Ta Yeh’s eyes flitted open where he lay against the smooth wooden wall, trading unpleasant sleep for unpleasant surroundings. A few beams of moonlight poked through the barred-up window to dimly illuminate patches of the room. The kingdom had turned this abandoned school building into a makeshift prison for the returning educational mission students. The classroom was packed full, with about thirty young men crammed into a space intended to seat no more than ten boys. They were not alone, as pests brazenly scurried about the damp and the dirt and the dark. It had been less than a week and already some of the students had fallen ill, punctuating the quiet of the night with the occasional cough and haggard moan.
A single queue lay on the ground in the center of a moonbeam, displayed for when the guards would return. One student had snuck in a nail file, and another had used it to file off their own queue. No one else had dared duplicate this act of defiance. The kingdom mandated the hairstyle and they were its subjects and its prisoners. It would be foolish to act treasonous now.That was why they were confined like this, after all. Some of their number had declared their intent to spread Christianity like the murderous rebellion that had torn the kingdom apart; others had directly defied their heritage and their emperor. And now all of them would rot. Thirty now. The other seventy soon to arrive.
Ta Yeh watched another student idly fidget with the nail file. The young man had begun to file his queue in imitation of the first, but had stopped shortly after starting. Ta Yeh wondered if the young man would have behaved differently with a knife in his hand. Would he have done the deed if it were sharp and quick, if every slow stroke of the dull implement did not sing with the fear of retribution to come? Of course, with a knife in here some of them might end up cutting something other than hair.
Ta Yeh ran his hand along his intact queue. He had stayed loyal. Others in the program had as well. Little good that had done. They were all traitors and foreign devils as far as their homeland was concerned. The hostile jeers of the crowd still rang in his ears. The bruises from being shoved into a wheelbarrow with four other students and carted like a sack of potatoes still felt fresh. The kingdom was against them. The people were against them. There was no one here who could help them. No one here to make things right.
The night dragged on, and eventually Ta Yeh was the only one awake. He wished he were not. He wished he was asleep, away from his fear and his shame. He was supposed to fix everything. He was supposed to make China strong again. “A new era of enlightenment and strength;” that was the task that had been set before him when he was selected as a candidate. It was the happiest day of his life when he was accepted on the educational mission to America, ready to bring back the knowledge to strengthen the kingdom against outsiders and rebels alike. He had devoted his life to that great cause. Yet now here he was, regarded as a rebel himself, his dreams of a better tomorrow crushed.
He swung out his arm and pounded his fist against the wall in anguish. A few students started awake and looked at him. Their expressions of defeat only deepened seeing the devoted Ta Yeh in despair. They watched Ta Yeh’s muscles go slack and his last glimmer of hope die. For a moment they were all held transfixed by the sight of it. Then one by one they closed their eyes and went back to sleep.
Ta Yeh sank down, the back of his jacket scraping against the bumpy bark of the wall. Bark, where before it had been smooth. It took him minutes for the significance to sink in, but when it did it hit him like a train. He lurched away from the wall, narrowly avoiding collision with the nearest student. The touch inside his mind was there again. He was afraid to turn around and see what he knew was there.
It was almost a decade ago, now, from when he had first felt it. When the train carrying the second detachment of educational mission students across from San Francisco to Springfield had been stopped by bandits, he had huddled in fear with the others. But only he had seen the trees. One moment the steel of the passenger car was there, its door the subject of terrified scrutiny. One blink and it was gone. The end of the car was open to an impossible forest that had swallowed up the train, the plains, and the bandits. Ta Yeh had felt it calling to him. The others saw and felt nothing, and he trusted their judgement and stayed with them. As soon as the decision cemented in his mind, the call fell silent. The next time he blinked the forest vanished, replaced by steel again.
He had spent so long wondering what the meaning of it was, if it was anything other than a figment of his imagination, and if he should have heeded its call. The years he had spent in America had given him plenty of time to put those questions to rest. He had been right where he needed to be: on a train that would take him to his mission. No fear would keep him from that purpose.
Now his purpose was gone. Now the forest was here. He turned to face it.
Where there had been a wall before, now there was a dense patch of trees. The trunks of two trees formed the borders with the adjacent walls, the floor gave way to the undergrowth of a forest, and the ceiling abruptly ended to reveal a thick and unrevealing canopy. He felt the autumn wind blowing between the branches and weaving about the trunks. The smell of the woods entered his nostrils. His senses insisted that a forest had sprung up in the middle of Shanghai.
He crawled forward and ran his fingers over the bark. It felt as real as any tree he had felt. He stood. With curious hands and eyes he felt and squinted at the wood and the grass and the brush. Was this a dream? This could not be real. He shimmied along the border between what he knew and what was before him, struggling to find some artifice or falsehood that would reveal it all as some cruel prank or clear hallucination. He took off his shoe and threw it where the wall should be and watched it fly between the trees and land out of reach.
He sank back down. What was this? What was it for? Why did he feel it calling for him?
He shook the student beside him, Pah Liang. The two of them had been together for the entirety of their stay in America. Pah Liang had been on the train with him, had been assigned to the same host family in Connecticut, and had been accepted into Yale a year after him. They were practically brothers.
