David Gerfast and his family are fighting cancer with an old-fashioned ship captain's bell and high-tech proton beam radiation.
Very little of the world’s literature makes it to the American market. In fact, less than three percent of all books published in English are translations. Jim Kates of Zephyr Press in Brookline, Massachusetts, says readers who only speak English are missing out.
He joins us to talk about world literature, and three recently translated books: “All This Belongs To Me,” excerpted below and written by Petra Hulova, translated from Czech by Alex Zucker; “Snow Plain,” by Duo Duo, translated from the Chinese by John Crespi et al. and excerpted here; and “The Whole Island: Six Decades of Cuban Poetry,” a bilingual anthology of poetry, edited by Mark Weiss, and excerpted below.
I wait for you
beneath the wrecked marquee
of the Chinese movie
in the yellow smoke
of an extinct dynasty
I wait for you
by the gutter
where black ideograms
that no longer say anything
I wait for you at the door
of a restaurant
on the Paramount lot
where they shoot the same film every day
Anticipating your arrival
I allow the rain to cover me
with its broken lines
Accompanied by a choir of eunuchs
and Li Tai Po’s
violin with just one string
I wait for you
But don’t ever come
what I want in truth
is to wait for you
Copyright © Miguel Barnet and Mark Weiss
Here at home when a SHOROO hits, plastic bags go chasing each other round and round the ger. Sometimes I sit outside and watch as the sand spins in whirls, the horizon turns a golden brown, and the sun through the swirling yellow dust is dim and shaky. Boots turn gray under the buildup of dust, a dust that stings the eyes and crunches under the horses’ hoofs, so the whole herd’s on edge and the barking nokhoi has his work cut out for him to separate the in- foal mares with young from the rest.
Here at home when a shoroo hits and there’s nothing to do—since you can’t even see to take a step and if I went out I’d choke to death or I wouldn’t be able to find my way back—I sit out in front of the ger, on the right, and wonder what it used to look like, when there weren’t any plastic bags and families like us didn’t have even a decent knife and couldn’t earn any extra cash selling cookies and cigarettes, like Papa did whenever someone stumbled across us. Lately it’s been happening pretty often.
Supposedly it’s because someone in Bulgan sells good, cheap manjing, carrots, and onions, so people go shopping there more than before and more of them pass by our ger on the way. But I don’t think that’s it, since they sell vegetables in Davkhan too, and only a few people a week pass by in that direction. Maybe the Davkhan grower is an erliiz, same as his father, and that’s why nobody buys from him. The Chinese are a tricky bunch, and no one around here trusts them.
Davja, who lives with her parents about five miles south of us, brought home a man named Liu Fu one day, and her father, Batu, reported him for being here illegally and smuggling plastic shoes and waterproof shirts to sell in the capital. It was probably true— at least that’s what everyone thought, since he did look funny and he hardly ever talked—but still, it wasn’t right to take away little Gerla’s papa like that. Davja did nothing from morning to night except cry and threaten to leave, but there was nowhere for her to leave to. Liu Fu went to the city to straighten it out, but when after two weeks he still wasn’t back, it began to be more than clear that they had sent him back home to China. Either that or he’d been taken in by relatives—which every erliiz has somewhere in every country—who’d found him another woman whose family wouldn’t be such a problem. The truth is he never returned. Mama said she understood why Batu did what he did, she would never give me to a Chinaman either, not for a herd of well- fed camels and the swiftest spotted steeds.
Though I myself look just like one, with my screwy eyes and frail little frame. I’ve had a few people call me out on it too, like years ago, in the somon school, when I boasted about how my family’s felts fetched the highest price in the aimak. And the whole time they had on the sickest grins.
Slandering my Khalkha purity like that. I wanted to get back at them somehow but instead I felt tears. That did the trick back then. Still, I believed them more than my own mother, because Nara’s hair had been fair from the day she was born, and Papa was in the army then, just like he was away when Mama had me, so she can’t really be trusted too much when it comes to these things.
When I was about five years old, a man who wasn’t a Mongol came to our door. He had long, thick hair and a strange- looking del with narrow sleeves, and stayed the night with us. The way my mother looked when he left the next morning, I couldn’t tell if she was going to hit him, jump him, or leave with him. She was making these wild gestures and her eyes were blazing red. I remember I was sick at the time with a fever, and the fl ames in her eyes were licking at me like the tongues of a mad killer dog. Those eyes wouldn’t stop staring at me as Mama sat on the edge of my bed, feeding me sour sheep yogurt to help me keep my strength up. This was after the man who wasn’t a Mongol had left.
