to reach you. But she can’t do anything, if you keep the Chairman pleased.”
At that, I pulled myself out of the sedan, into the breeze carrying the muddy, wet scent of the river, and this time he did not stop me. I shrugged off my robe, kicked off my sandals, pushing through the crowd until I leapt into the water. Warm at the surface, freezing beneath. Splashes pounded around me. Arms, elbows, knees, legs flailed in my face, in my sides, my back and I lost sense of where I was, swimming to shore or into the river, sinking or surfacing. I’d forgotten my goggles and cap, and my eyes stung in the cloudy water, and my hair slipped loose from its pigtail and tangled in my face like choking weeds. I regretted leaving the shore. I should have pretended. Fei Yu would, arriving at the finish line by car and dousing herself from a bucket, to greet the Chairman.
Ahead of me, a swimmer screamed for help, all flailing arms and wide eyes. “Float on your back!” a woman shouted. “I’m coming!” a man cried. Someone kicked me in the face and coppery blood flooded my mouth. Another kick, to my side, and I inhaled water, foul and turbulent as my desires. The Chairman must know what would happen in the river, must be punishing me for my every selfish wish, must know that the swimmers would engulf me. Blows from my sisters. From Fei Yu. Another from the Madame. From Teacher Lin. From the Chairman himself.
I gave into the kicks and slaps and slipped beneath the surface, beneath the churn and into the darkness. Easy to sink, let the water fill my lungs, fall to the bottom where I belonged, but then I broke free, clawing each stroke until I broke through the surface, gasping. I swam and swam, and when I felt the current pulling me, I flipped onto my back, inhaling the scent of osmanthus on the breeze. I floated, drifting faster than the clouds.
VANESSA HUA is an award-winning writer and journalist. Her fiction has appeared in the Atlantic, ZYZZVA, Calyx, and elsewhere, and her essays in the New York Times, Salon, and Newsweek, among other publications. At the San Francisco Chronicle, she covered Asian American affairs, and has filed stories from Burma, China, Panama, and South Korea. She is a fellow at the Grotto in San Francisco, was awarded Honorable Mention in the 2012 Zoetrope fiction contest, and has received scholarships from the Bread Loaf, Squaw Valley, and Napa Valley writing conferences. A graduate of Stanford University and UC Riverside’s MFA program, she is working on a novel and a collection of short stories.
Read more work by Vanessa Hua:
“The Deal” in the Atlantic
“Like Reyes” in VerbSAP
“Staking Claim” in Fiction Attic