It’s winter, and the bitter cold of the moonless night bites through the thin cotton clothes. Shoes soaked through mean frostbite has set in long ago. It’s that kind of cold that you can smell; it sort of freezes your sinuses. Snow crunches underfoot, and you have to duck under the low hanging boughs of the pine trees, laid heavy with ice. The river is less than 100 yards away, a empty expanse of black stretching towards the horizon, like a hole at the end of the world. On the other side, the street lights of Ji’an twinkle through the winter air, signaling the edge of civilization.
Crossing the frozen black river means abandoning family, friends and country. Starting new doesn’t mean anything at this point. All that’s known is that all this is no more. The posters and the police, the whispers and the cold feet, the single television channel and the power outages and the competition to find an ear of corn: “Even if I die trying, I want to leave,” you had said.
Hold hands and walk towards the lights. There are no friends here, no people this far north, just the sound of new snow crunching underfoot against the surface of the slick black river. Failure means a slow death, torture and starvation in the work camps, and even if you do succeed, what will happen to your father, to your mother and your sister?
Slip and slump across the ice, shivering beneath the only black clothes you could find. The bank is steep, fresh white snow without any footprints. Scrape at the little roots and dead grass beneath, haul your body up and over to huddle in the shade of the concrete wall. It stretches down the riverbanks, miles in either direction.
It’s still cold on this side of the river. Where will you hide?