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Rotten Leg Village

By: Cindy Patten, Nanaimo, Canada
Travel and Transitions travel story contest participant

“Day 6:  Travel to Xia Yi Village, one of the Rotten Leg villages and meet with survivors of anthrax warfare.”The itinerary sounded fascinating and mysterious to my inner historian. This was the day I had been most intrigued by since becoming part of Canada ALPHA' s Study Tour for teachers.  It was the rarest of opportunities to experience living history as we traveled mainland China learning about one of the twentieth century' s most horrific chapters of war history:  the Japanese invasion and occupation from 1936 to the end of World War II.   

At first I maintained emotional distance from the litany of suffering, my spirit buffered from true compassion by bland historians' lectures and waxing textbook discussions.  Day 6 was to be my wake up call.  Armed with the “bare necessities” (bottled water, sunscreen, antibacterial wipes, toilet paper, journals, pens, digital cameras and local translators), we boarded our luxury air conditioned coach after a buffet breakfast.  Bound for Xia Yi, we were absolutely unprepared in spirit for journey ahead:  to listen to survivors bear witness.

For over an hour we jostled at frightening speed along potholed roads, groaning collectively as we hit deep, spine-jarring ruts. As we approached the ancient village of the Yi family in a filthy billow of dust and fumes,  the bus driver honked mercilessly at waves of wheeled, pedestrian and hoofed traffic, miraculously parting them from our path as did Moses the Red Sea. 

It felt like we were traveling into China' s past.  Sunshine pummeled sturdy women bearing huge woven baskets overflowing with lush greens.  Weathered men wrangling fantastical farming contraptions belching evil, viscous smoke chugged serenely through undulating rice paddies.  In the distant haze stooped farmers dotted the crop land, heads shaded by conical bamboo hats worn in this part of China since antiquity.  We passed humble clusters of crumbling brick and mud homes lavished with intricately carved decaying wooden trim and capped by graying bamboo roof tiles.  Clucking chickens scratched viciously at the red dirt while every variety of squash entwined delicate green tendrils along splintering gates and disintegrating dwellings.  Vibrant heaps of unspeakable refuse breathed moistly with a life of their own as clouds of obese flies droned sluggishly about the spoils.  Brilliant orange blossoms lit up the scabby roadscape like tiny fires. 

The narrowing dirt roadway was designed for carts, not four star coaches.  When it became impossible to wedge further up the lanes without nicking corners from Qing dynasty homes, we disembarked into a weedy courtyard which also served as a vegetable patch and chicken run.  Yellow cobs of drying corn were strung in bundles from roof tops, away from hopeful beaks.  In the phenomenal heat I half expected to see popcorn kernels exploding into the stratosphere.

I had anticipated the survivors being the main attraction and was momentarily puzzled to realize that instead we were. Itching, mangy dogs and snaggle-toothed old women fluttering paper fans to combat the shimmering heat gazed upon us with great toothy smiles from peeling wooden doorways.  As we wound through the uneven alley into the heart of the village, amused and bedazzled children pointed and laughed openly at our sheer size (L, XL and XXL by Chinese standards) and color (white-pink-red).  We quickly snapped photos, wanting to remember what we ascribed as their innocence.  In retrospect it was our own naiveté that we were preserving.

The community meeting place was the venerable Yi family shrine.  It was an ancient wooden temple, open air, with large red painted logs supporting a high ceiling.  Tall narrow tables, warm bottles of water and small rickety chairs awaited us.  Lopsided electric fans and one gleaming Western toilet had been installed for our benefit.  I slumped into the nearest seat, panting slightly at the heat, humidity and humanity.  Around me was packed to bursting with chattering villagers and lusty media who were intent on committing our experience to photographic memory by the gigabyte.  The din of their enthusiasm was overwhelming, like the roar of a jetliner during takeoff.

We fell silent as a handful of senior Chinese, smiling and composed, shuffled to the front with immense dignity. Our senior translator announced that they are the last of 255 from this enduring, gritty village who were infected by plague, typhus, glanders and skin anthrax some 60 years ago by the vicious Japanese military. 

