The man was dead by the time his body hit the swirling muddy waters of the Yangzi River just below the first of the Three Gorges. With no panicked attempts to reach for the safety of land or a protruding rock, with no last agonized breaths to endeavor, with no searing pain of water being gulped into lungs, the body was simply swept away by the fast-moving current. How quickly he cooled in the chilly pools. How swiftly he moved in these first few minutes with no obstacles in his way.
Each mile sent the man relentlessly forward past villages gray with age, factories that belched fetid smoke, and drainpipes that spewed loathsome refuse, chemicals and raw sewage into the river. As he went, his skin wrinkled and began to peel. Internal gases formed, keeping him afloat. He often traveled as much as thirty feet per second, and the top of his head pounded into jagged rocks and rough cliff edges, tearing away tufts of hair and scalp. But other times the river widened and slowed, becoming shallow and treacherous to navigate. More than once the body was caught in the swirl of a whirlpool or on the edge of a sandbar before a shift in the current or the ripple of waves from a passing vessel freed him.
Did anyone see this shui da bang — waterlog — in its pitiless migration to the sea? The waters of this snake of a river had a drainage of over 700,000 square miles, over one-fifth of China’s total landmass. It divided the country from north and south in matters as basic as temperament, food and religion. The Yangzi directly affected one-third of China’s population, more than 400 million people — nearly one out of every thirteen people on the face of the earth. So of course people saw the body. More than once a fisherman or a hand aboard a barge spotted the flash of ivory flesh bobbing in the murky waves. Ah, could it be a baiji — a white dolphin? Legend said white dolphins were girls who’d been transformed into water creatures. Today the baiji left on this river could be counted in the mere dozens and some said that none had survived the pollution and the boat traffic. Could that flash of white possibly have been a baiji? A little miracle in this watery gash in the earth?
Soon the body entered the city limits of Wushan, where the startlingly green current of the Daning River poured into the muddy Yangzi. Sampans carried fishermen. Huge ferries bore men and women up and down the river to work, visit relatives, find better lives. Naked children played on inner tubes, laughing and teasing each other. One boy bumped into the corpse and for a moment mistook it for a friend pretending to be dead. Hadn’t they all done the dead man’s float at one time or another? The boy kicked at the body and when he felt his toes sink in, then in some more into the rotting flesh, he drew away, swimming fast, not once mentioning to his friends his horror at what he’d encountered. He simply sidled alongside one of the small boats that carried tourists from their cruise ships on excursions up the Daning. If he smiled enough, if he waved heartily, if he called out “Welcome, welcome” as the fat foreigners snapped their photos, then he might just swim away with a few yuan before they chugged up the Daning to see the Lesser Three Gorges.
The body whooshed into the Wu Gorge, the second of the Three Gorges. The cliffs were so high that the sun barely penetrated down to the river. High, high up rose the Goddess Peak, which resembled a young woman kneeling before a pillar, with eleven peaks nearby. The local people believed this to be the embodiment of Yao Ji, the 23rd daughter of the Queen Mother of the West, and her eleven handmaidens. Yao Ji had once occupied herself by wandering the mountains and riverbanks of the mortal world. While floating on a cloud one day, she’d discovered twelve dragons wrecking havoc on the river, causing hardship and death to mortal men and women. She called upon Yu the Great, endowed him with the power to control weather and move earth, then watched as he sliced open the gorges to lead the waters to the sea. Today the Goddess Peak was reputed to bring luck to those who glimpsed her in the shrouded mists, but there was no luck for the body, just the constant pull to the sea as though Yu the Great himself had ordained it.
But wasn’t that just a myth designed to explain this river that remained an enigma not only to her people but to the outside world? In a country where legend, history and politics were always woven together, most Chinese didn’t even know the word Yangzi, which was the name for the last 200 miles of river where it ran through the ancient fiefdom of Yang. As a nation, the Chinese called this waterway Chang Jiang — Long River, or Da Jiang — Great River, but those who lived on its banks had named every stretch of its 4,000 miles to reflect the nature of the water in that place — the Wild Yak River, the River of Golden Sand, Beautiful River, Ba River.
