Roy Zhu / 朱若忆

The sun set low over the sound of horse hooves on the empty steppe. It was early in the first term of the year, and clouds had broken low over the mountains and brought snow. Still, the rider crested the ridge of the road, showing no signs of softening his pace.

She took off her veil and eyed the horseman approaching from afar, late for a messenger. The snow settled in her hair, dry and so fine it could almost be mistaken for rain if not for its sharpness against her skin. The weather had been indecisive, a state that was not good for the parched earth. She hoped the clouds were a sign of spring rains, a sign that they could once again start raising livestock for eggs and milk instead of slaughtering them for meat. It had taken a lot to swallow the bitterness of her cruelties to animals that she remembered tendering with such abundant love as a child.

“Meilong! Meilong!”

The rickety door of the chicken pen jolted open and the chickens scattered behind her, bracing against the anxious weight of a stumbling Uncle Tong. Meilong startled out of her squatting position and tucked away her knife. Her uncle leaned on the wooden fence and forced chilled breaths into the air.

“Meilong! Your father wants you!”

She shook her head. “Uncle, I’m not done with the chickens yet. What’s going on?”

Uncle Tong’s eyes looked frantic.

“Your father says it’s Sima. He can tell by the horse.”

She whipped her head to the west and tried to stare at the moving silhouette hard enough until it yielded a face, some sort of remembrance. Sima? The snow was falling so heavily now that she couldn’t discern much apart from the hooves churning against the air. The faint rhythm grew until it overwhelmed her, drawing blood from her chest to her throat like the beating of her heart.

Horses gave her terror. Meilong would always remember the day she saw horses come to Baihu. The general was dressed in red and his flag bearers bore banners in eight colors, each emblazoned with the seal of the Emperor. They announced that they had come directly from Xi’an, with orders to lead the bravest of men on a crusade against northern raiders, their voices rehearsed and steady. Underneath the fanfare was the sound of quiet weeping, and on that spring day when Meilong felt nothing could disturb the peace of open sky, a strong dark Ferghana stallion was mustered from the soldiers’ stable and brought to her brother, who rode off beating the western road with a last glance to Meilong, a farewell caught in his throat and released to the earth as her tears.

The metal bled, and blood spilt over her white dress, dying it crimson. Meilong gasped, even though it was one clean stroke. She felt a sharp pain as she rose with the limp-winged body: the ring finger of her right hand was bleeding over her linen. She cursed. I still tremble like a girl when I have to kill chickens. 

In the distance, the hooves had stopped, and the sudden quiet was ridden with dread. It perked the hairs of her neck and felt, Meilong thought, like the ceasing of a heartbeat. She grimaced as she ran the cloth over her injured finger. Today’s killing would come at a price.


“He died with an arrow in his throat.”

No. A single pump of blood, a pulse through her head.

The words left Wei’s mouth with an intensity and defeat Meilong had never heard from him before. Wei yanked once on the horse’s reins and stopped before the courtyard. Meilong’s father was on his knees, his apron-strings fluttering in the air beside him. Wei’s dark hair, which was tied in a youthful bun the last time she saw him, now fell around his face like a heavy wet shroud.

Meilong knew Wei had also been conscripted into the army. She had seen less of him since he became an apprentice at his father’s armory, but she still remembered how, years ago, he would run around town with her and Sima, often showing them weapons that he snuck out of his father’s store. It was Wei who told them how to hold a sword, a dagger, a spear, how to remain balanced, how to apply force, confidently parroting his father’s words while they stumbled clumsily around with the strange objects. Wei and Sima had stayed friends up until the army came, and both of them had left in the same regiment.

Smoke fumed from the horse’s downturned face. The quiet was erupting like a knife from the center of her chest. There was no movement, and for a brief second it felt like the world could remain frozen like this, before anything could become real, before any fact could percolate through the earth, or her body, or heaven itself and become destiny. Then her father began to wail.