Even before, I had a feeling they didn’t like me as much as Magi, but that was the first time I saw how distant and mean my mother could be, eyeing me with hatred while she cleaned up after me, since except for the yogurt I kept throwing up everything else. Grandma said it was the end, but it wasn’t.
That same spring the stranger who wasn’t a Mongol appeared, we had lots of baby lambs, and then never again after that. Grandma said that he did it, that he put a curse on our lambs, and if he had taken me instead it would’ve been far less a loss, since I was only five then, which isn’t even a Mongol yet, just a little baby goatling. Plus Mama and Papa still had three more. There’s just three of us now, since Magi died, but that’s still enough for our clan to blossom, even if some get stuck in a blizzard, catch a disease, or go missing.
It’s really sad about Magi. She was the most beautiful of us all, and Papa liked her best from the start. Because though Mama didn’t give him a boy—and I don’t think he ever fully forgave her for that—she did bear him the loveliest creature in all the land. Tsaraitai okhin, everyone said when they came by to visit, while me and Nara just snuggled up close on the left, the women’s, side of the ger, reassuring ourselves that the only reason Magi was prettier than us was because she was so much older, even though she was just three years ahead of me and four ahead of Nara and ever since she was little she had been beautiful and we knew it.
Whenever little Oyuna saw me and Nara whispering and cuddling up to each other, she would pound my thighs with her fists and force her way in between us to make sure she didn’t miss out. To make sure we noticed her. She’s seven years younger than Nara and eight years younger than me, so she got on our nerves and she always had to fight for whatever she got. Oyuna spoiled all our games, and we had to drag her around with us everywhere we went, because Mama had work to do, Papa was out with the herd, and Magi could fend for herself: she would take the basin in back of the ger and hide out there for hours, just messing around with the guts of the sheep that Papa had killed that day, while any of the rest of us would’ve had it done in no time. Either that or she’d make some excuse about how she had to go gather argal so Mama could heat the stove for buuz and Oyuna would get in her way. So me and Nara ended up getting stuck with her every time.
Oyuna was born during the most awful winter I ever remember. The wind outside was so cold that every time you blinked you had to peel your eyelids back open again, and sometimes, when I had to follow the herd and afterwards I was tired on my way home in the evening, I’d put it off longer and longer each time, till all I wanted to do was sit down on the snow and go to sleep. My nostrils stuck together too, tugging painfully at the hairs. It’s like that every winter here, but the year Oyuna was born it was worse.
Animals’ fl anks caved in and so did people’s cheeks. Even the young looked old, and grown- ups didn’t let their children go outside at all. They tethered them to the legs of the bed or hung them over the stove in leather cradles, so they wouldn’t have to worry when they went outside to scrape the snow away for the sheep.
So much snow fell the winter Oyuna was born that Grandma decided to die. She didn’t think she could make it through such a terrible storm, so she slept on and off through the worst three months buried under a heap of woolen blankets by the stove, while Papa brewed strong, hot tea with milk so the baby goats and sheep would survive. He wrapped the large stock in old hides and shouted at the horses whenever he would see one that didn’t want to live anymore. When a good horse died, he beat its rump and legs with his tashuur, to make it stand, and then shot it, and me and Nara came running out to watch its eyes cloud over and its flanks twitch like it was shooing off flies. Then I took off my mittens and reached in to touch its belly, in between the rear legs, where it was nice and warm.
Nara meanwhile went running home, hearing Grandma’s cries from bed that Mama was giving birth. Oyuna was an unlikely child, and Mama suffered for weeks with her. She wasn’t exactly young anymore, so she wasn’t too overjoyed to find out there was going to be another of us. Papa was delighted, though, confident that this time, at last, he’d made Mama a boy. He strutted around like a rooster during our visits over the summer, poking fun of our neighbor Oyunbat, who lived near Batu and Davja and who just that spring had had daughter number six, while slumbering inside
Papa’s wife was the child that he dreamed would be the future Chingis Khan of our clan.
