Furthering my great surprise, my father had become an accomplished liar almost overnight. He told my mother that I would be going to serve with Ming – omitting the difficulty that would come with lying about who I was. Becoming a soldier as a woman would not be the very difficult part. With men covered in dirt and thinking about war and hunger, it was possible to have no one question whether you were a man or woman. In the cities men and women looked different but in the country as we were at the Hua pond, the differences were hidden behind the dirt and the common clothes we all wore.
Following my father’s instructions, I cut my hair that very night. I washed my face several times in the Hua pond and looked at my reflection. A face looked back up at me that I had never seen – a face that could have easily been a man’s. Bolin’s. My father sent my mother out early on the farm to supervise, saying that I had already left and taking a good scolding from her because she never got the chance to say goodbye. Zhu was sent off and told the same, and as the dawn gave way to the true morning, my father called me over and brought me in the barn, where he had two objects waiting for me.
“This is my saddle, and it belonged to my father as well as his father, and going on back five generations. A soldier must purchase his own saddle, which is why you will need one of your own.”
Thinking of saddles, I suddenly remembered I would be expected to ride a horse, to provide my own horse, or to stand and fight on the ground. “This is a great honor, father,” I said. “But why are you giving me a saddle without a horse?”
“You will take Zin-Chu, the old horse,” he said. “He is not as great a horse as he once was but it will be easier to ride him than to find the money to purchase a horse all your own.”
Zin-Chu’s age was the only thing on the farm that made my father look young my comparison. The horse was thin and had lived a long and healthy life, but there was no telling when the old boy would give out. Still, it would have been better to fight on horseback than on my feet, no matter how poor the horse was. And I was familiar with Zin-Chu. He would need no breaking in.
“And then this,” my father said, bringing out the box that had represented such a guilt for me many years before. It was his real sword, the sword for wars. He lifted the box open and I heard it click neatly, revealing the solid blade inside. The metal was still of the same quality it had been all those years earlier, but now it shined in the sunlight almost like it had an inner glow. At least, that’s how it looked to my young and inexperienced eyes back then. My father went on. “This is the best I have to offer you. Zin-Chu may have a heart attack and toss you to the ground, but this sword won’t buckle. Use it like an extension of your body. It will keep you safe if you remember all of your training.”
I took it with both hands and bowed, just as I had years before when I gave it back out of guilt. I felt the weight of it in my hands; it was a weight I had practiced with before but it carried a psychological gravity to it now. If I would succeed, this sword would end men’s lives.
I took it, sheathed, and father lead Zin-Chu up to me. His experience with people showed well, and as if he knew the importance of the moment he was calmer than ever, ready to embark on a journey even with difficult joints and fading muscle. I tapped him on the side and patted him as if to encourage him, and somehow the thought of Zin-Chu facing war with this great courage settled my stomach. If Zin-Chu could be brave, then certainly I could.
We came out of the barn expecting Ming at any moment. We must have been his earliest appointment that day because he came strolling up expectedly, grateful at even the prospect of a male soldier ready to be recruited. He wore the same thing he had yesterday but it looked clean and he seemed more presentable. He came off of the horse in an instant, smiled, and lead it over to us.
“Sir, do I have the honor of meeting your son?”
“You do,” said father. “Hua Bolin, this is Wen Ming of the Imperial Army, working on behalf of the Khan of his tribe.”
Suddenly I froze. I hadn’t even practiced a man’s voice, let alone thought about practicing one. So I grunted a little, nervously, and shook Ming’s hand.
“Nervousness is to be expected at a time like this,” Ming said. There was a gentleness and kindness to him I hadn’t seen before, when he knew I was a woman. Part of me despised him for it, but I couldn’t help but enjoy the affection. Was this what it was like to be a man?
Seeing my nervousness, my father spoke for me. “Bolin has been waiting for this day for many years,” he explained. “He is both nervous for the war and excited for the soldiering.”
“He’s much thinner than I expected. He has the look of your daughter.”
