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Authors: Virginia Pye

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River of Dust

BOOK: River of Dust
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Virginia Pye
This is a work of fiction. The names, characters, places and
incidents are either the product of the author's imagination or
are used fictitiously, and any resemblance to actual persons
living or dead, business establishments, events, or locales is
entirely coincidental.

Unbridled Books
Copyright © 2012 by Virginia Pye

All rights reserved. This book, or parts thereof, may not be
reproduced in any form without permission.

Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data

Pye, Virginia.
River of dust : a novel / by Virginia Pye.
p. cm.
ISBN 978-1-60953-093-8
1. Americans—China—Fiction. 2. Missionaries—China—
Fiction. 3. Kidnapping—Fiction. 4. Nomads—Mongolia—
Fiction. 5. Retribution—Fiction. I. Title.
PS3616.Y44R58 2013

1 3 5 7 9 10 8 6 4 2
Book Design by SH • CV

First Printing

For John,
Eva, and Daniel

In or about December 1910, human character
changed. I am not saying that one went out, as
one might into a garden, and there saw that a
rose had flowered, or that a hen had laid an egg.
The change was not sudden and definite like that.
But a change there was, nevertheless. . . . All
human relations have shifted— those between
masters and servants, husbands and wives,
parents and children. And when human relations
change there is at the same time a change in
religion, conduct, politics, and literature.
— Virginia Woolf,
"Mr. Bennett and Mrs. Brown,"
Collected Essays

