Authors: Ha Jin
Tags: #Fiction, #Historical
Mr. Chiu and his bride were having lunch in the square before Muji Train Station. On the table between them were two bottles of soda spewing out brown foam and two paper boxes of rice and sautéed cucumber and pork. “Let’s eat,” he said to her, and broke the connected ends of the chopsticks. He picked up a slice of streaky pork and put it into his mouth. As he was chewing, a few crinkles appeared on his thin jaw.
To his right, at another table, two railroad policemen were drinking tea and laughing; it seemed that the stout, middle-aged man was telling a joke to his young comrade, who was tall and of athletic build. Now and again they would steal a glance at Mr. Chiu’s table.
The air smelled of rotten melon. A few flies kept buzzing above the couple’s lunch. Hundreds of people were rushing around to get on the platform or to catch buses to downtown. Food and fruit vendors were crying for customers in lazy voices. About a dozen young women, representing the local hotels, held up placards which displayed the daily prices and words as large as a palm, like
ON THE RIVER.
In the center of the square stood a concrete statue of Chairman Mao, at whose feet peasants were napping, their backs on the warm granite and their faces toward the sunny sky. A flock of pigeons perched on the Chairman’s raised hand and forearm.
The rice and cucumber tasted good, and Mr. Chiu was eating unhurriedly. His sallow face showed exhaustion. He was glad that the honeymoon was finally over and that he and his bride were heading back for Harbin. During the two weeks’ vacation, he had been worried about his liver, because three months ago he had suffered from acute hepatitis; he was afraid he might have a relapse. But he had had no severe symptoms, despite his liver being still big and tender. On the whole he was pleased with his health, which could endure even the strain of a honeymoon; indeed, he was on the course of recovery. He looked at his bride, who took off her wire glasses, kneading the root of her nose with her fingertips. Beads of sweat coated her pale cheeks.
“Are you all right, sweetheart?” he asked.
“I have a headache. I didn’t sleep well last night.”
“Take an aspirin, will you?”
“It’s not that serious. Tomorrow is Sunday and I can sleep in. Don’t worry.”
As they were talking, the stout policeman at the next table stood up and threw a bowl of tea in their direction. Both Mr. Chiu’s and his bride’s sandals were wet instantly.
“Hooligan!” she said in a low voice.
Mr. Chiu got to his feet and said out loud, “Comrade Policeman, why did you do this?” He stretched out his right foot to show the wet sandal.
“Do what?” the stout man asked huskily, glaring at Mr. Chiu while the young fellow was whistling.
“See, you dumped tea on our feet.”
“You’re lying. You wet your shoes yourself.”
“Comrade Policeman, your duty is to keep order, but you purposely tortured us common citizens. Why violate the law you are supposed to enforce?” As Mr. Chiu was speaking, dozens of people began gathering around.
With a wave of his hand, the man said to the young fellow, “Let’s get hold of him!”
They grabbed Mr. Chiu and clamped handcuffs around his wrists. He cried, “You can’t do this to me. This is utterly unreasonable.”
“Shut up!” The man pulled out his pistol. “You can use your tongue at our headquarters.”
The young fellow added, “You’re a saboteur, you know that? You’re disrupting public order.”
The bride was too petrified to say anything coherent. She was a recent college graduate, had majored in fine arts, and had never seen the police make an arrest. All she could say was, “Oh, please, please!”
The policemen were pulling Mr. Chiu, but he refused to go with them, holding the corner of the table and shouting, “We have a train to catch. We already bought the tickets.”
The stout man punched him in the chest. “Shut up. Let your ticket expire.” With the pistol butt he chopped Mr. Chiu’s hands, which at once released the table. Together the two men were dragging him away to the police station.
Realizing he had to go with them, Mr. Chiu turned his head and shouted to his bride, “Don’t wait for me here. Take the train. If I’m not back by tomorrow morning, send someone over to get me out.”
She nodded, covering her sobbing mouth with her palm.
After removing his belt, they locked Mr. Chiu into a cell in the back of the Railroad Police Station. The single window in the room was blocked by six steel bars; it faced a spacious yard, in which stood a few pines. Beyond the trees, two swings hung from an iron frame, swaying gently in the breeze. Somewhere in the building a cleaver was chopping rhythmically. There must be a kitchen upstairs, Mr. Chiu thought.
