The Ballad of Guan Zongying

By Christopher R. Muscato

It was a Tuesday in May when June ran away.

That’s how the song goes. I don’t know how my life ended up in a folk song, or why it became so popular. That’s just what happened.

It was a Tuesday in May when June ran away

Leaving her black tray still spinning they say

The black tray, that’s a good line. I was glad to be rid of the thing. It’s an appropriate symbol. A dark void, a circle, never ending, looming over me all day. Stuck to my hands like a growth, a cancer. An unwelcome appendage.

To understand the rest, you have to know what it was like here.

The age of coal was over. It was easy for people from elsewheres to laugh and say “West Virginia, they’re so backwards. They don’t know how to move on, adapt”. But it’s not that simple. These miners, it’s all they knew. Starting over isn’t as easy as people think. Sure, they could learn to operate wind turbines or work the hydro dam or build the new green infrastructure. But nobody had approved those projects here. And if they did, who was going to give the miners time off to learn a new trade? Who was going to pay their medical bills in the meantime, or their rent, or their debt to the mining company?

It’s not as easy as people think.

These were my customers.

I was taught to honor my ancestors, but that sentiment generally refers to the ancients. I find that a bit ironic, since the ancestors I connect with the most are the ones who moved from China to build railroads here in the United States. Rails run through my family history.

My grandfather said he would have named me Jun if I were a boy. It was my mother who liked the sound of that Chinese name and found an Americanized counterpart in June. My Chinese name was then assigned as Zongying. But they told me to go by June. Americans don’t like the sound of Zongying.

My customers liked the sound of June. It reminded them of a time when the start of summer meant something. Freedom, youth, adventure. Passion. The miners who came to the diner didn’t talk about passion. Or freedom. They talked about the bars of a cage. Rent increasing and wages staying still. Medical bills that insurance didn’t cover. The mines are dying. They said that a lot, like a Buddhist chant. The mines are dying. The mines are dying. I don’t know if it was an incantation to ward off evil or a prayer to finally see the great beast dead, even if its death took them down with it. This great dragon that consumed their mountain, ravenously devouring land and workers alike, scarring the earth with its smoldering fangs.

And while they chanted, I poured them coffee and served them eggs. I smiled when they winked and laughed at their stories. I was June, their reminder of what it had been to smile in the sun and dream. And all the while, my sun was blocked by a dreadful cloud hanging over my head in the shape of a flat black circle.

It’s not easy to start a new life. There are cycles to these things. Systems that are meant to keep those cycles running, like the pulverizing crank of the coffee grinder.

And then the circus came to town.

I went to the city to see the electric highspeed railway open. It connected Charleston to Richmond. From there you could hop onto the highspeeds going just about anywhere. Just the thought of it was thrilling, and all the waitresses talked about where we would go, what we would see. If we didn’t have work the next morning. It’s amazing how we can share a fantasy we all know will never come true.

But I went anyway, traded a shift to get the day off. In the crowds I waited, picking at cheap cotton candy. One blade of grass in a swaying field of strangers bustling with anticipation, tossed by the gregarious breeze of idle chatter. Then, the turbines started to rumble. Something was coming.

It happened in a flash. With a rush of air, the pinwheel-shaped turbines exploded into a forest of spinning colors and the train burst into the station. It stopped as suddenly as it had arrived and without a moment’s pause, the performers erupted onto the platform.

The Allegretti Highspeed Circus. The first highspeed to complete a route into West Virginia. It was still the early days of railway circuses, but they were already immensely popular.  

There were acrobats. And clowns. And colors. And lights. And movement, and dance, and music, and laughter. It was wonderful. It was an entire world, a cosmos, that we saw unfold before us. One very different than the reality we knew. One that brought with it the most imperceptible magic: the ability to transport us all into their reality, their world, without us even realizing we had left our own.

And then, as quickly as it had arrived, the lights and color and magic were packed away and vanished with a rush of air. I remained, long after the rest of the crowd had dissipated, watching the painted turbines spin. The highspeeds generated their own power, the energy of their very momentum being returned to them in a system of perpetual self-sufficiency. A cycle of independence, of everlasting freedom. A cycle of horizons, not cages.

I went back, many times. I watched the circus; I gave myself to the illusion that this reality was genuine so often that it became so.

And then, it was Tuesday.

