Read Ocean of Words Online

Authors: Ha Jin

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BOOK: Ocean of Words
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After dinner Kang replaced Shun. The evening shift was not busy. Since all news stations broadcast at dusk and there was too much noise in the air, few telegrams were dispatched or received during these hours. Kang’s task was to answer Shenyang’s call every hour, and for the rest of the time he had to attend to the receiver in case an emergency arose. Having nothing else to do, he opened the fanlight and watched the night. Gray streaks of clouds were floating rapidly beneath the crescent moon and the glimmering stars. In the air there was a mysterious humming, which seemed to come from the constellations. Except for the swarms of lights in Hutou Town, it was dark everywhere. Even the silhouette of those mountains in Russia had disappeared.

Cold wind kept gushing into the office; Kang closed the fanlight and sat back on the chair. Again, nothing could be seen through the window, on whose frosty panes stretched miniature bushes, hills, caves, coral reefs. He picked up a pencil, turned over a telegram pad, and began drawing pictures. He drew a horse, a cow, a dog, a pig, a rooster, a lamb, a donkey, and a hen leading a flock of chicks.

After taps at nine, the quiet grew intolerable. If only he could have something interesting to do. In one of the drawers there was a volume of Chairman Mao’s selected works and a copy of Lenin’s
What Is to Be Done?
, which Chief Jiang would browse through at night, but these books were too profound for Kang. He missed the picture stories he had
read when he was a boy. Those children’s books could no longer be found anywhere, because they had been burned at the beginning of the Cultural Revolution. Kang took out his tobacco pouch and rolled a cigarette. Smoking was the only way to prevent himself from dozing off. Then he stretched his legs, rested his feet on the table, and leaned against the back of the chair as if lounging on a sofa. Soon the small office turned foggy.

Shenyang began to call at ten sharp. Kang turned on the transmitter and was ready to reply. It was another radio operator at the other end now. The signal was fluctuating at a much faster speed, approximately 130 numerals a minute. Because of the noise, the dots and the dashes didn’t sound very clear, though they were distinguishable.

“Please answer,” it ended.

Immediately Kang started to call back. His large hand held the button of the sending key and pounded out the letters one after another. He was a slow hand and could tap only eighty numerals a minute. But his fingers and thumb were powerful — whenever he telegraphed, the key with its heavy steel base would move about on the table. Holding the base with his left hand, he was repeating the reply signal in a resolute manner. His thick wrist was moving up and down while a little red light was flashing nervously at the top of the transmitter.

The operator at the opposite end did not hear Kang and resumed calling. Now there was less noise in the air and the signal became distinct. The call sign, composed of eight letters, was repeated again and again; it formed a crisp tune, flowing around and around. Kang pricked up his ears. This must be the chief of the station. He had never met such an excellent hand. There were automatic machines that could produce 180 numerals a minute clearly, but those dead instruments always sounded monotonous. They didn’t have a
character. The more you listened to them at night, the more likely you would fall asleep. But this fellow was one of those “machine defeaters.”

“Please answer,” the other side asked again.

Once more Kang went about calling back. Affected by the dexterous hand at the other end, he tried hard to speed up. The chair under his hips creaked while he was struggling with the bakelite key button, which turned slippery in his sweating hand.

Unfortunately this was a bad night. The other side simply could not find him. It called him time and again; Kang replied continually, but they could not get in touch. Forty minutes passed to no avail. By now, the other operator had become impatient. The melodious signal gradually lost its rhythm and flowed so rapidly that the letters were almost indistinguishable. It sounded like raindrops pattering on metal tiles. Patient as he was, Kang began to worry.

Around eleven, the telephone suddenly rang. Kang picked up the receiver and said, “Hello.”

“Hello,” a tingling female voice said. “This is the Military Region Station. Wake up, comrade. Have you heard me on the machine?”

“Ye-yes.” Kang paused with surprise, his heart kicking and his throat tightening. Who could imagine a woman would call you on the border at night? “I-I’ve heard you,” he managed to say. “I ne-never dozed off. I’ve been calling you all the time.”

