That memory stuck in my mind for a long time, but as I grew, the pain faded and it felt like simply another milestone as I neared adulthood. My father’s memory of the incident seemed to fade, as well, and he trusted me with new tasks and even new training. He taught me to shoot arrows across the pond. In the winter I would hang targets on the bare wood-orchid trees and shoot over and over, collect the arrows, and then shoot again. I would ride a horse past the pond and shoot from the horse. Over time, I had to collect fewer arrows from the water. Then I collected fewer from the ground until most of the arrows I shot at least stuck to the wood-orchid tree. When my mother caught me, she would shout, “No! Mulan! Those are your trees!” Father did not age well. He had kept his wits and his sharpness, but his body had grown frail over time. During the harvest months he would hire more and more laborers until they had completely taken over his duties. I remember him sitting next to the fields and watching them, even gesturing the motions he would have been making had his body cooperated. Some days he would try to work himself but my mother would find him and shout at him just like she shouted at me, and he would return sheepishly to his chair. I took over many of his duties. I learned to lead the laborers, and as I practiced my fighting I grew harder and stronger. One bright summer day, late in the afternoon, I was shooting arrows across the Hua pond into the target canvas when a horseman dressed in bright red came galloping in. “Girl!”
I pretended not to hear. I was concentrating.
“You! can not you hear me?”
I shot an arrow at an arc over the pond and it hit the canvas. Then I turned to him. “Just because I can hear you does not mean I have to listen.” The man laughed. He was tall and burly, but fit. He had darker skin like he had been out in the sun his whole life and a neatly-trimmed beard that looked new. He looked me in the eyes for a second, then laughed again and glanced up at the sky. “If these lands were full of women like us, we would not need to raise an army of men.” “They’re raising an army?”
“Look at the woman show interest once she hears the news of war! Yes, the Emperor is raising an army and I’ve been assigned to the recruitment of these lands by the Khan. We need all the men we can get, and I’ve been instructed to do just that.” “Who attacks?”
“I just need to know which men live here and I can tell them the news.”
My face warmed in an instant, filled with a quick rush of blood. “It won’t harm anything if you tell me.”
He looked at me quizzically. “But – why?”
“An attack from the north, right? The barbarians of the Mongolian plains and surrounding areas?”
“How do you know about those peoples?”
“I track all the news that comes through these lands. I listen.”
He finally got down from his horse, positioning his feet carefully on the saddle in one swift movement with the smoothness of someone who had done it hundreds of times already. Clasping the horse’s reins with one hand, he pointed at me almost accusingly. “You are a rare wonder,” he said. “Usually when I come to these places I have to share this kind of news with the family patriarchs.” “Not with mine. My father knows all the news I do. You won’t surprise him.”
The man smiled. “Perhaps not. But if he is a father, I need to speak with him.”
“Do you also recruit women?”
He laughed again, an honest laugh because he thought my question was funny, but it boiled every emotion I had within me. So I gave up on him. I started walking along the pond, going to collect my arrows from the tree. The man followed me. “Did you shoot all of those arrows?” he asked.
“Yes. They didn’t get there themselves.”
“True,” he said, the quip totally lost on him. He ducked under a branch as his horse trotted after me. “Now, I’m looking for the patriarch of the Hua family. Do you know him?” On the other side of the pond the wood-orchid flowers had already bloomed, but I never hit them anymore. I put a hand around the arrows and plucked them out in one movement. “Yes,” I said. “This is our pond – the Hua pond.” “And you are a Hua?”
“For my own curiosity, let me ask: have you any brothers?”
He relaxed. “Good. We’re desperate for new men. I need to speak with your father as quickly as possible.”
I was just about to correct him and tell him that my little brother was not still a man, but mother came rolling up in a wagon drawn by two oxen. The man and I stopped our conversation there – he was transfixed on this aging woman who looked like she handled the whole farm herself. I was just glad that I wouldn’t have to be the one speaking with this man anymore. “Mulan,” she shouted from her wagon, not eager to get up out of it even with such an official-looking guest. “Who is this man? Why have you not welcomed him into our house?” “I was asking her just now where the patriarch of your family is,” the man replied. “My name is Wen Ming, an officer in the Imperial Army.” “Mulan!” my mother shouted in a whisper, as if the whisper of it could somehow sneak past Ming’s ears and head to straight to mine. “This is a man with the army! An honored guest!” Then she brought her voice back to its usual volume and addressed him. “Officer Wen, please come into my house and I will fetch my husband for you. Mulan will show you the home.” It wasn’t so much a generous offer as it was an order. My mom shot me another stink eye before she turned her wagon around and headed back to the farm. “Thank you,” he called to her. He started tying his horse to one of the wood-orchid trees.
“So you have a name,” I said, walking around the pond again and back toward the house as he trotted alongside.
“Does this shock you?” he asked, his smile sounding through his voice with an upbeat tone.
“No,” I replied. “I just thought perhaps you never had a mother to give you one.”
This made him quiet. It wasn’t far from the Hua pond to the house, but even so my father somehow managed to beat us there and was at the front porch waiting for us. He wasn’t always a man of ceremonies but any Imperial soldier coming through had to be met with the highest degree of welcome possible. He smiled and beamed as I hadn’t seen him smile and beam in months, maybe years, and shuffled down the wooden steps without so much as hobbling. “Mulan,” he said. “Who is our guest?”
