I leaned carefully toward the rock face, letting my douli slide backward. I liked the shade from the tightly woven straw hat, but the wide brim was always getting in my way. I had to get this primer hole deeper and the supervisor was always looking for a reason to kick girls off the crew. I tried again. I still couldn’t reach the deep red rock, even with the long chisel in my hand.
Loosening the douli’s strings, I dropped the straw hat off my head and let it hang on my back. I slid forward on my knees, the tough basket scraping my skin. The basket rocked and tipped. I held still for a moment, waiting for the shaking to stop. I ignored the old, worn ropes tied to each side of the basket. They would hold. But sometimes they don’t.
Yesterday’s accident, the screams and yells, the blank faces of the men who sat staring at the frayed, shredded ends of the broken ropes, came back to me. Cool it, Lucy. My father hated this saying, telling me I was trying to be a cowboy. But I liked hearing Stu say it; it felt new, wild.
Like this country.
I have to hurry or they’ll wonder if I fell out. Leaning again, I got the top rim of the basket to angle just a bit more, finally coming to a rest on the cliff face. As I placed the tip of my chisel against the dark rock, a faint smell reached my nose. Water. I glanced down. A blue snake of water wound its way far below.
It was because of that river that we had to make this tunnel. A crew was going to arrive in another month to start working on a hundred-foot tall bridge, and we had to have the tunnel started before they got here.
I stuck the point of the chisel into a small crack in the rock. Now I heard the others, to my right and left, already pounding away. I smashed my small sledge against the chisel and watched rock fly away.
Angling my chisel, I hit it again.
Sweat dripped down my nose, and long strands of my hair kept falling into my eyes. I swiped at my face and kept working.
I sat back a little and examined my pilot hole. I needed to go deeper. The dynamite had to go all the way in so it could be covered.
The sun was burning the top of my head by the time I had the hole ready.
“Lucy! What’s taking you so long?”
I glanced to my right. Ten feet away, Jian’s stupid grin needed a punch right in its crooked teeth. “My head isn’t hard enough to be a hammer, like yours!” I raised an eyebrow at him.
“Or maybe you’re just too weak to lift your sledge, girly!”
Was that supposed to be an insult? “I’m strong enough to throw it through your face, bai chi!” I lifted the sledge and pretended to aim at him.
Jian lifted a stick of dynamite. “I bet my hole will be bigger.”
“Why do I care?” I turned back to my work. Why did boys always have to turn everything into a contest?
I remembered my mother’s answer when I asked her this same question. “Because they only have room in their brain for thoughts of strength. Women think of everything else.”
Moving smoothly, I arranged several sticks of dynamite into the hole I’d carved from the cliff face, packing them tightly. I called up to the top of the cliff. “Ready!” I waited, checking on the other baskets to both sides. There were five of us. I was the second one from the right. Li Ba was in the basket to my right and a little below me. She was the fastest of all of us, so Jian’s stupid insult really made no sense.
Jian was in the middle, with Yao and Zhao, the twins, in the baskets to his left. I’d heard Jian and Li Ba yell they were ready before me. A few seconds later, Yao and Zhao called out. A shout came down from the top of the cliff.
“Light ‘em!” My basked immediately shifted. I lit the twisted, one-minute fuse at the moment my basket started rising. No matter how many times I’d done this, I always spent this final minute praying that the mules would lift my basket fast enough and that the ropes wouldn’t break and that the fuse wouldn’t burn too fast—
My basket jolted, then the left side dropped slightly. The rope was breaking! As I watched, several strands of the rope stretched and snapped. I yelled up at the men guiding my basket’s donkeys. “Left rope’s breaking!” My heart pounding, my mental countdown continued. Thirty seconds. I looked up. The top of the cliff was forty feet away, at least. I threw the sledge out of the basket, hearing it clang off the cliff. I threw the chisel out and held my breath. The basket continued its slow rise. Why couldn’t they go faster?
I knew why, but didn’t really care. Faster meant more strain on bad rope.
Forty seconds. Twenty five feet from the top.
A loud crack and the left side of the basket fell out from under me. For a moment, I hung in the air. I screamed and grabbed at the other, still fastened side of the basket. “Ropes!”
“Lucy!” I heard Jian’s shout but ignored it. He couldn’t do anything.