Northwestern China


he Reverend loomed over the barren plain. He stared at the blank horizon as if in search of something, although to Grace's eyes, nothing of significance was out there. Sunset burned his silhouette into a vast and gaudy sky. Standing tall in his long coat on the porch above his wife and son, he appeared to be a giant— grand and otherworldly. Perhaps this was how the Chinese saw him, she thought. Her husband spread his arms toward the blazing clouds and shadowed flatlands as if to say that all this was now in the Lord's embrace. The breeze shifted, and billows of smoke circled their way. Grace watched the Reverend's outline waft and shimmer. She would not have been surprised if his body had gone up in flames right there before her eyes, ignited in a holy conflagration with only a pile of ash left behind to mark his time on this earth. Grace shook the strange notion from her mind, although she wondered how so good a man could appear so sinister in such glorious light.
    As he started down the porch steps, Grace roused their sleeping child from beside her on the seat of the buckboard. "We're here," she whispered. "Our sweet vacation home."
    The boy opened his pale blue eyes and blinked. How would it appear to someone so young? Grace wondered. Desolate or full of potential— she could not know. The Reverend lifted the boy from her arms and swung him high on his shoulders, Wesley's favorite perch. He rubbed his cheeks and surveyed the endless plain.
    "If you look closely, you can see all the way to the Great Wall," the Reverend said. "And beyond it, the Ming Tombs and the enormous sand statues of Buddha that defy all belief. Then come the tribal provinces and the vast Gobi Desert that stretches on and on, further than you can imagine. I have seen it all, and I promise to take you there someday."
    Wesley squinted into the slanting sun.
    "That would be marvelous," Grace said. She slipped her hand into her husband's to step down from the wagon, and they proceeded on the rutted road.
    "I am afraid that you will find the countryside here far from marvelous," the Reverend said. "It is too dry and forlorn to be called pretty. I hope, though, that it will grow on you. In the fall and spring, the light turns a most remarkable bruised shade at the end of day when the mourning doves return to roost in the willow trees."
    "You are waxing poetic again, Reverend."
    "Forgive my enthusiasm for boulders and scrub brush."
    "There's no need to convince me. I have all faith that you have chosen well for our respite." Then, as they arrived at a narrow stream with a tree hanging over it, Grace took a seat on a rock and added, "I can see that this willow alone is reason for a visit."
    The Reverend reached a hand toward her hair and patted it kindly. "Your forbearance is remarkable in someone so young. In all ways, you suit your name."
    Grace blushed, which she knew was quite ridiculous. He was her husband and father of her child. Still, it was hard not to think of him as her master in matters of the soul, which were the only matters of consequence. Even after marriage, she continued to call him Reverend as she always had, and he never dissuaded her. That only seemed right.
    "Don't you find this spot spectacularly Chinese?" the Reverend asked as he set Wesley down near the stream and took his hand. "It is as if we have stepped into an idyll depicted in brushwork. The setting warrants such artistry precisely because it is so lacking. The way they attribute beauty to bare rocks and ravines and rain clouds is really quite strange."
    "But suppose I had not liked it here in the countryside?" Grace asked as the breeze made playful havoc with strands of light brown hair fallen from her bun.
    The Reverend glanced across at the cottage he had built over the previous months with the help of his Chinese manservant, Ahcho. "I suppose then we would simply turn around and ride back to town and let the desert do whatever it liked with our little home."
    "That's too sad to consider." She looked across at the charming structure that rose up surprisingly from the barren landscape.
    "The desert winds would turn it to rubble in short order. You know how a corncrib or an outbuilding on our plains back home will tilt and then tumble if left uncared for?" he asked. "I believe the winds carried all the way from the Gobi can be at least as insidious. The weather has no mind or care for us."
    She pushed the dusty soil with the toe of her laced boot. "But surely our cottage is better made than that?"
    "You have far too much faith in me, my dear."
    He looked down at her, and although she knew he was teasing, his face hardly showed it. Grace felt the breeze and breathed in the mossy air by the stream. She admired the tendrils of willow swaying in the trickling water and wondered if she could have been happier than on this day in June, here with her accomplished husband, healthy young son, and another child on the way. The Reverend bent and accepted a stone handed to him by their boy. A routine transaction and yet it made Grace marvel at her remarkable good fortune in this most unfortunate land.
    Wesley stood straight, a miniature version of his upright father, and pointed to a cow in the field across the dirt path. The animal chewed at the brittle grass, oblivious to the watchers who wondered at its strong appearance and appetite.
    "Odd, I didn't notice that creature before," the Reverend said. "I don't see how I could have missed it all those times we worked at building the cottage. It must have been left more recently."
    "Perhaps someone will return for it soon." Grace stood and slapped the infernal dust from her skirt. Fine yellow silt wafted out from the folds of linen. They called it loess, this loamy soil that blew in from the distant Gobi. She would ask Ahcho to buy a better broom in Fenchow-fu and bring it with them the next time they visited the vacation home. She followed the Reverend and Wesley across to where the cow grazed.
    "Quite surprising to see such a healthy animal in these lean times," the Reverend remarked. "No ribs showing. Any farmer would want to keep a close eye on this one. I cannot imagine who left it here unfettered."
    She thought she heard an uneasy hitch in his voice and tried to judge if the Reverend was merely registering a general complaint about human profligacy or a more specific concern. When he noticed her watching him, he smoothed his brow and tried to smile, although his mouth more readily formed a mild grimace.
    "Nothing to worry about," he said. "I have brought you to the countryside so that you might let go of all concerns."
    As she continued to study him, a humming began in her head: a slight bothersome background murmur that was not altogether a noise but could grow to become one if she was not careful. It was a matter of controlling one's worrisome sensibilities, she reminded herself. She was, quite truly, a cheerful person and always had been.
    The Reverend then addressed their son with an insistently joyful tone quite unlike him. "You may pet the cow if you wish." He lifted Wesley, and the boy's hand shot out toward the twitching tail. "Don't grab hold of it, although there is nothing more tempting. Just pat the hide. That's right."
    Her husband now fully smiled down at Grace, and her heart ached to think of the effort it caused him to be frivolous for her sake. She stepped closer to his side and touched his jacket sleeve. "Reverend, I know you have brought me here so that our unborn child stays with us this time. I am most grateful."
    He froze for a moment before handing her their son. He appeared ready to speak but had lost the words and now was unable to bring himself even to look at her. He stepped away and surveyed the plains.
    "It is perfectly all right," she said more softly, for she knew that her words bruised him as if they were stones. "Mai Lin is in the cottage unpacking our things, and the door is shut. She can't possibly hear us. Ahcho has gone off in search of hay for the horse, and our little Wesley is too young to understand." In her arms, as if to prove the point, their son kicked his legs in delight as he patted the cow's back. "There is nothing shameful in it," Grace tried again. "I have heard that back home husbands and wives discuss such matters nowadays."
    The Reverend took out his handkerchief and wiped his nose. Then he folded it carefully and returned it to his breast pocket. Yet still, he did not speak.
    Instead of dwelling on her disappointment, Grace chose to help free her husband from his own harsh self-judgments, for surely he must have sensed he had fallen short. But how could she expect more of a man so preoccupied with matters of the spirit? She whisked away any unreasonable hopes along with the flies on the back of the cow and began to pet the animal with pretend delight, which was silly given that she had spent enough time on her grandparents' farm to know a work animal for what it was.
    The smell of smoke wafted near again. She could see that the Reverend felt some relief that her onslaught had subsided. He appeared happily puzzled by the simple concerns of this world as he searched for the source of the distant fire.
    "They must be clearing the fields," he said, rising onto his toes and rocking back again. "Extraordinary how spring brings out the optimist in man, even the poor farmer with no rain in the forecast. I believe the Chinese are even more resilient than my father was in a bad year."
    "They have to be," she said, more flatly than intended. "It is their pitiful circumstance."
    The truth was that Grace had seen no signs of industriousness on their ride into the countryside from Fenchow-fu. The fields stood fal low as the drought entered its second year. To her, the black cloud that had appeared on the horizon seemed to be rising not from fields as a sign of some farmer's forward-thinking efforts but instead as an indication of trouble in the last hamlet they had passed through. Then again, she was more apt to look for indications of ill luck or sorrow.
BOOK: River of Dust
13Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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