The first rays of sunlight appeared above the Eastern slope of the Paotai Mountain. The old man picked up his frayed wooden basket and set off to pick corn. The farm, which provided all the food Feng needed to feed his family of eight, was located a mere seven hundred metres down the slope of the mountain, a trek the old man had to endure every morning, of every day for the past forty-six years.
A thunderous clap erupted overhead as Feng spotted the giant metal beast which had appeared on the hill above his home only a few days prior. It never changed location, only rotated its giant mechanical barrel out of which, every ten minutes, broke out a monstrous whirlwind of fire as everything around it became covered in a grey sheet of smoke and dust.
When it first appeared, this peculiar steel contraption, of which Feng had never seen anything alike, disturbed the old man greatly. The flurry of uniformed men who attended it largely kept to themselves, however, the deafening noise which this giant created had resulted in many sleepless nights for Feng and his family. Yet as the days passed, and as this fearsome mechanical leviathan remained firmly in its place, Feng chose to simply accept its unruly existence as yet another terrible omen to befall his long troubled homeland. Perhaps one day, as suddenly as it had made its unwelcome appearance, the beast upon Paotai Mountain would simply disappear.
Firmly grasping his wooden basket, Feng looked away from the mountaintop and continued his trek down the slope towards his family’s farm. Although the fighting had moved beyond these fields towards the harbour, numerous grim artifacts remained. The countless shell craters that the old farmer had to zigzag between could lead one to forget that once upon a time this country had been a peaceful land. A land basking in its ornate natural beauty. Thinking back, Feng looked upon those days with a strong sense of yearning and nostalgia, as recently this once placid territory became host to an unthinkable degree of death and destruction, caused by years of carnage, uncertainty, and war. It swept over the land like a terrible blight, shattering everything in its path and leaving behind it only misery. Misery which managed to manifest itself in the hundreds of lifeless, rotting corpses littering the countryside for a dozen kilometers in either direction. These idle bodies of foreign young men had as of late become a common sight in Feng’s life, so much so that his original emotions of horror, sadness and repulsion had instead been replaced with simple disregard and cold, bitter acceptance of the new status quo.
It was several of these lonely figures that the old man found lying in a ditch directly opposite his farm. All were missing their boots, one was missing his head. Crouching down beside them, Feng felt their pockets for any remaining valuables, although chances were that the opposing force had already cleaned them of any such belongings. The old farmer recognised the flag proudly displayed on their uniforms. A dark blue cross positioned against a white background. He had seen it many times in the past few years; atop buildings, on uniforms and aboard the great steel ships coming in and out of the East harbour. It meant nothing to him.
Feeling one of the soldiers pockets for coins, Feng instead found himself grasping at a photograph. A photograph… This man must have been more than just a regular soldier to afford one of these. The picture on the front showed three smiling young men dressed in the same blue and white uniforms as the corpses now lying in the ditch. On the back was a short inscription, although as it was written in the Cyrillic alphabet, Feng hadn’t the slightest idea as to what it meant. The only thing the old man could make out among the jumble of symbols and characters were four Arabic numerals.
He flipped over the photograph for the second time and studied it with greater scrutiny. In the background there were ships. Grand steel warships like the ones he’d seen docked at the harbour below the mountain. But other ships too. Smaller fishing boats and giant cruise liners the likes of which Feng had never seen before. He concluded that these men must have come from some very far away place; somewhere almost alien. A place where smiling young men boarded great steel ships and sailed halfway around the world to achieve the ultimate goal of being shot through the head.
Somewhere to the right, the old man heard a faint cry directed towards him. Facing in the direction of the noise, he spotted another man lying on the opposite side of the road. Slowly, Feng approached him. He looked young, no more than twenty years of age, although his bloodied head and torso were indications that his days were coming to an end. The man tried to sit up, but with a second agonising cry plummeted back to the ground. A torrent of blood was gushing from a wound in his hip, where the white of bone was clearly visible. The old man gazed at him as if examining some strange, unknown, creature. The soldier’s wild eyes stared back, expecting something to happen. He opened his mouth to speak and a series of unknown foreign words bounced off his lips.
“Natasha… eto ty? Podoyti po blizhe… ty tak krasiva… idi ko mne dorogaya.”
The man tried to speak again but no words would come. Instead, he simply smiled and held out his bloodied hand. Unsure of what to do, Feng crouched down and grabbed it firmly. Now the man began to emit a manic laugh, which soon turned into a gush of tears; after which he jerked forward and began coughing up blood. Feng continued to stare into his increasingly mad eyes until the young soldier in front of him was rendered motionless. Now a lifeless carcass of blood, sweat, and tears so far away from home; he seemed almost peaceful. The old man could only hope that his spirit may join that of his ancestors; and even though the gods were evidently not kind to him in battle, they may now welcome this young soldier into the afterlife.
After gently feeling his chest to make sure that he had indeed stopped breathing, Feng grabbed the soldier by his arms and dragged him to the ditch where he found the other three men lying earlier. The old man then dropped the body alongside his deceased comrades. He grabbed a cloth from his pocket and quickly wiped the blood off his hands. The sheer abundance of death had left Feng with little room for sentimentality, but this time he felt strange; awkward almost. He crouched there for a moment; contemplating.
Once again, the great eleven-inch gun at the top of the hill broke the morning’s silence, as yet another cluster of high explosives were fired down range at a velocity too great for the eye to envisage. This time, the old man didn’t even bother to look up. Neither at the gun nor at whatever could have possibly been its target. Instead, he pulled himself back to his feet and walked across the road and into the yellow cornfield. With the sound of every distant explosion, and every group of marching men on their way to war, the conflict they were waging only seemed further and further away in the eyes of the old farmer. He had no idea as to why they were here, or what cause they were so eagerly prepared to die for. There seemed to be some other presence nearby. Something was looking at him.
Upon hearing its distinct hooting sound, the farmer looked up and spotted the harbinger of death himself. The ‘cat headed hawk’ had finally come to collect the souls of these newly deceased men, and its very appearance was seen by some as a reason to be fearful. It sat there, perched on top of the old pine tree, gazing down at both the dead and the living. In the minds of many, its wide yellow eyes were a terrible omen; a malevolent foreshadowing of more death to come. The bird called out to him. Hoo hoo… hoo hoo. In the farmer’s language that sound had its own sinister meaning. Hoo hoo… hoo hoo. It felt as if it was telling him something, or trying, to as part of a strange telepathic exercise; but the old man was tired of superstition. The owl flashed its wings and scuttled away. The farmer watched as it’s lonely silhouette disappeared into the horizon. For a moment he paused as if considering something of critical importance, only to be interrupted by the loud bang coming from atop Paotai Mountain. He shook his head and continued picking corn.