My aunt Hiroko—who Burkhan knows why has a Japanese name and who some of our family went to see because she was a shaman— just gave a little nod and Papa believed his wish would come true. But after Oyuna was born, he declared that Hiroko had known all along or she wouldn’t have wagged her head like that, and that he had thought the same thing when he saw Mama’s pointy belly and how slowly it was growing.
As long as Mama’s belly was big, me and Nara were happy. She got slower and clumsier every day and paid less and less attention to us. Papa was constantly off in the mountains with the herd, so Mama was left to manage the household on her own, because ever since Grandma had started forgetting to salt the meat for the khuushuur Mama had stopped counting on her for help around the ger.
Grandma got upset sometimes when Mama kept her from doing her chores, and swore at her in her dialect, from the western part of the country, so me and Nara wouldn’t understand. But Mama got the message all right, even without any words. I could only guess it had something to do with the man who wasn’t a Mongol, who Mama was in love with.
Courtesy of Alex Zucker and Northwestern University Press.”
Mention Father and I remember a small, thin, calm man, standing punctually at the radio each morning listening to the weather forecast, drinking unsweetened coffee, never forgetting to change into his overshoes, walking to the office with an umbrella under one arm. Returning home in the evening he would be visibly older. His job was to lean over a desk, smoking one cigarette after another, and analyze mysterious numbers until he could foresee a world economic crisis. Maybe his job really was special, considering how dry and intense, how solemn his face looked when he was at his desk. He lived like that, too, doing everything systematically. Upon returning home from work he would give me a smile and go wash his hands, then put on his glasses, read the headlines, remove his glasses to massage his temples, eat dinner, and immediately afterwards brush his teeth (something, I can tell you, he never once neglected to do). Then he would put on his overcoat and go out for a fifteen-minute stroll—no more, no less. Back at home he would give me another smile, hum a few bars of Schubert or Mendelssohn, switch on the desk lamp, light up one of the cigarettes he had just bought down the street, and smoke late into the night. If I got up from bed to pee he would still be at his desk concentrating on his intense, solemn, very special work. The following morning he would again drink his black coffee and walk to the office. In the afternoons he napped on a cot at the office, covering his feet with the checked blanket that I had used in kindergarten.
That was my father, and I was in awe of him. Mother would always say, “Daddy is tired, he works hard. Don’t bother him.”
Mother was something else altogether. My respect for her was never a mere formality, even though she was forever terrorizing me by chasing me from room to room and smacking me around. All the same, I was drawn to her, if only to wear her down, press my demands for this and that, or stir up trouble. If she hit me I just loved her all the more. It’s hard to imagine how someone could live without a mother, without all those foolish motherly ways.
They say that childhood memories are the most lucid, and I can’t dispute that. But I don’t remember that much about my father.
One evening, when I was crying for some reason, this Father of mine walked up and took me by my grimy little hand, probably to sit me down for a talk. I felt like I had been wronged, and a strong sense of shame. I don’t know why, but I never got used to Father’s gentleness (was it because I saw so little of him?). All he had to do was to show some emotion and I would feel instantly awkward. I was afraid of him, but it was a fear I never understood, no matter how hard I tried.
“Look, son.” His eyes gazing at the sky. I looked, too. What was it?
“Look, the swallows have come back home.”
“Where are they?”
“Over there, right over there.”
Father pointed his finger into the evening sky. Through my tears I looked blearily at the sky, Is that it? All I saw was a blur of floaters tracing the movements of my eye.
“Do you see it?”
“Unh hunh.” I wasn’t so sure. “It’s a swallow?”
“That’s right, a swallow. . . . They’ve come back home, they’re good little birds.” Father seemed somehow moved. “Such good little birds!”
That’s what they were, swallows. Swallows don’t cry, so they’re good little birds.
From this I was to understand that Father didn’t like children who cried. I became even more reluctant to show my feelings to Father. But was that really what he meant? I still don’t know.
The zoo was closing for the day.
As darkness fell over the grounds, the animal world came into its own. I was sandwiched between my parents, holding Mother’s hand (of course, it wouldn’t have been Father’s) as I listened to the lions and tigers roar; it was chilling, disturbing, and every few steps I would ask Father:
“Why are they making so much noise?”
He would always reply: “They’re hungry, they want to eat.”
Oh. They were hungry, they wanted to eat, and they wanted to burst out of their cages, too! Should we go home? Let’s go back to the Aviary for a bit. I tore myself free from Mother’s hand and ran there at top speed.
