The plane was late.
Then a taxi driver who couldn’t — or wouldn’t — understand Cantonese made it worse.
Sartaq saw the pile of expensive coal outside his roll-up metal door as the taxi came to a stop. There was no way to guess how much had been pilfered.
Thinking of the charcoal delivery man who’d left it out front for anyone to take, Sartaq quietly raged, He’ll damn well give me my money back!
Sartaq spotted the grocer’s wife as he got out of the taxi. Wearing her usual flower-print dress, she was standing too far over in front of his own shop and close to the coal. Both hands already behind her back, her eyes widened when they met his. She quickly side-stepped over and then backed into the darkness of her husband’s shop, carefully keeping her two hands behind her the whole time.
He rushed to the pile and pushed a couple of errant lumps back in contact with the others. He then slowly turned a half circle and glared at everyone who’d make eye contact.
Unlike most other shops, there was no lock on the outside of his roll-up. His was secured from the inside where it couldn’t be picked or battered with a hammer. But that meant he’d have to leave the coal unattended while he went around to the back to open up.
Walking fast but frequently glaring back, Sartaq hurried to the alley behind the shops where he broke into a run to his shop’s back door. He had it unlocked in a couple of seconds and left it ajar as he raced to the front, removed the long steel bar and threw the rippled steel door up. It crashed into the stops and he saw a flash of flower print dashing to the right that disappeared into the grocery.
Damn that woman!
Using shovel and bucket, he moved what was left of the hard coal inside and dumped it into a wooden crate by the forge.
He slammed down the front roll-up and secured it before also closing and locking, from the inside, the back door as well.
No business today.
He pumped the handle of the bellows and saw the brightened glow from deep in the forge. He was pleased and a little surprised the charcoal he normally used had lasted for two days, smoldering deep in the ash. Selecting half a dozen small pieces of the new hard coal, he used the long tongs to strategically place them around the edges of the glow. Watching inside, he pumped until they caught. Adding larger pieces of coal but spreading them out — he needed a wide clear space — he continued building the fire until blue flame licked out of the forge. It reminded him of the sculpture on the mountain of a giant snake with its huge mouth open and blue tongue flicking the air.
Mr. Wang, he thought as he tore a hole through the black plastic bags with their gruesome contents, today you will know the fire in my serpent’s belly.
Separated with his machete at the shoulder, elbow, wrist, hip, knee and ankle, he used the long tongs and poker to feed the pieces into the forge’s maw. He stacked them so nothing was hidden from the flame. The flesh blistered, turned black and began to smoke. One full stroke on the bellows and the smoke flashed over into yellow flame. He kept up a slow but steady pumping and in what he guessed was less than half an hour all the flesh was gone. Using his long tongs to remove the bones, he smashed the big bones into smaller pieces before collecting them and the smaller bones into a cup shaped container salvaged from a truck’s rear differential where he used the rounded end of a stone to finish the pulverizing. With nothing bigger than a centimeter, he poured it into a bucket.
Devoid of his appendages, however, Mr. Wang’s trunk was a problem. The forge’s ten by thirty centimeter opening was too narrow for shoulders and hips. It was gruesome, messy and slippery work sectioning Mr. Wang inside the plastic bags before hoisting each piece up and into the forge. Worse, he feared the horrific stench of what spurted out might carry through the thin walls of his shop. He kept the torn plastic bag closed as much as he could but the forge could only take so much in a single gulp. When full, all he could do was pump the handle until it was consumed and then add more coal before opening the plastic and sawing out the next piece.
Mr. Wang’s head was especially difficult. There was only one thing to do. Keeping it wrapped in the plastic bag, he used his biggest sledge to crush the skull and then a smaller hammer to smash everything down into a mushy, boney mass the thickness of a seat cushion. Using a shovel, he slid it through the opening and into the forge, threatening to smother the fire. Quickly adding the last of the hard coal, he pumped furiously until the coal ignited. The plastic wrapped gore flared and sputtered but was eventually consumed.
By the time he finished pulverizing the bones, it was pitch black outside. He carried the bucket of crushed bones out the back door, down the alley and up into the forest. Starting half way up the hill, he spread the fragments by hand like he’d thrown grain to the chickens back in Kashgar.
He’d turned from twelve to thirteen that year.
The party committee in Wuchang said he was done with school. That was fine with him. They said he was going to participate in the Cultural Revolution and apply his knowledge on a farm in Shandong Province. He would leave, again they said, in a week. He was to bring clothes but only what he could carry. He smiled and nodded but had no intention of doing so. Instead, he gathered his belongings and left that same night.
He would find his real father’s family in Xinjiang. His father’s family name was Khan and, according to his mother, they had lived with them near Kashgar when he was an infant, his father’s father ruling the household. Sartaq figured he’d just go from one Khan to another until he found them.
