When I first heard the plan, I wasn’t wildly enthused.
I was sitting in my Advanced Chinese class at Peking University, toying with the face mask I’d had to drag along to school (Beijing’s air pollution was particularly bad that morning). As I mourned over my imminent failure of that day’s vocabulary quiz, one of the other American students in class – Chrissy – came up to me.
“Hey! Are you going this weekend? It seems like something that would be right up your alley.”
I stared back at her in confusion. “What’s going on this weekend?”
Her blue eyes spelled out disbelief. “You don’t know? A group of us are going camping on the Great Wall!”
I stared blankly back at her. You could camp on the Great Wall?
“Well, not exactly,“ she admitted nervously when I voiced my surprise. “It’s maybe not exactly TECHNICALLY legal… but it’s totally fine, lots of students do it every year! And there’s nothing that can compare to watching the sunrise from the Great Wall, right?”
I tried to hide my skepticism. Climbing the Great Wall with only a flashlight as my aid, sleeping in the cold Beijing air, and jumping at every sound that drifted up from the surrounding woods? Uh, yeah, no thanks, I’d rather sleep on my hard homestay bed.
Still, to be polite, I told her I’d think about it, and as class started my mind drifted away in thought. Camping, huh? I had to admit, THAT certainly sounded pretty appealing. It had been years since I’d been camping. In fact, the last time I went was with my dad when he used to take me to the Black Hills on his big Honda Goldwing motorcycle. That was always so much fun… The more I thought about it and reminisced, the braver I became. Okay, so what if it’s illegal? So is a lot of stuff in China. And, as the saying goes, in China, it is easier to ask for forgiveness than to ask for permission. Besides, it would be pretty neat to be able to say I saw the sunrise from the Great Wall.
Although I was still pretty nervous about the prospect of creeping up the Great Wall in the middle of the night and sleeping on the hard stone, by the time class ended, I told Chrissy I was down to go. She pretty much squealed with delight, her curly blonde hair bouncing as she gave an excited little jump.
“That’s perfect! We can share a tent. That way, you don’t have to bring one!”
That’s the thing about Chrissy. She may have been a little too optimistic for my tastes sometimes, but she was nice as the day is long. She sent me the details on WeChat and we parted ways.
Friday rolled around and I climbed into a sketchy looking van with a group of about seven students, including myself. Chrissy, who had apparently organized the whole affair, had paid a local to drive us the 45 miles to Badaling, one of the more popular sections of the Great Wall. It was already dusk when we set out, our driver swerving wildly through the Beijing city traffic and then cruising smoothly down the highway.
Along with Chrissy and myself, there was Jack, Steve, Jess, Mimi, and Sophie, all of whom were in our Advanced Chinese class. In a way, it was nice, because I knew everyone. In a way, it wasn’t nice, because some of them I’d rather not know.
Mimi and Sophie were both from the same school in South Korea, but went by their English names in class. They stuck together pretty close, but seemed nice enough and I was hoping to get to know them better. Mimi was tall and had dyed strawberry blonde hair. She seemed to be the more outgoing of the two, as Sophie was a little more shy, her long black hair sweeping across her face and hiding her eyes from the world. They both spoke English fairly well and pretty soon, we were happily chatting away.
Jess and I were friends from day one and she decided to come along when she found out I was going. We were from the same program, although different universities, and we had pretty much everything in common. We both loved classical novels and horror movies and we would talk for hours whenever we had the chance. I was always a little jealous of her thick, wavy black hair and she coveted my straight light brown locks. We’d spent the whole day packing together, more than a little excited for our night out.
Next was Steve. He came from the Netherlands and had a killer Arnold Schwarzenegger impression. He was tall and built like a truck, with a shock of blonde hair always falling across his forehead. His eyes were my favorite, though: ice blue and piercing. He and I joked around throughout most of our classes, which probably drove our teachers insane. He and Chrissy always sat close together and occasionally held hands when no one was watching, so I was pretty certain they were hooking up.
Most everyone was nice and normal enough…except for Jack.
Jack was from Russia and seemed nice enough when I first met him. After a few minutes, however, he revealed his true nature and I was sufficiently disgusted. Despite his charming dark brown eyes and hair to match, he was cold and cruel. The first thing that caught my attention was the racism.
“Hey, I heard you have a black kid in your program, is that true?” he asked me one day.