I don’t know why I did it. Never been able to explain. Don’t think I ever will. I went to Charleston to watch the circus, just one of many trains using the station anymore. Reliably as ever, the wondrous enveloped the platform, dazzling and delighting. But this time, as they swiftly compressed paradise back into suitcases and baggage cars, I saw a crack in the illusion. One tiny tear in the seamless fabric of their rhythm. An opening.

The gate was unguarded, the train car unlocked, the door ajar.

Before I knew it, I was inside, tucked away among canvas and costumes. The door slammed and the world went black. There was a jolt, and the train whirred to life. There was a jolt, and I stirred to life.

On Wednesday that May, June stayed away

Replaced by Zongying that day on the train

“What the- who are you?”

The question woke me, and I blinked as the searing light of day assaulted my eyes.

“Wh-hw-”, I stammered.

“Alright, get her out of there.”

I felt two sets of strong hands lift me out of the compartment and found myself set firmly on the platform. I squinted as the world around me came into focus, patches of tents and colorful costumes settling into my vision. I looked around. The camp was simple, nice, but simple. There were large tables where people were eating, spaces that seemed reserved for rehearsals, other areas being used for games of horseshoes and corn-hole.

“Excuse me? Lady? What are you doing in our train?”

The question shook me back to reality and I spun to face my accuser, a thin man with a thin mustache, hands on his hips and eyebrows arched towards the heavens.

“I like your circus.” It was all I could think to say. The thin man straightened up a little, looking around at the many faces that had started to gather. Finally, he leaned back and let out a surprisingly booming laugh from such a narrow frame.

“A stowaway, eh? Geez, what do I do with this? Alright, boys, let’s get her something to eat. You got a name?”

“Zongying. I’m Zongying.”

I was reborn. June Guan belonged to a past life, one that I had transcended through the cycle of reincarnation, emerging as Guan Zongying in a highspeed nirvana whirring across the rails. And I was an infant in this new world. I had to learn to talk, learn to walk. The fundamentals of circus performance require many things you’d never think about until you experience it. The circus-walk, they call this footwork that I had to master. I toddled, and fumbled, and learned to hold myself anew under the watchful eye of the circus master, the ringmaster of this rail-borne bigtop.

Once considered among the greatest living acrobats of his day, Maurice Allegretti now focused his efforts on training future generations of circus performers. An injury years ago was responsible for the transition. His thin mustache and taut figure were among the few remaining artifacts of his life as a performer, and he attended to both with meticulous obsession.

I have good balance. One of the conditions of years shifting hot plates and half-empty cups and napkins and forks between hands and trays and tables. I used the skills I had, and I trained to acquire new ones. I learned, I experimented, and in doing so I discovered that I was fearless. Eventually, I found my place in the circus. It was a natural fit. I became an escape artist.  

I remember the first time I saw the Pacific Ocean. I wept, laughing through tears. And then it was curtain call, and I wiped my eyes and danced into the ephemeral landscape of colors and lights. Maurice asked if I missed West Virginia. I told him that if I never set foot there again, it would be a day too soon.

From the rails I saw large cities and small towns. I saw mountains and oceans, rivers and deserts, cornfields and suburbs and forests. I saw faces young and old, youthful and world-worn, and I saw the weight of a million individual anxieties evaporating as our circus filled their eyes, injecting the bleakness of reality with inescapable wonder.

We were in North Dakota when I thought I recognized a few faces in the crowd. It took me by surprise, but when I blinked the illusion was gone.

These strangers were still on my mind as the train sped away that night, their faces cycling through my memory, beating against my subconscious like the whirring of the rails.

Why had they seemed so familiar?

It wasn’t until later that I realized it wasn’t their features that I knew, it was their expressions. There was a mining town nearby. In their eyes I recognized that glistening, the respite from the hopeless, the spark of joy with the tinge of sorrow. I knew that look. It was the look of everyone back home.

And then I understood; I was Zongying. But June still remained.

On Thursday one May, Zongying came back to play

To its knees brought the company and broke all the chains

Experts estimate that every dollar invested in highspeed railways yields four dollars in economic growth. I never understood what that meant. What I understood was the reality in front of me. For years, that meant weary miners and unpaid bills. Poverty. Decay. A slow march towards an inevitable end, a quiet cataclysm seen but never spoken of, known but not acknowledged. Going quietly into that good night, but doing so with head held high and pride in one’s labor.