One venerate woman wore short, impish pigtails and her lambent smile dimmed the sun with its positive wattage.   As a young child she became infected from a tiny scratch while helping her parents in the fields.  Rolling up tattered trousers to the knee she revealed the hallmark of anthrax poisoning: flesh as black as charred wood.  Her legs were rotten, skin sliding from bone. Filthy cloth strips could not conceal the green infection that oozed from her swelling shins.  As governments at all levels have done little to provide medical or political amelioration for these simple village survivors, her primary medical treatment is green tea leaf packing because she has limited access to expensive antibiotics.  Pain has kept her bedridden for the better part of six decades, yet she made the arduous trip by foot this day to tell us her story.  When asked how she keeps her spirits up, she grinned gorgeously and responded, “I have a good son!”

Another time-worn survivor had glanders.  Her face was rotting away; her remaining lips curled into a permanent rictous around graying teeth.  She hitched up the back of her shirt to show us the extreme hump of her spine and the ridge of vertebrae, poking razor sharp against parchment thin brown skin.  During one of her frequent dizzy spells caused by the infection she tripped and fell, cracking her backbone.  Because of her extreme disfigurement she was not able to marry and over the years there was no one to help.  In the twilight of her life she anguishes in pain and solitude, and sometimes considers suicide.  I just want someone to love me and take care of me before I die, ”she hoarsely beseeched Jing, our student translator in the local Chinese dialect.  We watched Jing' s classically lovely young face twist into tears as her heart broke for this woman.  Although we were not privy to that particular exchange until later, our own hearts hammered in synchronicity with outrage and our breath came fast and shallow with collective grief for her tortured existence.

Numb and confused after the testimonies, I spent some golden, facile minutes playing with the irrepressible village children.  Many had dressed up especially for our arrival; the girls in particular in lacey white frocks and simple but snazzy hair frills.  They were beside themselves with joy when I drew hearts on their hands - squealing xin, xin” (heart, heart) to each other in delight- and I found it easy to let them plant sprigs of happiness in my own heart despite the dank stain of inhumanity that lingered in my soul.  On the worn path back to the bus I spotted a tiny canine ragamuffin.  The matted grey puppy languidly regarded me with one sleepy eye from the shade of a tree, no doubt pondering if it was worth an effort to act cute in exchange for the potential payoff of delicious smelling potato chips from my pack.  I was eventually dismissed with a great doggy chuff:  too hot today.  My stomach lurched with the knowledge that this would be a descendent of the same dogs that had eaten by necessity from the piles of human corpses left to putrefy in the streets during the ravage of Xia Yi.

With shocking alacrity we were out of the past and into the present: returned to the civilization of an instant gourmet hotel lunch, cans of cold, carbonated beverages and mechanically cooled air.  We discussed the plight of the survivors in private groups of two and three, our gestures and exclamations animating our expressions of sympathy and disbelief.  The morning already seemed - thankfully - surreal. 

Later that evening, Jing worked to cultivate our blister of ignorance into veritable nub of awareness.  With tears streaming down her flushed cheeks she searched for words to help us comprehend our shallowness of understanding.  “You say that the children in the village have such beautiful smiles.  Well, that' s all they have to give you!  They have nothing else, nothing at all!” Usually gentle and soft-spoken, she addressed us with an uncharacteristic vehement passion. 

My grandmother lived in this province when the Japanese soldiers came, ”she continued, choking with emotion.  “They never found her village so she did not experience what these people lived through.  If she had, I would have been one of those smiling children today with nothing.  I could have their life.” She swiped at a wisp of hair stuck to her dampened forehead and suddenly I could imagine her as one of the children I had seen, living in the tiny village that smelled of rancid sewage and garbage, smiling in excitement at my foreign-ness.  The picture brought tightness to my chest as I absorbed for the first time:   something as simple as a battery of soldiers trespassing left instead of right on a grassy path between villages 60 years ago provided intelligent, articulate Jing a life of privilege instead of poverty.  There but by the grace of God…

As a privileged foreigner, the survivors' accounts reaffirmed for me that which I already knew from university classes:  atrocities of war are outrageous and unfair.  I also began to comprehend what only experience could teach me:  the face of dignity and depth of resiliency lie dormant and untested in those of us lucky enough to live in the right place and era. I often think of the first survivor' s parting words for us:  “I love you, you love me!  Despite overwhelming obstacles she lives her life fully with love and family and continues to believe that she will be cured.  Lifelong grace and forgiveness and hope supercede the impact of war and suffering and disease; this, truly, is the culture of peace cultivated through unfathomable forgiveness.  The message is clear to me:  if she can embrace her life with such love and exuberance, then it would be my shame not to. 


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