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Authors: Ha Jin

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BOOK: Ocean of Words
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My Revolutionary Salute,              

I Remain Your Loyal Soldier,
Political Instructor and         
Party Secretary of                
Reconnaissance Company —
Chen Jun                             
Longmen, May 27               

TOO LATE

It began as a bet at the Spring Festival. After the feast, the soldiers of my company were playing chess and poker, chatting and cracking roasted peanuts and sunflower seeds. In the Second Platoon some men were talking about women and bragging of their own ability to resist female charms. Gradually their topic shifted to the Shanghai girls at the Youth Home in Garlic Village. How were the girls doing on the holiday eve? What a pity there was no man in their house. Who would dare to go have a look and ask if they miss their parents and siblings?

Someone said he would pay a Spring Festival call on the girls after eleven. Another boasted that he would take a bottle of wine to that house and have a cup with them. Emboldened by alcohol and the festive atmosphere, they indulged themselves in the big talk.

Then Kong Kai declared he dared to go and sleep on the same brick bed with the girls. This was too much. Everybody thought he just wagged his tongue, and they told him to draw a line somewhere if he wanted to talk sense. But a few men challenged him and even proposed a five-
yuan
bet. To their amazement, Kong swung his quilt roll on his back and set off for the Youth Home.

There was only one young man living at that house, but he had left to spend the holiday with his family in Shanghai. Unlike the country women, those city girls had tender limbs and looked rather elegant. They knew how to use makeup and wore colorful clothes.

Kong entered the Youth Home and dropped his quilt at the end of the brick bed. The five girls were too shocked to stop him. He climbed on the bed, spread his quilt, lay down, and closed his eyes. For half an hour, they didn’t know what to do about this man, who wouldn’t respond to their questioning and tittering and instead was sleeping or pretending to be asleep. They brought out candies, chocolates, and frozen pears in the hope of inducing him to open his mouth, which like his eyes was shut all the time. They even cooked him a large bowl of dragon-whiskers noodles with garlic, ginger, and two poached eggs, hoping the fragrance might arouse his appetite. Nothing worked. One of them put a few lamp-soot stains on his face, saying, “This makes him look more handsome.” They giggled; still he remained motionless. Finally, the five girls decided to keep watch on him by turns throughout the night, for fear he might do something unusual once they went to sleep, though they knew Kong by sight and didn’t feel he was a bad man. Each of them sat beside him for one and a half hours while the rest were sleeping at the other end of the large bed. The oil lamp was burning until dawn.

On hearing of the incident at daybreak, Commander Deng and I set out for Garlic Village right away. It was crisply cold, and a large flock of crows were gliding over the snow-covered fields, clamoring hungrily. A few firecrackers exploded in the village that sprawled ahead like a deserted battlefield. Among some wisps of cooking smoke, two roosters were crowing on and on, as if calling each other names. In the north, the Wusuli River almost disappeared in the snow, and beyond it a long range of cedar woods stretched on the hillside
like a gigantic spearhead pointing to the Russians’ watchtower, which was wavering in the clouds. Though day was unfolding, the Russians’ searchlight kept flickering.

When we arrived Kong was still in bed. The girls were all up, some washing clothes while others were combing and braiding their hair. They looked jubilant, humming light tunes and giggling as if something auspicious had descended on their household. At the sight of us they stopped.

“Lock up the door and don’t let anyone out,” Commander Deng cried. With a mitten he wiped the frost off his mustache, his deep-sunk eyes glinting. He spat a cigarette end to the floor and stamped it out. Orderly Zhu executed the orders.

Kong Kai heard the noise and got out of bed to meet us. He didn’t look worried and gave us a toothy grin. His broad face was smeared with soot, but he still had on his fur hat, whose earflaps were tied together under his chin. I felt relieved; it seemed he hadn’t taken off his clothes during the night. We brought him into the inner room and began our questioning.

It took us only a few minutes to finish with him. He tried to convince us that he had slept well. That must have been a lie. How could a young man sleep peacefully while a girl was sitting nearby with her eyes on him all the time? And another four sleeping on the same bed? Didn’t he know his face still had stains of lamp soot on it? But we didn’t ask him those questions, for it wasn’t important for us to know how he had felt and what he knew. We cared only what he had done.