“My son…” he whispered trailing off. “My son!” He screamed, his voice breaking and forming together only to be broken again, and then there were simply no words, only a persistent wail. Meilong found herself falling into him, her legs giving way, sobbing, her hands tearing at his apron,  tearing at anything. Her blurred vision registered things breaking, falling, in the distance, the angry cry of Uncle Tong as beams shattered in rage. Sima. Where are you, Sima. Come back, Sima. Please. I love you. Come home, Sima. 


“Tell me what happened, since my father refuses to tell me more than I already know.” She moved the knife gently and fast underneath the skin, feeling it lift and curve as if responding to her thoughts. She had made it an instrument of her emotions, and the more disciplined they became, the better she cut. Ever since her brother’s death, she had not been able to slaughter chickens. But her hands still gravitated to the knife, and she needed something to busy its blade.


“You’re clearly angry, Wei. Keeping what you know to yourself won’t help you, either.”

She looked up at Wei, hoping the firmness in her gaze would compel him more than the shape her dried tears took across her face. When she received silence in return, she continued peeling.

The apple skins were for the children. The little boys and girls, some nieces or nephews, others strangers, who stopped by to check in on her family and bring consolations from their parents. Meilong felt bad for them, forced to bear some stranger’s grief instead of preparing for the spring festival. As she continued peeling, she remembered the story her father had told Sima and her at the spring festival, when they were both as young as the children now. Sima was running around like a little firecracker her father had said, and he had pulled the two of them down to sit, begrudgingly, and listen to his story.

Baihu Village once did not have a name, and was merely a spot in the desert that spanned the Gansu. Then, one of the forest spirits, exiled for defying the Emperor’s orders, wandered to a patch of dirt that seemed darker than the surrounding land. He tried to summon up a lush woodland from the soil, but could only muster up a field of grass. In desperation, he formed the soil into humans who could till the land and plant trees for him, but the humans resisted his demands, and eventually chased him away. Our ancestors, an exiled group of Han settlers, had been led by a man named Kaolei, who saw a vision of a white tiger shining in the desert, and followed it to the grassland. There he met the forest spirit’s children, proud independent warriors, and their leader, a woman who called herself Baihu, or the White Tiger. They fell in love, and their children’s descendants inherited the land and the village, which was named for the mother. Now, every New Year, the story was retold during the parade procession. The tiger dancers who lead the parade are draped in the festive blood of their descendants, the dragons and lion dancers curling their airy red bodies through the crowds.

Meilong looked down and saw the apple skin fall onto the table, a perfect single red curl, like the motion of a dancer. They could be shaped into characters that the children could string up as new year’s decorations. She felt a tear wrinkle the corner of her eyes as she remembered, that same year, Sima placing an apple carved with the character for remembrance atop their mother’s altar.

Suddenly, she felt Wei’s hand on her shoulder.

“Meilong. I don’t know what to do.” He choked out the last of the words, and she saw a flicker of uncertainty or terror in his eyes.

Wei sighed. “The army isn’t going north to the garrison at Dunhuang. It’s turning back. To Baihu. General Li from the Xia regiment defected and ambushed our forces at the Anhun Pass. His mercenaries betrayed General Hao and joined ranks with the barbarians. They came down from the mountains and surrounded us, and Li killed all the officers until his men outnumbered us. Then he demanded our loyalty, and came down the line asking each of us to bow to him.” Wei choked a breath.

“Sima refused.”

Meilong’s fist turned white around the hilt of the knife.

“He called the general a traitor and then turned to us. He asked us if we wanted to join ranks with maniacs and he accused them of many things. He said his name would never be associated with tyrants or rapists. Then they shot him.”

Wei paused to look at Meilong as he said this. Then he took a breath and continued.

“We broke ranks in the back and fled like wildfire. Most of us were slain, but Sima’s horse came to me, I don’t know from where, and I rode him back to town.”

Meilong was silent. In the space between the two of them a questioning tension had built up. She glanced over the red apple peels, the tiny piece of jade laden in her knife, the damp sleeve of her white mourning robe. My father mourned my mother silently. I can’t do that. Not now. 