All this was beyond the comprehension of the rotting piece of flesh. Sometimes there were hours of gentle waters, of peaceful drift, of quiet shorelines and tranquil coves where a lone farmer worked a tiny patch, where a wife — her pants rolled above her knees — washed her family’s clothes on the rocks, where an older sister minded her little brother. For hours everything was reduced to the sun, the sky, and the primeval push of water through rock. But there were cities too, where apartments hugged the river’s edge and boats of all sizes vied for position. Superficially it may have seemed as though life were going on as usual — work, family, patriotic meetings, a card game, a stroll with a pretty girl, sitting with an ailing parent — but a sense of urgency hung over everything.
High on the cliffs swatches of white paint at 177 meters above the riverbed proclaimed the future height of the reservoir behind the Three Gorges Dam. In seven years, when the reservoir finished forming, everything below those lines would be inundated. Between Yichang and Chongqing well over a million people would be moved from their ancestral homes. The lucky few — those with good connections — would get residence certificates for cities. Others would be transplanted to new towns made up of high-rise after high-rise that stood out stark and white far above the future high-water mark. The unfortunate ones — the majority, in fact — would be sent to distant provinces. Promises had been made, but already some who’d been sent afar had returned with tales of hardship. What would become of them now? Could those people, who’d suffered so much in this tumultuous land, suffer any more?
And could the body, which continued on, suffer more, endure more? Caught in the propellers of passing boats, his skin shredded and tore. After his shirt disintegrated, birds swooped down and picked at the flesh on his back. As he traveled into the Xiling Gorge, the last of the Three Gorges, turtles and fish nibbled and ripped at the soft parts of his face — the eyelids, lips and ears.
Suddenly he was at the dam site itself. This project, when completed, would be one of the greatest manmade edifices in the history of the world. The whole site was a mass of giant machines, concrete and steel. Men and women worked round the clock, sending the dam higher and higher inch by inch towards its final height of 607 feet and over a mile in width. A sense of purpose imbued every boulder dynamited into gravel, every ton of earth moved, every mile of re-bar tied down, every lock completed and opened for use. This would be China’s greatest achievement — the completion of a dream for her people and a message to the world of her supremacy. And not so incidentally, the dam would also generate electricity equivalent to eighteen nuclear power plants. This was not just nationalist power, but power in its rawest, truest form.
A cofferdam diverted the river so that the work could go on. The body swept through those torrential waters in moments, then suddenly, amazingly, the land flattened. Fields stretched out for miles on either bank. There would be places now where the river would be more than two miles across, its torrents reduced to a gentle but implacable surge. The city of Shanghai still beckoned. Below that, the estuary spread out across fifty miles, with silt deposits projecting another mile of Chinese mainland every seventy years.
Along the river’s course shrines had been built as remembrances of terrible tragedies, pagodas rose up to warn sailors of hidden navigational dangers, and temples reminded those who passed of the grandeur and risks of this place. But for every monument that cautioned passersby to pay attention — man was nothing, the river was all — other spots brought that message down to its most intimate human scale. For millennia a little spit of land protruded into the river just below the town of Anqing, where for the last three centuries the Jia clan had lived and worked the earth.
Every morning Jia Mingfu walked the banks to remove and sometimes salvage the trash that had come to rest. He’d seen trees that had journeyed all the way down from the headwaters high in Tibet, cans of string beans that had been sucked out of cottages, pieces of boats that had been ripped into splinters. He’d also seen more than his fair share of death. Flood season always brought down others like himself — farmers and their families who’d been washed off their land — while in winter, he found the occasional young man or woman. The river wasn’t that dangerous then, but the shortness of the days brought out a melancholy turn of mind and broken love affairs were too much to bear.
Jia Mingfu knew by the smell that a body — perhaps human, perhaps animal — awaited him. He gripped the stick that he carried on these excursions a little more tightly as he hardened his heart for what he knew he would see — a corpse ravaged by exposure to water, rocks, the sun, wildlife, and the natural decomposition of flesh. As he’d done so many times before, he used his stick to brush away some of the trash that had accumulated on the body. Despite its journey, the dead thing was most definitely human with its arms and legs still attached. But this creature with its red hair was no ordinary man. He was a yang guizi, a white devil, a foreigner.