Convinced that nothing serious had taken place, we put him aside and brought in the girls one by one. Each questioning was shorter than two minutes. “Did he touch you?” Deng asked a tall, pale-faced girl, whom we had got hold of first.

“No.” She shook her head.

“Did he say anything to you?”

“Un-un.”

“Yes or no?”

“No.”

“Did he ever take off his clothes?”

“No.”

In the same manner we went through the other four girls, who gave us identical answers. Then we brought our man home, believing the case was closed. On the way back I criticized Kong briefly for intruding into a civilian house without any solid reason, especially on the Spring Festival’s Eve, when the Russians were most likely to cross the border and nobody was allowed to leave the barracks.

At once Kong became a hero of a sort. Those foolish boys called him “an iron man.” Together with his fame, numerous versions of his night adventure were circulating in the company. One even said that the girls had welcomed Kong’s arrival and lain beside him by turns throughout the night, patting his face, murmuring seductive words, and even drawing a thick mustache on his lip with charcoal, but the iron man hadn’t budged a bit, as though he were unconscious. We tried to stop them from creating these kinds of silly stories and assured them that the girls were fine, not as bad as they thought. They’d better cleanse their own minds of dirty fantasies.

A month later Kong’s squad leader, Gu Chong, was transferred to the battalion headquarters, to command the antiaircraft machine gun platoon there. Gu suggested we let Kong take over the Fifth Squad. Indeed Kong seemed to be an ideal choice; the men in our company respected him a lot, and he was an excellent soldier in most ways. So we promoted him to squad leader.

Who could tell “the iron man” would be our headache? In a few weeks it was reported that Kong often sneaked out in
the evenings and on weekends to meet a girl at the Youth Home. There were larch woods at the eastern end of Garlic Village; it was said that Kong and the girl often wandered in the woods. I talked to him about this. He said they had gone in there only to pick mushrooms and daylilies. What a lie. I told him to stop pretending. Who would believe the iron man had become a mushroom picker accompanied by a girl? I wanted him to quit the whole thing before it was too late, and I reminded him of the discipline that allowed no soldier to have an affair.

One Sunday morning in April, Orderly Zhu reported that Kong had disappeared from the barracks again. Immediately I set out with Scribe Yang for the larch woods. When we got there we came upon two lines of fresh footprints on the muddy slope. We followed them. Without much difficulty we found the lovers, who were sitting together by a large rock. They saw us approaching, and they got up and slipped away into the woods. We walked over and found five golden candy wrappers at the spot. I told the scribe to pick up the wrappers, and together we returned.

Scribe Yang said he recognized the girl, whose name was An Mali. The tall, pale-faced one, he reminded me. I recalled questioning her and didn’t feel she was a bad girl at all, but a rule was a rule, which no one should break. Kong was creating trouble not only for himself but also for our company. We had to stop him.

Soon the leader of the Second Platoon reported that there had been confrontations between Kong and some men in the Fifth Squad. One soldier openly called him “womanizer.”

In May we held the preliminary election of exemplary soldiers. As usual, we had all the guns and grenades and bazookas locked away at the company’s headquarters for five days, for fear somebody might be so upset about not being elected that he would resort to violence. There had
been bloodshed during the election in other units, and we had to take precautions.

All the squad leaders were voted in except Kong Kai, though three of his men got elected. The soldiers complained that Kong had a problematic life-style. Commander Deng and I worried about the results of the election, particularly about Kong, so we decided to talk to him.

After taps, we had him summoned to our office. The kerosene lamp on the desk was shining brighter with the new wick Orderly Zhu had put in. I walked to the window to look out at the moonlit night while Deng read a newspaper at the desk. Beside his elbow lay a blue notebook and a pen; whenever he came across a new word, he would write it down. He had only three years’ education.