“Mr. Mynah, what time is it? What time is it, Mr. Mynah?” Patiently I began calling to Mr. Mynah, over and again. Mr. Mynah couldn’t talk. Mr. Mynah wasn’t real. Mr. Mynah was carved from wood. Mother asked, too:
“What time is it, Mr. Mynah?”
Mr. Mynah remained silent, perched dumb and wooden on the tree branch. Then it was Father’s turn to ask.
“Eight o’clock, eight o’clock!”
What a wonderful voice! Low and deep, just like Father’s.
“Eight o’clock, eight o’clock!”
I was ecstatic. Father could speak a language from another world!
“Eight o’clock, eight o’clock!”
Mr. Mynah rambled on in his bass voice.
Father was the only one it would talk to.
From that moment on I admired Father.
But it was the time I was sick that his power as a father was most apparent. Outside the rain poured down. Thunder rumbled in my ears. I lay in my child’s bed with a high fever. I dreamt all kinds of things: In one I saw myself as an even smaller child spending a Sunday on a lawn with Father and Mother; in another an auntie gave me a toy duck on wheels that went
“quack quack” and was filled with cookies; in another the older boy next door took me to watch ice hockey and then carried me home over his back so that his shoulder got damp from my drool. And there were more: Some people charged up to “inspect” our house, not stopping till they had searched through every brick of coal; in one our neighbor (a kind old man) got taken away, with clothes draped over his wrists, so that no one could see he’d been “cuffed”; and then there were those people who had moved out of our courtyard forever, like the old lady who played piano, and the older boy who had given me ice cream, taken me out in a rowboat, carried me on his back . . .
I dreamt on, the gray-haired nursemaid beside me murmuring:
“There, there, your daddy will be back from work soon and everything will be fine.”
I was unconscious when he got back from “work.” Father carried me in his arms through the rain to the hospital downtown. Rainwater drip-dropped off his hat onto the raincoat wrapped snugly around me. His body gave off that odor men have when they’re damp, a warm odor, unfamiliar yet soothing. Through the blur of my fever I thought: Isn’t he wonderful? Isn’t it wonderful to be a daddy?
When I came to (by then it was the next day) a hand was stroking my forehead. A feeling surged up through my heart.
Mother kissed me savagely, holding me to her so tightly I could hardly breathe. “Do you feel better now, darling?”
I wanted to ask, Is Father back yet?
“My little darling, Mommy brought you some tangerines.”
Again she wrapped me tightly in her arms, and I was her good little boy, and she cared for me and loved me, even though I was thinking about Father.
“Mom . . .”
I wasn’t going to say what I was thinking. I wanted to keep my love for Father to myself. But he still hadn’t gotten home from work.
At last Father came home. At last I had wished him home. I heard his heavy breathing. Minutes passed. I could hear the water drip-dropping off his rain hat, but was afraid to open my eyes. Surely he would lean over to kiss me, and then I would tell him about the warm feeling in my heart. But he didn’t lean over me. He just remained standing, quietly beside my bed. Even more time passed, until I was nearly in tears. All I heard was the strike of a match. Then he moved softly into the next room.
Later, and this is something I never told him, I cried in secret, bitterly and alone—Father, can’t you see that I love you? Never again after that did I open my heart to him about anything.
I’ve come to a conclusion about Father, that my fear of him was real precisely because he never hit me, not once. Mother? She would kiss me all the time, and beat me just as often. And she and Father quarreled constantly, though I never heard Father raise his voice. Mother would be smashing all of her little knick-knacks, shouting and cursing at Father. Sometimes she would lunge and swing at him with whatever came to hand, mussing his hair. Father would just sit in his chair, without a word, which only goaded Mother into more of a rage. After a while, a very long while, she would tire and lose interest, pick up a comb, put her hair back in order, and study herself in the mirror. Before the day was over she would buy more things to replace what she had smashed, all of them different from before. Only then would my troubled little heart settle back in place. Is there anything that hurts a child more than watching parents fight? Back then I always felt as if I were the “guilty” one. Each time, after Mother’s rage subsided, Father, who had weathered it all from his chair, would stand up, put on his overcoat, and slowly fasten each button. Then, after giving me an apologetic look, he would go out.
No one knew where.