He was too exhausted to worry about what they would do to him, so he lay down on the narrow bed and shut his eyes. He wasn’t afraid. The Cultural Revolution was over already, and recently the Party had been propagating the idea that all citizens were equal before the law. The police ought to be a law-abiding model for common people. As long as he remained coolheaded and reasoned with them, they probably wouldn’t harm him.
Late in the afternoon he was taken to the Interrogation Bureau on the second floor. On his way there, in the stairwell, he ran into the middle-aged policeman who had manhandled him. The man grinned, rolling his bulgy eyes and pointing his fingers at him as if firing a pistol. Egg of a tortoise! Mr. Chiu cursed mentally.
The moment he sat down in the office, he burped, his palm shielding his mouth. In front of him, across a long desk, sat the chief of the bureau and a donkey-faced man. On the glass desktop was a folder containing information on his case. He felt it bizarre that in just a matter of hours they had accumulated a small pile of writing about him. On second thought he began to wonder whether they had kept a file on him all the time. How could this have happened? He lived and worked in Harbin, more than three hundred miles away, and this was his first time in Muji City.
The chief of the bureau was a thin, bald man who looked serene and intelligent. His slim hands handled the written pages in the folder in the manner of a lecturing scholar. To Mr. Chiu’s left sat a young scribe, with a clipboard on his knee and a black fountain pen in his hand.
“Your name?” the chief asked, apparently reading out the question from a form.
“Communist Party member.”
The chief put down the paper and began to speak. “Your crime is sabotage, although it hasn’t induced serious consequences yet. Because you are a Party member, you should be punished more. You have failed to be a model for the masses and you—”
“Excuse me, sir,” Mr. Chiu cut him off.
“I didn’t do anything. Your men are the saboteurs of our social order. They threw hot tea on my feet and on my wife’s feet. Logically speaking, you should criticize them, if not punish them.”
“That statement is groundless. You have no witness. Why should I believe you?” the chief said matter-of-factly.
“This is my evidence.” He raised his right hand. “Your man hit my fingers with a pistol.”
“That doesn’t prove how your feet got wet. Besides, you could have hurt your fingers yourself.”
“But I am telling the truth!” Anger flared up in Mr. Chiu. “Your police station owes me an apology. My train ticket has expired, my new leather sandals are ruined, and I am late for a conference in the provincial capital. You must compensate me for the damage and losses. Don’t mistake me for a common citizen who would tremble when you sneeze. I’m a scholar, a philosopher, and an expert in dialectical materialism. If necessary, we will argue about this in
The Northeastern Daily,
or we will go to the highest People’s Court in Beijing. Tell me, what’s your name?” He got carried away with his harangue, which was by no means trivial and had worked to his advantage on numerous occasions.
“Stop bluffing us,” the donkey-faced man broke in. “We have seen a lot of your kind. We can easily prove you are guilty. Here are some of the statements given by eyewitnesses.” He pushed a few sheets of paper toward Mr. Chiu.
Mr. Chiu was dazed to see the different handwritings, which all stated that he had shouted in the square to attract attention and refused to obey the police. One of the witnesses had identified herself as a purchasing agent from a shipyard in Shanghai. Something stirred in Mr. Chiu’s stomach, a pain rising to his rib. He gave out a faint moan.
“Now you have to admit you are guilty,” the chief said. “Although it’s a serious crime, we won’t punish you severely, provided you write out a self-criticism and promise that you won’t disrupt the public order again. In other words, your release will depend on your attitude toward this crime.”
“You’re daydreaming,” Mr. Chiu cried. “I won’t write a word, because I’m innocent. I demand that you provide me with a letter of apology so I can explain to my university why I’m late.”
Both the interrogators smiled contemptuously. “Well, we’ve never done that,” said the chief, taking a puff at his cigarette.
“Then make this a precedent.”
“That’s unnecessary. We are pretty certain that you will comply with our wishes.” The chief blew a column of smoke toward Mr. Chiu’s face.
