At least I was outside to see the world transition from the late afternoon and go into the light purple of sunset, and finally into the dark of the night with the stars watching over me in the same position they always took in the summer. I lit the torches I had placed there so many years before, ready to keep going until my fingers ached down to the bone and I couldn’t take another look at that red target hanging from the top of one of the wood-orchid trees.
I loved this time of the day, all the chores finished and my parents finally content to let me pursue my free time in the way of my choosing. Zhu might sometimes come and interrupt me, asking to play some odd game with him, only to finally give up when he saw my obstinacy. But he didn’t come tonight. Instead it was quiet. I didn’t even remember hearing Ming’s horse trot by, and he didn’t waste any time saying goodbye to the odd girl shooting arrows at the pond. Perhaps Ming had taken Zhu with him? No; my parents would have let me say goodbye if that was the case. As I shot arrows over and over, my mind toiled over these questions, entering that meditative state I had learned to enjoy so much.
As the night wore on and the moon rose higher in the sky, I felt stranger and stranger for being out so late and avoiding hearing what had been said at the meeting. I wanted badly to hear what Ming had to say about the news with the barbarians in the north and what it meant, but I was still sore from being told to go away. I knew my father relished being able to share the news with me – the only one who was ever interested – and staying out this late shooting my arrows were my way of punishing him. But it was starting to get late, even for me. So I packed up all the arrows, put out the torches, and made my way back to home.
Usually I needed the moonlight to guide me, the house all dim with everyone sleeping. But a fire was still lit in the main room. Someone was still awake. I walked slowly, not sure what to make of it, but came up the wooden stairs to the entrance, letting the noise I was making alert whoever was still awake that I was coming back in.
I pushed the door open, eager to let the creak of the wood further announce my presence. It was father. I heard him snoring in his favorite chair, the one facing the fire. As I approached him I saw he had a book in his lap, a book on the art of the sword that I loved to use for myself.
Father was a good sleeper but made it a nightly ritual to read in his own room. He never stayed up this late out in the main room, certainly not with a fire still going. So I nudged him awake.
“Father,” I said. “It’s Nyu. You need to go to bed.”
He took in a loud gasp of breath and shook his head, gaining his bearings. He looked up at me and saw me in the flickering orange light.
“No, Nyu. I stayed up for you.”
“For me? Why didn’t you come and get me?”
“Your mother told me what she had said about your arrows and I wanted to let you practice. I would never interrupt your practice. Now sit down. I want to tell you about my meeting with Ming.”
I took a wooden chair leaned against the wall and brought it out between him and the fire, anxious to hear what he had to offer. As I was his daughter, he usually discouraged me from pestering him with too many questions, but I could tell when he was in the mood to share. I’d never been so eager to hear him.
He went on. “Ming reports of great disturbances in the north, with the barbarians of Mongolia. They have banded many tribes together. They are not content to pester the people of the Wei in the north – our people. They attack with vigor now, and with the Emperor’s armies spread so thin, the recruitment efforts are in full force. Every family with a name is offering its males to the local Khan and the tribal leaders. They are training full armies.”
He took a good breath and a sip from a cup of water that I hadn’t noticed before. “There is more, Nyu. I told Ming of Zhu. He thought Zhu was of age but I told him under no circumstances was Zhu ready. Zhu is eager to think of fighting as a beautiful thing, a way for him to grow up. And Ming thinks in these terms. However there are no circumstances where I would send Zhu to war at his age. In a few years, perhaps. But not now.”
I felt relieved, one of my biggest questions having been answered, knowing Zhu would be staying with us. I imagined our lives would go on in the same way they had been. My practice with the arrows had driven all of the anger out of me. But even with this question answered, my father went on.
“Then I told Ming about you,” he said. My mouth must have opened a bit in surprise. “I told him my daughter Mulan, whom he’d met, was strong and had been training her whole life for circumstances like these. But he told me it was an army of men, and no women. And I told him of what else you could do, and he said no woman who was trained in the art of war would be suitable to handle the tasks of women – cooking, cleaning, serving. He said you would want to fight too much and you would not be ideal for these menial tasks.”
Ming could make my blood boil even when he wasn’t there. I loved my father for volunteering me in some fashion. But I hated Ming all the more.
“He kept pressing for more men. And as if I had forgotten the obvious, I said – oh, you want my eldest son, Bolin!”
“That was my father’s brother’s name, and it was the first that came to me. I told him of a strong son who had been training just like Mulan. He was capable, about 18 or 19 years old, and loved the idea of fighting. And when Ming asked me where he was, I said he was out traveling and would return tomorrow.”
“But, father – who is Bolin?” I sat there aghast, my mind running with all the possibilities that would create for me a long-lost brother I had never met.
“You are Bolin, Mulan.”
It still didn’t register. He was even calling me Mulan now, and I almost felt as if I was meeting a new father. He was old, after all – perhaps his mind had grown too old.
“Don’t you see? Ming said he could return tomorrow to meet Bolin and recruit him to the army. You will be Bolin! We will cut your hair short. You will speak with a deep voice. And you will be Hua Bolin, a soldier in the Imperial army. But only if you agree. Only if you truly want this, Mulan.”
So his mind was clear – more clear than I had ever seen it. I didn’t know what to do, so my body took charge and rushed to hug him. He had foreseen a possibility even I hadn’t foreseen, and in doing so it meant he had faith in me all along. My eyes welled up just at the thought of it.
“But, father – you’ve always been so hard on me, and easy on Biyu. I thought you didn’t believe in me.”
“No,” he said. “Biyu is not made from the same material as you. She is a beautiful woman, but to her there will never be any challenge in that. I have always been hard on you for a reason. Without hardship, there is no growth. That is why I was strict in forcing your studies when you were younger. If you wanted to pursue soldiering, I would make sure that you would never give up. I have been harder than you even than even Zhu because you have always cared about the art of war more than him.
“Do you remember when you took out the family sword against my wishes?”
“Yes,” I replied. I remembered it with great pain – the disappointment in his voice, in his words that night years before. That he brought it up now meant he felt it as well.
“I always think back to that day,” he went on. And I was disappointed in you more than Zhu because of your great strength – and because you gave into temptation, not because he did.”
I felt the pain of that day come back, as if I was being reminded that it had been real. “I’m sorry, father.”
“I know, Nyu. You’ve been sorry ever since. And ever since that day I have seen you grow into the strong woman I always believed you would become. That is why I call you Nyu. If I have been too hard, forgive me. But I am glad you have had the strength to overcome much of my own foolishness. And now you are a woman, and I know you want to fight. And if you will accept my silly lie and become Bolin so that you may fight, I will be as proud of you as I am any son and any ancestor.”
To hear father speak those words ran deep to every bone in my body – his great pride in the tradition, in the Hua family, and of his ancestors meant everything to him. I hugged him again, no longer careful not to break his now-fragile body, overcome with the emotion of 18 years all poured out at once.
“I will do it, father,” I said. “And I will be a greater fighter than even if I had been your son.”
“I know,” he whispered. And he tapped me on the back, his greatest effort at extending a firm hug in return. Then he took my hands and pushed them out a bit so he could get a good look at me in the eyes, both of our faces blazing in flickering orange light. And, his voice still in a whisper, he said something I will never forget.
“Ai Nyu,” he said.