Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Red. Li Wen can smell the petals, bathed in rosewater, floating in the grass by her feet.

White. This is Li Wen’s granddaughter as she walks down the aisle, carrying a bouquet of calla lilies. White. The clarity in her eyes. White. The pearls around her long, graceful neck.

Black. The groom, in his tuxedo. He is a tall and handsome gweilo, a Jewish, a doctor, with straight, rectangular white teeth. A wine glass is smashed under his shiny black heel. A silver-haired woman pops to her feet. Agile, thinks Li Wen. Her neighbor in Block Nine told her about the elderly ladies in America, the ones with faces cracked like an elephant’s hide, who walk in pairs with weights strapped to their wrists.

Li Wen’s granddaughter changes into a floor-length silk cheungsam for the  evening banquet. Twenty tables, twenty suckling pigs with crispy brown skin and a maraschino cherry in each one’s mouth. The groom sings a welcome on the karaoke machine. There is clapping, and soon Li Wen realizes the clapping is for her, honorable grandmother who traveled over three thousand miles from China. The groom—Alan is his name—gives her a peck on the cheek.


Red. Li Wen remembers opening her eyes, seeing the flag flapping above her in the wind.

White. A circle, like the moon. It is December 1937. She is twelve years old, her neck wrapped in bandages. She cannot remember how she arrived at this place.

Black. She wiggles her eyeballs from side to side. She does not recognize this character flapping in the wind, with its rigid black lines, its heavy right angles, but she knows it is not the symbol of the Japanese. She sleeps, she wakes, all around her a commotion of weary bodies, broken, torn, unwashed.

A blind girl, not much older than herself, mops her forehead with cold rags. No, this is not a hospital. Li Wen lies on stiff grass, in open air, the courtyard of a wealthy man’s house. Mei-gwoh ren, says the American doctor, raising an index finger to his nose. He quickly examines her wounds. Can you remember what happened? says the blind girl. Li Wen cannot, nor can she move her head, emit sound from her throat. The doctor nods. Fear needs no translation.

One night, Li Wen wakes to a cold slithering, across her bare right ankle, across her left. The courtyard, even with its 10-foot stone walls, cannot bar the snakes. She stares up at the flag, casting long shadows by moonlight. She dares not move, cry, wake the boy lying on the straw mat beside her, who makes gentle chirping sounds through his nose as he sleeps. The blind girl has told her, she is one of the luckiest. This is the German’s house, the safest compound in all of the Nanking Safety Zone. Outside the Zone’s gates are men and women and children in heaps, begging to be saved.

Li Wen is still lying on her back the next morning when she glimpses a red- striped cap popping up above the stone wall. Another. Another. Like puppets. Li Wen thinks she must be dreaming, until she hears a woman’s scream—Vile pigs! Japanese soldiers in brown casings leap like monkeys, land with a thump on the grass.

Brown. The shade of turd, of dirt. In patches, Li Wen now remembers: the dust-covered uniforms of the men at the door, shouting and slashing the air with bayonets. Get out, cries Li Wen’s grandmother, hobbling on bound feet. She is pushed to the ground, stamped out with a tall boot. Li Wen’s father tries to shield her younger brother with his body. He is shot, twice, in the head. Li Wen and her mother are taken outside, ordered to strip. There are four, maybe five, maybe six, maybe more: Red. The color of her screams, piercing holes in the sky. Tunnels to hell, thinks Li Wen, just before she crumples to dark.

The German has marched out of the house, hollering, waving both arms. He grabs one of the intruders by the neck, shoves his red, white, and black armband beneath the soldier’s nose and orders him to sniff. Get out, he says. He points two fingers toward the stone wall, refusing to show these vagrants respect by opening his courtyard gates. Li Wen watches the scramble of brown backs, out of sight as quickly as they came.

That night: orange. The sky, lit by fires around the city. Everywhere there is fire, gunshots, smoke, stench. Even the German cradles his head in his hands.

When Purple Mountain burns, Nanking is lost.

This is what her father said, when General Chiang first surrendered Shanghai.

The next day, the blind girl reports that one hundred of her sisters from neighboring Gin Ling Girls College have been violated. Violated. Li Wen’s skin grows hot and tight. How do you know? she asks, trembling. The blind girl overheard it, the German speaking to the American doctor. She learned her English at the Gin Ling Girls College.

White. The color of maggots. The first snow falls, blanketing bodies in streets and fields and ponds and ditches. Barely three weeks, and more than two hundred thousand Chinese have crammed into the Safety Zone. At the German’s compound, six hundred refugees now huddle under sheets of tin, old doors, cut canvas sacks, the red, white, and black flag nailed to tall wooden stakes to create a tarp.