I looked at him a little awkwardly. “Um… yeah… why?”
He grinned smugly at me. “Well, that fucker had better watch out. My friends and I don’t take too kindly to his type.”
That was my last real interaction with Jack. Occasionally I’d hear him spouting his hate speech, mostly against black people and Mexicans, but I’d ignore it. He’d tried to ask me out a few times at the beginning of the year (“I hear American girls have some ‘special skills,’ so why don’t you show me?” he apparently thought was a good pickup line) and I had turned him down rather coldly. As a result, he mostly ignored me, thank goodness.
Jack and Steve were arguing about soccer and Jess and I had entered a passionate debate on the Bronte sisters (I’ve always liked Emily over Charlotte, what can I say) when we arrived at the Wall.
Chrissy extracted a promise from our driver to meet up with us in the morning around 7 to take us back to campus while we waited at the foot of the steps leading up to our destination. I looked up a little nervously into that darkness, my flashlight clutched fiercely in my hand. Jess watched me quietly.
I breathed out slowly. “A little. What if we get caught?”
“Don’t worry!” Chrissy chirped up from behind me, and I jumped. “I already bribed the guards. No one will be disturbing us!”
Chrissy ran off again as we all chatted nervously. I noticed Jack watching me, but I tried to ignore him. I also had to make a conscious effort to reign in my anger – just knowing that he was looking at me was starting to piss me off.
A few minutes later, Chrissy returned with a young Chinese man. He looked about our age with long black hair and a cigarette dangling from his lips. He had a backpack with him, too, and in a minute I figured out why.
“This is Xiao Zhang. He’s going to lead us up the wall!” Chrissy was practically bubbling over with excitement. Xiao Zhang nodded at us and glanced at the steps we’d soon be climbing.
“Um… does he speak English?” asked Jess.
“I speak little,” Xiao Zhang he managed to say.
“It’s fine, we’re here to study Chinese, anyway,” proclaimed Steve. I could tell he was trying to remain positive, though. We were Advanced Chinese students, but that didn’t make us brilliant speakers. I stared at the ground, suddenly becoming aware of my rising panic. This was beginning to seem like a bad idea.
“Well, we might as well get going!” Chrissy and Xiao Zhang strode up to lead the group, and with that, we began our ascent.
Hiking up the stone steps wasn’t as bad as I’d anticipated. They were a bit uneven but as long as I paid attention I was able to make it up. My problem was more that it was exhausting than anything else. My heart pounded from the exertion as I pulled myself up step after step.
I had raised my head to look up at the moon beaming down in the spaces left between the trees rising up on either side of our path and missed the next step. I felt myself losing balance and tumbling backward. Before a cry properly formed on my lips, a strong arm braced my back and I found myself staring up at a wisp of brown hair.
“That was close,” Jack said while smirking. I really hated that about him: he always smirked, but never smiled.
“Thank you,” I curtly said, righting myself and climbing the stairs once again.
“You owe me for that, don’t forget!” he called after me. I unceremoniously ignored him.
We reached the top of the stairs without further incident and climbed onto the wall, our nerves strung high with anticipation.
The view from the Great Wall was absolutely beautiful. The moon illuminated the tips of the trees, giving the impression that we were floating on dark, unquiet waters. Silver glinted on the stones around us. Above us were thousands upon thousands of stars. Due to Beijing’s heavy pollution, I hadn’t seen so many stars since I’d left Minnesota. I looked up breathlessly at the sky. I’d forgotten this part about camping, even though it had once been my favorite.
While I took a moment to enjoy the vast expanse of the night sky, everyone else got busy setting up camp. Jack and Steve were sharing a tent and so were Mimi and Sophie. Jess had opted to sleep under the stars, which actually seemed a bit fun, too. I decided that if it wasn’t too cold by the time we actually decided to sleep, I’d join her. Xiao Zhang had his own tent a little ways away from us. Although he’d come with us, he didn’t seem all that interested in interacting with us. I wondered how much Chrissy had paid him to take us up here.
“Hey,” Chrissy called out to me. “Can you help me set up the tent?”
I walked over to Chrissy and we struggled with the tent poles, giggling excitedly. Due to my vast camping expertise (read as: Steve’s help after Chrissy and I failed miserably), we had our tent set up and we were all set for the night.