“Sorry, don’t take it to heart. I was teasing you. Shall we switch to the second set of frequencies?” She sounded so pleasant.

“All righ-t.” His tongue seemed not his own.

“Bye-bye now, meet you on the machine.”

“Bye.”

She hung up. Kang was dazed, still holding the receiver.
The sweet voice went on echoing in his ears, “Sorry, don’t take it to heart.…”

The call sign appeared again. This time it repossessed its elegance and fluency, but to Kang every dot and dash was different now, as though they were tender, meaningful words the young woman sent to him alone.

“Switch frequency please,” she ended.

Kang jerked his head and rushed to look for her on the new frequency. Without much effort, he found her again. His body grew tense as he became engrossed in the sways and ripples of the heavenly melody. How wonderful to work with a woman at night. If only she could call him like this for an hour. But she stopped and asked, “Please answer.”

Kang’s hand began to tremble. It settled on the sending key like a small turtle, shaking out every letter brokenly. He cursed his hand, “Come on, you coward! This is not a battle yet.” He wiped his wet forehead with a telegram sheet.

What a pity. She heard him in less than a minute and replied promptly: “No business. Meet you at twelve o’clock. So long.”

“So long.” Kang had to agree, because it was a rule that an operator must never transmit an unnecessary dot or dash. The longer you stayed on the air, the easier it was for the Russians to locate your position.

Kang felt at a loss. He raised his head to look at the clock on the wall — eleven-ten, so he would meet her in fifty minutes. His imagination began to take wing. What was her name? How stupid he was, having forgotten to ask her. How old was she? She sounded so young and must have been around twenty. A good person, no doubt; that pleasant voice was full of good nature. What did she look like? Was she beautiful? Well educated? Intelligent? That voice told everything — all the best a woman could have. But what did she look like exactly? Tall and slim, with large black eyes? Of
course he could not find out much about her through only one meeting. It had to take time. He believed that eventually he would get to know her well, because from now on they would meet every night.

The clock moved slowly, as though intending to avoid an ominous ending. Kang kept watching it and longed to arrive at the midnight rendezvous in the twinkling of an eye.

Suddenly somebody knocked at the door. Chief Jiang came in. “You can go to bed now, Kang. I happened to wake up a few minutes earlier tonight.” He yawned.

Kang stood up and didn’t know what to say. He tried to smile, but the effort distorted his face.

“What happened?” the chief asked. “You look as awake as a lynx.”

“Nothing, everything is fine.” Kang picked up his fur hat; with enormous dismay he slouched out. He forgot to take an apple, which was his night snack.

How could he sleep? Every inch of his skin was affected by a caressing tingle he had never experienced before. At the other side of the room, Shun was snoring and Shi murmured something in his dream.

“I was teasing you.…” The voice spoke to Kang again and again. He shut his eyes tight; he shook his head many times in order to get rid of her and go to sleep, but it was no use. She was so close to him, as if sitting right beside his bed in the dark, whispering and smiling.

Little by little, he gave up and allowed her to play whatever tricks she wanted to. The most unbearable mystery was what she looked like. He tried to think of all the women he knew, but he could not recall a pretty one. Surely he had aunts and cousins, surely he remembered some girls who had hoed the cornfields and cut millet together with him, but none of them differed much from his male relatives or
from the men in his home village. Every one worked like a beast of burden, and none could speak without swearing.

The prettiest women he had ever seen were those female characters in the movie copies of the Revolutionary Model Plays, but most of them were too old, well beyond forty. How about the girl raped by the landlord in
The White-Haired Girl?
Yes, she was a wonderful ballerina, slim and good-looking. How deft her toes were. They capered around as if never touching the ground. She could swing her legs up well beyond her head. And the slender waist, which was full of rebellious spirit. What a wonderful body she had! But did she have a wonderful voice? No one could tell, because she kept quiet in the ballet.

No, she wouldn’t do. He would not accept a woman who might lack that charming voice. Besides, that actress had long white hair like an old crone’s. She must have been weird, or her hair wouldn’t be so silvery.

