Zi was smarter than most boys. All his female relatives told him so. They fixed his favorite foods and sang him to sleep, but even in his sleep he could hear their voices among themselves. Sometimes the gruff voices and loud laughter of the men would sound like thunder.
And then came war. Might have been a guerrilla war, might have just been a local skirmish, might have been between nations. Zi was too little to know. All he knew was that his village blew up around him. His home, his neighbors, and his family — both the males and the females.
He didn’t know how it was that he survived. He was cut and bruised but his padded jacket had helped protect him when the house collapsed. He wandered and starved and had strange dreams. A pariah dog came with him part of the time. It was good at finding little pools of water or Zi might not have survived. Some of the water tasted funny.
Then men came, big men with loud voices and terrifying machinery. They surrounded him. They laughed at him and teased him. They took his clothes off and tugged at his little penis. They opened their own clothes and made him suck on them. He never would have, but they made him. Afterwards someone gave him a bowl of rice. He put his clothes back on. They shot the dog. When they went to leave, one of them grabbed the back collar of his padded jacket and hoisted him into the truck.
Later they passed by a place where there were many boys and they tossed him out the back of the truck, barely slowing down. He landed hard and another boy, slightly older, came out to see if he was hurt. He was bruised but not broken. The older boy helped him into the place which was a kind of orphanage or school or mission. The adults wiped off his face with a wet cloth and gave him hot tea. He stayed there. At night he slept tight against the older boy and held on to him because it felt safer.
A very old man was teaching them to write with a brush, beginning at the top and going down to the bottom in lines. The writing was like little pictures and Zi began to understand what they meant. He loved to sit beside the old man and lean on him a little while the old man made the tip of the brush dance down the scroll of paper. In the mornings, first thing, he would carry hot tea to the old man. There was not always enough food, but there was always hot tea.
Then one morning the old man didn’t wake up. He couldn’t be roused. He was dead. Zi took the old man’s brushes and ink block and hid them. The older boy had lost interest in him by now. He was interested in girls and finally he and one girl became partners and they left together.
Now the war washed back over them and unpaid soldiers were raiding everywhere to keep themselves alive. Word came back that the older boy and his girl partner had been killed, left on their faces in a ditch. Then the soldiers came to the place where Zi was, killed the adults and some of the children — even little ones — and set fire to the building. Zi took the brushes and ink block from their hiding place and left without anything else but his clothes.
He walked. He had no plan. He had no destination.
When he had gone as far as he could make himself go, he sat down under a tree near a little stream where he could wet his ink block. He took off all his clothes because for lack of paper he thought he would write on himself. So he did. Long lines of little picture-words down his arms, down his legs, down his shoulders to his hips — he could not write on his back. Then he lay down and waited to die.
But a different set of soldiers came by and stopped for water. These soldiers were on the winning side and they had food. They saw the boy but thought he was dead and in fact he was unconscious. But one man could read the boy’s story down his arms and down his legs and from his shoulders to his hips wherever the boy could reach. In fact, this man was a poet. He thought that the boy was a living poem. From then on the boy’s fortunes changed entirely.