We sat for hours against the wall, staring up at the sky and out over China. Jack tried to convince us to set off the fireworks he brought even after we explained why that was such a stupid idea. We couldn’t really set a fire so we had to rely on our flashlights and the moon to illuminate our surroundings. It was surreally peaceful and somehow darkly enchanting. I could have stayed awake for hours.
After a while, however, we collectively decided to turn in. We wanted to be able to wake up and watch the sunrise in the morning, so we had to get some semblance of sleep. I decided to settle next to Jess since the night was surprisingly warm. Chrissy told Jess and I that her tent was open if either of us got cold, but I suspected Steve would be making a late-night visit after we’d all fallen asleep and I was content to stare at the stars until I passed out.
I woke up not an hour later. My sleeping bag and pillow were comfortable enough (as a kid we used to sleep outside on the farm all the time in the summer, so I was used to sleeping on the ground) but I just couldn’t seem to stay asleep. I was probably still a little too excited. I looked over sleepily and saw that Jess must have climbed into Chrissy’s tent. I was on my own.
Except I wasn’t. I turned over and saw Jack sitting there, staring at me.
Immediately I became alert, catching his dark brown eyes in mine. I tried to sit up, but he pounced on me, pinning my hands above me and shoving his hand over my mouth.
“I said you owe me, remember?” He flashed that smirk again. He ripped open my sleeping bag and reached for my jeans.
I struggled hard against him. He was using his legs to hold mine down so I couldn’t kick him. I did the only thing I could and bit his hand.
“Fuck! You fucking bitch!” he cried and raised his hand to slap me.
Then we both heard it. That noise.
We stared past the tents and towards one of the guard towers. In the light of the moon, we could see it. Some kind of big, hulking shape, outlined vaguely against the gray stone. It raised its snout and howled.
“What the actual fuck?” Jack muttered, confused. I should have taken that moment to kick him off, but my eyes were drawn to the creature. I was afraid to look at it, but I was even more afraid to look away.
Suddenly, it came running toward us. Galloping on its four legs with a graceless gait. I could hear the pattering of its claws against the stone as it ran for us. A snorting filled the night as it dragged air into its lungs. Jack stumbled back off me, shouting in Russian.
The creature stopped as it neared me.
Its body was vaguely human, but more muscular and with longer arms. Its skin was gray and covered in hair so thin I could see the veins sticking out on its muscles. Its big barrel chest heaved with each breath, a patch of thicker fur covering its bulging neck. Its feet and hands were big with impossibly long fingers and toes. I realized after a moment that the fingers weren’t necessarily that long, but the claws… they stuck out a good few inches, clattering along the ground with every motion. Click click click.
I looked up to see the head. It was twisted and grotesque, with a long snout adorned with drooping whiskers. It looked like the head you might see in a painting of a Chinese dragon, with deep-set eyes staring ferociously…right at me. I looked up in horror to see a horn protruding out of its head. It looked as though the horn was growing right from the bone, ripping out of the flesh, which hung in shreds around it. The horn was twisted and splintered, full of cracks and chips.
It looked like it had been used.
The beast heaved and stared at me, the eyes boring into mine. I felt…open. As though every act in my life lay bare before those prodding eyes.
After a moment, it looked away from me and focused on Jack.
I watched as Jack stared at the creature, his breathing ragged, his face paper white. There was a short silence as the creature’s breathing slowed. Time didn’t just stand still, it ceased to exist. We were there for an eternity and no time at all.
Suddenly the creature’s eyes darkened and it snarled, a low, messy sound that ripped open the night, filling our campsite with bleeding moonlight.
Jack tried to run, but it lunged. Its powerful hind legs kicked it forward as its claws reached out. I crawled backwards, shimmying towards the side of the wall as it dug into Jack.
The claws ripped into Jack’s chest like knives. He tried to scream, I know he did, but no sound came out. His lungs must have been punctured. As blood came gushing forth, the beast lowered its head, the twisting horn aimed right at Jack’s eye. With an unnatural jerking motion, the monster crushed Jack’s eye, stabbing into his skull with the horn. It pulled its horn out, covered in blood and goopy white, then went for the other eye. Jack squirmed and struggled. I saw his pants darken as he pissed himself. I tried to breathe but I couldn’t. The monster lowered its head and stabbed into Jack’s mouth, severing his spinal cord. I watched Jack’s struggling die down and his body lay silent, unmoving. The beast lifted its head and howled again, blood dripping down the horn and into its eyes.