“Yes,” father replied. “It has been with my family for many generations. But I assure you his heart is strong and his spirit is brave.”
“Well. The real mark of bravery is to be scared and to take action anyway, knowing what you do is right. And that is what I see from young Bolin here.”
“I trust you have the necessary papers, young man.”
“Ah, yes! Forgive me.” Ming drew a single paper from his pocket and slapped it into my father’s hand. “Keep these in safe keeping for Bolin. These verify all that is happening.” Then he paused, unsure of what to do next, and stuttered a little. “Forgive me. This is your time for a good-bye.” Then he turned back to his horse.
I turned to father, whose eyes were watered. But he was not crying. Instead, he clasped me firmly on the shoulders.
“My son, whatever happens, know that mother and I love you and will always be proud.”
I hugged him. He feigned surprise like a brilliant actor, laughed a bit, and patted me on the back again. Then he whispered, “your mother would say – remember your name is wood-orchid. Remember your strength.”
I nodded, in tears, a little embarrassed that my first conversation as a man had resulted in my crying, and we parted. I saddled Zin-Chu and with Ming, trotted away from my only home and the Hua pond.
“You are a true man today,” shouted Ming from his horse.
I felt the nervousness in my stomach and thought, this is the first time in my life I would prefer to be a woman.
I had trained for swordsmanship and archery my entire life. I rode horses. I read histories of war. I imagined myself in battle, the weight of the sword coming down on my enemies and protecting me from their attacks. I trained for years in daylight and at night. But nothing really prepares you for the hardship of being one individual at the behest of an army and at the mercy of the elements.
We joined the army of the Khan for training before joining the official Imperial Army. The training only lasted a few weeks, but I will remember it always as being among the hardest times in my life. The training was difficult, to be sure, but the summer sun was even more difficult. Seeing the camaraderie of the other boys and wishing I could relate was difficult, but the loneliness of being without my family at night was more difficult. The only comfort in training was the steady supply of meat and hearty food, which I ate like I’d never eaten in my life. Even so, I couldn’t be sure if I was gaining any strength or whittling further down and looking more and more like Zin-Chu.
Ming was our trainer and he displayed a hardness that he had clearly concealed during his recruiting efforts. If we were not perfect in one movement of the sword, we would do it again and again until we were perfect. Our lives were consumed by repetitive action, and we were so beaten at the end of the day we wouldn’t even talk amongst ourselves in our bunks and our tents. We would fall asleep as we fell onto our beds.
But our time with Ming ended. I had been introducing myself as Bolin wherever I went, but once Ming sent us to join the army, I simply started referring to myself as Mulan again. Nobody knew me, or what the name Mulan really meant. It was easier to respond to my name this way. When we trained, none of the other soldiers knew me as Bolin – Ming only called us each “boy,” as if he’d forgotten the day when I supposedly became a man.
It surprised me how little I had to pretend. My short hair and presence in the army was enough evidence for anyone that I was a man, and the question as to my gender never came up. It became clear to me that for the other men, the reality that they expected was the reality they perceived. I blended in seamlessly, only disappearing to go to the bathroom and to shower. To compensate for this, I simply washed and went to the bathroom before everyone else. I looked more disciplined than them rather than like I had something to hide. It was all I needed to get by in the army without question. I knew no one and they only Mulan they knew was the short-haired thin boy in front of them.
Military life, I learned, was not about excitement or even fear so much as it was about marching. We marched everywhere. Zin-Chu shocked me with his endurance, but I couldn’t help but feel that each step he took was numbered. For many weeks I was alone in the army, with no friends except Zin-Chu. I came to relate to him – two soldiers out of our element but somehow content to make the journey no matter how arduous.
Then battle came. We were ambushed on a march by a small tribe of the unit, but hiding from the arrows none of us could really tell how many there were. Then I heard a charge of male voices come from either side of the army, rushing down the grassy hills set against the rocks of this northern place. I scrunched my head down into my shoulders to protect my neck and looked around anxiously for someone to fight. All of the training I had undergone even here and in the army suddenly meant nothing. But I was not content to simply look like I was trying.
