"What's your name, little girl?"
In the main, the men who asked this question were middle-aged. They dressed in Sun Yat-sen style tunics, the blue fabric turning white from too many washings, the cuffs worn to the point of being threadbare. The pant legs were wide, loose, and shapeless, with no sign of a crease down the middle. They spoke the Beijing dialect, but with accents from other provinces, which made it hard for Zhu Yinghong to understand everything they said.
At first she answered politely:
"My name is Zhu Yinghong."
"Zhu Yinghong?" The questioner repeated her answer with a friendly smile. "That's a good girl. You're very smart. Would you mind telling me your father's name?"
"And your mother?"
She stood with her feet together, her back straight. Her teacher had taught her to be respectful to her elders, to answer their questions clearly, and to always wear a smile.
"Does your father often take you places?"
"Father isn't well. He stays in bed." She answered in a soft voice; her smile was fading, but she struggled to hold on to it.
"Does he have any frequent visitors?"
"Are you sure?"
"Yes, I'm sure. No one comes to visit us, not even the uncles from the 'Upper House.' Ah-shu and Ah-xiong don't come to play with me either."
The questioner listened attentively and paused before continuing.
"What does your father usually talk to you about?"
"Nothing." Tears began to well in her eyes. "Mother said Father mustn't tire himself out."
The man cut her off to ask urgently:
"Has he ever talked to you about who's a bad person, or said down with someone, or that someone should be taken out and shot?"
"No. Father never says anything bad about anyone," she answered forcefully before adding, "What does 'down with someone' mean?"
The man turned and left without answering her question.
On her way home, she wondered why the questioner hadn't even said "good-bye." At night, when Mudan was washing Yinghong's feet in a little red lacquered pail, she stretched out her pudgy legs to kick up some water and sprayed Mudan, who grumbled unhappily. Yinghong had planned to tell her about the man who'd asked about her father, as she was reminded of how, since her father had returned after his sudden disappearance, everyone else in the family was whispering about what had happened to him but immediately shut up if she was around. The look on Mudan's face made her decide not to say anything now.
When the incident occurred Zhu Yinghong was startled out of a deep asleep by a commotion somewhere in the house. The moment she opened her eyes she had a feeling that neither of her parents was in bed. As usual, she reached out to touch the thin blanket covering the plank bed, and felt nothing but a cold chill. Years later, she would piece together what little she remembered of that night with what she'd heard here and there, and concluded that it had happened sometime in April or May.
Amid the sounds of people talking and running feet slapping against the floor, she stood on the purple sandalwood armchair at her Lotus Tower second-story window to look down into the garden, where the dim sixty-watt bulbs were lit. There were also circles of light held in people's hands; though not very bright, they moved around the garden and shone on everything. It was pitch black out there, and people—there were many people, all strangers—blended into the dark night as flickering shadows. They were talking in a language unfamiliar to her, amid cries and shouts and the sounds of heavy objects falling and doors opening.
With her eyes now open wide, though she did not cry, she felt the clamor go on and on, as if it might never end. It was morning the next time she awoke, with bright light bathing Lotus Tower. The sun's rays streaming in through the window made her face tingle. She realized that she'd fallen asleep in the armchair.
Father was gone, and Mother said she was going to see Yinghong's maternal grandfather in Taipei. Then Mother abruptly reappeared in Lotus Garden but disappeared a few days later. Mudan was busy with one thing or another the whole time. All of a sudden, no one paid any attention to Yinghong, so she began sneaking out of the house to play at Lucheng's No. 3 Elementary School.
School was not in session. During the sweltering summer days, it was pretty much deserted. So she had the big wooden elephant-shaped slide all to herself, and had a great time climbing up and sliding down. Cicadas in the banyan tree above were singing their drawn-out, monotonous, seemingly never-ending songs. Beyond the shade of the tree, the sun beat down on the ground, turning the dry, hard surface a withered gray that reflected the blinding white sun, like the glint of a knife. The reflected glow added to the sun's direct simmering light in creating a miasma that enshrouded the gray playground in a white steam.