He would come back by evening. Then Mother would set to work easing the tension in the air, little by little, with pointless chatter and jokes. Again Father would sit in his chair, gazing out the window. Several days later his solemn expression would remain unchanged. I was afraid to ask him anything, or speak to him at all, and so was Mother.
Eventually life at home would carry on as ever. My parents would make up, though each time Father’s eyes seemed to grow more sombre. I never knew what lay behind all their quarreling. But I felt something hidden in Father, some sort of abyss that remained from a past I could not understand, that had robbed him of an ability to give himself to anything but his work and his evening strolls, making it impossible for him to have a real conversation with anyone. Father never had friends come over to the house; all my “uncles” and “aunties” were friends of my Mother. I remember Father’s friends visiting when I was very young, but at some point, I don’t know why, they simply vanished. Was he thinking about them in that chair? It troubled me, and stirred my resentment, that cold detachment of Father’s.
I’d have to guess that Father’s secret was somehow at the root of Mother’s domineering and nagging. It wasn’t just her, either. Each time that reckless, arrogant older brother of mine came home, he would shut himself up in a room with Father for hours and hours. It seemed to me that my brother, a soldier, was agonizing over something, and that this something was Father. He always came and left in a hurry, for no other purpose than to speak with Father. His brows were always tightly knit from the effort of thinking up ever more piercing questions
to ask. He inevitably left deeply disappointed (he was posted in another part of the country). For the past several years he hasn’t been in touch at all. But at least someone in the family was impartial, and by that someone, I mean me. I always felt that even if you added up Mother and Brother, they weren’t in the right any more than Father was. So why did they have to torture him like that? It was all well beyond the knowing of a child.
Later, without really noticing, I grew up.
First I went to elementary school, was a mid-captain (or maybe it was only a lower captain), was selected as a “threegoods” student (this I’m sure about), then tested into middle school, applied myself well enough, and got average grades—all in all, nothing to brag about. I began spending more of my time away from the house. Father was becoming an old man, but I couldn’t be bothered to notice. Like the other older children, I was more interested in seeing who was taller, who had longer legs, and dreaming about becoming a sports star. How had Father gotten to be so old in that same armchair? How had his hair turned gray leaning against the headrest of that old chair? I never once gave it any real thought. In short, our conversations became more and more infrequent, though he would occasionally offer a few stray words of encouragement, and like all fathers, had high hopes for his son. When I didn’t show him my report card, Father never asked to see it, which I knew meant that he had confidence in me (and which was why I always secretly got Mother’s signature when I failed a class). And Father never lectured me, not once, which deeply satisfied me as a gesture of respect. Mother was changing, too.
She never lost her old habit of beating and scolding me, but when she wanted to give me a really good slap on the head she now had to search around for a stool first. One time she really smacked me right across the cheek, and then locked me in my room. It’s still unclear to me why she did it. But this time I decided I wasn’t going to take it like a child anymore. I tied a rope to the balcony and left a note on the desk:
“I’ll still call you Mom, but I’m never coming back. You should be ashamed.”
I did come back, mostly because the next morning Father was standing silently in the doorway of my friend’s house. Before I had fully awoken from that blissful dream of running away, Father had set himself gingerly down at the head of the bed. I remember saying just one sentence:
“Alright Dad, let’s go home.”
In the early morning light my friend watched father and son heading home. He always remembered that morning, he would tell me afterwards.
Mother pressed my head tightly to her breast, crying bitterly, and laughing:
“Is it really that shameful for a Mommy to hit her own little boy?”
“It is when that boy is already grown up.”
Mother continued to beat her son without mercy, because he was growing up all wrong. I really didn’t know when it would end, though I suppose there was some good in it, since it gave her a reason to love me.
If only she had kept hitting me forever.
And who could have imagined that she had been beaten, too?
The telling has to begin from a specific time.
All I remember now is that it happened suddenly, and was my first look at a dead person. The corpse (a woman) lay face up on the athletic field at school. She was covered by a mat, which people kept lifting to peek underneath. I caught just a glimpse: the pale, naked belly was swollen tight as a drumskin, flies crawled all over her face, her eyes were still open wide… then, and it all happened so fast, when I got back from school a jeep pulling a trailer was parked at the entrance to our house. Trunks sealed with paper strips, the doors of the wardrobe flung open, clothes hanging out of the drawers, the floor strewn with photographs, letters, and smashed phonograph records. There were wisps of mother’s hair, and a cigarette holder, snapped in half, which was Father’s. The jeep drove off. The old cat they had chased away came back home.
