Sometimes, one great guest post leads to another. Inspired by the story Crying Over Him After 5 & A Half Years, my guest writer Raymond Chen (who is the author of the graphic novel “Borderlands”) shares the haunting tale of a man named Wei who fell in love with a French girl — but never told anyone about it.
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Good evening fellow storytellers. Now you are probably wondering what does this tired looking man in the dusty old coat have to say about a love story between a Chinese man and a French woman. Hell, I look like someone you talk to when you need advice on what gun you should use when you are tryin’ to take down a grizzly bear in the Rockies. Half the time I give that kind of advice. But tonight, in response to another story in this place titled “Crying Over Him“, I feel like I got some’ to say that has been in my memory for the past 15 years.
Now I dabble in writing now and then and even try to work on my own literature. But most of the time I find myself drawn again and ‘gain to that old fifth of Jacks. But tonight I got a true story to tell that brings a tear even to this weathered face time again.
So pull your chairs around the table and get me the barkeep if you will? I’ll take a bottle of Jim Beam and I am buying for the rest of yeh’…
This story is one that my Uncle shared with me about one of the young men on his work team back in 1997. First off, we must realize that Asian men, most particularly Chinese men, are very reserved and self-conscious. As a man of Chinese descent myself I can say that I am no exception. We simply don’t make the “first move”. Especially in this day and age, ANY woman is approached on a daily basis by many creeps and shady men with bad intentions. We DON’T want to be potentially thought of as “ugh, yet another guy is trying to hit on me”. Because the life of most Chinese men revolve around how others think of him, so he does not want to be put in a position where someone may judge him negatively. So most Chinese males do not ask the girls they like on dates, and wait for them to ask first.
Now on to the story. My uncle is an excavation supervisor in one of the numerous ore mines that dot the northern borderlands of the China-Mongolia frontier. In 1997 a new man joined his team. Lets call him Wei, shortened version of his much longer Chinese name. A man from Shanghai, around age 22, whose dream to operate heavy equipment and drive industrial machinery just came true. He was one of the best workers on the team and would be the first to respond to any crisis that occurred, and always exceeded expectations. He was extremely popular with his coworkers, always shared jokes, drinks, and laughs. And a manly man of the truest sense who did not mind going into danger.
Then we found out about Ella. Ella was a French girl who studied in Shanghai. Blonde hair, with the face of an angel. She, in her beautiful sky-blue dress, just did not fit in amongst the backdrop of the harsh ruggedness of the northern borderlands, their ravines of carved rocks and the huge diesel excavators belching acrid smoke into the winter sky. But there she stood, amongst the flashing lights of the rescue trucks and running figures of shouting paramedics and military men, tears streaming down her face.
Ella had met Wei when he was working in a bakery in Shanghai’s Meilong district. She had been living in Shanghai for just over 4 months, pursuing a career in the performing arts. Which was exactly the point of their first conversation, while he tried to fill orders and clean kitchenware at the same time. Their mutual understanding of English helped them out in miraculous ways. Wei loved Chinese TV serials, and the two of them talked about acting and movies in general. Their first conversation became the one of many. They began to see each other outside of work. Usually Wei would take Ella to one of the more traditional restaurants in the area and they would spend long hours simply walking around the town or watch the city skyline from the banks of the Suzhou River. Wei showed genuine care and concern for her, even going of his way to place his jacket over her when a freak snow squall began to blow one day as they tried to make it back home. Despite Ella’s insisting that she was not cold even though all she had was a light sweater, Wei told her to keep the jacket on. He said nothing, even though his shivering betrayed his true condition. But he did not say anything else. And he did not say anything else to suggest that their friendship may progress to anything else. Even though now they began to walk hand in hand and every time they said their goodbye in front of her apartment, he would kiss her hand and press it against his face for a long moment before turning to leave. And each day, Ella would look forward to spending more time with Wei, as we found out afterward. He in turn, as well, and on multiple occasions, showing more concern for her well being than his own. Even though deep inside, Ella yearned for the day Wei would ask her the question, that question never came.
One day, Wei told Ella that he planned to get a “real job” instead of the chump change that retail and food service always is. When she asked him what he meant, he told her that he had scored a position as a tunnel excavator in a firm that was blasting megatons of metallic ore from the long extinct volcanic ridges of the northern high country. He would be leaving soon, embarking by train to his new place of employment up in the country where people always referred to as the “meeting place between Heaven and Earth. He told her that he will write often. The one thing he said before leaving was that “Ella, if you ever feel lonely, depressed or that something in the world is letting you down, don’t, because I will always care about you and be there for you”.