In the distance a Russian helicopter was flickering and hammering away among the stars. The hills beyond the border loomed like huge graves. I was wondering how Kong had started the affair. When we had questioned him and the girls three months before, we had been quite certain nothing had happened to him. How did the seed of love enter his brain? Was it because she had smeared lamp soot on his face?

Kong’s stocky body emerged on the drill ground coming to the headquarters. I returned to the desk and sat down by Deng. “Take a seat, Little Kong,” I said the moment he stepped in.

Straight to the point, we asked him what he thought of the election, and he admitted he felt bad about being voted out. His almond eyes kept flashing at us. I handed him a cigarette, which he declined.

“Three months ago,” Deng said, “you were ‘an iron man’ in your comrades’ eyes, but all of a sudden you become a womanizer to them. How can you explain the change?”

“I’m not a womanizer.”

“Let’s get this straight,” I said. “When we picked you up
at the Youth Home, you said you hadn’t done anything with the girls. Did you lie to us?”

“No, I didn’t.”

“Then how did you hit it off with An Mali?” Deng asked.

Kong remained silent, biting his bottom lip.

“Little Kong,” I resumed, “there must have been something between you two which you’ve hidden from us.”

“No, I didn’t hide anything. I didn’t know it when we came back together.”

“Know what?” Deng said.

“The note. She left a note in my breast pocket. I didn’t know it till three days later.”

“Let’s have a look at it.” Deng stretched out his hand, and Kong slowly took out his wallet and produced the note. Deng read it and then passed it to me and cursed, “Bitch.”

On the scrap of yellow paper there were these few words:

I know you. Your name is Kong Kai. — An Mali.

No one could say that was a secret message or a love note, so I said to Kong, “There’s nothing unusual in this. It doesn’t explain the affair.”

“I was curious to see how she knew my name.”

“So you went back to her?” Deng said.

“Yes.”

“Shame on you two!”

I didn’t feel the girl was in the wrong. Kong was the one who had broken into the Youth Home and then gone back to look for her, so he should be held responsible. However, it would be impracticable to order him to cut the affair at one stroke. He was a man and should break it off on his own initiative, so I switched the topic a little by asking him how he was going to make sure he would be elected an exemplary soldier at the end of the year. He said he would try every way to gain enough votes. We knew that was an empty promise,
for as long as he was carrying on the affair, he had no chance of being voted in. Commander Deng got impatient and said, “Comrade Kong Kai, you know, you’re already a dishonored man. You want to know how your men feel about you? They told me they felt fooled by you. Your task now is to regain your honor and make them respect you again. Otherwise how can you command the squad?”

Kong lowered his eyes without a word. I was impressed by Deng’s pointed speech, to which I couldn’t add anything. By nature, Deng was a reticent man. Obviously this matter had been preying on his mind for a while, though we had talked of it only twice. I felt bad, because I was the company’s political instructor and Party secretary and I should have done something about the affair before the election.

After Kong left, I admitted my negligence to Deng and promised that I would try every means to stop the affair. Deng was always forthright and said we should have taken action when I showed him those candy wrappers three weeks before.

The next morning I sent Scribe Yang to Garlic Village to investigate the girl. I told him to go to the production brigade’s Party branch first, look through her file, and find out all the information about her and her family background. “Trust me, Instructor Pan,” Yang said with a smile. “I’m a professional sleuth.” He swung a thin leg over a Forever bicycle and rode away with the handle bell tinkling.

Then I set about writing a report on our preliminary election to the Regimental Political Department. I had graduated from middle school, so the writing wasn’t difficult, and I finished it in an hour. Having nothing else to do before lunch, I considered Kong’s case again, particularly the girl involved. I remembered she had a pleasant voice. On National Day the year before, we had heard her singing an aria from the revolutionary model play
Seaport
at the marketplace.
She worked in the village’s tofu plant, where our cooks would go to buy dried bean curd and soy sprouts. Though tall and delicate, she wasn’t pretty, and there were freckles on her cheeks. She often reminded me of a giant fox in human clothes. Among all the girls at the Youth Home, I would say she was the least attractive.

The scribe returned at noon. I was shocked by the results of his investigation:

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