From then on I was an adult.
I and the other children who had grown up overnight, children with vague shadows of moustaches just visible above our lips, donned our fathers’ woolen overcoats and tunic suits. Father’s silver cigarette case, his lighter, and all the things that had been in fashion when he was young, armed us for the present. These objects went with us everywhere—the street corners, the ice rink, the bars . . . picking fights, swilling booze, pulling leather caps down over our eyes or cocking them back on our heads, cruising on bicycles, chasing our enemies, getting into rumbles, meeting up at someone’s house, bicycles lined up outside, thundering upstairs in our heavy leather boots, then swinging our feet up onto a table to smoke, play cards, drink hard. Then flashlight beams, an urgent pounding at the door, we’d dash out to the balcony and scramble over one another to leap to our escape . . .
I learned what it meant to squander ones days, to let youth slip away . . .
That’s how it went until two years ago, when I went to see Father out in the countryside.
My father in the countryside? Nothing strange about that. Whose father wasn’t out in the country? Ah, and I forgot to mention that long before he went there I was long gone from Beijing. I was off with those friends of mine, on an earthen kang in a farm village, rolling cigarettes, telling fortunes and ghost stories, lying in the warm sun, shouldering bundles of straw, divvying up grain rations. So many years had gone by.
What was Father like now? Where was Mother? The only thing I remembered was the old live-in nursemaid who had reared me for fifteen years. She had left long ago, back to her hometown. Once she made the long trip back just to see me, but I didn’t even let her in the door. Why not? I could make no sense of what I was feeling. When I heard her walking back down the stairs my heart became stone.
I went to see Father. On the way there I came down with acute bilious hepatitis. I hadn’t had personal contact with any sort of disease since I’d become an adult, much less did I understand the danger. They treated me for malaria.
By that time Father’s hair had turned completely white. We rode a tractor over a dirt road in the countryside, headed from the county hospital to the barracks where Father was living with the others. I was burning up with fever. Any healthy person would have been feverish, too, since the temperature outside was 44 or 45 degrees celsius. If he hadn’t taken me to see the doctor, Father would have been on the job, firing bricks at a kiln.
After we had climbed down off that maddeningly hot tractor, a long walk still lay ahead of us. Just thinking about it almost made me black out. A sudden, powerful wave of anger came over me. Here I was locked in the invisible grip of this demon disease, while right beside me stood a perfectly healthy person who, even though he was my father, or perhaps because of it, aroused my loathing. I felt sad, wounded. I hated it all.
I started cursing, a non-stop stream of the foulest words I could muster. I’d have to say Father had never heard this type of language coming from his own son’s mouth, and maybe he couldn’t believe what he was hearing. I cursed the weather, the sun, the length of the road, and those goddamned puny southern trees. I cursed everything, just to provoke my father’s disgust, to declare to his face the right I now possessed as an adult to curse freely and fluently. The old man was going to hear everything I’d learned!
But he didn’t say anything. Maybe he’d already seen it coming on. He ought to be carrying me on his back! What was wrong with him? He ought to take this young guy up on his stooped and frail old back! But he was silent—the old fart! I began goading him with a rude stare, but all I saw in his old eyes was a greater tolerance, or even humility. For an instant I felt I should forgive the old man. I’d lost the outlet for my anger. The man beside me became no more than a useless, decrepit father. I felt my strength draining away even as my rage mounted.
“I can’t walk, I can’t!”
“Rest a bit, then.”
“Alright . . .”
I fought back my anger, afraid I truly might go mad. But immediately I tore into him again: “Take it away! You and this godforsaken place—get it away from me!”
Father no longer had those same ways of helping me pull through like he used to, like he did when I was small. With the county hospital over twenty kilometers away, the only option was to go to his barracks and dab on some mercurochrome. For now, Father just sat down calmly, because I was still lying there on the road, fuming. He let the sun shine cruelly on his bald pate. I was wearing his straw hat.
Strange. He wasn’t sweating.
I stared balefully ahead, down a road that trailed dizzily into an endless space. I snatched the straw hat from my head and twisted it in my hands for all I was worth. It crackled and split into pieces. Father looked out ahead, saying nothing.
“You’re a disgrace!”
