posted Nov 8, 2020
© P. Stormcrow 2020
contains depictions of PTSD
It was over.
The war was won and they were finally going home. Matted hair tied back in plain ponytail, typical of men’s fashion at the time, Fa Mulan, or known as Hua Mulan here, stood on top of one of the rolling green hills, her high cheekbones still stained with blood, not all of it her enemies’. Her hand flexed around the grip of her sword as she turned her gaze towards the field below, littered with bodies of the fallen and wondered for a brief moment if it was worth it all.
She had come to the war in place of her father but she had fought for him.
“Hey Captain, who do you want to see first when you get home?”
The chatter of her comrades drifted towards her as they trudge up the hill. Under her breath, she made a tch sound. Mulan had no desire for social niceties and she had come up here to enjoy the stillness and quiet that had finally settled.
“Well you see, there’s this girl…”
Of course there was a girl.
“Don’t you have that childhood friend of yours waiting for you? Fa Mulan right?” Mulan rolled her eyes as she heard the speaker snicker. “I still can’t get over how our Mulan has the same name as your childhood sweetheart.”
A moment later, the speaker yelped in pain. As usual, the Captain must have whacked him upside the head. He needed to stop being so damn gallant.
“Last I heard, Fa Mulan was sent off to the countryside. No, there’s this girl, Chen Menglai. I’ve been exchanging letters with. She’s considerate, gentle, and an obedient daughter.”
Mulan wanted to gag but she was simply too soul-weary for the juvenile behaviour. This Chen Menglai sounded like the perfect woman, the perfect wife. Everything she was not.
Their voices grew louder. Mulan’s fingers tightened around her sword once more and she swung it across in a quick low arc, flicking off the excess blood before sheathing it. Stony faced still, she turned to greet them.
“Hey what about you Mulan? Got a girl waiting for you back home?”
“No Tenming. I don’t.” Her eyes met the Captain’s but she wasn’t surprised to see the same hollowness reflected in them. Wars did things to people. Some like Tenming pretended they were okay with a boisterous attitude and loud humour but they all knew what they were going home to. Only soldiers understood.
“Well maybe we can find you a nice girl.”
“Yeah maybe.” Mulan gave them a curt nod. “I’m going to go clean the blood off.” With the last of her strength, she pushed through the heaviness of her limbs to stride past them.
“Hey Mulan, go get that gash on your face looked at,” the Captain shouted after her.
She held a hand up over her shoulder as a sort of a wave. “Yes sir.” She didn’t look back as she walked away.
Home was a mess of jarring, jumbled experiences that made little sense to her. Her mother and father had fussed and cried over her that first day, lamenting the scar on her cheek in particular, then sent her to her room with a maid to make her presentable once more. When the maid tried to peel off the simple men’s robes Mulan had don on her journey home, she snarled at the poor woman like a feral thing until the maid finally backed off. Mulan could care less about being presentable.
Finally, her mother came in, probably at the maid’s complaint.
“Mulan, your father and I are grateful for what you did for this family, but we can’t have you parading as a man forever.” When she didn’t react and simply sat on the stool, staring into space, her mother frowned and huffed. “Fine. But if you insist, you’ll have to stay home. If you want to go out, there’re your old clothes in your closet.”
At night, the luxury of the wooden bed and silken sheets felt wrong and she tossed and turned until she finally gave up. Grabbing her old uniform, she rolled it into a bundle to use as a pillow, the lingering smell a comfort as she laid down on the floor. It still took a while but finally, she was able to fall into a fitful sleep.
Three days had passed before she admitted defeat. Used to the vastness of the open skies with the burning sun and cooling moon accompanying the constant physicality of war, the sheer lack of anything to do suffocated her until the walls of their small estate felt like they were closing in. The inane chatter of her mother and the incessant whining of her younger brother only felt small and petty. Frankly, she found them so annoying that she often snapped at them until nerves were frayed on both ends.
Only her father understood. Often they would sit together in silence, him holding her hand until tears would stream down her face. She didn’t understand those tears or the sadness and pain that would wash over her like waves breaking against a cliff face but they were the only moments she felt much of anything.
Mulan stared at her closet, uncertainty warring with the need to be free. With shaky hands, she reached out to touch the soft smooth fabric, brushing by the textures with scarred calloused hands. The girl that loved these clothes was long dead. She was borrowing clothing from the dead. The thought eased a knot within her. She had done that before. In the twelve years away, she had done a lot in the name of survival.
Easing the robes off herself, she started pulling on the simplest dress she could find. Mulan sat in front of the vanity and stared at the little jars of powder and rouges. It would be like she was a spy, putting on a disguise. Yes, she could do that too.
Dressed as best she could, she nearly ran out of the gates, heart hammering in her chest. The promise of freedom made her entire soul sing.
Until she took the first steps outside.
The busy streets were filled with people bustling about, vendors yelling out their wares, children laughing and running. The cacophony of chaos assaulted her senses. She took a step back then stumbled, falling back against a wall even as she clawed at her throat, trying to open an air passage that wasn’t really closed in the first place.
And then she saw him and the rest of the world paused.
In civilian clothes, with hair combed and tied back neatly, the Captain lost much of his tough grizzled look. On his arm was a woman, laughing demurely at something he said. On her neck was a silken scarf, slightly worn, colours dulled by time. Mulan remembered the day she had shyly given it to the Captain. It was the day she almost told him the truth, that she was not a man and that she loved him. But the words had died when he teased her for having such a feminine item.
The couple paused as the woman said something to the Captain. After a brief moment, he turned to bend down and help her with something, probably her shoe. Mulan felt a phantom pain in her heart, a faint stirring. He did that for her once, when she first struggled with moving around in her battle gear. She remembered his touch, his warmth, his gentleness. But to him, she was just a man.
A drop of water fell from the sky. It was the only warning as suddenly rain poured down in torrents. People scrambled for nearby awnings and opened storefronts but Mulan stood still, instantly drenched as she watched the Captain rise and escort his lady quickly away. As he turned, their eyes met.
Despite her dress, recognition and bewilderment flashed in his eyes. He knew.
“Hullo Lady Fa, would Mulan be home by chance?”
Mulan heard the Captain’s voice another three days later. Since her last attempt at leaving home, she had cloistered herself in her room. Once the space had felt claustrophobic but now it was her silent sanctuary, the only place where she didn’t have to pretend she was still a normal girl and that the scars, inside and out, didn’t exist.
She groaned and buried her head, praying to the bodhisattva, Avalokiteśvara, that he would just go away. There was nothing here for him.
Instead, a polite knock preceded the door opening. Of course it was her mother. Who else would be so presumptuous?
“Look who’s here to visit?” Her voice scraped at her nerves but she stopped listening to her at the sight of him, invading her sanctuary. She didn’t want him here. She wanted his arms around her. Confusion swirled within, her heart stirring with faint signs of existence.
“Well, why don’t I let you two get acquainted.” Her mother made a hasty exit and inwardly, Mulan bitterly laughed. She must be getting desperate or else she would have never left her own daughter alone in her own room with a non-familial male.
As soon as the door closed, the features on the Captain’s face twisted in anger. “You! You liar!” He spat out the last word with disgust.
“I did what I had to, Captain.” Two could play at this game. Venom crept into her voice as she glared at him in return.
“No, you did what was damn convenient. For you and your family. All those accolades, that recognition from the Emperor himself. They were all given to a soldier that never existed. A comrade I treasured that never existed.”
“I EXISTED!” Mulan rose from her stool in one swift movement, pounding her fist on the table. Her body shook with barely held back rage.
“No.” The single word rejected her entire being for the last twelve years. “He was a man, a proud warrior renowned for his battle prowess.You are just a woman.”
“So that’s what’s bothering you.” Mulan’s voice softened, the earlier emotion draining out of it. “I’m a woman. Therefore, I can’t be like you. I can’t be your equal, your comrade. Nevermind that we fought for twelve years side by side, ate the same food, slept in the same place.”
“Stop.” Coldness stiffened his entire posture as he turned his back. “There’s nothing left to say. I came to see if you showed any remorse but obviously you regret none of your deceit. Goodbye Fa Mulan, Hua Mulan or whoever you are.”
He left, leaving a last image of his back towards her. Legs suddenly shaky, she fell back on to the stool, wondering how it could have all gone so wrong. In that brief instant when he was there, she had felt almost alive. Even their fight had given her something to feel, an old battleground she could fight in. But he took that away too. Now she was sure she was dead inside.
The edict came a month later. There was no trial, no public hearing. The Emperor was not pleased that he had been deceived, that someone he once hailed as a hero of the country was in reality, someone that didn’t exist. Mulan knew exactly where those words came from.
Her entire family knelt before the official reading from an elaborate golden scroll. Her mother’s shoulders shook with quiet sobs, her brother one arm around her to try to offer comfort. Her father knelt on her other side, lines of anger and sorrow radiating from his trembling body, frail with age. Mulan only felt a numbness as she listened on, noting vaguely the way the eunuch would try to swallow his squeaks as he tried to speak with a lower tone than was natural to him.
“Fa Mulan, for your lies to the Emperor, Son of Heaven, you have been sentenced to death. However, his Magnificent is merciful and recognizes your extraordinary actions in the name of filial piety. As such, your wish is granted and your family will be spared with all the accolades and rewards Hua Mulan earned during the war. So it has been decreed. Hear and accept the edict.”
The family bowed collectively, foreheads touching the ground though her mother began wailing next to her as well. “We hear and accept,” Mulan, along with her father, managed to choke out.
Three days later, she was escorted to a quiet meadow outside the city, hands cuffed behind her back, the metal cool against her skin. Her father had railed against the indignity of it but already dead inside, it made little difference to her. Mulan almost looked forward to it all. A momentary pain and then she would be freed from all the mourning and lamenting her family had been doing. Secretly, she wondered if maybe, just maybe, her mother was also just simply relieved.
She worried the most about her father. Every time their eyes met, he would look away, the guilt and shame driving him into silences that none could jolt him from. Mulan took to sitting with her father, filling their moments together with anecdotes about the war, then later, quiet words that showed her love and her wishes for peace for the family. She had no regrets. This was a good ending for her.
As they approached the clearing, she was surprised to see a small crowd. It was supposed to be quiet affair. The Emperor had no wish to advertise what happened. But here they were, old comrades in arms, solemn faces in mourning clothes. She spied good’ol Tenming, openly and unabashedly shedding tears. A part of her gladdened. Not everyone shared the Captain’ sentiment. In their hearts, she did exist.
They uncuffed her wrists and helped her kneel amongst the tall grass. A gentle breeze caressed her face and she closed her eyes, turning her face up towards the rising sun. She would miss its warm kiss on her skin.
When she opened her eyes, he was there. It was apparent he didn’t want to be but the brave Captain that cared so much about his men had to be there if he wanted to keep his image. She read the tightness around the corner of his lips, the set of his shoulders and knew that even her death would never be enough to beg for forgiveness.
She bowed her head but kept her eyes on him until finally, he turned his back. Her eyes closed, holding the image of him in her mind. It was the last bit of pain she would ever feel.
And then, she was free.
Author’s Notes on the Story
This is, of course, based on the popular Chinese legend Fa Mulan. The very original tale itself is very sparse in telling. What I’ve always had issues with were the various modern retellings (Disney aside) that made little sense to me, especially given the time and cultural context it was set in. They never spoke to PTSD, to her losing her femininity after twelve years as a man, of how society would accept her ruse when women were supposed to be meek and subservient, and of how a ruler of that time would truly deal with such lies to the throne. So for this story, I have taken upon myself to write a version that feels to me, a bit more realistic. I hope you find that to be the case too.