I clung to the basket’s rim, the tough woven fibers digging into my skin. My legs kicked wildly and I tried to bring them under control. We’d learned the best way to handle this kind of thing, but I’d forgotten all of that.
Without the stability offered by a second rope, the basket started twisting. It was still going up, but all of my weight, plus the basket, had to be hard on the one rope. I stared at the old, brown thing that was my only hope of survival.
A thick strand exploded right above me. “Ropes! Ropes!” Holding onto the basket with one hand, I tried to reach above the fraying spot on the rope. Where were the extra ropes?
My arms weren’t long enough. I couldn’t get above the weak spot.
Another strand split apart. Something hit my head, then flopped onto my shoulder. Finally!
I reached for the rope, clinging to the basket with my other hand. My knuckles felt like they were going to burst.
The new rope slid off my shoulder, the heavy knot at its end pulling it down. From the corner of my eye, I saw it swing away from me.
I felt the rope holding my basket pop. Only one more strand held—
I screamed and snatched for the broken end. My fingertips brushed it.
Time slowed. Pressure in my chest. Nothing holding me. Only empty space.
I saw faces at the top of the cliff, then Jian’s wide eyes.
A dark, moving line. Swinging toward me.
I stretched out. The new rope slid between my hands, the knot hitting me in the stomach and sliding up my neck. I grabbed. Burning heat in my hands. Slivers digging deep.
My hands hit the heavy knot and stopped. Pain knifed down my arms into my shoulders as my fall suddenly came to a jerking stop.
The rope felt strong and real after the terrifying moment of total emptiness. I held on and prayed whoever had the other end wouldn’t let go.
“Pull her up!”
That sounded like Jian. I forced my eyes to open. The broken ropes that used to hold my basket fluttered in the breeze that rose up the cliff face.
The cliff. The dynamite!
I felt myself being lifted through the air. “Faster!”
A powerful force hit the bottom of my feet. A moment later a loud noise slapped me. It felt like the force pushed me up faster, because suddenly I was at the top of the cliff, hands grabbing me and pulling me onto the scrub and dirt.
Arms wrapped around me. “Lucy. I thought you were going to die!”
Jian? What was he—
I pushed him off me. Concerned faces circled me, all in the shadow of their doulis. The earth under my feet felt solid and immovable. I dropped to my knees at the same moment that I heard my father’s voice. Tears ran wet down my face, which I kept hidden.
“Liu Shi! Liu Shi!”
My body shook as I dug my fingers into the dirt. Why wouldn’t my father use my American name? Hands grabbed me again, lifting me. Voices hit me, asking if I was okay, saying something about the ancestors holding me up.
Ancestors? No. A rope.
By the time my father got through the crowd, I had scrubbed the tears away.
“Liu Shi!” His hands cupped the sides of my face. He’d been doing that since I was tiny. It felt a lot different now that I was his height. Speaking Chinese, he guided me out of the crowd. “I told you the basket work was too dangerous. Now you must see. No more basket for you.”
I didn’t feel like arguing. I imagined my basket, now crumpled into bits on the valley floor. If I hadn’t been so lucky, there would be more of those bits, and they would be the color of my insides.
The hard reddish dirt and scrub felt safe under my feet. Why would I get back into a basket? That wasn’t for me. But I didn’t need my father thinking he could tell me what I could do. “We will put you on the hauling work. You can carry the spike—“
“Lucy!” Jian appeared in front of us.
“Jian, we are busy,” my father said. “Go back to work.”
I saw the look in Jian’s eyes. Why was he suddenly so concerned? Where was his stupid grin?
Jian stuttered again, but my father cut him off. “Back to work, boy.” This was in my father’s shift boss voice. The one he used to get people to work harder in the blazing hot sun.
Jian deflated and walked off, his eyes flicking back to me in a way that was beginning to make me uncomfortable. The boots he wore kicked small clouds of red and brown dust into the air. Sometimes it felt like the world was made of dust.
“So now, Liu Shi, are you all right? Any injuries?”
Feeling weirdly blank and empty, although I heard him and saw everything around me just fine, I turned my hands to look at my still burning palms.
“Ancestors! Your hands.” My father grabbed my wrists, pulling us to a stop. “We must get these treated. Then I think some tea—“
Behind us, another explosion sounded as more basket riders did the work of blowing a tunnel into the cliff. No. That was too fast. They couldn’t have already set dynamite.