My madness surged again. My saliva sputtered onto the ground and onto my feet.
“You’re a disgrace!”
Father didn’t flinch. Not a trace of disquiet showed in his manner.
His composure infuriated me all the more. Do you understand what I’m saying to you!?
“Let’s go! We don’t have a choice—I’ll walk “Let’s go! We don’t have a choice—I’ll walk till I drop dead, goddammit!”
I hauled myself up and started to walk. Father followed.
I walked in big, staggering strides, leaving him behind. I’d gone just a few steps before I sat down hard on the ground again, bruising myself painfully and bringing a flood of hot, humiliating tears to my eyes. I sat down dead center in the road; if a truck happened to come along I would simply ram it with my head.
Father came hurrying up and sat at the edge of the road, gazing at me silently, analyzing my pain as if he were some sort of servant.
Evening came. We sat together in the darkness.
We started walking again, all the way to our destination.
Father hung the mosquito netting and set a glass of glucose solution by the head of my bed (I had actually brought it for him, since I knew the sort of thing he normally had to eat out here gave him indigestion). The doctor came and left. He gave me one shot, and then several more misdiagnosed shots that could have killed me. I was lying on my back, battling barehanded against the invisible enemy inside my body. I chewed a hole through the mosquito netting and let all the mosquitoes in to sting, bite, and suck my blood, then I scratched until every inch of me was a bleeding mess. The time passed in a semi-conscious stupor, like a nightmare that wouldn’t end. At some point I heard the roar of a malevolent voice:
Was it me cursing again?
“Clean it up, now! Move it, you idiot!”
“Yes, right away. I’ll clean it up. Tomorrow . . .”
It was Father’s voice. But that other voice . . .
I had no idea whose it could be, but I was sure I had heard it somewhere before . . .
* * * *
How many years earlier had it been? Winter had come, and I was sending clothes to Father. Just as I arrived at the door of his room I heard a ferocious voice (not the exact same voice as later, but the same sort of voice):
“What! Bastard! Talk back, will you?!”
I felt a tightening sensation around my heart.
“Get along, you old fart!”
I pushed open the door and went in. The old man was kneeling silently on the floor tying a bundle of books. Beside him stood a burly man, his leather shoes planted threateningly next to Father’s hands.
“Get up! Up, up!”
The big man viciously kicked the old man’s legs.
The old man suddenly saw me, saw my face livid and my fists clenched and quivering. The old man got up and stood between me and the other man.
“Is this your son?”
“Yes. He brought me some things.”
“What did he bring you, you old scoundrel!”
Blood rushed to my eyes.
The old man was standing right up next to me.
“Look here—give it to him and then leave.”
The big man tossed his cigarette butt on the floor and went out.
Father didn’t turn around to face me, didn’t raise his head, didn’t say a word to me. It wasn’t the first time this sort of thing had happened. Just like every child’s father might get beaten up, every household might have its doors sealed, or every father’s neckties might be tied to a pole to make a mop. . . there’s really no point in talking about it.
Father slapped the dust from his knees. I noticed he was wearing a work uniform. This made me think of a day not very long ago when I was out cruising on bicycles with a group of kids, hooting and charging through the streets like we owned them. A garbage truck suddenly started rolling toward us. Someone on it caught my attention. He was wearing a work uniform with a beat-up cloth cap, and looked vaguely familiar. The smile vanished from my face; it was Father. Ever since, those big steel spades on the truck have lodged in my memory, floating into my mind’s eye from time to time, just like a memory one of my buddies told me he’d once had: Turning the corner into his alley on the way back from school one day, he spotted something in the distance flashing in the sunlight. He quickly understood. It was his family’s big wardrobe, loaded high on the bed of a truck, waiting to be taken away. That wardrobe mirror stabbed into his memory, leaving a permanent wound. . . .
“Go back, son.”
I had never been so well behaved as I was on that day. I wanted to take Father’s hand.
“How’s the old cat doing?”
All Father ever asked about was the old cat. It was still alive. I still had it. Mother had left Father years ago. Even so, she still worried about him. I knew Father never gave up on the idea that one day she would come to understand him.
How much longer did that ferocious voice continue? I don’t know.