How about the revolutionary’s daughter in
The Story of the Red Lamp?
Well, that was a good one. But did she not seem too young? She was seventeen, old enough to be somebody’s wife. A marriageable girl indeed. What he liked most about her was that long glossy braid, which reached her buttocks. But she was too thin and must have been too feeble to work. Her aquiline nose was narrow; that was not a sign of good fortune. Even worse, her voice was sharp. It was all right for singing Peking Opera to a large audience, but who dared to quarrel with a girl like that? In real life, she must have been a “small hot pepper.” No, he had to look for another woman.

Now he had it — the female gymnastic athlete he had seen in a documentary film. She performed on the uneven bars. Her body was so supple and powerful that she could stretch, fly, and even somersault in the air. No doubt, that was a healthy energetic woman, not a bourgeois young lady
who would fall in a gust of wind. What did she look like? He had not seen her face clearly in the film and could not tell. Then this woman had to go too, at least for the time being.

The radiator pipes started clinking and whistling gently. The boiler room pumped steam at four. With dawn approaching, Kang was worried and tried to force himself to sleep. But that voice would not leave him alone. “Wake up, comrade. Have you heard me on the machine?…” It sounded even more pleasant and more intimate. You fool, he cursed himself. How stupid you are — bewitched by an unknown voice! Forget it and get some sleep.

Soon he entered another world. He married a young woman who was also a telegrapher. They worked together at the post office in his hometown. They lived in a small house surrounded by a stone wall that had a gate with iron bars. Their garden was filled with vegetables and fruits. The beans were as broad as sickles, and the peaches as fat as babies’ faces. Poultry were everywhere, three dozen chickens, twenty ducks, and eight geese. Who was his bride? He didn’t know, for he only saw her back, a tall, sturdy young woman with a thick braid.

At breakfast he felt giddy. He could not tell if he had slept at all. Neither was he sure whether the prosperous domestic scene was his dream or his fantasy. How absurd the whole thing was. He had never loved a woman before, but all of a sudden he’d fallen in love with a voice. His first love was an unknown voice. He was scared, because he could not determine whether it was real love or merely a delusion from mental illness. Did people feel this way when they were in love? He felt sick and beside himself. How long would it take for him to grow used to this thing or get over it?

He could not sleep that morning when he was supposed to have a good rest to make up for the previous night and prepare himself for the evening shift. That voice, mixed with
the call sign, whispered in his ears constantly. Time and again, he forced himself to think of something else, but he could not summon up anything interesting. He dared not smoke, for fear that Chief Jiang, who slept in the same room, would know he had remained awake for the whole morning.

In the afternoon, during the study of Chairman Mao’s “Combat Liberalism,” Kang was restless, longing for the arrival of the evening. The words grew blurred before his eyes. When he was asked to read out a page, he managed to accomplish the task with a whistling in his nose. His comrades looked at him strangely. When he finished, Shun said, “Kang, you must have a bad cold.”

“Yes, it’s a bad one.” Kang blew his nose with a piece of newspaper. He was both miserable and hopeful. Probably the more he worked with her, the better he would feel. Everything was difficult in the beginning; the end of suffering was happiness. At the moment he must be patient; a few hours later, he would be in a different world.

How ruthless Heaven was. She did not show up in the evening. It was a different operator at the other end. Kang spent the six hours racking his brains about what kind of schedule she had. The following three evenings passed in the same fruitless way. Kang was baffled. Every night he could not help thinking of that mysterious woman — all women — for several hours. In the daytime he was very quiet. Although pining away, he dared not talk to anyone about it. How shameful it would be — to have it known that you were enchanted by a woman about whom you didn’t know anything. How silly he was! That woman must have forgotten him like used water. No, she had never bothered about knowing him. How could she, a pretty young woman in the big city and perhaps surrounded by many smart officers in the headquarters, be interested in a soldier like him, who was so dull, so homely, and so rustic? He knew he was
the toad that dreamed of eating a swan, but he couldn’t help himself.

On Saturday morning, Kang was roused from his catnap by Shi Wei. “Big Kang, come and help your younger brother.”

“What’s up?”

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