From text books, he knew there were rail lines all the way out to Kashgar. What he didn’t know was how far 5,000 kilometers was in terms of sleeping, eating and finding shelter. The fact that he got there at all, and in only three months, gave him pride in his determination and stamina.
He survived by his own means.
No one helped.
He did it.
He learned his face drew too little sympathy for begging while stealing was both easier and more productive. He learned the magician’s trick of misdirection while a quick grab and quiet exit, or a fast run worked quite well. After months on freight trains and walking for days at a time, he had the stamina to outlast any fattened shopkeeper. And on the rare occasions he was caught, he learned to shield himself, accept the punishment — they will tire and stop before I’ll give in — and transmute the pain into more determination.
He arrived in Kashgar in the fall, stronger and harder than ever before.
Unfortunately, Khan was an all too common name belonging to dozens of families. An Imam at the Id Kah Mosque befriended and showed him how to search the Mosque records. The Imam converted his birth year, 1963 — “Beijing uses the Christian calendar, did you know that?” — to the Uyghur calendar. And when Sartaq had mentioned his mother was Han, the Imam frowned but then said, “If the Imam who officiated knew that, then it is a hidden blessing because it will be written here. Look for it.”
After several days struggling through the handwritten record, in the following Uyghur year in the month of Rabi’ al-awwal, Sartaq found a Tasmiyah ceremony on al-Jumʿah and, a few days later, a Khitan for an infant in the Khan family. The father’s given name was listed as Batu and he was present with an unnamed Han woman. It said they lived on a small farm east of Kashgar. Sartaq hadn’t known his father’s given name — his mother never said it — but his mother’s race made that entry most likely to be for his father, mother and himself.
The Imam knew of the extended family, albeit indirectly.
“Jochi is said to follow the law and rule a strong home. Allah has smiled upon you to be of his family. Praise be to Allah who possesses all things and who gives without measure.”
Three evenings later and mustering all his height, Sartaq walked up to the home. He knocked on the door and loudly announced, “I am Khan Sartaq, son of Batu, grandson of Jochi.”
But when the grandfather came to the doorway, he took only a single glance before cursing at him, “Piroytki!” The Imam had told Sartaq that meant he was impure because his mother was Han.
Nonetheless, after some coercion from the women of the household who giggled, pointed at him and whispered as they peered out at him, the grandfather announced, “I am a practical man and, since the boy looks strong and, because his face will not be a distraction to my granddaughters, I will permit to stay as long as he does my bidding.”
An aunt brought him a meal late that evening but said that in the future he must wait outside the kitchen and, only if they had extra, they might give him some.
He was to be allowed to find space to sleep anywhere away from the house where it would not disrupt the farm. He tried various places but, in the coldest months, slept in the sty where the pigs accepted him for the common warmth.
Early in the spring, a visitor came to see his grandfather. The man was about fifty, strong and trim with a shaved head. He wore a military-looking brown jacket. The grandfather grumbled but allowed him to formally introduce himself to the family as an officer in the East Turkestan Independence Movement. He said his name was Major Qassim and he was there to receive donations and find recruits for the movement.
But when the officer finished, Sartaq’s grandfather cursed and drove him away with his cane saying, “You killed my son!”
Sartaq found the officer a few days later.
“It was many years ago,” he said as Sartaq walked with him. “I don’t remember your father but, sadly, I do remember the incident. It was …” He paused then started over, “There were supposed to be only a handful of soldiers. I ordered the attack — your father must’ve been one of them — and they charged bravely without hesitation, firing and reloading their rifles. But we were wrong about the number. It was a full platoon, more than twenty. They returned the rifle fire with machine guns. It was over in a few seconds.”
The officer then began what Sartaq would later call the recruitment pitch, one he would adapt and use many times in the following years.
“We are Uyghur. Our country is East Turkestan.
“We are not Han or Zhuang, Hui or Manchu.
“You are Uyghur …” the officer looked down at Sartaq and paused before continuing, “You are of Uyghur descent. You have, therefore, Uyghur flesh and blood within you.
“Our country is called East Turkestan. It has been our home for more than 1,200 years. Our ancestors for hundreds of generations are buried there.
“Here,” he said taking a handful of dirt and pouring it into Sartaq’s cupped hands, “this is what you are made of — it is what your ancestors trod, plowed, fought and died for.
“When the People’s Liberation Army marched into and occupied our country in 1949, they revealed themselves to be criminals. They killed our leaders, raped our women and destroyed our farms.
“They installed rulers over us but they do not rule us.
“This symbol,” he pointed to a patch on the left breast of his jacket, “is the Kök Bayraq, the banner of our country. The crescent moon is our faith, the five pointed star our independence, and the blue background is our open sky.