The sun still hadn’t crested over the roofs of the stately buildings on the eastern edge of Tiananmen Square when Inspector Liu Hulan of the Ministry of Public Security gazed across a sea of people gathered in the huge cement expanse for the first public gathering of the All-Patriotic Society ever to be held in Beijing. Until today, the All-Patriotic Society’s clandestine meetings had taken place mostly in the heart of the country in towns and villages along the Yellow River. Although the cult had recently gained a foothold in the capital, no one had expected a show as brazen as this.
All religious cults were against the law in China and it was part of Hulan’s job to do what she could to eradicate them, but she had only learned of this early morning rally fifteen hours ago from a man she’d arrested for stealing from his work unit so that he might make a more sizable donation to the Society. After several impromptu discussions at the ministry, it was decided to let the meeting go forward. If a high-ranking All-Patriotic Society member could be drawn out and identified, then Hulan could make a very public arrest, which might prove fruitful in many ways.
Hulan had arrived here at three this morning and had supervised the stationing of policemen and soldiers around the perimeter of the square. She had hoped that an official presence would serve as a deterrent to converts and help keep the numbers down, but as far as she could see no one had turned back. The adherents were orderly, polite, obedient, and simply paid no attention to the uniformed men and women with automatic rifles slung over their shoulders. If everyone remained peaceful during the promised qi gong exercises, chanting, and inspirational sermon, then there was no reason for anyone to get hurt. Sure, photos would be taken and a few people detained for questioning, but the plain fact was that the Ministry of Public Security wasn’t prepared on such short notice to detain over a thousand people. There had been enough time, however, for the government to request that a camera crew from a state-run television station cover the event and Hulan felt a certain amount of confusion about this.
Five years ago she had made a deal with some of the most powerful men in her country, who secretly guided China from a compound situated across the lake from where Hulan lived. She had been brought before them at the conclusion of the Knight International case, where over 150 women had lost their lives in a horrible fire in an American-owned toy factory operating deep in China’s interior. The “men across the lake,” as Hulan referred to them, told her they would let her marry the American attorney David Stark and give birth to her half-breed daughter — both of which were questionable actions under Chinese law and custom. They told her they would keep her name out of the media for good or bad. In exchange, Hulan had to promise she would follow the party line, obey orders without question, eliminate her eccentric methods, and keep the pact a secret among her, the men across the lake, and her mentor and superior, Vice Minister Zai. Hulan had agreed to the conditions, hoping they would allow her to have the private life she’d always longed for. But of course the game had changed. Her daughter had died and her marriage to David…
She forced herself not to think of that right now. Instead she turned her attention back to the television crew. They had a good vantage point on the steps of the Great Hall of the People from which they could survey the entire square. Hulan recognized one of the reporters — a woman with a shrill voice who for many years had been the eager mouthpiece of the government. Her words carried on the humid air like rotting garbage, insisting that the government was not instigating a crackdown against the All-Patriotic Society but showing its tolerance by letting the group meet here today.
Hulan sighed. She would need to take extra care today as she moved through the crowd, because she didn’t want to be noticed by the camera crew. Still, Liu Hulan was easy to spot amidst the other Beijingers here this morning. It wasn’t that Hulan dressed in a colorful way, for these days Beijing’s residents embraced the most vibrant colors they could find. It wasn’t that she wore designer clothes, although she certainly could afford to shop at any of the foreign-designer boutiques now in the city. Rather, she dressed in the most exquisite clothes of the finest silks, all of which had once belonged to her mother, grandmother or her other colorful ancestors. Hulan’s outfits spoke to the people about her money, taste, social position, and culture; she not only worked for the Ministry of Public Security — perhaps the most feared of China’s law enforcement agencies — but she also had to be a Red Princess, the wealthy daughter or granddaughter of someone who had gone on the Long March with Mao Zedong.