The quiet was broken by two soldiers in khaki uniforms, each carrying a rifle over his shoulder. Gray leggings above their black clothes shoes were coming loose in places. They shuffled along, scraping the dry ground as they entered the school compound from a side gate and passed Zhu Yinghong on the slide before meeting an old janitor at the door to the staff office. The old man, who was holding a dustpan and a long-handled bamboo broom, pointed to the staff office in response to a question. He was still bowing even after the soldiers had gone inside.
The soldiers reemerged with a third person in front of them. Yinghong vaguely recalled that he was one of the teachers she'd seen around school quite often. The only reason he'd have been on campus during summer break was to be on duty.
Heading back the way the soldiers had come, the three men were quickly alongside the slide, giving Yinghong a glimpse of the teacher, a robust man in his thirties. He wore a grimly anxious look, seemingly shrouded in a dark cloud of worry, the sight of which would recur in her dreams for years afterward. As they walked past, she saw that his hands were tied behind him with a Boy Scout rope as thick as a man's finger. Wound around his wrists several times, each of its ends was held by a soldier.
After they exited through the side gate, from her perch high atop the slide Yinghong saw the three men get into a Jeep and roar off, trailing a column of dust.
When the Jeep disappeared from sight, she was ready, as always, to slide down the elephant's trunk, but this time, for some reason, a casual look downward sent her into a sudden panic over the terrifying height and rendered her immobile. She squatted down. The cicadas in the banyan tree continued to chirp away, the tiresome notes raising a seemingly endless din. Other sounds mingled with the cicadas' chirps: running footsteps, the thump of heavy objects, and frightened shouts. She began to wail.
She must have cried for a very long time, without pause, for her eyes were nearly swollen shut by the time the old janitor found her and carried her down off the slide on his back.
The memory of that night at the Lotus Tower, when she'd been startled awake by the chaotic situation and terrified shouts, remained with her long after her father returned and she started elementary school, even after she entered high school. She could recall how she had stood on the purple sandalwood armchair by the window looking down through a classic barrel-shaped ornamental window and seen two soldiers dressed in wrinkled, faded khaki uniforms. She saw they were carrying rifles over their shoulders, and that their gray, mud-spattered leggings were coming loose as they marched her father past Lotus Tower. His hands were tied behind his back with a Boy Scout rope as thick as a man's finger. Wound around his pale wrists several times, each of its ends was held by a soldier.
She also vividly recalled the look of grim anxiety on his face. Compassionate sadness and heartfelt pity filled his beautiful, sunken, double-fold dark eyes. He held his head high as he walked in an unhurried manner, flanked by the two soldiers, who looked more like bodyguards. The profound worry on her father's face continued to appear before her eyes for many years.
She also remembered how the soldiers marched him out of Lotus Garden and stopped at the entrance arch to climb into a Jeep parked by a low lattice wall. Then the Jeep started up and drove away soundlessly into the dark night.
When she was about to leave for college in Japan after graduating from high school, Father finally broke his habit of not talking politics with her and revealed what had happened.
He told her that he'd been fully prepared once the net began to be cast wider and wider. Usually, after everyone in Lotus Tower was asleep, he'd get out of bed to spend the night alone in a bedroom in the "upper house." On that night, he'd heard the sound of people outside and a pounding at the door, and he'd known that his time had come. Her mother had rushed over from Lotus Garden to pack a few pieces of clothing into a small bundle for him. Bundle in hand, he'd gotten into the car and left, without waking up many people.
Father also mentioned that since her Great Uncle Lin Boting, an anti-Japanese war hero back in Shanghai, was present, the "upper house" and Lotus Garden had been spared the usual ransacking, though unavoidably some items had gone missing after an extensive search.
Having been taught that she should never question or argue with her elders, she simply listened quietly, head down. Later that night she went up to Lotus Tower alone. By then she was old enough to look out through the barrel window without having to stand on the armchair.
It was the 1960s, and dim sixty-watt bulbs no longer illuminated Lotus Garden. Based on Father's design, the garden had been wired for bright florescent lights. Turning them all on, she stood at the Lotus Tower window looking south down at the pond whose surface was covered with lotus flowers. From where she stood, it turned out, she could not possibly have seen the garden entrance or the low lattice wall.