“The general’s army is coming back to Baihu?”

“Yes. They are marching on to Xi’an and demanding the surrender of villages and the conscription of every man. If we don’t surrender the town, they’ll slaughter us.

Meilong nodded slowly. “We’re all in danger.”

She rose and paced slowly around the room. Sima, I couldn’t save you. Can I at least save our village? If there is one thing I can do in your honor, it will be to save our home. Sima, help me. Then, suddenly, she looked into Wei’s eyes.

“Wei. I know what we have to do.”


Meilong had looked out at the dry steppe again this morning before she went to fetch grain from the storehouse. In the five days since Wei’s departure, Meilong had been preparing quietly for war. She packed Wei’s parting gift in a saddlebag and hid it behind the wood panel of her mother’s altar. She tied her hair in a bun and sealed the knot with her knife, its hilt a deceptively ornamental hairpin. And every night after she closed the feed shop, she told her father that the army would come, though she knew he had lost faith since Wei had left. She continued to be worried about her father.

Her father’s eyes had become feverish and quick, and he had become prone to dropping things. Meilong had to help him carry sacks of heavy grain to the storehouse, and would occasionally hear soft, choking sobs as she passed through the house. Other times the loud outburst of a meat cleaver would signal his thoughts. He spent most of his time reading or speaking softly in front of the altar to Meilong’s mother, and she chose not to disturb him.

Suddenly, Meilong heard a battery of footsteps rush past. She darted out of the storehouse, her eyes adjusting to the blinding light.

“A scout is at the gate!” someone cried, and Meilong whirled to look down the street. In the commotion, women had dropped pans of dried rice that scattered onto the dirt.

“The soldiers are here!”

The village gates were open, and Meilong was relieved to see the men on horseback were not carrying torches. The surrender must have gone well. She felt pinpricks ripple across the back of her neck as she stared at the oncoming procession, realizing the weight of what she had told Wei to do. They are capable of such death, she thought. What if they stare into my eyes and find the truth? At the head of the procession, General Li sat enthroned on his stallion, a red-sashed black spear in his right hand. His armor glinted like obsidian in the sunlight.

“Herald, sound the call!” the general roared, and Mei felt anger surge through her like lightning as she realized this must have been the same tone he used to order Sima’s killing.

The general disembarked, and his men followed, marching through the town. Meilong recognized from the searching gaze of the men who were looking around the village that some of them were captured from Sima’s troop, not just his own mercenaries. She stroked the hilt of her hairpin.

“Order them to line up outside their houses,” the general ordered. “I am looking for the Zhang family! The family of Sima Zhang!”

What. Meilong gasped. Suddenly, the air seemed to have turned to water around her throat. She felt nauseous. Did they find out about the plan? Her hands were numb. I’m not ready. She had no armor, and the only weapon at hand was her little jade knife. Her fingers were trembling. She cursed herself. If they kill me, Sima, I’ve failed you. I can’t even defend myself. 

“I am the father of Sima Zhang.”

Meilong whirled around. Where did my father come from? His eyes looked sharper than she had seen them in the past week, and her stomach dropped as she saw him walk up to the mounted general.

“Brother Zhang.” The general beckoned to one of his attendants, who helped him dismount.

Her father’s voice was a trembling line. “If you wish to kill me, do it privately. My daughter is here.”

Meilong watched the general’s parted lips close for a second, and saw his eyes dart around the crowd. But he continued.

“Brother Zhang. Ah. I am honored to find that your village has blessed us with peace, and not rebelliousness.”

Meilong looked for the general’s eyes. His long black eyebrows furrowed as he spoke, and he never lost the steely gaze of a predator.

“Yet the town has hid into its own silence, and I fear your people may have given themselves the wrong impression of me and my soldiers.” His eyes were searching around the crowd, watching the fearful shuffle of feet and gazes planted downward.

“Brother,” intoned the general, and Meilong tensed. “Have you heard rumors about my men?”

Her father stayed silent. She didn’t need to peer across the window to know that he was breathing through gritted teeth, the same way he did when he talked about her mother.