Hulan had been born in Beijing and had the happy and privileged childhood of two of China’s most esteemed personages. At the outbreak of the Cultural Revolution when Hulan was twelve, she’d been sent to the countryside to “learn from the peasants.” She had been brought back to Beijing two years later to denounce her father as part of an ill-conceived effort to save her mother’s life. Hulan’s father had been sent to labor camp and Hulan, at age fourteen, had been sent abroad to the United States. After boarding school, college and law school, Hulan had become an associate at Phillips & McKenzie, where she first met David. They’d fallen in love, had lived together, and then twelve years ago she’d some back to China. Seven years later, Hulan and David had been brought together here in Beijing to work on two excruciatingly difficult and heartbreaking cases. In the first, Hulan’s father — who had been fully rehabilitated and had become a high-ranking cadre — had died and the nation had held her responsible. The second was the Knight International case, which had begun as an investigation into suspicious working conditions and had ended in the deadly conflagration. Hulan herself had nearly died that day and for a long time there was great concern for the well being of her unborn child. The men across the lake successfully controlled the story of Hulan’s role in that case. But although Hulan had been spared another round of public criticism, she’d blamed herself for the many deaths. She had been named for a martyr of the revolution, she told David at the time. She should have done more.
Now Hulan paced along the edges of the crowd, searching for the faces of known troublemakers who could be rounded up later. At one point she caught sight of Neighborhood Committee Director Zhang, the old woman who kept track of all the comings and goings in Hulan’s hutong neighborhood. Madame Zhang had to know that this group was banned, but she was here now with her eyes closed and her wizened face rapt with spiritual feeling. Hulan should have suspected she might show up. Madame Zhang, who had been on the cutting edge of the yang ge dance craze a few years ago, would have to be up-to-the-minute with the All-Patriotic Society and its appealingly accessible rituals.
In a country where aphorisms and slogans had forever been used to teach, influence and coerce, the members of the All-Patriotic Society assembled here today were already well-versed in a variety of seemingly innocuous phrases which they began chanting. “Be reverent,” they intoned again and again before they switched to “The river brings us life.” No one seemed frightened or anxious. Why should they be? They were not members of the Falun Gong, which was not permitted to use the square under any circumstances. They were reverent and as such they felt righteous and safe.
Hulan circulated until she spotted a woman with a little girl about four years old. They looked poor — perhaps the woman had come from the countryside to the capital to look for work. If so, her presence in the city was against the law, which may have accounted for the anxious way she kept looking around. But there was something else about her that was troubling. Her hair was unkempt and her clothes were not only dirty but the buttons on her blouse were all off by one. Still, the daughter was impeccably clean and beautifully turned out given their circumstances. The woman squatted on the ground so that she was eye-level with her daughter. Her hands worried over every inch of the girl, tweaking the neckline of her t-shirt, pulling at the hem of her shorts, and retying her red tennis shoes. All the while the little girl — her cheeks shiny and pink — chattered non-stop about nothing important, just Mama this and Mama that. A bag lay next to them. Hulan imagined what was inside — perhaps an orange for the girl, maybe another change of clothes, a toy if they had enough money. An ache began in Hulan’s chest and she looked away.
At 6:15, a young man jumped up on a small wooden platform and held up his hands for silence. He looked to be about thirty, but he could have been much older. He was ruggedly handsome and his hair was a bit longer than the custom. As the crowd quieted, he dropped one hand and held himself in a posture reminiscent of Mao as a young revolutionary. “I am Tang Wenting, a lieutenant of the All-Patriotic Society.”
Hulan could have arrested him right then, but she wanted to hear what he had to say. She’d use his speech against him later during interrogations.
“We meet in the light of Xiao Da’s grace,” Tang Wenting announced.
“Xiao Da, Xiao Da, Xiao Da,” the followers murmured and the sound echoed beautifully through the square.
As the lieutenant let the name wash over him, Hulan wondered not for the first time about the mysterious Xiao Da, the self-proclaimed leader of the All-Patriotic Society, who’d pulled off a semi-miracle in keeping his true identity a secret in a nation where there were no secrets. The fact that Xiao Da had been able to move through the countryside holding underground meetings for the last three years not only increased his legend but also exasperated the government. Numerous arrests had been made and many people sentenced to labor camp. On several occasions Hulan had tried to negotiate lesser sentences in exchange for the identity of Xiao Da, knowing that once he was gone the group would collapse. But either no one knew Xiao Da’s identity or they weren’t yet ready to give him up. It was all very annoying. Even his name irritated Hulan. Xiao Da — Little Big — what was that supposed to mean anyway?
