The city lost to heaven
From Griffith REVIEW Edition 18: In the Neighbourhood
© Copyright Griffith University & the author.
Written by Patrick Holland
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Patrick Holland's biography and other articles by this writer
I write tonight in a hotel room supplied by two congenial governments, having sent away the evening's inevitable prostitute. My window looks across an ocean of stray light. Chaotic currents updrift into the satellite maps I know of Beijing, where the light hovers above the landmass in meaningful, portentous colours. There are no stars.
Officially, I am part of a disembodied team of ‘foreign experts' here to advise the Central Committee on preparations for the Olympics: my fields are noise and light pollution. My true reason for returning to China was to find a girl I left here in her first year of study at Beijing Foreign Language University, with whom I lost contact, and with whom I shared the most extraordinary few moments I shall ever live. Hao Xue's name means plenty of snow. It was given her by the weather on the day of her birth. She might be a diplomat or translator by now, and I worried that she might be far from Beijing, the city she had introduced me to three years ago.
I dropped my bags at the hotel and took a bus to the university. I walked off the ragged commercial street, past a pair of civil guards into an avenue of Chinese pines and sycamores. At the administration office I called a reluctant middle-aged woman to the desk. The university's records said two girls and one boy named Hao Xue had graduated last year. The woman told me they did not keep track of students after graduation. Was there any other way of searching? I told her that Hao Xue was from the hutongs; that she had been on scholarship. The woman told me China might have a million girls called Hao Xue; a quarter of them probably lived in Beijing.
With the administrator's impossible numbers in mind, I asked after Hao Xue at our favourite alleyway restaurant behind the university. I retraced our old paths, muddy and broken paved, where leather-skinned peasants sold produce out of wooden carts under floodlights on even the coldest nights. I did not take the bus to Xicheng and walk to where it happened; though I felt sure I could have found the place, even after so many years. Beijing deceives you into believing it may be familiar. The eye and ear are trapped by concrete monoliths, bleating advertisements, incessant traffic and the light that strays upward from half-cut-off and bare fixtures rendering the heavens all but invisible. The imagination is allowed no latitude and is supplanted by the logical and illusory concentric circles that exist in maps, and the city conceals its gigantic depths in a kind of shadow.
I walked to another part of the central city, the old market streets behind Tiananmen Square, and remembered her skipping like a child across the place where Mao Zedong announced the birth of a new China, escaping from there into the labyrinth that is old Beijing, the hutongs that were once her home.
Despite the dark skin of the south-westerner, which is not admired, Hao Xue passed the unofficial beauty requirement at the university. Her complexion came from her mother who was of the Naxi people of Yunnan. Her mother and father came to Beijing as migrant workers. They slept in human piles in the subway and train stations. Her father carried coal in the hutongs and the hutong people took pity on his pregnant wife – so Hao Xue had many old nannies who became aunts when a munitions factory drew her parents to work and an accident there made her an orphan.
Before she went to university, Hao Xue was the product of a strange, communal and now unobtainable education that nurtured her gifts. She could draw as many Chinese characters at twelve, as the seventy-year-old compound calligrapher. She began to grasp the grammar of any language after perusing a single page and could speak and even sing in native accents after they were spoken to her. I had witnessed her recite Rumi to the amazement of Iranian students. After our nightly study sessions, Hao Xue told me stories from her mother's Dongba religious tradition: a pair of lovers leapt off Jade Dragon Snow Mountain and did not die; not so much as a pine cone could be removed from the forest without the approval of priests; one, or maybe five thousand years ago, people saw a tiger leap across a gorge two miles above the Yangtze.
I had seen Tiger-leaping Gorge. No animal could cross it unless it flew. Perhaps the witnesses had seen a large hawk? Or perhaps the tiger had merely jumped from shelf to shelf down the rock face? I offered Hao Xue these possibilities. She disapproved of my doubt and gave me a furrowbrowed look, as momentarily sincere as a child.