So I found the nearest enemy warrior I could and charged Zin-Chu upon him. I batted at him with my sword as hard as I could, and it clanked on his helmet, bouncing off. Zin-Chu turned and I came back to see what I had vanquished, but instead the man fought on, engaged in swordplay with someone else. So I took another charge and this time aimed at his neck – my swing missed wildly as the man was moving too unpredictably.
Just then another warrior tugged on my back, trying to pull me off Zin-Chu. Out of instinct I swung my arms and my sword around and the man backed off, but I couldn’t get a look at him. Zin-Chu was trotting somewhere else. So in the fight I swung at whoever I could, trying to land blows in the armor’s weakness. Then I came across one warrior fighting against us who had little armor. Zin-Chu sprinted at him and I saw the swing must be made on the left, so I moved my right arm over to that side. I had done this maneuver before – a backhand swing on a target as the horse underneath me moved. I looked at his chest and kept my eyes on it, then as I neared him put all my strength into the swing. The man’s chest split open and he went down just as quickly as the swing had struck him. Flesh was not so strong as the trees I had practiced on.
I could only afford one split second of a stunned look at my first kill before one of our soldiers grabbed Zin-Chu’s reins and pointed me to something I had not noticed – the enemy’s attack had been worthless and they were now fleeing back up into the hills. “Chase them! Chase them!” I heard someone shout. I didn’t know if they were orders or simply good advice, but I clipped Zin-Chu with my shoes and he went sprinting up into the hills. I shouted at the top of my lungs, encouraged by my earlier success, and mistakenly my yell alerted the enemies to my presence, and they all ran away from me. Even if I heard a young woman shouting at these strong warriors, what met their ears were the fierce cry of a fierce warrior.
That evening, as everyone was gathered around fires for food and warmth, someone suddenly walked straight up to me so quickly it almost startled me.
“Are you Mulan?” he asked.
I looked up. He was dressed in the cloth of an officer and had fine silver armor that shined brightly even in the dimming sunset. His face was mature and deep-set in wrinkles, like he would one day look like my father, and they conveyed a wisdom I still could not hope to understand.
“I am, sir,” I replied.
“I am general Len Wung.”
I stood straight up, nervous that perhaps I had been found out, scared to find out what he could possibly want with a young skinny kid.
He laughed. “I am not here to punish you.”
As it turned out, the general had seen me chasing an entire group of men away from the army that day – he must have looked at just the right moment, because it felt clumsy to me – and wanted to see what I was capable of. He took me out to the edges of a forest near camp and handed me, to my amazement, arrows just like I had used at the Hua pond. He had one of his men set up a target. Then, he gave the order.
“Show me your capabilities.”
I shot arrows from on Zin-Chu, shots while moving, shots while still. They all hit the target. It was not a challenge – the many years I had spent preparing for this moment was the challenge.
When I was done, General Len walked up to Zin-Chu and up at me. “They call you Mulan,” he said. “Is this accurate?”
“It is, sir.”
“What is your family name?”
“I’m not familiar.” He patted Zin-Chu a few times with the good presence of someone who had been around horses his entire life. “But I will be familiar from now on.”
That night I went to bed under the stars and thought little of the incident, except to be afraid that General Len would look up the Hua name and find out I was supposed to be called Bolin. But I was committed to the lie now, and in fact hadn’t lied to General Len except to not tell him that I was a woman.
That next morning over a pot of boiling water, I was approached again by a man who had no hesitation in the way he walked. It wasn’t General Len, but he told me General Len wanted to see me again, and then escorted me to the command tent. I was prepared to be told I was kicked out of the army. I thought perhaps my display of arrow-shooting had made me too notable. I didn’t want generals curious about me, even if they were curious because they liked me. I was ready for the worst. To be, as Biyu had said, slapped down.
But General Len smiled as he greeted me. “Mulan,” he said. “My new archer.”