Li Wen is lucky. She has been moved inside, to the kitchen, where she lays out her straw mat alongside twelve others each night. In the daytime, she helps the servant women extract weevils from rice, skimming them from the large pots of water with her fingers. In the evening, she asks the blind girl to teach her English. She learns to say Thank you, and More rice, please, and Japanese devils make pig farts.

Two weeks after the massacre’s start, it is Christmas, Li Wen’s first. The German’s personal servants have found a small fir tree, wrapped its base with a red, white, and black armband, decorated it with gold coins and silver bells. The children clap their hands. Four other foreigners arrive in a large, black car. They glide through the courtyard gates. The men raise small glasses of wine. They sing together with loud, rumbling voices. After they leave, the German sings by himself. He gives each of the children in the compound a token gift—a 20-cent piece, a scrap of porcelain, a lucky stone. Thank you, says Li Wen, as he presses a tiny figurine into her hand. She savors the warmth of his skin and his breath near her neck.

It’s an elephant, says Li Wen, to the blind girl.

The blind girl touches the figurine with her fingers. This is neither a pillar nor a basket, nor a brush nor a rope! she says, laughing. Do you know the story of the blind men and the elephant? Li Wen shakes her head, allows her small, angular face to be cradled in the blind girl’s hands as she listens. There was once a wise emperor who brought six blind men to his palace. He said, I will show each of you an elephant. The first man touched the elephant’s leg. He said, An elephant is like a pillar!

On New Year’s Day, Li Wen is told to fetch a basin from the German’s private quarters. He sits hunched at his desk, writing. Li Wen is careful not to make a sound. The German is always writing. The blind girl says his words will be presented to Adolf Hitler, the most powerful man in Germany, as evidence of the war crimes committed by the Japanese. More powerful than the Japanese? says Li Wen. Then she remembers that coward, the soldier, the one who ran away when the German waved his armband under his nose.

She descends the stairs, stops to gaze at the Christmas tree sitting on a window ledge, its needles starting to brown at the tips. She runs a flat palm along each delicate branch; the jingling of silver bells is the most beautiful sound she has ever heard. She touches the red, white, and black cloth protecting the trunk of the plant, brings her cheek to it, finds it thicker, rougher, scratchier than she’d imagined. The blind girl calls up to her. Li Wen? Are you there? Li Wen is silent. She cannot resist. With slender fingers, she excavates beneath the fir’s dangling branches. She unravels the armband, carefully positions its emblem four inches above her left knee, ties it tight around her thigh, under her skirt.


Red. Li Wen’s face burns at the recollection. The silver-haired woman is holding the microphone now. When she speaks, everyone laughs politely. Li Wen admires her trim, pulled-back shoulders, her excellent posture, feet planted in perfect parallel stance. Alan’s family came to America from Austria, during the war. Li Wen’s granddaughter had mentioned this. The granddaughter visited Guangzhou five years ago, bringing photos of herself as a child in New Jersey: riding a Big Wheel in a yellow jumper, dressed as a scarecrow for Halloween, holding her parents’ hands in front of a pink brick house with a rectangular green lawn, like the ones Li Wen had seen in the movies. The man in the picture looked respectable Chinese enough, though American-born. He wore a tan, corduroy suit. The woman wore denim jeans and a sleeveless button-down blouse. The woman—Li Wen’s daughter—looked happy.

The granddaughter steps up to dance with her new husband now. They have learned a foxtrot for this occasion. She is light on her feet, a sparkling beauty, though Li Wen is sure she can see evidence of the girl’s tainted blood in the shape of her eyelids, her pronounced chin. Gweilo, they do not notice these things. Her neighbor in Block Nine told her, to gweilo, all orientals look the same.

White. Li Wen wipes her forehead with a cloth napkin. She excuses herself, wobbling as she rises. Heels click across the pink marble floor. In the powder room, she examines her reflection in the broad wall mirror, framed by splaying bouquets in glass vases. Blue irises. Purple orchids. Her face looks spotty, like the back of a lizard. She secludes herself in the larger stall, lifts her skirt.

Swastika. This is the ugliest word. She can say it in eight different languages.


It is Chinese New Year, 1938. Li Wen wakes with a strange metallic taste in her mouth. She spits, licks her salty forearms, scrapes her tongue with a hairpin. The taste does not go away until she eats a handful of dirt.