At the tilt of the chief’s head, two guards stepped forward and grabbed the criminal by the arms. Mr. Chiu meanwhile went on saying, “I shall report you to the Provincial Administration. You’ll have to pay for this! You are worse than the Japanese military police.”
They dragged him out of the room.
After dinner, which consisted of a bowl of millet porridge, a corn bun, and a piece of pickled turnip, Mr. Chiu began to have a fever, shaking with a chill and sweating profusely. He knew that the fire of anger had gotten into his liver and that he was probably having a relapse. No medicine was available, because his briefcase had been left with his bride. At home it would have been time for him to sit in front of their color TV, drinking jasmine tea and watching the evening news. It was so lonesome in here. The orange bulb above the single bed was the only source of light, which enabled the guards to keep him under surveillance at night. A moment ago he had asked them for a newspaper or a magazine to read, but they turned him down.
Through the small opening on the door noises came in. It seemed that the police on duty were playing cards or chess in a nearby office; shouts and laughter could be heard now and then. Meanwhile, an accordion kept coughing from a remote corner in the building. Looking at the ballpoint and the letter paper left for him by the guards when they took him back from the Interrogation Bureau, Mr. Chiu remembered the old saying, “When a scholar runs into soldiers, the more he argues, the muddier his point becomes.” How ridiculous this whole thing was. He ruffled his thick hair with his fingers.
He felt miserable, massaging his stomach continually. To tell the truth, he was more upset than frightened, because he would have to catch up with his work once he was back home—a paper that was due at the printers next week, and two dozen books he ought to read for the courses he was going to teach in the fall.
A human shadow flitted across the opening. Mr. Chiu rushed to the door and shouted through the hole, “Comrade Guard, Comrade Guard!”
“What do you want?” a voice rasped.
“I want you to inform your leaders that I’m very sick. I have heart disease and hepatitis. I may die here if you keep me like this without medication.”
“No leader is on duty on the weekend. You have to wait till Monday.”
“What? You mean I’ll stay in here tomorrow?”
“Your station will be held responsible if anything happens to me.”
“We know that. Take it easy, you won’t die.”
It seemed illogical that Mr. Chiu slept quite well that night, though the light above his head had been on all the time and the straw mattress was hard and infested with fleas. He was afraid of ticks, mosquitoes, cockroaches—any kind of insect but fleas and bedbugs. Once, in the countryside, where his school’s faculty and staff had helped the peasants harvest crops for a week, his colleagues had joked about his flesh, which they said must have tasted nonhuman to fleas. Except for him, they were all afflicted with hundreds of bites.
More amazing now, he didn’t miss his bride a lot. He even enjoyed sleeping alone, perhaps because the honeymoon had tired him out and he needed more rest.
The backyard was quiet on Sunday morning. Pale sunlight streamed through the pine branches. A few sparrows were jumping on the ground, catching caterpillars and ladybugs. Holding the steel bars, Mr. Chiu inhaled the morning air, which smelled meaty. There must have been an eatery or a cooked-meat stand nearby. He reminded himself that he should take this detention with ease. A sentence that Chairman Mao had written to a hospitalized friend rose in his mind: “Since you are already in here, you may as well stay and make the best of it.”
His desire for peace of mind originated in his fear that his hepatitis might get worse. He tried to remain unperturbed. However, he was sure that his liver was swelling up, since the fever still persisted. For a whole day he lay in bed, thinking about his paper on the nature of contradictions. Time and again he was overwhelmed by anger, cursing aloud, “A bunch of thugs!” He swore that once he was out, he would write an article about this experience. He had better find out some of the policemen’s names.
It turned out to be a restful day for the most part; he was certain that his university would send somebody to his rescue. All he should do now was remain calm and wait patiently. Sooner or later the police would have to release him, although they had no idea that he might refuse to leave unless they wrote him an apology. Damn those hoodlums, they had ordered more than they could eat!
When he woke up on Monday morning, it was already light. Somewhere a man was moaning; the sound came from the backyard. After a long yawn, and kicking off the tattered blanket, Mr. Chiu climbed out of bed and went to the window. In the middle of the yard, a young man was fastened to a pine, his wrists handcuffed around the trunk from behind. He was wriggling and swearing loudly, but there was no sight of anyone else in the yard. He looked familiar to Mr. Chiu.