The general continued: “Have you heard them talk about our barbarian habits?”

Meilong took a step forward toward the edge of the crowd.

“Have you heard them say that we learn to drink the blood of soldiers we kill?”

His voice began to rise. Meilong crept closer, still in the shadow of the feed shop but as close to him as she could be.

“Have you heard them say that we loose red horses onto the plains, painted by their riders?”

Meilong was at the edge of the crowd now.

“Or that our men are beasts who chase and ravage women?”

The way he said ravage sent chills down Meilong’s spine. She was staring at her father, watching his gaze fix upon the general’s. Silence passed between the two, inspecting, furious.

The general broke. In one liquid motion he unsheathed his sword, a shining curved blade that flashed once before finding her father’s neck.

“No!” Meilong realized she had screamed a second after she did. Her father’s eyes flashed to her, the general’s blade brushing against his collar.

She rushed into the middle of the street, her hand reaching for the blade tucked in her hair. Before she could pull out the knife, one of the general’s guards fell onto her, kicking her down into the dust of the road. She coughed.

“Meilong!” her father cried. “Stay back!”

“Soldiers!” the general shouted.

A pair of Xia mercenaries pushed his father to his knees, their spears pressing into his back.

The soldier on Meilong grabbed her arms and tied them behind her, dragging her back towards the crowd.

“Father!” she shouted.

“Quiet,” hissed the general. Meilong stomped on the soldier’s foot and felt his body jolt, but she remained pinned.

“Your son accused me and my men of such things. And for his dishonor and treason, he was killed. Now, I want your village to be a welcome home for my soldiers, and so, apparently, does the scout who surrendered Baihu. But.” The general lowered his sword so that the tip of the blade landed flat on the back of her father’s neck.

“I cannot have fathers who say one thing in public while their sons plot quietly in private. And so I thought to make an example out of you, for the benefit of your beautiful village.”

“No!” Meilong screamed, before the soldier planted his hand over her mouth.

Suddenly, the general lifted the blade.

“However, I did not expect to find that Sima Zhang had such a beautiful older sister.”

She thrashed.

“In fact, she looks strong enough to make a good bride. And surely I cannot ask for the bride’s father’s blessing if her father is dead.”

Her father’s mouth was ajar. His eyes passed from the general to Meilong, his eyebrows two pure strokes of horror.

“You want my daughter.”

“In exchange for your life.” The general smiled. “What better dowry can I offer?”

Meilong bit down hard on the soldier’s fingers, and delighted in hearing him yelp as he shoved her away from him.

“General Li!” she screamed, gasping. “Let my father and I bury my brother’s body with a soldier’s ceremony and I will marry you.”

The general turned toward her. She stared at him, holding her gaze steady. Like a tiger, look at him with the calmness of a tiger. He may be king of men, but you can be queen of beasts. 

The general frowned.

“Soldiers, search their house for weapons, powder, or traps.” He glanced at Meilong’s father.

“You raised your son as a traitor and your daughter as a wild dog.”

“General, let him go! I’ll do whatever you wish, but please. Return my brother. Let my father go.”

Meilong’s voice cracked and she felt hot tears surge from her face. She had broken. She revealed her fear, and desperation, and she hated the fact that this was exactly what the general wanted to see.

“Very well, my love.” He nodded his head to the side and turned to depart.

The soldiers released her father and she felt him gasp as they shoved his head down to the ground.

Meilong rushed out to him, sobbing as she held his old, warm body, sobbing harder as she felt the pulse of his heart beating on.


    “Wei. I know what we have to do.”

Meilong whispered the line to herself when she was sure no one was listening. It was two weeks since the general had set up camp in Baihu. In the soldier’s tents where Meilong now lived, apart from her father, she was repeating the last conversation she had with Wei in her head. I don’t know what to do anymore, Wei. I didn’t know things would turn out like this. I wish I could have that same confidence again.

“Wei, you’re the only one in town with a horse. My uncle and the other men want you to meet the general and surrender the town.”