Suddenly, there was a scream. My head jerked towards Chrissy’s tent. She and Jess stood at the entrance, their eyes fixed on the scene of gore. I twisted my head around to see Steve, shocked and silent, standing at his tent. Mimi and Sophie stood a little ways off, Mimi stone-faced and Sophie crying. My heart raced. Suddenly, everything was too real. Too real and too illogical and too much of everything.
The beast looked at Steve, those dark, now bloody eyes staring with an intensity I hope never to feel again. It moved onto Jess and I found my hoarse voice.
“Help! Help! Someone, oh anyone, please, help!”
Its eyes turned to Chrissy as I felt a hand grab my arm and jerk me to my feet. I looked over to see Xiao Zhang. His strong grip brought me back to reality as he screamed with all his strength, “Run!”
I didn’t wait for a second invitation. I ran toward the entrance to the wall, practically throwing myself down the steps. Actually, I did throw myself down some of the steps. I landed hard on my chest but I forced myself up and kept going. Soon I felt Jess next to me, her sobbing filling the air. I could hear Steve and Xiao Zhang behind us as we leapt from step to step. Mimi and Sophie were somewhere behind us, too, but I couldn’t hear them over the sound of my own rushing blood. My own tears started to flow down my cheeks, leaving hot trails along my skin. My mind was filled with nothing but blood and the image of Jack’s jerking body, the last motion it made before it went still forever.
We finally reached the bottom of the steps and rushed out into the open air. Jess leaned over and threw up, hurling out her supper of fried noodles and tofu. I could feel myself shaking uncontrollably. I fought hard to calm down as Steve reached out and shook Xiao Zhang.
“What the fuck was that?! What the fuck?\?”
Xiao Zhang pushed him off. He switched into Chinese, his voice cool and composed, although I sensed the tense undercurrent in his tone. “Calm down. I can get us out of here.”
He was on the phone as Jess cried and I held her, still trying to calm down. Mimi was talking to Sophie in a low voice. Sophie had stopped crying, but her face had lost all color and had gone gray. Steve paced back and forth, occasionally uttering an expletive that I didn’t recognize, his hands tugging violently at his hair. No, don’t do that, I thought. You’ll pull it out. It’s such a shame, because it’s so pretty. My mind was numb. All I could think about was Steve’s blonde hair. Everything else was shut down. Looking back, I guess I was going into shock.
A few minutes later, a car pulled up and Xiao Zhang pushed us in. The car tore away with squealing tires and we sat, silent except for Jess’s sobbing. I wondered for a moment if she’d ever stop. I stared ahead blankly.
“Who here has the best Chinese?” Xiao Zhang asked. Jess was too far-gone to answer and before I could say anything, Steve pointed to me, with Mimi and Sophie nodding their support.
Xiao Zhang looked at me and started talking immediately. “I will talk to the school about what happened. If anyone asks you about anything, you just tell them you woke up and your friends weren’t there. Understand?”
I looked at him blankly. No, I didn’t understand. But where did I start? I could barely form words in English at the moment, much less Chinese.
“What… that… what?”
He stared at me harder. “Understand?”
He sighed. “Don’t worry too much over the two of them.”
I think that should have made me angry, but at that moment I was incapable of anger. I just looked at him helplessly, lost, confused. “But… why?”
He paused, then continued. “That thing was what we Chinese call a Xie Zhi. They judge good from evil. They only attack the wicked.”
After that, there’s not much to tell, really. Mimi and Sophie came back to class after a few days. They stick even closer together now and no one can approach them, not really. They just don’t respond. Steve is still in class, but he and I don’t joke around anymore. We don’t look at each other. I’m thinking of transferring out to a new class, to make things a little easier. Neither of us like the reminder. Jess couldn’t handle the stress of what had happened… she went back to America a few days after the incident. I halfheartedly tried to persuade her not to, but I could see in her eyes that she could never come back to China again, not after that.
Every night I dream of Jack being gored to death by the Monster of Judgment. He screams and pleads and I wake up much the same. Every day I look at myself in the mirror and wonder what the monster saw in me.
And after all this time, one thing is still bothering me.
What did it see in Chrissy?