Which meant she could not have seen Father being taken away in a Jeep. As she stood at the window that summer night, she shuddered despite the warmth of the winds.
But there was absolutely no denying the existence of a man who, in his Sun Yat-sen suit, had come to question her about Father from time to time, because his last visit caused a bit of a stir. She was a third-grader, and had just written the line, "I was born just before the end of the Sino-Japanese War...," which had made her teacher, Guizi, laugh out loud.
The first time the man came and asked about Father hadn't meant much to Yinghong, who had planned to tell Mudan about it; but then Mudan had grumbled when she'd kicked her feet in the little red lacquered pail and splashed water on her. Then Yinghong recalled how it always frightened her when someone in the family mentioned her father in a soft, strange voice, and she'd decided not to say anything.
Soon afterward, the man started showing up frequently, and always when she was on her way home after school. She'd be walking down Lucheng's main thoroughfare, the newly named Zhongshan Road. The crowd would begin to thin out after she passed the small-gauge train stop. The man would materialize from a corner, always dressed in the suit that had turned white from too many washings, the sleeves worn to the point of being threadbare. The pant legs were wide, loose, and shapeless, with no sign of a crease down the middle. He asked pretty much the same questions each time, whether Father had any frequent visitors, if he'd ever said down with someone. Over and over, nothing new. She grew used to him after he'd shown up a few times.
Then he stopped coming. When the new semester began after the winter break, another man appeared. Similar appearance, same questions; the only differences were that he was younger than the other man, with a gentler voice and a smile. Once he even brought her a bag of sweets, a common treat available in just about every little general store. They were bright orange round candies sprinkled with sugar crystals. He'd wrapped them in a piece of paper torn from a school notebook, which he must have been holding for quite some time, because the sugar crystals had melted and turned the paper into a warm sticky mess. When he opened the packet to show her, all she saw were orange pieces of candy.
Yinghong giggled and ran away. She returned home to tell Mudan that someone had offered her some cheap, filthy candy. Amita Buddha! Mudan grumbled, scolding her for her poor attitude toward things. The God of Thunder will punish you, Mudan said, before warning her to watch out for bad people who lured little kids with candy and then sold them. She told Yinghong to never take food from a stranger.
"I wouldn't have eaten that candy if he'd given it to me."
Yinghong pouted while she unwrapped a piece of candy wrapped in colorful paper that her father had asked someone to bring back from Taipei.
The young man came a few more times and then was replaced by the previous, older man, who had grown visibly thinner. His faded blue Sun Yat-sen outfit was hopelessly wrinkled, now looking much too big on his slight body.
"Good little girl—"
"My name is Zhu Yinghong and my father is Zhu Zuyan."
She cut him off impatiently and supplied an answer to the same old question, which she could recite backwards and forward, before he even began.
Caught off guard, the man didn't know how to continue, now that the order had been disrupted. A look of displeasure flickered across his face, but he struggled to control his temper. He had to think a moment before finding the questions in the right sequence.
"Does your father have any frequent visitors?" he asked.
"No." Her answer was short.
"What does your father usually talk to you about?"
She began by answering him in her usual casual manner, but then she recalled the young man who'd wanted to give her candy. The recollection led her to believe that the whole process could be a game, so she decided to make fun of the older man by imitating his accent and tone of voice:
"Has he ever talked to you about who's a bad person, or said down with someone, or that someone should be taken out and shot?" she asked with mock seriousness.
The man reddened, his swarthy face suddenly a murky dark red that extended all the way down to the exposed part of his neck above the tunic collar. Pointing a shaky finger at her, he shouted in a shrill, husky voice:
"All right, you fucking little girl. How dare you mock me? Why aren't you fighting the Communists like me? Well, fuck your ancestors, all eight generations of them!"
Yinghong didn't quite understand what he was saying, but she instinctively backed away at the sight of his red face and the sound of his screaming voice.
"I'm going to get to the bottom of things right now. Your father has secret friends and he's planning a rebellion. He's going to rebel. Isn't that right? Tell me!" The irate man advanced menacingly. "I'll kill you if you don't. Don't think I won't."
