It was many seasons until I could finally return home from the campaigns in the north. I had served directly under General Len as a member of his elite personal guard. I was still a man in their eyes, even moreso because of who I served under. I became an archery expert – and archers were often light on the horse and thin, as I was, so no one questioned my presence. I saw more battles and learned to fight from General Len’s guard, people so experienced and so well-trained they made my experience near the Hua pond seem terrible by comparison. They asked me about my father’s sword, complimented it, and welcomed me as one of their own. General Len was my father away from a father, a brilliant commander and wise man.
He executed many brilliant maneuvers and had a solid grasp of strategy. His leadership was strong and steady, calm in the way that only true confidence could be, and his faith in his soldiers – even his faith in me – produced the best results because it bred the expectation of winning. And we did win. We won skirmish after skirmish. We battled and won close victories and thrilling routs. If we did ever have to retreat, it was not General Len’s doing.
So successful was our army that it eventually came time, one spring, to return home in peace. The defense against the barbarians of Mongolia and northern China had been successful. Then one day as I was packing up with Zin-Chu, who could no longer bear my weight but could still walk, General Len came into the tent.
“You have been a great warrior, Mulan,” he said. “And this has been a great war.”
I nodded and bowed, humble before the man who had made both the great war and the great warrior possible. All I knew of the army before him was a hardship; after I met him, it had been the experience of war like that I had read in the histories my father gave me.
“I want to meet your father.” The words hit me hard. I had spoken so highly of my parents, related the experience of my father sending me to war – I never thought about the effects my stories might have on the other men, on General Len. “This Hua family must have other wonders like you.”
I tried to argue, to raise excuses for my family, but General Len wouldn’t hear of it. He only added on to my anxiety - he asked that the entire guard could meet my family. It was peacetime, he said. Time for celebrations and happy reunions.
To escape the decision of a man as determined as General Len proved even more difficult than facing battle. He would wear you down with a smile, and you felt as though giving him anything less than what he asked for would hurt the feelings of a man who only saw good in you. It was he who transformed my experience in battle. I owed him.
So I agreed. They would come to the Hua farm, see the Hua pond, those of them that didn’t already go home. General Len would be there, and my other friends, none of whom ever even conceived the possibility that I would be greeted as a daughter, not as a son.
Only me and my father knew my secret – mother, Biyu, and Zhu all thought I was at war as a woman, serving not in the army but as a maid, or cleaner – anything but what I had been. But then I made a decision that settled all of my anxiety.
The morning of our reunion at the Hua’s land, I became a woman again. I fixed my hair. It was cloudlike and sat high on my head when Mulan was a man; as a woman, I combed it back down. I powdered my face with a yellow flower powder I had ground the night before. I looked in a mirror and saw myself with makeup and hair for the first time in a while, and to my surprise, I enjoyed the face I saw. I looked like a woman again.
I put on a helmet and went out to meet General Len and some of the others who had also been excited to meet my family. When General Len asked about my helmet, I told him I wanted to surprise my family by suddenly taking it off. It concealed my face oddly, but General Len loved the idea.
I rode out on one horse, drawing Zin-Chu behind us, and about a half a dozen of us, including General Len, road out from the main road and turned to the path that would lead us to the Hua pond in front of the farm, and in front of the house. I wasn’t sure who would be there to greet us, what would have changed in the passing years. But the wood-orchids by the pond looked the same. I saw Zhu, now at least half a foot taller, staring at us from a distance, and when he came closer, he suddenly bellowed in a deep voice: “Father! Mother! Officers are here!”
Biyu came to the door, more beautiful than she had ever been. She was taller, too, and had grown into her body as I might have expected. She was followed by mother, who always did the same chores with her. Mother went back into the house and then wheeled out my father, who looked sick. But even in his ill health, I felt my heart almost leap out of my chest at the joy of seeing him alive.
“Can we help you?” Biyu said, a great representative of the Hua family if there ever was one.
“I am General Len. I commanded the army of Hua Mulan, and I wish to meet her friends and relatives.”
“Why?” asked Zhu, clearly suspicious. He searched all of us and didn’t see his dear sister’s face.
“Perhaps this soldier should tell you,” Len said. Then he gestured to me. I got off my horse. Zhu saw Zin-Chu but not his sister, and I could tell he looked terrified. “This is one of my bravest, most valiant and skilled soldiers,” said Len, lapping up all of the suspense of the moment.
All of my family faced me, transfixed, as if I could give them terrible news.
Then I took off my helmet. The soldiers behind me gasped.
Only Zhu recognized me at first. “Mulan!” He rushed up and hugged me, his new strength adding so much pressure to that familiar hug. I saw Biyu’s eyes scrunch up.
I turned to face General Len and the others. They sat transfixed and shocked, almost angry even. I searched General Len’s face for some sympathy. He was as shocked as they were. “Why are you wearing makeup?” he finally asked.
“All women do when they visit their family!” I shouted, somehow elated to have it all over with. Then General Len slowly leaned his head back, mouth half-open, and let out a bellowing laugh. He couldn’t stop. My comrades joined him, and he kept on laughing until he had tears coming down his eyes.
I went up to my father and saw tears in his eyes, too. He could hardly speak but he beamed at me with the same pride I remembered from when he had sent me off. I hugged him, and he patted me on the back again. Then I turned to my mother, who grabbed me as quickly as she could.
“She’s so beautiful!” Biyu said, the cruelness of sibling rivalry having disappeared from her voice. “Is it Mulan?”
“Mulan,” my mother said, tears in her eyes. “Strong and beautiful.”