Out in the courtyard, hundreds of refugees have gathered, awaiting the German’s car. They will present him with a gift, a red silk banner with the Buddha’s scripture; gratitude for saving their lives. Li Wen squats near the compound’s iron gates, buffeted by strange knees and elbows. As the hum of the car’s engine draws near, the gates swing wide. Just outside, Li Wen glimpses a body, limbs spread at odd angles in the snow. What must the rest of Nanking look like? she wonders, shuddering. It is a small corpse, that of a boy in a torn red jacket. A young boy. Her throat tightens. A boy about her brother’s age. Di-di! She is sure. No, she cannot be sure. He is too far away. Di-di! Li Wen lunges forward, but an elderly man grabs her by the waist. Mei mei, you are crazy. The German has exited his car. He is watching the scene, Li Wen the center of commotion. The blind girl rushes over, clutches her wrist. Li Wen, it is not safe.

That evening, Li Wen vomits into a vat of rice. The servant women cry. Aiya, wasteful girl! Sharp knuckles dig into her scalp. Only the blind girl guesses: it is the half- devil growing inside Li Wen making her sick.

Early the next morning, the girls crouch in the courtyard, beating wool blankets in the snow. A loud pop, like a firecracker. Another. Li Wen cries. Get down! hisses the blind girl. Arms cover heads. A second volley of bright objects sails over the gates, each exploding as it hits the ground. Then, hoots of laughter, boots scuffling on pavement. All is quiet again. Li Wen stands, spits, wipes mud off her skirt, surveys the glistening pulp spattered everywhere in the dirt. Tomatoes, she says. No, persimmons! says the blind girl, inhaling. Only one of the small fireballs lies miraculously unscathed. Li Wen plucks it from the snowbank, examines its mottled, puckering red-orange skin. It’s rotten, she says. She places the soft fruit in the blind girl’s hand. Like an old woman’s ass, says the blind girl, giggling. Gently, she squeezes. Ripe flesh oozes forth. Try, she says, scooping the innards on to Li Wen’s tongue. It is surprisingly sweet, custardy, delicious.

Li Wen is still licking her teeth, her gums, when she feels a tap on her shoulder. She turns to find the German looming above her with black boots, brass belt, bristly face. Come, he says. She follows him to a spot far from the house, by the stone wall, beneath a stately banyan. Where the tree’s vines bow lowest, a shallow ditch has been dug. Li Wen peeks, gags. At the bottom lies the broken body with its torn red jacket, gray-green hands, hunched into the earth. Li Wen drops to her knees. Are you all right? says the German. She will not allow him to see her cry, but she cries all the same, with fractured, icy breaths. How can she ask to see the boy’s face, when the German is already swinging his metal shovel, sweat beading down his jaw? Very fine, thank you, she whispers, again and again. They fill the hole with crackly leaves and sticks and dirt.

Two weeks pass. Every day, the reports come: promises from the Japanese embassy that “ungentlemanly behavior” will stop; that order will be restored.

One afternoon, Li Wen is interrupted from fitful sleep to find an elderly woman kneeling beside her. We must save the men, she says, prodding a sharp elbow into Li Wen’s back. What men? says Li Wen. Come, says the woman. I’m tired, says Li Wen. She turns away, lashing the old woman’s face with her pigtails. The woman leans close, bacterial breath pungent, spits into Li Wen’s ear. Vile witch! screams Li Wen. Later, the blind girl tells her, hundreds of men were rounded up from the Safety Zone, paraded down Taiping Avenue. Those claimed as civilians by wives or mothers or daughters were released, the rest were shot immediately. Li Wen kneads her temples, dizzy. Did you save them? she asks. One, says the blind girl. Li Wen runs outside, scrapes a hole in the snow, heaves. Every morning, she heaves; it does not exorcise her guilt.

The next day, the German announces he must soon leave China. Tokyo’s pronouncement: order is restored; the refugees must return to their homes. The German has a wife and a little girl waiting. Homes? What homes? the women cry. The German does not answer. He will bring his war diaries and photographs and 16-millimeter films to Berlin. Adolf Hitler will not want to hear what he has to say. Postwar, he will be arrested, tried, absolved, mostly forgotten, his final years spent in poverty, supported by small gifts from the Chinese government. Li Wen learns this much, much later.

We will never leave, say the women. We have nowhere to go.

Without the German, I will die, says Li Wen.

Ridiculous, says the blind girl. You can run, fast. And you can see, can’t you? If you can see, then you can hide.

The blind girl disappears the next day. It is said she has been taken to serve in the bordellos.

Red. Trickles of blood stain Li Wen’s undergarments. Red. Shame. Still, the half- devil grows.

White. Lips. Fingertips. Li Wen threads through the city’s abandoned alleys. White. The fear in her eyes.

Black. Ash and cinders, soot and dust. Rubble where her family’s two-story house once stood on Chusan Road.