Too frightened to move, she began to wail.
"Tell me. Tell me your father plans to rebel. If you don't, I'll arrest you and throw you in jail. There'll be ghosts, headless ghosts and hanging ghosts, that'll come to get you at night."
He bent down, his big, dark red face right in front of her, stuck out his tongue and rolled his eyes to show only the white. Instinctive self-preservation made her forget that she was crying. She took off running.
"Run all you want, but you can't get away. Go ahead, show me where you're running to."
She quickened her pace as the heavy footsteps behind her drew closer.
It was dusk on a school day, and Lotus Garden, being on the outskirts of town, seldom saw much foot traffic. At this hour there wasn't another soul in sight. Tears returned to her eyes, and she could hear the man's shouts behind her:
"It's all because of you communists that I can't go home. I'm going to kill all of you, you damned communists!"
She was panting hard by now, after running and crying at the same time, so she slowed down, but when she looked back, she saw, to her horror, that he was gaining on her. At that moment, a woman with a bamboo basket on her arm ducked out of the small roadside Earth God temple. Yinghong instinctively exhausted her last bit of energy to run up and take refuge behind her.
Peeking out from behind the woman, she saw that the man had also stopped. His swarthy face had turned sickly pale and was crisscrossed with tears that flowed unstopped from under his puffy eyelids; two streams of sticky yellow snot ended at his upper lip. Not knowing what to do next, he stood still, his eyes staring straight ahead. Then he abruptly squatted down peasant style, and began to howl. Yinghong hear him sniffle as he muttered:
"It's all... you communists... because of you I can't... can't go home... can't go home. Communists..."
She ran all the way home, face and body bathed in sweat in the bitter cold of late winter. That night she ran a high fever that came and went, keeping her home for nearly a month before she returned to school. By then everyone had finished the second semester's first monthly exam.
When she graduated from high school and was ready to leave for college in Japan, her father, believing she was old enough to know the truth, talked about his arrest years earlier. She sat with her head down; her hair, which had hardly grown from the required length for high-school girls, barely covered her earlobes, so her downy neck showed each time she lowered her head, forming elegant, graceful arcs that reached to her shoulders.
At one point she looked up and, after a momentary hesitation, asked in a firm, serious voice:
"What did Otosan do to warrant arrest?"
Her father's face darkened and he seemed lost in thought for a moment.
"What I did was never the issue. Ayako, you must keep in mind that throughout the course of human history, knowledge has repeatedly gotten people into trouble. I was guilty of the crime of being an intellectual, of being able to think, and not easily manipulated."
Yinghong began to tear up but forced the tears back. Father said in a feigned light tone:
"I was actually one of the lucky ones. They let me go because they thought I'd die from an infectious disease and wanted to show benevolence toward the Zhu family. They didn't expect me to survive." He paused, the lightness of a moment earlier vanishing. "But my life was over."
Still with tears in her eyes, Yinghong managed a smile. She thought quietly for a while before venturing to ask:
"If, I mean if, someone said that Otosan was a Communist, how would Otosan respond to that?"
"Why is Ayako asking such a question?" he asked, keeping his voice low. Visibly apprehensive, he looked around to make sure they were alone.
"Does Otosan remember the time when I was just a kid and fell ill from a scare by a Waishengren?" To put his mind at ease, she quickly went on, "He was crying and calling Otosan a Communist who was the reason they had to leave their hometown and flee to Taiwan."
Father smiled bitterly.
"Want to hear a story?"
Yinghong hadn't expected that, but she acquiesced with a nod.
"I heard this story when I was in prison. An especially patriotic soldier who came from one of China's backwaters saw his very first electric light when he was stationed at a new place. Being obsessively loyal, he was always vigilant against anyone who harbored ill will toward the country."
Father continued in Japanese, as always, but now with a detectable hint of sorrow.
"Shortly after the soldier began at his new post, he noticed that every day at dusk, across from where he lived a light would flicker a few times and then stop, like a signal. After careful observation, he reported this to his superior and had a young student arrested."
At this point, Father stopped; Yinghong, clearly puzzled, looked up at him.