Hulan’s eyes sought out the little girl she’d seen before. The mother was holding her daughter tightly by the waist, forcing her to watch the lieutenant. The woman had her lips to one of the girl’s ears and was whispering intensely. The child’s eyes were wide not with excitement but with fear, though Hulan couldn’t understand why. The girl stayed quiet, refusing to say a word against the whispered barrage and remaining still within her mother’s grip, which seemed to tighten as the All-Patriotic Society lieutenant droned on. It occurred to Hulan that maybe the woman wasn’t a country bumpkin or even a true Society follower at all, just a mother who had lost her connection to the real world.
“Our political leaders tell us to give up the old ways,” Tang Wenting lectured. “They tell us ‘To Get Rich is Glorious!’ But Xiao Da says we must say no to these new ways. We must repudiate technology and social progress, and go back to honoring old traditions and old values….”
Fifteen minutes later, the sun broke across the square and Hulan could see its instantaneous effect on the religious adherents. Beijing languished in the midst of Fu Tian, that debilitating period of Give-Up-Weather between July and August when the heat and humidity were at their most ominous and oppressive. Unprotected as it was, Tiananmen was not a place to be during the heat of the day. It was time to head home or to work.
The lieutenant caught the subtle change in the crowd. “Before you go, I have a few words from Xiao Da’s own lips that he asked me to impart to you. Soon Xiao Da will step out of the darkness and into the light. When he does, he will bring with him an object that will unite all of the Chinese people. With it in his hand, evil will be punished. Those who are reverent will triumph. Together we will follow Xiao Da.”
This kind of rhetoric was exactly why the government perceived the All-Patriotic Society to be a threat.
The young man bent his head piously as voices throughout the square sang out, “Xiao Da, Xiao Da, Xiao Da.”
He looked up and said, “Now is the time to remember our tributes. Nine virtues, nine grades, nine tributes.”
The All-Patriotic Society had grown quickly in three years. Although the group counted fewer members than the Falun Gong, the Ministry of Public Security had internal estimates of twenty million followers, nearly all of whom lived in the countryside. Once initiated, they donated their hard earned salaries and sometimes their savings to the sect based on a secret tithing scale involving nine grades. A lot of money was ending up in Xiao Da’s pocket, and Hulan didn’t want that custom to take hold in Beijing. She turned to signal to the policemen to round up anyone holding a collection basket.
Suddenly she heard a woman’s voice scream, “For Xiao Da!”
Hulan spun around. The mother who moments before had been whispering into her daughter’s ear now stood fully erect, her neck stretched so she could see above the crowd to the lieutenant. In one hand she held onto the back of her daughter’s t-shirt; in the other she held a cleaver, which she must have brought with her in her bag. The blade was a good ten centimeters wide.
Everyone here was Chinese; they all knew from experience when something bad was going to happen. People started to edge away and push each other to get out of there. For a moment Hulan lost sight of the mother and daughter altogether. She heard Tang Wenting’s voice shout out: “Be calm! Xiao Da would want you all to be calm!”
Miraculously the crowd responded to his words, slowing down, quieting.
“We need to help our sister,” he went on. “Tell me, sister! What do you want to tell Xiao Da? Have you come to renounce alcohol, tobacco and fornication? We are all with you!”
“I have come to punish this girl,” the woman called back to him.
Hulan pulled out her weapon and held it lowered in front of her. “Put the knife down!” she yelled.
People scattered out of the way, then, like frightened animals, scrambled right back into her line of fire.
“All children are innocent.” Tang Wenting maintained his façade of serenity. As much as Hulan distrusted the group and all it stood for, she was grateful that the lieutenant seemed to understand gravity of the situation.
“This one is bad,” the mother answered. “The evil needs to be cut out.”
These words caught the interest of the crowd. Now they wanted to see what the ruckus was all about. Hulan shoved people aside, yet she still felt she was being pushed further away.
“Only Xiao Da can pass judgment,” the lieutenant countered. “And he believes in just punishments only.”