“I know. I’ve been preparing for that—”

“What if they kill you? What if they shoot you down like Sima before you have a chance to finish speaking?

My eyes must have looked so wild. 

“I don’t see what other choice we have.”

“Wei, not a single village in the Gansu has horses. Since the drought, the emperor has mustered all the horses back to Xi’an. Without horses, General Li assumes we aren’t expecting him. He assumes that even if someone like you has made it back to warn us all, we won’t be able to walk to Laolin before he seizes the town. That’s the only reason he won’t burn our houses down. If he knows you have a horse, he’ll kill you and the rest of us out of suspicion of treason. We must all pretend like we’ve been caught by surprise.”

Could you see how hard I tried to keep a tiger’s composure? To show you that I could?

“You want me to ride to Laolin.”

“I want you to do what Sima would have wanted you to do.”

 I hope you always remember Sima. 

“Who will surrender the village?”

“The regular watchman. He’ll meet them at the gate.”

“Does your father know about your plan? Have you spoken to any of the elders about this?”

“Wei.” I remember how bitter my voice sounded then. “The men whisper war in their secret rooms. I speak only for my brother. My brother whose horse you rode, whose horse found you like he granted it to you even in death.”

“Meilong, I would be disobeying—”

“You would be showing your love for my brother, your brother-in-arms. Don’t you want to avenge his death?” I had to choke back a sob while you were silent, pondering. Before you finally nodded. 

“Does anyone else know about this? Am I to leave without telling anyone the truth?”

“It’s better if you leave in secret. If the village thinks you’re a coward who simply fled, no one will betray us.”

“Meilong, I’ll lose every ounce of honor I’ve ever had in this village.”

“And when you ride back with a Han army to meet the murderers? What then?”

You would be a hero, Wei. 

“I’ll leave at nightfall.”

“Thank you, Wei.”

“You know what they’ll do to you if they discover your plan when I’m gone.”

“I know.”

“Meilong, I’ve never given this to anyone else before. But now I fear… I know you will need it more than me. I hope you never use it.”

“Thank you, Wei.”

Your sword. I almost forgot. It’s still in the saddlebag behind my mother’s altar. When I’m allowed to see my father again, I’ll take it. Right before the funeral tomorrow. Thank you, Wei. I do need it. And I’ve decided how I’m going to use it. 

Meilong stood up and turned around. She slinked back inside the general’s tent, white robes trailing behind her like a tail.


It was four days into the new year, and there was no red anywhere to be seen. The funeral procession moved slowly, draped in white, like a sheet of snow crawling across the town. Meilong was wearing a heavy white robe that scratched against her skin, though she took soft pleasure in the fact that even the general’s lust couldn’t pierce through the folds of the robe. The thought that General Li or his soldiers were staring at her even as she led her brother’s casket through the streets sent a smoldering heat through her bones, and she barely felt the season’s cold. The procession stopped in front of the mausoleum of her mother, a curl of dark green tiles shrouding the shadowy entrance where Meilong knew another tomb was waiting.

“Stop,” Meilong exhaled as the soldiers carrying the casket prepared to enter the crypt. She turned around to face the throng of villagers and soldiers that had been pushing her brother through the streets. It felt like stopping a river.

“Open it,” she commanded to one of the pallbearers, a lieutenant of General Li.

The wooden box swung open hesitantly and Meilong slowly pulled open the black shroud until she could see her brother’s face, his wound, his uniform. Without a tear, she looked back up at the crowd. Here were the enemy’s soldiers burying her brother. And streets full of her neighbors and relatives. She reached into the bun of her hair and felt the cold jade hilt of her hairpin. Meilong pulled and the knife slid out of her hair like oil.

A knife, she felt the crowd think, react, shift uncomfortably. She held her hair in her other hand like the neck of an animal, bracing it for the blade. Then she cut, imagining a chicken squealing, imagining hot blood, feeling her hair come undone. She knotted her cut hair once, then placed the mass of fibers in her brother’s clasped hand. The knife, too, belonged with him. She tucked it into the side of the casket where his sword would have been.

