Perfect Wisdom Berry Blast
by Joseph McKinley
Table of Contents, parts:|
1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7
“Uncle, where are your binoculars?”
Uncle Fu looks up from his tea. He’s been counting the leaves, looking at the arrangement of them at the bottom of his cup, trying to see into his future. No luck. They’re a jumble, suggesting nothing at all. The universe is ignoring Uncle Fu. Ah, never matter, stupid superstitions.
“What, Xiaoxiao? Bi-what?” Uncle’s still disoriented as he comes out of the fugue.
“Binoculars, uh, field glasses.” Xiaoxiao makes little circles with her thumb and fingers and pretends to hold an invisible pair to her eyes, sweeping them back and forth as though surveying the terrain.
“Why would I have, uh, such things?”
“Auntie told me the story, Uncle.” And the story is this: Young Uncle Fu bought a pair of ‘such things’ from an army surplus store with one month’s savings and spent the better part of two years watching Auntie Ma through them, before she was Fat Auntie Ma and then Formerly Fat Auntie Ma. When she caught him peeping through her window, she offered an ultimatum: “Marry me, or I’ll send my brothers after you.”
An odd choice, but Auntie Ma was a little strange herself back then. Uncle blushes, hops up, and bounds up the stairs. Xiaoxiao hears boxes shift and a seemingly catastrophic crash!
“Found them!” he calls down from the storage room. Spry Uncle Fu is back beside Xiaoxiao a few seconds later, and he hands them to her. “Why did you want these old things? They were only good for, uh, bird watching. And it’s too dark for that.”
Xiaoxiao raises the binoculars to her eyes, adjusts them. Hmm? She lowers them, kills the lights, and tries again. “Uncle, did you hire someone to clear away old shrubs?”
“What? Did I?” He pauses and scrolls through a mental laundry list of the hundreds of orders he’s given over the last few days. It takes several seconds. “No” — he double-checks the mental list — “I didn’t. No one’s allowed to work at night.”
“Then who set the fire?”
* * *
General Liu has field glasses of his own, the same model, in fact.
“I didn’t give any order to start.” Did I? “What are the engineers doing?” The General isn’t particularly angry at this point, just surprised. He’s not been in the field for years, and were this mission any less critical, he would have handed it off to a subordinate.
Major Nie is flustered for the fifth time today. “I... I don’t know, sir.” Major Nie grabs a radio from the dashboard of the Dongfeng Humvee clone. “I’ll ask.” And he rattles off a series of questions into the microphone. He nods along to the answers.
The General can’t quite figure out what’s being said through the static. Nie, neurotic but not unobservant, notices the General’s confusion. “Sir, they said they’re still on the road.” Nie stops as another burst of noise comes through the air. He waits for it to finish. “Their transporter was stuck. They’re on their way.”
* * *
“Don’t pour it on so heavily. We don’t want to run out of it,” hisses the coal miner’s wife. “It” is gasoline, and the coal miner, the Americans, and their translator have brought a total of four hundred liters of it, about sixty liters per scooter. They’ve burned one tea bush thus far, one without any berry plants hiding beneath it, only to see how much fuel is needed to set one alight. The plan is to soak select bushes throughout the fields and then light them up at the same time, making the fires too far apart to be easily extinguished at once. The work is surprisingly difficult. They’ve disabled their scooter lights and are riding around in the dark, trying to navigate the fields and avoid running into the drainage ditches.
The Americans’ scooters, not designed to carry their weight, much less that of their weight and that of the gasoline, ride so low that they nearly scrape the ground. One of them scoots over a rock, sparks fly, and: “Whoops!”
Most of the sparks land on the tea leaves, which are not flammable, but exactly one lands dead center on a monk’s berry. And this is why Uncle Fu — eccentric genius, Peeping Tom with scholarly pretensions, and slave-driver boss — sends all the workers home at dusk. Certain ripe, unprocessed monk’s berries turn explosive at night, more as midnight approaches, their mind-cleansing juice transmogrifying into nitroglycerin, only to revert to its innocent state at dawn. A carefully trained eye can distinguish between the safe and dangerous ones, but it’s not an easy thing to teach. No one taught Fu. He had to learn the hard way. And this berry is not a friendly one.
As it goes, so do its siblings.
The American is knocked off his scooter and thrown a few meters, which would be harmless enough were his scooter not loaded down with gasoline and the berry bushes that cushioned his fall not also ready to detonate.
Limbs and offal fly in all directions.
* * *
“What in the Devil’s name is going on out there?” the lieutenant of the combat engineers screams into his microphone over the roaring of the carrier truck. “There’s brass out there! I never gave a go on anything!”
The drivers respond one-by-one by radio. “Nobody. Nobody’s set up at all. They’re not in position.” So either some joker’s playing with me or—
“Dammit, the General’s under attack!”
* * *
General Liu sees the carrier trucks — all five of them — switch on their lights. Wait, if they sent only one platoon—
The trucks veer off the road. The first one makes it all of fifty meters.
* * *
“No, no, no, no!” Uncle Fu doesn’t need his binoculars anymore. The berries aren’t all that dangerous by themselves. A bush is nothing worse than an antipersonnel land mine, but the carrier trucks are unarmored and stacked high with PETN. The small blasts are just enough to detonate the trucks.
Fu leaps in front of Xiaoxiao as the windowpane shatters, knocking her down, and shielding her with his robes seconds before trucks two and three are turned to twisted metal.