“Many of our patriots are fighters like your father. And like your father, many of them are called to duty and only once to sacrifice. But the movement needs many skills. Some are fighters but others move supplies, weapons and ammunition, to where they are needed. Others help our communications by coding and decoding messages. Others carry those messages and supplies between the loyal. A few help plan actions — no one acts alone. We are family.”
In the movement, Sartaq found meaning. He belonged in a unique way because his flawed ancestry and he used his impurity as living testimony to the evils of the outside invaders.
“Look at me,” he would extol potential converts gathered under the trees around the sports field at Wuhan University, “I am the very proof of their evil. Look at my face and see how they destroyed my purity. This is what they do to your lands, your faith, your parents and, someday, your children.”
Driven by what he now believed to be the reason for his life, Sartaq made his way back to Wuhan to begin fulfilling his destiny. His mother, step-father and little sister welcomed him home. As they supported and helped him start anew, they became unsuspecting supporters of his holy goals.
He learned to repair and repurpose metal objects while his shop near the University served as the base from which he began recruiting students, first those of Uyghur blood but eventually anyone who realized as he did, that the corrupt and increasing riches of the ruling party and their business associates were destroying the country just as they oppressed his real country, his real people.
He studied and prayed at the Quay Street mosque. The Imams were militant as was the faith. It honored strength, determination and the active defeat of non-believers. Its ethics and morals were fundamental, simple and direct.
In the isolated, idealistic environment of the university, he developed his own following, first in Islam but, more importantly, in the evils of Beijing and their self-righteous, ethnic superiority. He coached his followers to convince rich parents to send cash, supposedly to buy some new article of clothing or gadget needed for school, but which was collected and sent by the underground network to Kashgar.
Over decades, Sartaq indoctrinated and groomed many dozen followers. And when they graduated from the University and moved out to different parts of China and the world, they continued to send donations back to the movement. Those outside the country had even greater opportunities, he taught them. They had access to special resources, especially arms, that could be smuggled in, stock-piled and eventually used for their independence.
For the most part, however, Sartaq’s soldiers attended classes and went about their academics.
But Sartaq longed to be a warrior and part of greater actions. He said as much in some of his infrequent communications to Kashgar. He would suggest things they could do in far away Wuhan that would benefit the movement but the reply was always the same, “Be patient. You are serving the cause well. Focus on the greater good, not on your vain glory.”
Then, watching the television in a student dorm room one night, he watched in awe as passenger jets struck two towering buildings in the distant United States of America. He saw them collapse down upon themselves. The carnage astonished him and he realized how a small blow, delivered in just the right manner, could have devastating effects and attract world attention.
A few days later, one of his recruits, the son of a rich Shanghai business man, told him about a new hotel and gambling casino in Singapore. The boy told Sartaq they had been built expressly for rich Chinese — from Shanghai, Guangzhou, Beijing and Wuhan — and was solely intended to take from them as much money as possible.
The hotel was to be nearly 60 stories high and would contain three towers. They were to be built directly across from the casino and connected by a walkthrough shopping mall. In his mind, Sartaq visualized the three tall buildings, like the two in New York, collapsing downward and crushing the occupants. The carnage would be horrific!
But then he realized it would be even more devastating if the buildings were to topple over and smash down on the casino. Imagining the killing all those Han and then crushing even more at their evil play felt like a revelation from Allah himself.
Cutting the supports to the three hotel towers on only one side would cause them to topple over, he was sure. But unlike the attack in the United States, airplanes would be too imprecise. It would take secret soldiers, his soldiers, his students casually walking in with hidden explosives to take their place in history!
Sartaq’s long message to Kashgar that night said the number killed would be double or even triple of the New York twin towers success. And even though it would be half a world away from the United States, the spectacular attack would be on television around the world. Taking place outside of China, Beijing would be unable to censor the reports.
The East Turkestan Independence Movement would be known to the entire world.
When he scattered the last handful and his fingers scraped the bottom of the pail of Mr. Wang’s bone fragments, Sartaq’s reverie ended.
The lights of the avenue below guided him down and out of the forest. In the alley, the full moon’s yellow glow alternated with shaded blackness on his walk to the back door of his shop.
He raked the still glowing coals in the forge to bury the hot spots under a layer of cinders where they would smolder until stirred to life again.
He locked the shop and returned to his apartment.
Sitting alone, he shook his head marveling in disgust how different everything was for the rich. Airplanes and airports, spotless trains, door-to-door rides in clean taxis, sleeping in hotel beds with sheets softer than a mother’s breast, and throwing money about in casinos as if it was just a way of keeping score, …
His disgust was beyond words. All he’d seen and experienced in his trip to Singapore had done nothing except harden his resolve.
He clenched his fist as if holding his heaviest steel hammer and struck repeatedly into his empty palm.
I will hurt them.
I will crush them.
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