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Authors: Stephen Becker

The Last Mandarin

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The Last Mandarin

Stephen Becker

For JMF

I

Peking

1

There were many bodies in the street that winter, and Aunt Chi reported an unusual number of virgins sold into the penny brothels. Men and women starved and froze in Chicago too, and Paris, and Moscow, but they were often drunk or sick and could be counted by dozens or scores, while in Peking they were men, women and children of all talents and aspirations, though naturally of low degree, and they had to be stacked on corners, and wagons were dispatched to remove the corpses.

The enemy was driving down from the north and east to ring the city.

The yellow wind had long since come and gone. Each year in November there was a yellow day, when a blast from the northwest blew Mongolia's yellow dust far south of the Great Wall and tinted the sky, and brought frost. Measured against the phases of the moon, the yellow wind might be an early yellow wind or a late yellow wind, and the severity of frost was important: this year a late yellow wind and heavy frost indicated, according to the astrologers, a long and cold winter. In Small Palisade Street, and under Cattail Bridge, low scamps and vagabonds huddled and cursed. It was necessary now to steal garments from the freshly dead.

There were more bodies on the street that winter than nature made.

It was not true that men raised cats for meat. Dogs, however, were eaten. That was only fair. They were fat on corpses.

The organized beggars congregated in ill-heated sheds or disused shops; lone wolves and amateurs skulked and shivered.

The ricksha men bundled up, and bound cloth across their faces when the wind cut too shrewdly.

Students rioted, and the unemployed. The police and the army vied in suppressing them.

The rich made plans to flee; but where?

In the sealed ammunition well of an abandoned Japanese bunker in the Cemetery of the Hereditary Wardens of the Thirteen Gates, two skeletons lay embraced. The place inspired dread, so only the dregs and scum—the beggars, the poorer than beggars, and those who were too poor to entertain even superstition—spent an occasional night in the bunker to take shelter from the blast. They knew nothing of the ammunition well, so the last mandarin rested in peace.

Sons cursed fathers, and the people cursed the ministers, and the ministers cursed the leader; how, then, could the state thrive?

The Nationalists within, some said, were vice and anarchy and the foreign glove; the Communists without, others said, were virtue and tyranny but the Chinese hand.

This was the winter of 1949, and the worst of times: the unknown evil was finally preferable to the known.

2

“An astrologer warned me I'd die in China,” Burnham told the colonel. “He was a little round fellow, pockmarked, and he was wearing a dunce cap decorated with squirrels' paws. I paid him two cash.” Outside the Dai-Ichi Mutual Life Insurance Building a gray rain dripped through the twilight. Windows glimmered dolefully among Tokyo's ruins and rebuildings.

“Superstition,” the colonel said. “You've been fully briefed?”

“Kanamori Shoichi. First-class war criminal. Been spotted in Peking—maybe.”

“Been tried and found guilty.”

“And sentenced to death in absentia. I am supposed to do something about the absentia.” Burnham was tall and bearish, with curly brown hair and a strong, crooked nose broken at least once.

“A sadist, a killer, a rapist and a major,” the colonel said. “Queer people, these Japs.”

“We've probably got some sadists, killers and rapists too,” Burnham said, “and some of them may be majors by now. No offense, Colonel.”

“None taken, Major.” The colonel was dapper and barbered.

“Major, hell. I'm retired. I'm a civilian now, and I outrank you. I want respect from the rude and licentious soldiery.”

“‘Rude and licentious' is very funny, coming from you. As I recall your service record, it consisted largely of shack-ups, AWOLs and reprimands.”

Burnham blazed: “You mean to say they put my love life in my army records?”

“Not exactly in. More like alongside.”

Burnham almost spat. “Eunuchs. No class.”

“Anyway, they handed you this one. I suppose it's an honor.”

“Honor! They picked me because I can live on a handful of rice and have no brains. Also I speak both languages and I found Isuzu for them in '45. I don't know why the Chinese can't find this fellow Kanamori, but I suppose you want him for a showcase execution. Sanctimonious press releases, just about the time we announce some new superbomb.”

“Yours not to reason why.”

“Maybe you only want an excuse to run a plane in there,” Burnham went on. “Maybe your pilots are running opium out, or politicians, or rich traitors, or sweatshop tycoons. Or maybe I'm a diversion, and they've got another man, a Chinese probably, who's going to nab Kanamori while everybody stares at this big tall foreign son of a bitch.”