On the eve of the German’s departure, Li Wen chops her hair short, darkens her face with charcoal. She unravels the armband from her thigh, ties it around her thickening waist, proudly, in plain sight. When men look at her, she runs. She hides. She is fast. She can climb. She learns to bean a soldier’s helmet with a piece of fruit from ten feet up, leap and land like a cat. As the months pass, the armband’s mark rises to rest above her belly, fat and hungry. When men look at her, she sneers, makes her eyes go cold and hard with hate.

Red. Her daughter’s wet, wrinkly face, born in a safe house in Canton. The a-yi delivers two strong slaps to the baby’s behind. Thwack. Thwack.

The stall door swings open. Li-Wen jumps. Enter two girls, teenaged bridesmaids in peach dresses, peach shoes. The tall, pretty one shrieks. The other shushes. They exit quickly, a flurry of satin and tulle, the sound of metal slamming behind them.

Honorable grandmother, mortified. Li Wen’s face drains. She is so careless, to forget to slide that latch into place. Elbows on knees, she bows her head, stares at the ladder in her dark tan knee-high, then her jiggling thigh, the armband with its swastika still wrapped tight. Red. White. Black.

Of course, she thought of discarding it countless times: in the long heat of summers, when the coarse fabric caused her skin to break into rash; on Victory Day, 1945, when rabid crowds trampled streets and the air burned her lungs; in 1948, as she stood on Taishan pier, waving to her daughter, just ten years old, whose wedding she would miss, whose funeral she would miss, whose life she would glimpse only via irregular letters that took months to arrive by boat. The daughter was sent to live with a distant cousin in America, where she could rewrite the history of her life as she liked.

Li Wen wonders, Will it be the tall pretty one who says to the other, Was that . . . ? Did you see . . . ? And will they whisper, tell, emboldened by moral duty, or be so embarrassed as to pretend they saw nothing at all?

Shame. Eight decades old, sitting on the pot, shorn of dignity. They will call her hateful, callous, ignorant at best, and how will she explain? But as a young woman, she’d won contests dredging up thick lugeys from the back of her throat, planting them smack in that blurry space on the posters, between Adolf Hitler’s eyes. And as a history teacher in the secondary schools, she clutched chalk so tightly her knuckles hurt, and when students watched terrifying films about the concentration camps, she swore she could feel the Nazi symbol’s corners, viciously stabbing her thigh. The Third Reich. Auschwitz. Nuremberg Trials. No doubt the girls in peach learned the history of their grandmothers this way.

She imagines Alan, thick brows knit in horror. Or worse, the silver-haired woman, who probably had to learn to run fast, too, and climb, and hide, nip her breath at each hint of hard footsteps, maybe stow away in the filthy bowels of an ocean liner.

How will she explain?

A new body has entered the powder room. Li Wen can hear the swish of soft- soled shoes. She hangs her head low, lower, twists it this way and that, straining for a glimpse.

Mrs. Li, are you there?

Li Wen is silent. It is a motherly voice. Neither thin with youth nor throaty with age. No doubt sent by the girls in peach.

Mrs. Li, are you all right? A gentle knock.

I am very fine, thank you, says Li Wen. She repeats this several times until eventually the swishing shoes go away.

She could play dumb. Deny. She could untie it now. Roll it up neatly and place it in the pine-scented wastebasket by her foot. But now this image, which recurs in her imagination from time to time: The blind girl is brought to the wise emperor’s palace. He says, I will show each of you an elephant. One by one, they are brought forth to touch its trunk, its tusk, its ear, its leg. The blind girl gets stuck handling the elephant’s anus.

Li Wen sighs. It is a piece of cloth. Faded. Frayed. In this moment, as much a part of her as the bunion on her left foot or the liver spots on her face, as private as the dimpled skin of her sagging buttocks. She gathers herself, smoothes her skirt, returns to trial before the large wall mirror.

Proud Rose. The shade on her lips. She blots with a crisp tissue, lightly.

Back in the banquet hall, there is more dancing now. The silver-haired woman stands by the bandstand, beside a plump woman with a young boy in her arms. Li Wen shifts, but cannot see whether the plump woman is wearing soft-soled shoes. Was it her? Do they know? Li Wen wipes her palms on her skirt. Perhaps she is too intently studying the silver-haired woman’s face, because a moment later it turns, lifts, and there is the nod of chin, loose and jowly, and there are her blue eyes, bright and creased.

A clarinet’s pitch rises. Young and old form a circle, clasp hands, as the newlyweds are hoisted high in two chairs.

Purple. Green. Pink. Blue. The swirl of dresses. The silver-haired woman sings, arms waving, gold sleeves shimmering under the lights. Li Wen adjusts her silk jacket, stands and sways to the music.

To grandmothers among us, she thinks, raising her glass.

Black. Her granddaughter’s hair.




Wednesday, January 15, 2014