Seven months after Wei had started working in Lower Mongolia and just 2 days after Ella had received his last letter, Wei was rousted from sleep one night by the team foreman. Wei had excelled as a worker and did not hesitate to be coached in a new position as equipment maintainer and diesel mechanic trainee. Well on this particular night in the bleak February of 1997, watchmen had reported smelling hydrocarbon fumes coming from the entrance of a newly dug set of tunnels. One suspected that maybe one of the big Tilley lamps used to illuminate the grounds was leaking from a faulty valve. Wei was told to inspect the premises and check for any sign of trouble. As a backup, Wei had two of the team excavators to go with him in case he need help moving something.
He did not see anything out of place as he went deeper into the shaft, even though the rancid odor of mercaptan was almost unbearable. Then he remembered that no power had been connected to this set of shafts yet and propane was still being used for illumination in the outer vestibule of the tunnel. The black hoses of the mainline led further back into the shaft, and in one of the recesses dug into the walls of the corridor, a large metal door, partly off its hinges and now unmovable due to it being wedged against the mouth of the recess, lay between him and the bulk tanks that supplied the gas to the mantles of the overhead fixtures. The stench was the most profound here and Wei decided that this metal slab had to be removed so he could look at the tanks. Despite the combined efforts of three muscular men, that damned slab just would not budge. Cursing whichever idiot had apparently rammed the door with a hi-lo machine and never bothered to report it, Wei had the door handles attached to a winch that one of the men outside had brought, mounted on the front bumper of a 500 HP FAW ore loader. The chains now connected, Wei signaled for the man in the truck to start the winch motor.
The winch had proved to be extremely effective at removing the obstruction, but it was not really built for this type of work. As a matter of fact, the winch was designed for shunting disabled vehicles or railcars that had no motive power and must be moved immediately. It was entirely too powerful, and before the cries of the frantic men in the tunnel had reached the driver to shut off the engine, the door, along with a section of the wall, had exploded free and was now hurtling towards the opening of the shaft, bulldozing everything in it’s path. The several hundred pound payload struck the support beams of the shaft and they came tumbling down, bringing rocks and cement thundering to the floor. By the time the loader operator had engaged the emergency shutoff and cut the engine, the entire crew of the sector had stumbled out of their bunks, watching a pillar of dust rise from the place where the new shafts had been.
They, the experts in their suits and the military engineers in their green uniforms, had told us that it was by a stroke of luck that the leaking propane had not detonated. That if it did, the firestorm would have jeopardized the lives of everyone in that sector. But was it really good luck for the family members of the four workmen that were in the tunnel when the winch and it’s payload had turned the tunnel into the bore of a monstrous cannon? For the next several days, men, women and children gathered at the mine entrance as rescuers frantically tried to remove the multiple tons of debris that now blocked the shafts. Among those crying for their beloved husbands and sons was a beautiful young French woman named Ella, who had arrived from Shanghai as soon as my uncle had sorted through Wei’s emergency contacts and saw the number listed among those of his immediate family.
They had found him by then, his body crushed into an unrecognizable mass by the tons of cement and steel that came down from the tunnel’s overhead supports. My uncle stood there and watched as Ella, sobbing hysterically, had ran to the tent where the corpses were stored, only to be carried back to the perimeter entrance by soldiers and firemen.
It took this incident, and several more after that, before China’s government began a nationwide campaign to address the lack of regard for safety that existed in a lot of the heavy industrial settings, most particularly in the mining sector. As to Ella, my uncle had never heard from her again, although an English speaking member of the work team had tried to console her when she had arrived at the mine, telling her that Wei was the best worker this company has ever hired. Loyal, faithful, and badass to the core.
I had never met this Wei, and only have heard stories from my Uncle, when I would go visit his ranch house in the borderlands, and we would head to the saloon and guzzle down our favorite whiskeys. I would tell my uncle about my life in the USA, and how the great the hunting and fishing was in the hill country of western Pennsylvania. I would tell him about the guns, the bows, the snowmobiles and the winter nights around campfires with my backcountry friends after a day of stalking for bucks with our scoped Winchesters. He in turn, would tell me about the hardassed old guys in his neck of the mountains that still built bows of steel and bronze that could bring down elephants. But more often than not, he would tell about Wei, and how no one in the team knew he fell in love with a French woman. Whiskey is my favorite drink. In fact, it is the one of the only things I love to drink. The other being hill country homebrew straight from the cabin distilleries of the Appalachian. But no matter how warm the alcohol flowing through my bloodstream makes me feel, I cannot bring myself to think about just what went through Wei’s head the second he realized that something had gone truly and terribly wrong down in that dark and cold shaft deep in the cliff.
Raymond Chen is the author of the graphic novel “Borderlands”, a story about a Chinese student and his beloved Peruvian wife. His harrowing journey through a landscape of death and brutality would become the fight for the survival of an entire nation. The novel is available to read at no charge here: http://blueskycountry.tumblr.com.