You Come from a Beautiful Country
by Stephanie Golisch
Ten in the morning and the sun broils my dark hair. I trail behind my husband, Chris, and our friend, Frank. We hike in silence through the meadows that skirt the mountains in the Guangxi province of southern China. We left the village of Ping’an this morning and our goal is to reach tiny Dazhai by evening. As we squeeze between curtains of leaves, waxy blooms lick my ears. Water sings everywhere, irrigation ditches completing the ideas nature started. Insects dive through the pollen-choked air. Sweat soaks my shirt and seeps into my backpack.
After a turn in the path, I see a wooden covered bridge in the near distance. Once I am in the shade of the covered bridge, Yao women begin gathering around us. I take notice of the sturdy wooden beams. The structure was built in the traditional way with no nails. I throw off my pack, root inside for my water bottle, and drink. Frank and Chris settle at the other end of the bridge, about thirty feet away.
The Yao women bore into me with enigmatic, arcane smiles. Their eyes are on me, even when their heads are turned away. One woman says to me in English, “beautiful, beautiful.” I can’t tell if she means it or if she wants to flatter me into opening my wallet. Two of her companions point to my nose. “Good, good.” More words in their dialect flow around me, but I don’t understand even Mandarin.
Suddenly, a male voice comes from behind me and I turn into a lanky body and a crooked grin. “Profile,” the blue-eyed backpacker says. “Something about a nice profile.”
“You really know the language,” I reply.
Blue Eyes is not alone. His hiking buddy, Green Eyes, with dark ringlets of hair and boy band cheekbones, is the more conventionally handsome of the two. They are not overly tall, but tall for China. They are lean and both look nineteen. At thirty-three, I’m not old enough to be their mother, but it does seem other travelers I run across on my adventures remain young and I’m the only one aging.
Blue Eyes, irises of cold rain, takes a swig of rice liquor from his small glass bottle. He’s my kind of guy.
“Where are you from?” I ask him.
“Cool. I want to go there someday. I hear it’s lovely,” I say. I point to my two companions. “They’re from Germany. I’m from the States, Portland.”
“West Coast. Between Seattle and San Francisco.”
“Nice. How long are you traveling through China?”
“What, that’s crazy! That’s nothing.”
“That’s a long vacation by American standards.”
I have no idea what these two Israelis name as an occupation. They look too young to do anything for a living. I open my mouth to ask, but the Yao women cackle gleefully, interrupting me. One of them glances lasciviously at Green Eyes and lifts her black embroidered skirt a bit, revealing a brown, toned, hairless leg. She’s a grandma and he could pass for a teenager. He jostles to hide behind me and get away from her gaze.
“What are these freaky expressions? She’s lifting up her skirt for me, do you see this?” Green Eyes says.
“She’s got fantastic legs, gotta give her that,” I say. Blue Eyes and I snort with laughter.
Green Eyes is indignant at our giggles. “It’s not funny. She’s a little old for me.”
Who knows if the woman is doing this for laughs or if she’s seriously making an offer, but it’s curious she only targeted Green Eyes instead of both of them. She doesn’t try it with my husband or Frank either.
Blue Eyes slinkily stares me down like he’s caught me shoplifting and he’s going to let me walk out of his store with whatever I want. His impish grin is like callused hands tickling my neck. I immediately tell myself I’m imagining things. I’m the sweatiest, smelliest and most disheveled I’ve ever been in my life.
Blue Eyes says, “You are all matching. You must like purple.” He pulls out his booze and drinks again.
“What?” Maybe the sun is getting to me.
He laughs. “Look, the lettering on your shirt, your shorts, the accents on your shoes. All the same color.” He runs his finger over me from head to toe in the air.
My chest contracts. Blue Eyes tilts his head as his glacial eyes drill into me.
Chris yells to me from the opposite end of the bridge. “Hey! We’re going. We bargained a guide down. She’s taking us to her village.”
My husband’s voice killed the spell. The spider’s web of intimacy Blue Eyes and I had begun to knit between us was torn apart.
I lug on my pack and Blue Eyes does the same. Green Eyes is already halfway up the hill, protesting the efforts of the locals to guide and feed him or sleep with him. Our companions pull Blue Eyes and me away from each other, sever us quickly. I recall animal slaughters in the vast open air markets here. The heads are chopped off and the bodies are thrown in buckets.
“Take care,” I say to Blue Eyes.
He gives me his Cheshire Cat smile. “You too. Travel safe.”
I turn and scramble after my companions. My lovesick ghost remains beside Blue Eyes, trying to steal a gulp of that rice liquor. If only I were brave. I would stay with Blue Eyes. We’d sip cloudy rice wine, heavy velvet on the tongue like melted pearls. I’d grasp his skull in my hands with gentle desperation, a drowning woman devouring breath from his lips.
Hiking in China
Photographs courtesy of Stephanie Golisch