This is a retelling of Mulan based partly on the Disney version and partly on what I read in a Wikipedia article. It’s right on the cusp of dealing with gender identity and dysphoria… if I write a part two that’s the direction it will go in.
1313 words, Adult Content, LGBT themes. Please leave a comment if you like what you read. 😊
In the night, Mulan cuts her hair and slips out the window as neatly as a line in a song. Someone with a different name steps onto the earth outside.
She pays attention and works hard. They look at her differently now. They speak to her differently, and listen too. All it took was one quick and clumsy slice with a short sword to fool them — and to be honest, that’s about what she expected. She never set out to be cynical about it, but there it is.
It’s not easy getting by in an army full of men, but luckily, she doesn’t have the sort of hips or chest that would easily be noticed. Still, in the beginning she just doesn’t have the same upper body strength as her fellow recruits and secretly does extra exercises in her free time. Their instructors are training them to not be smart, not talk back, and only follow orders. Mulan has to be smart to fake what she doesn’t have until the extra practice begins to show results. She’ll never be as bulky as most of her fellow soldiers, but after a year she can beat almost anyone in a fair fight. In another year, most of the unfair ones too.
A sort of reputation develops around her. It’s as though, without really recognizing it, they can tell she’s getting away with something. If pressed, they’d probably say it’s that she’s unexpectedly good at holding her own in a brawl despite how short and scrawny she is. Not only that, but she can end a brawl quickly and with style. Even her commanding officers can appreciate that. Her fellow recruits either hate her or want to be her friend, and they invite her to come with them for fun when they have any leave time.
Sometimes “fun” means… houses of ill repute. These would present her with some amount of awkwardness, if she still felt like she had anything to be awkward about. The first few times she feels a little uncomfortable but never going to them attracts the wrong sort of attention, so she pushes the feeling down and keeps going anyway. It’s all about timing. Wait a bit, keep an eye on the place, and she can start to see when the shift changes are. Go in just before and not only pay but tip handsomely for a tired woman to take a nap, and no one makes much of a fuss. She finds some time to read in these places, and it’s pleasant to look up from a good book every now and then to the naked figure in the bed, soft in sleep. After a great deal of introspection one evening she puts her book down and wakes the woman with a kiss. With some coaxing, she finds herself able to shed layer after layer to the Mulan hiding beneath her armor.
In that room, her hips and chest are bared and she is a woman. But, she wonders later, am I really still Mulan? What is it that stays the same behind the clumsy haircut, the different clothes, the different stance and stature in the world? Somewhere beneath bound breasts and a roll of cloth tucked in below the waist is her true self, and for the right woman her true self sings… then leaves money on the nightstand and slips out the door while the room is quiet and still. She can’t stay in this soft place forever, and as a soldier there are certain things one must be prepared to do.
She is part of an army. In real battles, after drilling dummies made of straw for so long, a part of every new soldier still believes that all men are made of straw. That makes it easier to defend herself at the cost of enemy lives. The world holds its breath and shrinks to a point, and at that point there is only her actions. With awful clarity, whatever she contains becomes immaterial because if she does the wrong thing at the wrong time it doesn’t matter what or who she was.
Mulan learns from observation and gut instinct that everyone either lives together or dies alone. She is bound to her brothers in arms in a way she would be hard pressed to put into words. In theory, they are fighting for their country. Or at least the current king, who rides precariously on the rising crest of the coming new dynasty. In practice, they fight to keep each other from dying. It is for this reason alone that, when her regiment is ambushed, she saves the lives of over a hundred men. The quick thinking earns her a medal.
Regarded now as one of the army’s elite, Mulan is moved from the front lines to the guard of a diplomatic envoy. Without her friends and the constant fighting she is restless. Being a guard requires vigilance but, most of the time, not much else, so she falls into the habit of watching the diplomats. Although she doesn’t care much the ambassador, puffed up with the importance of his job to the point of overinflation, his daughter catches her eye. Fierce and intelligent, the Princess takes to riding next to her in the procession and striking up conversations. Mulan is aware of her keen eyes on her, and there is nothing soft about the way, one night, they sneak unseen into the Princess’ private tent and kiss. Later the Princess speaks with her father, and from then on Mulan is her personal guard.
She’s not even sure what to call what they have but the intimacy of it is surprising, far more powerful than one night in the brothel. Mulan never asks how the Princess saw past the armor and short hair to the truth, unsure of what answer she would hope to hear. In private they call each other sworn sisters, because that’s as close as they can come to the word lovers. In public, they can never touch.
Suddenly the war ends, settled not by body counts on the battlefield but behind closed doors by the ruling class. The army is disbanded and told to go home, but Mulan loiters, not wanting to leave. She isn’t particularly surprised when the Princess’ father is accused and sentenced to death for treason, but she’s stunned when the Princess offers herself in his place. She has been trained to understand that soldiers do not abandon each other, but realizes that she’d forgotten her fierce Princess was not like her brothers in arms.
But Mulan is still a soldier. She speaks up on her Princess’ behalf in defense of fealty to a father — after all, that is why she herself is here. Her reputation as a war hero is enough that some listen, though not enough. The pardon comes when the Princess promises to marry one of the army’s generals, and that’s what breaks the last thread between them.
Without her sworn sister, without her war to fight, Mulan wonders if she should go home. She could go back to the place where she cut her hair and let it grow long again, let the armor rust in a corner, slip back into the song like a final refrain and let her adventure fade into silence. But she is restless, and when she reaches the last fork on the road to her father’s house, she takes the other path. Being on the march is comforting, and when she comes to the next town she can send some of the money she’s saved up as a goodbye present.
She keeps moving, grieving the things she can’t go back to. Not as a soldier for now, and after all this time maybe not as Mulan either.
It’s been so long that she’s not sure who she is anymore.