* * *
The General’s pipe falls into his lap.
“Sir, I don’t... I didn’t...” Major Nie abandons all hope of speech. The two men wait in silence, watching the fire spread through the fields, the occasional concussive blast rattling the Humvee’s windows. General Liu’s polyester pants are starting to smolder. He doesn’t notice.
* * *
“Uncle, Uncle?” Xiaoxiao’s yelling, but she doesn’t know as much; she’s simply trying to hear herself over the ringing of her ears. She rolls the old man over, starts shaking him. “Uncle? Uncle?!” No, he can’t be dead. He can’t—
“Ow!” Fu lets out a protracted moan.
“Are you okay, Uncle?” The ringing in Xiaoxiao’s ears has started to die down. She’s only half-screaming now.
“My berries, my beautiful berries. So much wasted! So much money lost!”
Xiaoxiao looks over him, trying to see if he’s injured, if any blood has soaked through his tattered robes. He seems okay. “Uncle? Can you walk?” Before he can answer, she starts helping the old man stand.
Auntie Ma appears at the door, having just emerged from her supposedly soundproofed bedroom, eyes bleary with sleep. She yawns. “What nonsense are you Fus up to at this hour?” Auntie Ma catches sight of the burning fields. “What fresh hell is this?” She’s surprisingly unsurprised.
“Auntie, Auntie, we’ve got to get out of here! Help me with Uncle!”
But do I have to? If I just walked out, who would know?
Xiaoxiao notices sees these thoughts flash across Auntie Ma’s face and notices the hesitation. “Please, Auntie Ma! Please help me!” She’s certain to emphasize the “me,” and Auntie Ma relents.
“Okay, okay, might as well. What else could he possibly screw up?”
And she slides one of her frail husband’s arms over her shoulder. Xiaoxiao has the other. The trio limp toward the stairs. Fu stops, and turns back. “My berries!” and he can barely hold back the tears.
* * *
General Liu looks down at his recently flaming crotch. He’s lucky this Humvee had a fire extinguisher in it: They sometimes go missing. The General has even managed to save his pipe. His tobacco is ruined though. Oh well, you can’t win them all.
Major Nie, who regained his powers of speech after saving the General, catches sight of the lumbering threesome.
“Sir, is that...” — he clears his throat — “Is that—”
“Fu Wenbo!” The General calls out his rolled-down window, “Over here!”
The Ma-Fu gang stops, and one of them plucks something from the ground, very carefully. They finally get to the Humvee’s rear door, which Major Nie jumps out to open for them. They slide into the back seat, and everyone is in the vehicle. Major Nie turns on the overhead light. It’s not really needed: The burning fields are bright enough.
“Fu Wenbo?” The General notices Uncle’s disheveled state. “What happened?” Uncle can’t muster up an answer; he’s too weak to even babble properly. The General waits. He turns to Xiaoxiao. “Fu Xiao, what happened here? Did you mine the fields? Did your uncle?”
“Honestly, General, I have no idea. I didn’t do anything.”
“Well, who did?”
“My berries, my beautiful berries! Why did you frighten them? They never did anything to you! Why did you send the trucks out here? To hurt me? To hurt my berries?”
The words burst out of Uncle Fu, and he’s bawling now, overcome with sorrow. The General is about to dismiss the words as the ravings of a badly injured man, but something clicks. “Wait, the berries exploded?”
“You deserved it! You deserved it!” Uncle Fu, still weeping, pulls a little berry-laden twig from his pocket and shakes it at the General. “Look at them! Look at them! Look at my beautiful berries!” And beautiful berries they are, breaking the firelight into a dozen rainbows. “This is all I have left! All I have left!”
Auntie Ma starts rolling her eyes. No one but Fu has troubles!
“Well,” General Liu composes his thoughts, “if the berries are explosive, why aren’t those berries exploding?”
“What?” Uncle Fu stifles his tears.
“Why. Are. Those. Berries. Not. Exploding?” The General is trying to make every word clear enough for even the most traumatized brain to process.
“Only I can tell the difference. Only I know my precious berries well enough! Only I can tell the difference!”
“Uncle Fu doesn’t lie, General.” Xiaoxiao offers the words with conviction. Auntie Ma resists the urge to snort.
“So what you’re saying” — and the General realizes that he’s the one about to sound a bit crazy — “is that we’re surrounded by potentially explosive truth berries and that you’re the only person alive who can tell the safe ones and the dangerous ones apart?”
“That’s right.” Uncle Fu wipes his nose on a sleeve; it’s actually Xiaoxiao’s, but he thinks it’s his own. Xiaoxiao pretends not to notice, and he’s almost finished crying. “And only I can get you out of here, but you have to promise not to kill me.”
Weaponized enlightenment berries. The General is trying to wrap his mind around the concept. Even the CIA...
The two military men glance at each other. Major Nie smiles at the General. “Kill you, Master Fu?”
Uncle Fu looks up nervously at the General.
“Kill you?” The General lets the question hang. “Hell, we want to hire you.” The General can’t stop himself from smiling every bit as much as Major Nie. “This is a great day for our country, and you’re going to be an even wealthier man!”
Uncle Fu’s tears have all but dried up: Master Fu returns. Auntie Ma wonders what absurdities await her next, and Xiaoxiao tries to remember where she put her grandmother.
* * *
You don’t get rich picking tea.
But berries are another matter.
Copyright © 2017 by Joseph McKinley