I did not want to appear over rational. I told her stories from my own Catholic tradition: of the Incorruptibles and the scars that would not heal on the face of the Black Madonna of Cz¸estochowa. I had a King James Bible mailed for her. She read the New Testament in a night. I asked her whether she believed what it said.
‘It's a great work of literature,' I said. ‘The greatest.'
‘You told me you were Catholic.'
‘I admire the tradition, and the intellectual rigor of the Church.'
So I avoided the question of faith. I explained the dignity I saw in Catholicism and Orthodoxy as compared with Evangelicalism and the Pentecostals. ‘But the stories are true,' said Hao Xue. She had seen through my attempt at distraction and cared nothing for schisms and politics.
‘How do you know?'
She looked out the window. I too turned to the pines that bent in the wind that came unbroken out of Mongolia, blowing the desert into the city. ‘The sound of the words. The voice. It's beautiful. Whatever is most beautiful is true. Can't you hear it?'
I knew if anyone could hear a resonance in printed words so distantly translated it would be her. I told her of the original Greek codex, how the sayings attributed to Christ are said to reveal characteristics of the Aramaic language spoken in Palestine two millennia ago. Hao Xue smiled. And the bending pines meant we should stay inside and talk further in the warmth granted by exposed hot water pipes and jasmine tea.
HAO XUE TOOK EVERY OPPORTUNITY TO RETURN to Beijing's old districts. She never tired of exploring them. She delighted in teasing me, escaping suddenly into alleys and deliberately wandering off if I was distracted by a vendor or musician. Without her I was soon lost. She would follow me at a distance, obscured in a crowd, to laugh at my helplessness. She would take a path of her own intuition through bustling Donghua market, through courtyards and narrow lanes to appear as if by magic on my path, sitting next to a sweet potato vendor, or turn from a group of flag-waving tourists at the windswept edge of Tiananmen Square.
One evening found us playing this game beneath a choked red sunset. A current of bicycles, taxis and dilapidated buses flowed in the drizzling light. The city stank with summer heat and night came as a relief. Hao Xue led me up a flight of stone stairs, through a series of short turns, across a stone bridge, and we stumbled into a brothel street.
The girls did not lean rakishly against walls in silky red qipaos as they do in films. They stayed hidden indoors (regrettably I knew) in cheap blue jeans and t-shirts. Red lanterns hanging from winged eaves and the madams beneath them said the place was what it was. The dusty orange sky silhouetted a row of silver poplars that lined the canal. The madams stepped discretely into the lane, if a well-dressed man, and certainly if a young unaccompanied foreigner walked by. With a single sharp word, Hao Xue dissuaded the old woman who had latched onto me.
A tall, middle-aged European walked out of a grubby boudoir. The madam of the house followed, perhaps to invite him back tomorrow, or tell him of a younger girl who might please him more, perhaps a girl brought on false pretences from the south-west of Hao Xue's blood. Hao Xue was indignant. I sighed and turned away. I followed the lambency along the water to a curled up man whose stillness had made him invisible. Had he come to the only place he knew that was frequented by foreigners and where there were no police? But I realised he was not begging, nor facing the houses of commerce. Perhaps he knew someone across the road, a sister. He was shirtless in the heat and I saw the infected abscesses that covered his body.
All Hao Xue's anger turned to compassion. I turned and saw a tear describe Hao Xue's cheek. I followed her steps toward the man. An interval of quiet arrived. The man's troubled breath told that every moment of existence was a torment. Then the sound of his breathing was drowned by a pack of blonde revellers. When they saw the man at their feet they leapt away and cursed. I took a hundred yuan note from my wallet, but before I could hand it to Hao Xue she had the man in her arms. And that is when it happened. How can I expect you, my reader, to believe what I can hardly believe myself?; I who saw a girl touch the face of a stricken thing, go to her knees and in Chinese syllables speak the two thousand-year-old name of a Palestinian carpenter's son and rise then with a man whose eyes were as clear of pain as his body was of blemish. