Feng was only seven years old but he was a superhero. His power were mainly that of being immune to any appeal beginning with the words, “Do not.”
“Do not touch your food with those dirty bare hands again!” “Do not dare swim in that filthy river again!” “Do not go out onto the plains alone again!” “Do not start a fire again!” So many “do nots.”
Perhaps those words have power coming from gentle mothers who indulge their child or stern fathers who give wise warnings. But for Feng, these admonishments came all too often from his grandpa and the many villagers who felt they had a role. They often said, “It takes a village to punish a child.”
After so many warnings and “Do nots,” the words, and the ear-boxing by the village elders, had lost the power to discourage the curiosity and sense of adventure in a young boy. Instead, “Do not” seemed to Feng like an invitation and became the source of the young hero’s superpowers. It instilled in him the will to explore breathtakingly memorable but forbidden experiences.
Two young boys ran through the yards and around the baked mud walls with sticks serving as laser guns in their imaginary games. “I got you, fall down!” called out the elder boy, Wei.
“No way, you missed,” retorted Feng. “But it’s so hot, lets go over there.”
He indicated the cool shade near the tall barn. Wei wanted to resist but sweat was streaming down his sun-browned face and he followed the younger boy. “OK, but I won.”
Though the days in Gansu’s high desert plains are usually comfortably warm year round, this was one of those days where the plains were baked under the relentless midsummer sunshine.
The two boys flopped down against the barn wall feeling the cool shade. Some curious goats came out of the barn nuzzling the boys for food. All they could do was to pull up handfuls of the brown, tough grass, the only thing to grow in the arid land.
Feng looked up in the clear blue sky with the soft cottony clouds. “I am going to join the airforce and learn to fly. Then I will fly to space like the astronauts.”
“I already can fly,” quipped the older boy.
“No way! You can’t fly.”
“Shh, its a secret,” said Wei conspiratorially. “I did last night.”
Wei pursed his lips together and looked away, then shot back “I climbed up on the barn, jumped off and flew all around the village.”
“Oh! Like the kung fu masters in movies?” the younger boy was leaping with excitement. “Then teach me!” Feng jumped eyes wide, glinting with excitement.
Wei already was beginning to regret having made such a claim because Feng was more stubborn than the goats when he got his mind on something.
Feng was looking to the roof and reaching for handholds to try to climb. “Is this where you climbed up? Let’s go.”
Feng tried to clamber up the rough baked mud wall but could not get more than a meter above the ground.
“Do not try to climb the barn, you are too little.” scolded Wei. He did not know that Feng was a superhero and that he had just unlocked his powers.
Feng looked longingly up at the barn roof. He was feeling frustration and almost in tears at not being able to climb. Suddenly his face lit up. Feng got a gleam in his eye. He started running excitedly to the neighbor’s house with Wei tagging along telling him to give up. He went to the side of a shed and returned dragging an improvised ladder. It was made of discarded lumber and bamboo, reused nails and a few repurposed pieces of baling wire.
“You can’t use that, it is junk.” said Wei.
That did not stop Feng from dragging it over to the barn with his tanned arms straining under the weight. Despite Wei’s feeble attempts to discourage him, Feng struggled and strained and in an all-out superhuman effort, the rickety ladder thumped against the edge of the high roof over the baked-mud wall.
Feng looked up reluctantly at the rickety ladder and the great height of the barn roof. He estimated that the ladder was at least twice his age and that the roof was six of him tall. These were reasons to give him pause.
“Do not go up there.” said Wei. This of course gave the boy all the courage he needed.
“Hold the ladder,” Feng said. He started clambering up the improvised ladder.
“Come back down here, the old folks will box your ears!” Wei blustered.
But it seemed nothing could stop the younger boy from undertaking his great adventure. The fear of feeling the slap of grandpa’s belt could not outweigh the reward of adventure.
Feng was teetering as the rickety ladder bowed and swayed. He was half way up by the time he heard a creaking sound followed by a snap as one of the rungs gave way. He froze.
This first-grader’s hands were slippery with sweat that he tried to convince himself was from the scorching midday heat and not from the fear of the height.
Even though Wei was only a year older than Feng, he seemed to have developed an extra decade worth of mischief. Seeing Feng paralyzed with fear, he could not resist shaking the ladder. He hoped the boy would fall from this height or climb down.
But Feng could see that, at nearly four times his own height, a fall to the packed clay ground would be unwise.
“You are too scared, so climb down.” He looked down to see the older boy shaking the ladder.
Feng came back to life, actively swaying his butt from right to left like a metronome in opposition to the undulations of the ladder and then finally he found his balance and new courage. He giggled loudly as he continued clambering up the ladder.
“Do not be stupid! You will fall!” said in a voice filled with authoritative sounding bluster attempting to hide the boy’s nervousness. If the younger boy successfully reached the top, he would have to follow him up there too. Wei’s brow furrowed in worry and regret. It is ironic because it was his exaggerated claims and challenging dare that set Feng off on this adventurous climb.
Feng loudly cheered as he finally reached the rooftop. He landed with a heavy bang. “I did it!” echoed his ecstatic call from the rooftop.
“Be quiet.” Wei hissed as he saw two village women crossing the yard.
In response to the tumult on the rooftop, the chickens sheltering inside the barn from the midday sun suddenly flapped their wings, clucked out of fear and scurried away from their refuge, raising their own indignant protests.
Feng squatted on the straw-made rooftop while he gained his composure. He could see the two aunties striding rapidly and clucking as loud as the hens. But he felt he was already flying high above them. He looked up and saw miles of desert plains without any sign of human habitation. He saw the vast plains of exotic yellows and reds stretching into the distance as he had never seen it before.
“Wei, come up here, it’s just like we saw on the TV about the rovers, it’s Mars!”
Wei saw the two villagers now walking quickly over to the barn, pointing at the roof.
“You will get us in trouble!” Wei scolded. “Climb down or I am taking the ladder. Three…”
“I won’t need it,” shouted Feng joyously. “I will fly to Mars. Come with me, Brother!”
“Oh?” Wei suddenly was captivated and swept into the boy’s enthusiasm. It was often so contagious that sometimes when Grandpa was about to punish the boy, his earnestness would make the old man burst out in laughter instead of anger.
Staring at the peaceful reddish land, Feng felt its irresistible attraction. All the former wild adventures suddenly seemed commonplace compared to the adventure of flying to the red sands.
Wei was under Feng’s spell and started to climb the rungs. He was halted suddenly with the tweak of his tender ear in the aunties’ strong grasp.
“Get down here now, you foolish boy.” The other woman called.
They all looked up in horror and saw Feng with his arms out like airplane wings. He was looking toward the horizon and moving to the edge of the roof as if in a trance.
“I didn’t fly. Do not jump.” Wei called out.
The confession came too late. Feng heedlessly bounded towards the edge of the roof and then he disappeared from from sight.
The aunties screamed out and Wei began to wail in piteous tears. They abandoned Wei to his sorrows and began waddling like ducks around the side of the barn, expecting to be greeted by a horrendous scene.
A low cack-cack-cackling came from inside the barn.
Feng could feel the rough straw of the hay loft where he fell through the thatched straw roof. A hen cocked its head curiously looking down at the boy. There was commotion below.
“How could you lie to Feng like that? Boys can’t fly!”
Feng and the hen both looked out from the cracks in the barn boards and could see the women boxing Wei’s ears.
Mars would have to wait.