All of our train’s mechanical work was maintained by a tight team of engineers who had a habit of pressganging performers into assisting them as the need arose. As a result, everyone in the circus knew how to operate the train and maintain its perpetual cycle of momentum into energy into momentum.

If it weren’t for the need for the humans onboard to stretch their legs, rehearse their routines, perform, the train itself could run virtually forever.

The first time we came back through West Virginia, I messaged a few friends. They spread the word and a decent sampling of them made the trip to Charleston. I was counting on the local gossip mill to have churned my name into something of a legend, a cautionary tale of some sort, perhaps. The girl who ran away with the circus.

We arrived, performed, and packed up. I waved at the crowds as we departed, leaving them with a smile, and something else.

The next time we came back, the crowd was slightly larger. The time after that, it was even larger. I saw several of my old customers, their soot-stained faces watching me perform, faces bright with a mixture of joy and anticipation. As we packed up, their hands flew into their pockets and retrieved their phones, eyes hungrily scanning the screens.

The last time that the Allegretti Circus performed on the Charleston platform, more miners were there. And they brought their union reps.

“I need to take a leave,” I said.

Maurice Allegretti flattened his newspaper, he was old-fashioned in his consumption of media, and traced his thin mustache with his fingers. Underneath the café car, the rails rattled and whirred.

“I read about what’s happening in West Virginia, Zongying. The strikes,” he sighed. “I assumed you’d want to go back. I do hope you’ll find us again someday.”

“I hope so too,” I said, and I meant it. My heart ached at the thought of leaving the circus, leaving this life on the rails.

“Zongying,” Maurice called after me. I turned. He fidgeted with his tea for a moment.

“What did you do?”

I paused, not entirely sure how to respond, then slowly found my way back to his table and sat down. Maurice Allegretti could have sent me back, that day I ran away. Heck, he could have just left me in the middle of a field and sped off. Instead, he took me in, trained me, gave me a roving home and lungs that had breathed the air of the Atlantic and Pacific and everywhere in between. I owed him an explanation.

In traveling the continent, I had seen the power of infrastructure to transform a community. How it brought opportunity to some, how it isolated others, trapping them in cycles of poverty. I started reading articles on the economic potential offered by the new infrastructure, the way it could save dying towns like mine, save the workers. Die with the great dragon or harness the wind, reborn like a phoenix from the ashes of the mines. I compiled statistics, articles, union policies about laborers’ rights to learn new trades, phone numbers for mayors and senators, names of advocacy groups and activists. I wrote down my own thoughts and notes, wrote about my experiences as a nomad on the rails, freed from the grinding and crushing weight of sedentary poverty. I thought about my ancestors, how railways had both oppressed them and brought them new worlds, new lives. I pontificated and theorized, waxed philosophic and poetic. And every time we performed in Charleston, I airdropped pieces of this collection for the gathered congregation to take home.

So that’s my story. I returned to support the strikers, to resist against the company that would keep the miners and the rest of us pressed under their heel. Together we fought the great dragon, the fiery beast that had consumed our mountain, consumed our workers. We fought it with lances of environment protection laws, with shields of laborer rights, under union banners and astride steeds of the new infrastructure. There, on our mountain, we fought the great beast, an army united against the monster.

The next time the Allegretti Circus came to West Virginia, they didn’t stop in Charleston. They took the highspeed rail straight to the region’s newest station, built in a thriving working-class town, right across the street from the diner where I used to work.

It was a Tuesday in May when June ran away

Leaving her black tray still spinning they say

On Wednesday that May, June stayed away

Replaced by Zongying that day on the train

On Thursday one May, Zongying came back to play

To its knees brought the company and broke all the chains

Close the mines, stop the burning

Heal the land, keep it turning

With the work of my hands I’ll turn these cycles about and

I won’t feed the beast that devours our mountain

They wonder how we did and well, the best part is

We learned to break free from our own escape artist

She left in a rush, set her life on a new track

She could have run forever but instead she came back

And that’s why we sing

Of the highspeed runaway Zongying

Christopher R. Muscato is a writer and adjunct instructor from Colorado. He was the former writer-in-residence for the High Plains Library District and has published over a dozen short stories. 



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