A primal howl ripped out of the woman. “A mother can see evil too!”
She sank to her knees and pushed her daughter to the ground. She grabbed the girl’s forearm and held it flat against the cement.
“Move out of my way!” Hulan screamed. But in country where people witnessed executions as entertainment no one moved. To the woman, she shouted, “Put the knife down or I’ll shoot!”
“Mama! No! Mama!” These were the first words anyone had heard from the child. They floated out sweet and crisp.
Tang Wenting had come down off his box and had managed to make his way to the mother. “You are suffering, sister,” he soothed. “We suffer with you, but we are not extremists. The river is life…”
These words did not offer solace. Instead the woman looked around wildly, searching the faces for understanding. Then her eyes dropped to her daughter’s hand. When she raised the cleaver above her head, Hulan lifted her weapon and took careful aim at the woman’s shoulder. The cleaver began to fall. The little girl struggled to free her arm. Her screams were unlike anything Hulan had ever heard before. Hulan fired.
Panic was instantaneous. People began running every which way. Hulan heard other shots being fired and hoped that bullets were only going over people’s heads. She took a last few steps and reached the sad little tableau. The mother lay splayed on the ground, thrashing from side to side, blood everywhere. The little girl knelt beside her mother, sobbing. Tang Wenting was on his knees, trying to staunch the bleeding with his palms. Hulan dropped down beside them. “Move!” she ordered the lieutenant. He pulled his hands away and blood squirted up, spraying the little girl’s face.
“There shouldn’t be so much blood,” Hulan said to no one. She tore the woman’s blouse. The entry wound was in the shoulder as it should be, but the blood was not coming from there. Instead it gushed from a smaller wound at the neck where a fragment of the bullet had embedded itself. It must have shattered when it hit the bone and either ricocheted or traveled internally to the neck where it had shredded the carotid artery. Hulan turned the woman on her side and applied pressure to her neck. The little girl whimpered, “Mama, Mama,” over and over again.
With all of the confusion on the square no one came to help. The blood continued to pump out from beneath Hulan’s hands until finally the woman stopped writhing. Tang Wenting was the first to move. He got to his feet, took two steps back, then stretched out his arm and pointed at Hulan. “Mother killer,” he said in condemnation. Then he widened his arms as if to embrace those who still remained on the square. “Everyone! See this mother killer! She murdered one who was reverent!”
All of Hulan’s senses were heightened. She could feel the blood already beginning to dry on her hands and face. She could hear commotion in the distance. She could see in her peripheral vision the television camera and could hear the excited tones of the female reporter who certainly had the scoop of the day. Hulan was even aware of Tang Wenting as he pointed at her again and announced to the crowd, “This woman is our enemy! She has shown her true face! Xiao Da will make her pay!” But all Hulan really absorbed was the face of the little girl before her. Her eyes had a look that Hulan knew all too well. It was the empty stare of someone who had lost everything.
# # #
David Stark woke up alone in the bed that he’d once shared with his wife. He took a shower and dressed. As he made his way out to the kitchen, he stopped as he did every day to visit the room that had once been his daughter’s. He lit incense, said a silent prayer, and touched her photograph. Then he left the room, put water on for tea, and turned on the television. He liked to catch the early morning broadcasts because they helped him with his colloquial Mandarin. But when he glimpsed Hulan’s face on the screen, he sat down and for the next hour watched in horror as events on the square spiraled out of control. As soon as he saw the little girl, he felt a pang of loss and grief that he was sure Hulan must have felt. After the mother died and Hulan picked up the crying child, David flipped off the television and went outside. Hulan would deliver the girl to the proper authorities, then she would need to return to the compound for a shower and change of clothes. He’d be waiting for her.
He made his way from the back pavilion — where he had lived alone these last months — past the other buildings that had once housed the acrobats, singers, and other performers who were Hulan’s celebrated ancestors, past the building where Hulan’s mother and her nurse resided, to the central courtyard. Hulan would have to come through here to get to her room.