Meilong stepped back, then nodded to the pallbearers. The jade glinted at her once before the box sounded shut.

Suddenly, a shot sounded off. Meilong’s eye scanned the edge of the crowd. Wei? She thought, but her heart sank as she noticed an angry mother pulling her son away from the procession, a spent firecracker falling from his pocket, red as blood. The smoke lingered in the air for a moment before vanishing, like a tiger plodding back into a forest.

The men moved into action again, carrying Sima into the mausoleum. In the dim darkness, Meilong noticed her father bent down, his face illuminated by two glowing sticks of incense. He was reading a list of names, calling forth her ancestors, a monotonous litany of spirits. A tear jerked from his eye as he read the last name, Zhang Yuhong, Meilong’s mother. She realized then, as she watched her brother enter the space, that her mother was preparing to receive him, her son, for the first time since the night she had died giving birth to him.


    “Why are you still wearing your funeral robes?”

The general was drunk and had been waiting for her in his tent. The smell of wine and perfume doused the air with sweetness. Like sickness, Meilong thought.

“Are we not finally married now? Husband and wife? The color of a wedding night should only be red.”

“I will change my clothes soon enough, my husband,” Meilong whispered, her voice steady.

They sat at the edge of the general’s bed, the General laughing while Meilong watched him stain his undershirt with wine. The night grew dark, and the General’s hands started tugging on her more sharply, illustrating his want. Meilong smiled at him, her lips, she imagined, shining white in the lamplight.

“I don’t want your men to hear us. Call them away,” she purred.

“Of course, my dear.”

The tent billowed slightly with the wind outside. Meilong shoved the General back onto the bed. She pounced on top of him, straddling her legs around his body.

“Finally getting what I wanted from you,” he laughed, “was like breaking in a horse.” His words slurred together.

“Yes,” Meilong growled back. “Imagine horses.”

She undid the sash of her robe, watching the general’s eyes follow her hands. How quickly hatred turns to lust. Then, like a fang sinking into flesh, she pulled Wei’s sword out from the sheath tucked into her sash, her right hand moving to cover the General’s mouth. She plunged the sword into the General’s chest, feeling her brother’s name exit her throat as a tiger’s roar, feeling his body jolt beneath her, feeling hot blood flood her robe, a river, an ocean blooming with red. A muffled scream, then a slackening. Meilong pulled the sword from his body, her breath quickening. She fell back, tears enveloping her face, her brother’s name echoing in her mind.

Meilong exited the tent, the front of her white robe dyed crimson. In her left hand, Wei’s sword shined, and she could see the character for king etched in the metal, the character of royal tigers. In a haze, Meilong dabbed her finger in the pooling blood and painted the character on her forehead.

As the cold night air enveloped her, Meilong suddenly felt her senses awaken. His soldiers, she realized, his soldiers will find me. 

Suddenly, she heard a rumbling behind her. Horses.

Meilong whirled around, expecting to face an arrow to her throat. Her eyes widened as she recognized the first of the riders.

“Wei!” she screamed, watching his long dark hair emerge into the torchlight. Wei whistled and circled his horse to a stop around her, as the rest of his soldiers galloped across the Xia regiment’s tents, a flurry of screams cut short by the thundering trampling.

“Meilong!” he shouted, his voice barely audible above the fury. Torches flashed and arced through the air, fires igniting through the army tents. In the distance a Xia soldier cried “ambush!”

Wei stopped the horse in front of her, then gestured for her to mount. Meilong heaved herself onto the horse, sheathing the sword.

“What happened? Are you hurt? You’re covered in blood!”

The horse’s flanks rippled and they took off, pounding into the night.

“The General died.” Meilong whispered, feeling herself flare, every muscle in her body, the wild edges of her sight. “The General died.”

Then, almost a roar, a rising in her throat.

“The White Tiger killed him.”

Roy Zhu / 朱若忆 is a first-year from Braintree, Massachusetts studying Environmental Science and Creative Writing.