It takes the lieutenant one hundred years to climb the hill to Lao Po’s house. By then, the warlords have come and gone, the Republic has risen and fallen, and developers have been petitioning the ruling party to demolish Lao Po’s hilltop hut for decades.
Lao Po’s plum wine has been aging for a century. She pours it into a cup five times as old, sets it on her little wooden table, and waits.
The lieutenant opens her door with a polite greeting. This endears him to her. He’s not one of those fearful bureaucrats who stands outside timidly knocking and knocking until their bones crumble to dust, nor one of the spear-wielding knights who kicks down the door and bursts into hard-to-clean smithereens. She likes his tidy features and his mild expression.
“Welcome!” she says. “You must be exhausted. Won’t you have a seat and a sip of homemade wine?”
But the lieutenant waves her off. “Madam Witch,” he says. “On behalf of Generalissimo Yan . . . ”
“Little Yan,” Lao Po interrupts, “is dead.”
The lieutenant’s face ripples. “Damn!” he says. “I was afraid this would happen. That means that devil Zhang Zuolin has won the war.”
“Little Zhang is dead too.” Another ripple. “Your war is over. There are other wars now.”
“What other wars?”
“I don’t feel like explaining world history to you,” Lao Po says. “Suffice it to say that you’re a man out of time. In every sense of the phrase.” She nudges the cup toward him. “I hope you didn’t have a family.”
“No.” The lieutenant sits in a daze. “I didn’t have that blessing.”
“And your name?”
The lieutenant has come forewarned. “No name. You can call me Froggy.” At her frown, he explains, “I was born near a marsh.”
Lao Po sits beside him. “Were you sent to beg a favor? Or have you come to collect a debt? If it’s the latter, you should know that the bodies of debt collectors of the Ming and Qing have made my hill several hundred meters taller over the centuries.”
“I know,” Froggy says. “I used their skulls as handholds along the way.”
“Nothing fazes you,” Lao Po says admiringly.
Froggy shrugs. “Can’t help it,” he says. “War took my heart.” He lifts the cup and drinks. “That hits the spot.”
“Oh, thank you,” Lao Po says. “I don’t often have company. I do my best.”
“You’re incredibly hospitable,” Froggy says. “I was told to expect an evil hag. A crone so monstrous the sight of her would stop my breath.”
Lao Po chuckles. Her reflection in Froggy’s cup is that of a perfectly ordinary, middle-aged woman with kind wrinkles around her eyes.
“Most days,” she says, “I drift around as pollution or fog. I thought this form might entice you to stay a while and chat. Who was she? Your mother?”
“My auntie.” Froggy sounds wistful. “I never knew my mother.”
Lao Po takes the form of a maiden. “Oh, Froggy, I beg you, don’t go!”
“Ruan Lingyu, the silent film actress?” Froggy casts a bland glance at her black-and-white cheeks, her celestial beauty. “That won’t work on me.”
“I’m not done yet.” She feels herself changing, elongating. The face in Froggy’s wine grows dark and handsome. “Your father? Brother? Cousin?”
“Little Lu.” Froggy stares. “A rickshaw puller. A regular at Auntie’s noodle cart. Please don’t.”
“Seems you still have some heart left.”
For a moment Lao Po worries she’s turned her visitor to stone. It’s happened before. Then the statue creaks; Froggy begins to tremble.
“How long have I been away?”
“One hundred years.”
Froggy shudders and drinks until Little Lu’s face disappears.
“Tell me,” he says, “did he survive the war? Our war and all the wars that followed? Did he love and marry and live happily ever after?”
“First,” Lao Po says, “tell me what Little Yan wanted from me.”
“Oh, that.” Froggy sighs. “It was a debt. On his mother’s side the Generalissimo was descended from Princess Taiping and the House of Li, under whose imperial decree you were given this hill and its acreage of enchanted plum trees. He wanted his five hundred taels of silver, with five hundred years of interest. To fund the war. My war, his war. It hardly matters now.”
“So you’ll write it off?”
“I have no desire to be added to your pile of skulls.”
Lao Po laughs. “I like you, Froggy,” she says. “It’s lonely on my hilltop, and the plum harvest is coming. Won’t you stay with me?”
“I might. Especially if it’ll take another hundred years to climb down.”
“Your rickshaw puller is dead,” Lao Po says. “He was starved and conscripted and imprisoned. He was freed and married and imprisoned again. He spent his final days in a munitions factory in the mountains and died peacefully in bed. His great-granddaughter, a painter, lives across the sea.”
“Did he ever think of me?”
“You lie so beautifully,” Froggy says. He wipes his eyes. “Very well. I’ll stay.”
“Wonderful!” Lao Po shucks her soul from its casing and flies into the air, filling the room and Froggy’s gaping mouth with smog. “Ah, that’s better.”
Froggy pokes at her shriveled body, lying on the ground like a tofu skin. “Can you teach me how to do that?”
A new set of developers is driving up from the capital, bolstered by an edict to evict her by force. Lao Po hears their sleek BMW purring toward her hillside. By her estimate, they’ll be here in thirty years.
Plenty of time.
“My dear apprentice,” Lao Po says, “I’m going to teach you all kinds of things.”
Spread the word!