"It turned out that the flickering light, which was mistaken by the soldier as a secret code to the enemy, was caused by the student turning on the light to study." He added, "Back then, electric lights always flickered a few times when you turned them on."
Father's weighty gaze shifted to the scene outside the window, reminding Yinghong of the worry-laden face that kept recurring in her dream, a look of profound concern mingled with compassion and pity.
She wanted to say something but no sound emerged, as the recollection of Father upon his return flashed through her mind.
He had likely returned in the spring. Yinghong recalled that not long after he came home she started going to the neighborhood No. 3 Elementary School, a school bag over her shoulder.
She'd been playing in Lotus Garden when Mudan found her. Back then Mudan called her Ah-hong. "Ah-hong, Ah-hong!" Mudan was running as she called her out of frustration, making her name sound more like hurried breathing. Yinghong wasn't having much fun playing alone, so she stepped out from behind a Yinghong Pavilion pillar. Mudan grabbed her arm and dragged her toward the "upper house." Yinghong was wearing Japanese geta, whose wooden soles knocked crisply against the garden's flagstones. The heels made running difficult, and she had to struggle to keep them on, but they were her favorite red clogs and she refused to take them off.
She heard a din in the "upper house" when they drew near. Mingled with sounds of footsteps were whispered comments like "get the sacrifice ready," "offer up the incense," and "pig's feet and rice noodles."
When she entered the main room, which had always been dark and gloomy, she saw that the dozen or so formal armchairs on both sides of the room were all taken. Women were standing to the sides, while serving women were shuttling back and forth. And yet the room was deathly quiet. Mudan led her forward, where she heard her mother's soft, tender voice:
"Say 'Papa.' Papa's back." Her voice quivered.
She did what she was told, but kept her head down.
Then someone came up to help Father out of his chair. In what she could see with her head down, she spotted a pair of geta in front of the armchair's horse-hoof feet. They were the wooden clogs Father had always worn at home, Japanese-style, some three or four inches high. Moving slowly down into the clogs were two ghostly white feet so thin they were virtually shapeless, and so weak he fell forward before they reached the clogs.
Yinghong jerked her head up and saw Father's face. Over that puffy, deadly ashen face lay a profound melancholy, so sorrow-laden it kept appearing in her memory from that day on.
Father was laid up in Flowing Pillow Pavilion. She could not get in to see him for the longest time, and all she saw was Mudan going in and out with an enamel basin filled with water.
They owned several enamel basins like that, with similar patterns. Mudan used one of them to bathe her.
The thick white enamel, which had the look of spilled condensed milk, was spread evenly over the surface, a solid, opaque white. A large bouquet of hand-painted red flowers adorned the bottom of the basin—layer upon layer of bright red petals interspersed with orange stamens, and highlighted by a few green leaves. The flowers seemed to dance in the ripples when water was poured over them, and appeared to float up to the surface, at which moment Yinghong would step on them so they would stop moving and stay at the bottom, where they belonged.
She always had secret thoughts of her father when she did that. His enamel basin had the same red flowers, making that basin her only concrete connection to him. For some peculiar reason, she was convinced that with her feet on those red flowers she could keep him around. But in no time she'd be frightened by the possibility that the flowers, though solid under her feet, might disappear completely, so she'd remove one foot and see, in the rippling water, the flowers float at the bottom; then she'd hastily step on them again, now with a sense of relief over having verified that they were still there and that she could keep them there.
Father was laid up for more than two years, during which Yinghong secretly continued to repeat her foot ritual. Sometimes, when Mudan was occupied with other chores and forgot to get her to finish up, Yinghong would leave her feet in the water for as long as two hours, even in the depth of winter, long after it had turned icy cold.
Over the years that followed, up until she was a third-grader and wrote "I was born just before the end of the Sino-Japanese War . . . ," she often saw Father, who was on the mend. But she was constantly plagued by the deeply affecting fear that she'd be awakened late one night by unidentified noises, then get up the next morning and never see him again. Then, after a long time, he would return and yet she still couldn't get to see him; his somber, worry-laden face alone kept re-appearing in her dreams.