David sat on a porcelain garden stool under the gingko tree and waited. This was the place where five years ago David had promised Hulan that they would be happy. That day he’d said that in a way they were both orphans, because they’d both been alone much of their lives. Hulan had lost her father and her mother was just a shadow of a person; David’s parents, on the other hand, had been married just long enough for him to be born. Then his father, an international businessman, had gone back to his travels, while his mother, a concert pianist, had gone back to her recitals. If David and Hulan had each other, he’d said, they would not be alone. Once their daughter was born, they could create the kind of family that neither of them had ever had. David had promised Hulan that they would never be separated again, that they would be together forever, and that their child would be carefree, happy and healthy too. He’d assured Hulan that all of her fears about loss were unfounded. He’d said he’d never leave. He’d been wrong about almost everything and the guilt he felt about that every day was almost unbearable.
But David had made his promises and she’d believed him. Vice Minister Zai took Hulan off of murder cases and she never returned to them. David and Hulan had married in a small ceremony. Hulan’s belly had swelled and the doctor repeatedly assured them that the pregnancy was normal. During periodic ultrasounds, David and Hulan could see that the baby — a girl — looked good — healthy and strong. To their eyes, she already had personality in the way she sucked her thumb and somersaulted in Hulan’s womb. David and Hulan began to think like a family. They bought a crib and painted the alcove off the bedroom. Hulan searched through trunks and brought out embroidered baby hats decorated with gold good luck charms.
Once Chaowen was born, their joy was complete. She was a beautiful child. In many ways she’d looked like a typical Chinese girl. Her face was round and perfectly pink. Her eyes were two lovely almonds. But Chaowen’s hair was not a pure silky black, so anyone on the street could see that she was not one hundred percent Chinese. She enjoyed Christmas as much as Chinese New Year. (What child wouldn’t?) In winter, she wore practical padded Chinese clothes; in summer, T-shirts and shorts. She spoke English to her father even on those occasions when he spoke to her in Chinese; she spoke Chinese to her mother even when she spoke to her daughter in English. In other words, Chaowen was headstrong and smart like both of her parents, which had often caused the neighbors to comment on the appropriateness of her name. Chao meant to exceed. Wen meant literary or cultural. Together they meant someone who was a scholar of culture.
Of course they’d disagreed about how to raise Chaowen. David had wanted her to be born in the States. He’d lost that one. He’d wanted to move back to Los Angeles so that his daughter would grow up free of political indoctrination. He’d wanted her to have access to great schools and good medical care. He’d wanted her to grow up knowing that she was absolutely free to make whatever decisions and choices she wanted. But Hulan was adamant that they stay in Beijing. Her reasons were legitimate: she wanted Chaowen to know Chinese culture, Hulan’s mother was too frail to leave, and they should all be a part of the New China. Because Hulan and Chaowen were happy, he reluctantly let his wishes be left behind.
For the three and a half years of Chaowen’s life, Hulan had taken great joy in the simple things. To David’s eyes, she seemed to relish the whack of the cleaver hitting the chopping block, the silly sounds Chaowen made when she tried to cajole something from her parents, the giggles and murmurs as the three of them cuddled together on the big bed, then the quiet period after Chaowen went to sleep. They had cocooned themselves in a wonderful life. They were young, they had money, and he, at least, had great faith that all of their troubles were behind them. But the Chinese had a saying that was all too true: Things always change to the opposite.
A year had passed since Chaowen’s death and David still could hardly bring himself to think about those last days. They’d started casually with a fever. Hulan had given Chaowen Tylenol and homemade popsicles to keep up her fluids. David had amused her with coloring books, fairytales, and paper dolls. But when Chaowen’s fever refused to drop and she became too listless to be entertained, they’d taken her to the emergency room. Bacterial meningitis — those two words changed his life forever. At first the doctors said she would be fine. Then she didn’t respond to antibiotics. Her fever increased and her burning body reacted with violent seizures. When her brain began to swell, the doctors started talking about long-term brain damage. David and Hulan would have accepted any challenge so long as Chaowen lived, but that wasn’t to be. Her organs gradually shut down. When the medical team tried to resuscitate her that last time, David inwardly prayed for one more chance. Then it was over. The nurses removed all of the tubes, wrapped Chaowen in a blanket and let Hulan hold her. Even with the ravages of her illness and death, Chaowen was beautiful — delicate hands, the softest skin, and silky hair that was a physical manifestation of the love between her Chinese mother and Caucasian father.