“This is Wen Ming of the Imperial Army. Wen Ming, this is my father, patriarch of the Hua family.”
My mother came from the house, almost as if she’d been hiding. “Mulan! Fetch a bucket of water for boiling.”
“Can I stay to hear the news?”
“No,” my mother said. “These men must talk.”
I felt my heart sink. As little as I enjoyed the company of Wen Ming, I enjoyed the company of my father and would have loved to hear the news of the outside world. “But it might be important for me,” I said. “I could volunteer in the war effort.”
“Mulan,” mother shouted with her usual vigor. “Obey your mother!”
Then my father said something I will never forget, in a hushed and soft tone in that new strength of his, strength he reserved for guests but now aimed at me. As he clasped the arm of his guest, he looked at me and with the faint hint of a smile, he said “it’s okay, Mulan.” Not Nyu. Not daughter. Not anything but my name. I scoffed and turned away, hating my father for using my name simply because a guest could hear him. With all of the attitude I could muster, I walked away as my father led Ming up the stairs and into our house to speak all about the war effort, the goings-on in the north. I knew Ming would be disappointed to learn we didn’t have any men of age in the Hua family who could support the war. I needed to be there to volunteer myself – if not to be a soldier in the laughing Ming’s unit, then at least to stock supplies, to fetch water as I had done all my life, to be near it. I knew the sting Ming felt from hearing we had no men to offer the war effort would be relieved if I could volunteer – at least his visit to the Huas would have been fruitful in some way, and perhaps he would have even been grateful that I was there. As I picked up an empty bucket and headed over to the pond again, I sulked. I carried buckets my whole life – and I was content to. But I would have liked to carry buckets for soldiers at war, not soldiers doing recruiting. There was a bigger world out there, and if my father and mother disapproved of all of my training and shooting arrows, why did they let me do it in the first place? Just to dash my hopes when the real opportunity to see a bigger world came right up to our pond? All of these thoughts swirled through my head, but I did my duty with the usual vigor, sweeping up a full gallon of water with the bucket. I filled it extra high so it would be harder for my mother to handle. When I brought it back to the house, I did my best to walk slowly and see if I could catch any of the conversation between my father and Ming. I didn’t trust my father to volunteer me for the effort – as encouraging as he had been with my love of battle training and using weapons, he probably felt he needed his daughter here especially as my parents aged. Would he volunteer Zhu? Zhu was still too young. He’d been handling swords all his life and wanted to see a war as much as me, but he was still too small to lift one way he’d have to lift it in war. If Ming was really desperate for men, he would probably jump at the chance to send Zhu off into battle. The idea scared me. Zhu wasn’t ready. But as I tried to listen to any hint of Zhu’s name in the conversation happening in the other room, my mother interrupted. “Mulan,” she said, just as she started every sentence with me, “why must you be so obstinate even when we have guests?”
“I’m sorry, mother,” I said, dropping the bucket to where she could use it. I had calmed down a bit and felt bad I had to give her such a heavy bucket. “Let me handle the boiling.” “No. You practice your arrows.”
“What good is it?”
“What good is what?”
“Practicing my arrows when I know Zhu has a better chance of ever seeing a battle than I do?”
Mother poured the water into a large pot hanging over a fire. “No, no.”
I sighed. “No? To what?”
“That is not my daughter I hear speaking.”
Now I was growing frustrated again. “Mother, tell me what you mean.”
“All this time, you thought you practiced arrows for a battle? That you were working up to something you would one day achieve?” I didn’t exactly know what she meant, but some place deep within me told me I had to feel hurt. Mother had always admonished me for shooting at the lovely wood-orchid trees that made splendid targets, but now I felt as if she really disapproved of all of my soldiering all along. It was mother, after all, who always reminded me that Mulan meant wood-orchid, not only beautiful but strong. Ming and father might not feel I was strong, but at least mother could. With all of these emotions inside me, I spoke. “How could you say that?” I asked, my voice in a whimper I couldn’t control. She must have detected the hurt in my voice, so she changed her tone and became that comforting mother I remembered from every day in my youth. “No, Mulan – you don’t understand what I mean.” “What do you mean?”
“You may achieve whatever you want in life because you are Mulan, strong and beautiful” – there it was again – “but you must realize that there are no achievements that will make you permanently happy. You must be content to practice your arrows, practice your swords, and grow strong not because you prepare for a glorious battle, but because you wish to be strong and remain strong. Your whole life you have done this. Do not change because a man comes along and tells you your strength is not needed.” She never spoke like this, so directly about what she observed me doing every day, and maybe it was because of that that I didn’t truly understand what she was trying to say. Between my father calling me by name and my mother teaching me lessons as if she was my father, something strange was going on. Perhaps they felt sympathetic to me because they knew that they would have to send Ming away either with Zhu or empty-handed. But either way, they must send Ming away without Mulan. Unsure of what to say, I went back to the pond, all of my daily chores finished. My mother’s words echoed in my head, and I felt inspired, even content to live without seeing a battle, helping an army, and putting to use everything I had learned over the years. Mother might be right. Maybe I was building my strength not to use it, but simply to be strong. If I could be happy with that, I could be happy with anything. It was a lesson I never forgot. After I took Ming’s horse back to the house so he would have it when they left, I took out all the arrows I could find and started shooting across the Hua pond, content with the practice alone.