My father’s steady stream of worried words cut off at the sound of a loud, endless scream. I felt it in my bones, running through my blood, and slashing through my ears. My father and I turned back to where the men and women had resumed their work.
Everyone had stopped and was looking around.
Who had screamed? Had somebody fallen?
The scream sounded again. It came from over the cliff, but it somehow filled the air as well. I felt like a jagged skinning knife was being shoved through my ears. I tried to go back to the cliff face, but couldn’t move.
That couldn’t be a person screaming. Was it a bird? And why couldn’t I move?
A dark shape appeared, bigger than the turkey vultures that circled during the hottest parts of the day. The shape circled out from somewhere below the cliff top and arced up. What was that?
The moment I saw it, I realized I could move again. I stumbled forward, but my father caught me after one step. “No Liu Shi!”
I turned, surprised at the fear in his voice. His eyes were wide, his face as white as a cactus flower. His eyes darted all over the work site.
“You must run! Find a hole or trench. The latrine! Go there, hide!”
“Ba.” I grabbed his wrist. “What is it? What’s going on?”
“We must have woken it!” He scanned the site again and broke into a run, dragging me with him.
“Woken it? Woken what?”
“These western ones are not like those of the old country. But how is this possible? Have we woken it?”
“Ba!” I tried to pull him to a stop, but after years of building railroad tracks, my father was as hard and strong as stone. “Woken what?”
It seemed like he must have forgotten I was there, except he was still dragging me behind him. He was talking to himself, fear dripping from every word. “The only hope is to hide. Somewhere dark but warm.”
Another scream shredded the air. It felt like it squeezed my head between two mountains.
I looked over my shoulder, still unable to stop my father. A creature, dark all over and as long as two train cars, with wings just as big, was swooping down from the pale blue sky. “What is that?”
My father stopped for a moment and turned. “It is death! We must get your mother and hide.”
The creature screamed again, nearly making me stumble with the force of the sound. As Father dragged me away from the cliff edge and toward the tents and wagons, I watched the flying creature grow closer.
Two legs, each as thick as three men, unfolded from the thing’s body, with long, glinting claws extending. I gasped and almost lost my lunch as it hit the first group of paralyzed workers. It tore through them, ripping bodies apart.
The men scattered.
Another unearthly scream filled the day. Then more screams joined it, but these of humans. Workers. My friends.
I tried to pull my wrist out of Father’s grip. I had to help them. But his hand was too strong and he sped up. “We must find your mother!”
“Ba! We have to help them.” I pulled as hard as I could. His fingers on my wrist didn’t budge.
“There is no helping them!” Father’s voice was hoarse. “It cannot be stopped.” His searching eyes settled on something just south of the tents and wagons. “There! The latrine trench.” He let go of my wrist. “You must go. I will get your mother and meet you there.”
“But what is it?” Movement caught my eye. The creature had finished its bloody work at the cliff edge and was flying higher now, angling toward the temporary railroad village we had set up.
“No!” Father grabbed my wrist again. He squeezed so hard I could feel my bones rub together. “It will get there before you. Find a hole. That way. Dig one if you have to.” He pointed north, toward the angle of the cliff, but not right at the cliff face we’d been working on.
I watched the creature fly, its huge wings flapping only a little. It seemed to reach a desired height, because it stopped flapping. For a moment, it hung in the air. I remembered the moment I had hung in the air, only minutes before. But then it tucked its wings against its body and straightened.
It looked like a thick arrow, descending incredibly fast toward the tents and wagons.
“Liu Shi! GO.” Father pushed me toward the cliff face and broke into a run. “Ming-Na! Ming-Na!” My mother’s name carried back to me.
I stood, transfixed by the sight of the black creature.
A word from the single book my parents had brought from China came to me. But the book was about legends from our home country. It wasn’t true.
The creature got to the town before my father. As it reached the first tents, flame gushed out of its mouth. The tents exploded with fire. Screams reached my ears as my father circled away from the flame and ducked under a wagon.
I ran after him, the word repeating itself in my head.
But that was impossible. They weren’t real.
A gigantic, invisible mountain slammed into me, throwing me up and back. A deafening boom reached me a moment later, then waves of force drove me into the earth under a large sage brush. Orange flame stretched skyward from the dynamite tent. I pushed myself up, screaming after my father.
Another explosion slammed me backward again. My head hit something hard.