All I knew was that I must have vomited, made a mess of the place, causing someone to reprimand Father, to make him mop it up and put everything back in order. When I opened my eyes it was almost dawn. Clearly Father had sat up the entire night, waiting quietly for me to regain consciousness. We were silent for a long time in the early morning sunlight. It was this stretch of time, this wordless stretch of time, that the wall between us fell away. Father lifted my hand and pressed something into it: bank notes (it was everything he had).
“Go back, as soon as you can.”
“Go straight back to Beijing. Do not stop anywhere else.”
We were back on the road we had walked the day before.
The morning breeze helped ease my discomfort, but my memories were making me timid. Father’s years of authority had been utterly swept away, all by my own doing, and yet I had never respected him more than I did right then.
Father sent me all the way to the tractor headed for the city.
I clambered aboard the thundering tractor. Father stood down below.
I avoided his eyes until the very last moment. The tractor started moving. I suddenly noticed an odd expression on Father’s face, a look so very unfamiliar that in my entire life I only saw it that one time. . . . Ah, Father, Dad, you wouldn’t . . .
Tears streamed down my cheeks. Father was left behind. He was growing smaller, ever smaller. I could still see his white hair tossed gently by the morning breeze. Father was left behind, forever. Again he would walk back to the barracks by himself along the little country paths, face a world of oppression and intimidation. But never again would he have the company, and the hatred, of his son. . . .
That’s what how it was the last time I saw Father.
No. The last time I saw Father was a year ago.
Just like before there was that narrow country road, and just like before we went on foot. Only now it was no longer Father and I, but me and Mother. The damp gloom of the southern winter felt saturated with a cold hostility. It was our family reunion.
They had laid Father out on a big blackboard. When they opened the padlock on the door to the shed, Mother’s legs grew weak. She leaned into me. Someone pulled aside the shroud. There was Father’s face. The shroud was drawn back over him very quickly. Then they carried him away on the blackboard, shouldered his body onto a tractor, and drove off.
“There is a very deep well near the barracks.” That was all they told us. We didn’t have to believe any of it, except one thing: it was over.
A year passed. I still saw Father’s face from time to time, and each time I saw in his eyes a disbelieving, anxious look, a look that called up the memory of someone else, also a father, but not my own. I had seen the same disbelief, the same questioning, in that other father’s eyes. It had been a brutal scene. One by one, that pair of eyes scrutinized everyone standing around him, including me.
“Hold it right there! Don’t move!”
That poor soul, that father, had been an old man, too, the dean of our school. Out on the athletic field that August day he was balancing a mess tin filled with boiled water on his head. For five seconds he managed to hold it there. When the water spilled a leather belt instantly landed on his body. He howled, his face contorting, his eyes filled with terror, rage, but most of all, shock. It was a scorching look of agony, panicked and searching. Onto his head went another mess tin of boiled water. Again he cried out, a second pair of hands snatched the leather belt and lashed out at him even harder. The old man writhed on the ground, shouting and pleading as each person from the crowd of onlookers fought for their chance to kick him, to punch him. The most savage, the most forceful of them all was the one who had snatched the belt away—the dean’s son.
A number of years later I saw him out in the countryside. He was living alone in a house whose floor was an inch thick with pigeon shit and cigarette butts. Some time after that someone told me he had cut off his little fingers with an axe, and that he now believed in God.
Axes make me think of something else I saw:
Another hot day. Another father was being surrounded and beaten when an eight- or nine-year-old kid suddenly charged into the crowd with a hatchet in his hands. Before he could raise it the father grabbed him. Someone kicked the child to the ground. The father sheltered the child with his own body, refusing to be separated. Leather belts and clubs rained down on the father’s back. These were belts with steel buckles, clubs made from square-cut lumber; these were sturdy legs that kicked soccer balls, feet clad in sneakers; this was a father with a deeply lined face, a child with a bookbag still on his back.
When a hand grabbed the child’s hair the father bit down hard, clamping that hand between his teeth. They wrenched out the father’s teeth, one by one, using a pair of pliers. With bloody, mutilated gums, the father still clamped down on the hand that had reached for his son.
That hand makes me think of even more people, more places, more blood-soaked scenes. They remain in my eyes, forever indelible. When I meet Father again, the old man will see them all, and understand. . . .
Translated by John A. Crespi
Copyright © Zephyr Press
Peter O’Dowd follows the route of Abraham Lincoln's funeral train 150 years ago, to look at modern-day race relations and Lincoln's legacy.