“Then why do it?” the colonel asked. “Do you hate the Japs so much?”

“Oh for Chrissake.” Burnham groaned. “I was
born
here. Until I was six I spoke Japanese better than English. Listen, do you know about the old Japanese left wing? The union people? Don't be scared, now. MacArthur's in Kobe at the Peerless Mixed Baths.”

“No. What about them? Radicals and agitators?”

“Goddam heroes,” Burnham said. “Kanamori probably tortured a few of them too, for practice. Like the National Guard back home shooting at strikers.”

“You talk too much,” the colonel said sharply.

“Sorry, champ.” Burnham's smile was fuzzy, and he swallowed a yawn. “Four days in the air, snoozing, reading rotten magazines, eating junk and fending off fools. There was a Christian on one of those planes. With tracts.”

“I understood your parents were missionaries.”

“There you are,” Burnham said. “A man is capable of just so much piety in one lifetime. I'm thirty-five, and my quota was exhausted a long time ago. So I told this fellow I was an atheist. He went snow-white. Staggered back to his seat and prayed over the engines.” Again Burnham squinted out at the rain and gathering darkness. This colonel bored him. In Tokyo were dim cellars, lutanists with painted faces, stately dancers in silk, and afterward a formal courtship, honorifics, even the language differentiated, male and female. “Afraid I must be going,” he said. “My country needs me.”

“I wish I could be sure which country you meant,” the colonel said. “You've got your travel orders for Seoul and Peking. Do you need weapons?”

“Thank you, no. I ha' ma wee kit wi' me.” Burnham rose. An unseasonal thirst was upon him. Times zones played hell with the inner clock.

“You'll want a pass for the officers' mess.”

“Sorry,” Burnham said. “Previous engagement. Five days without fornication, you know. Bad for the complexion. Sludge gathers.”

Smiling without joy, the colonel said, “There's good and evil out there, Burnham. Life's not all jokes.”

Burnham slipped into his parka. “There's no more good and evil, Colonel. There's only good and bad, and pretty soon convenient and inconvenient.”

“Then why bother with Kanamori?”

Burnham's face hardened. He swung the duffel bag over his shoulder. “Kanamori was rude to some friends of mine,” he said. “I'll see you, Colonel. Thanks for the plane ticket.”

Burnham seemed to be stumbling down the social ladder. A lieutenant colonel met him at the airport in Seoul, showed him to a bachelor officer's room and supplied him with whiskey and magazines. At dawn a major woke him, or tried to, and after awkward efforts to interest him in food, escorted him—groggy, in pain, tongue furred, eyes in aspic—to a DC-3, where a captain welcomed him aboard. The major tossed Burnham's duffel bag through the passenger door, shook hands gently with him, wished him luck, and transferred the patient to the captain.

This was a Captain Moran, freckled and wholesome, yet with some experience of the world, as was immediately obvious. “Right here, old friend.” He steered Burnham to a bucket seat. “Sit very still, don't move your head, and we'll have a mug of coffee for you in no time.”

“A trifling excess of Old Stump Remover,” Burnham mumbled.

“We understand,” Moran said. “It is in the highest tradition of the American military.”

Burnham was much moved. “Moran, God will reward you. If in the meantime you need money—”

“No tipping,” Moran said. “Air Force policy.” Shortly he served black coffee. “I have to drive now.”

“Nng.” Burnham sucked and slurped. Engines barked, stirred, roared, hummed. Burnham's stomach rumbled in sympathy. The coffee scalded. It was a cold morning, and the aircraft was still freezing; he huddled into the hood of his parka and embraced the hot mug with both hands. The DC–3 trundled forward. He glanced sadly out a port: a clear day, the brightest of northern mornings, the purity of winter, and old Burnham rancid as usual.

Toward the tail four enlisted men sprawled. One was already asleep, one deep in a comic book. No one seemed to notice that they were in the air. The plane's interior glowed black, silver, olive, and smelled of canvas and oil. Burnham buried his nose in the cup and inhaled. Shortly Moran joined him and they sat companionably silent. Moran rattled a cigarette from a cellophaned pack and gestured toward Burnham, who raised a large palm in refusal. He smoked other vegetables, price and custom permitting. Since leaving China he had abstained without unbearable gripes or unseemly yearning, and he could survive another day or two.

Moran asked, “Where you from?” Obligatory.

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