David’s grief was deep and profound, but strangely enough he found comfort in Asian traditions of death and the afterlife. Hulan, however, was devastated and inconsolable. David had seen her come back from tragedy before. She’d bounced back from the remorse she felt for the pain she’d inflicted on her parents during the Cultural Revolution, come back from that frightening night when her father had sought revenge against her, doggedly recovered from the physical and psychological harm stemming from the inferno at the Knight factory. He’d told himself that time — and one day another child — would heal her sorrow, but Hulan’s last resources of resiliency had been sucked out of her in their daughter’s last breath.
For the past year, Hulan had managed her emotions by covering them in the way she had since she was a child and by focusing her mind on something outside herself. When she began going out to the countryside on short trips to investigate the All-Patriotic Society, David didn’t object in the blind belief that she needed to work things through in her own way. But where once she had been flexible and empathetic in her job, she was now tenacious and unforgiving. The more obsessed she became with the All-Patriotic Society, the more he saw her pulling away from him. The more she became involved in her crusade, the more he distanced himself from her too. She couldn’t talk to him about what she did in her work because he didn’t condone it, and he couldn’t talk to her about it because she didn’t want to hear another explanation of his principles about freedom of speech and religion. She couldn’t look at him because he brought back too many memories, and he couldn’t look at her because he’d failed her.
After she’d moved out of their bedroom and into another building in the compound, he’d understood at last that for all of Hulan’s privilege and brilliance, nothing — not even David — could protect her from the punishment that she inflicted on herself. He suffered from self-recrimination too. What if they’d taken Chaowen to the hospital sooner? What if they’d been in the States? Would Chaowen have had better medical care? He’d kept these thoughts to himself, just as Hulan had hidden hers from him.
He knew it was a rare marriage that could survive the death of a child. He knew as well that Hulan might be happier if he went back to Los Angeles. His presence here was just a daily reminder of the family they had lost. But he couldn’t leave Hulan, because he loved her and he knew she loved him still. He couldn’t leave her, because he’d promised her that day in this courtyard that they’d always be together. He couldn’t leave her, because he knew that somewhere in that shell lived the woman he’d fallen in love with. He saw himself as a brick, an anchor, a foundation. Her recovery was his job now and he gave it everything that he’d once given to what others had called his “brilliant career.” He believed that if he were steadfast, one day she would reach out for him again. He would be there and she would return from the empty place where she’d imprisoned herself.
He heard her footsteps before he saw her. Her face was turned down and when he softly called her name she stopped and looked up. She had a smear of blood across her left cheek where she must have tried to push her hair out of the way. Her blouse was spattered with blood, while her skirt showed a large dark crust where she must have kneeled in it. Somewhere Hulan had managed to wipe off her hands, but he could see dried blood still caked between her fingers.
“Are you okay?” he asked.
“You know what happened?”
After he nodded, she looked up through the leaves of the gingko tree to the dull-brown Beijing sky. After a moment, she said, “I had a good shot. That woman shouldn’t have died. She was crazy. I should have recognized it earlier.”
“I’m sorry,” he said. Then, “But you saved the girl.”
She looked at him as though she were trying to decipher the meaning of his words. For a single instant he saw a shadow of vulnerability, then she rearranged her features into a reassuring smile. He’d come to think of that look as her survival mask.
“I’m glad you’re here,” she said. “That means a lot to me.” After a beat, she added, “But you should get to your office. Miss Quo will be worrying about you by now. And of course I need to clean up, then get to the MPS.” A trace of uncertainty crept back into her voice and she averted her eyes again. “There will be things I need to do….”
“Is there any way I can help?”
Her determined smile gelled again and he could see just how hard she was trying. “We could have dinner together. I’d like that.” Then she held out her bloodstained hands for him to see. “I really need a shower.” With that she walked past him and into the next courtyard.
They had managed to get through the conversation without mentioning the one thing that was on both of their minds. The little girl who’d lost her mother only an hour ago was the same age that David and Hulan’s daughter would have been.