“Wake up!” he pleaded, keeping his voice a whisper, “Do you see it this time?”
Pah Liang’s groggy eyes looked at Ta Yeh, the wall he was gesturing to, and then back to Ta Yeh. He hadn’t the foggiest idea what Ta Yeh was referring to. The experience on the train was years and worlds away, and was hardly the first thing to come to mind now that their world had fallen apart.
“See what?” he grumbled, also keeping his voice down.
“You do not see it? Hear it? Smell it? Feel it?” Ta Yeh insisted.
“I see a wall,” was Pah Liang’s flat response.
Ta Yeh sighed. He had hoped he would not be alone in this now, but it was not unexpected that things were no different than before.
“Thank you,” he mumbled.
“If you go mad, maybe they will go easy on you,” Pah Liang coughed, “…I wish.”
Ta Yeh furrowed his brow, gathered up some courage, and stuck his hand into the forest.
“What do you see?”
Pah Liang’s eyes shot open.
“How are you doing that?” he gasped.
“What do you see?” Ta Yeh repeated.
“Your hand is passing through the wall!”
“Can you do so yourself?”
Pah Liang brought his hand forward, but then stopped, his hand firm against an invisible barrier where the wall had been before.
“No. The wall is still here.”
“Try moving my hand.”
Pah Liang grabbed Ta Yeh’s arm and lifted it up and down and side to side. It moved freely and unimpeded through the air of the schoolroom and the forest, but to Pah Liang it must have appeared as if through solid wood.
“How far in can you go?” Pah Liang asked.
“I am not sure. I threw my shoe and it went all the way over there. Ten feet into the forest.”
He pointed, then realized his hand would not be visible to Pah Liang. He drew it back so that Pah Liang could see the gesture. The two of them looked at each other, neither quite believing what was happening. Finally, Pah Liang broke the silence.
Pah Liang took off his shoe and handed it to Ta Yeh, who chucked it towards his own. The shoe passed through and landed not far from the first. There was another moment of silence.
“Try pushing me through,” Pah Liang suggested.
Ta Yeh grabbed him and shoved him towards the forest, but Pah Liang came to a stop against the wall. Ta Yeh pushed as hard as he could, squeezing the air from Pan Liang’s lungs until he frantically tapped him to get him to stop. The two men slumped back down.
“So this is… that forest from the train?”
“I thought you were just seeing things.”
“So did I.”
“Is it… going to go away?”
“Last time, it remained until I decided not to enter. Then it vanished the next time I blinked.”
“How long was it there? I don’t remember.”
“A couple of minutes. It has already been longer than that.”
“So you think it… knows what you are thinking?”
“Maybe. There was a sensation I experienced. It went away right after the decision, but before the blink during which the forest disappeared. The sensation is still there at the moment. I am trying to avoid thinking decisive thoughts.”
“Shouldn’t be hard for you.”
“Pah Liang! Now is not the time.”
“I’d say this is a good time for a laugh. We could all use it.”
“Our situation is not hopeless anymore, we can-“
“What? Run? Into a forest who-knows-where that only you can enter who-knows-why? That is no help to the rest of us. And wherever you end up, assuming you end up anywhere at all, we will still be seen as traitors. The punishment is still death. I still will not be able to see my fiancé or my parents. You will still not be able to see your father or sisters. None of us will be ushering in ‘a new era of enlightenment and strength.’ Our family names will still be dishonored. It is a good time for a laugh.”
Ta Yeh glared. Pah Liang eventually lowered his head.
“I am sorry, rénxiōng. I spoke out of turn.”
“Do not discount the significance of this phenomenon. It offered escape from two different closed-room situations on two different hemispheres. It demonstrates selectivity in perception and the presence of matter. It potentially demonstrates direct observation of thought. These are revolutionary capabilities. If this kind of technology is what Congress was trying to hide from the mission, the emperor himself would reward me for deciphering it.”
“You think Congress violated the treaty and kept us out of their military academies because of this?”
“It is possible. Think of the secrets China has kept in its past. Now imagine if I am right, and there is a way to allow our thoughts to be observed directly. We are exonerated! We can prove our loyalty.”
“How would you- Why would-”
“This is mere conjecture, I know, but does a better alternative exist? Sitting here would help no one. With this opportunity I could make a difference. I could save all of us. And more.”
“Wait, what if-”
Before Pah Liang could object further, he stepped across the boundary. He rotated as he went, always keeping the boundary between the forest and the classroom in sight. Last time, the forest vanished the moment he had stopped observing it, and he suspected a similar occurrence now that he was on the other side of it and the sensation in his mind had stopped. He kept his eyes wide open throughout, but the cold night air bit at them. Pah Liang was clawing at the invisible wall in a way that would have looked comical if not for the panic with which he did so.
“I do not know if you can still hear me,” Ta Yeh declared, no longer whispering, “If you can… and if you are afforded the opportunity to send a letter… tell my sisters I love them. Our host family too. As for my father…”
Keeping his eyes unblinking was already a struggle.
“...I will make things right.”
He blinked, and the forest was all that surrounded him.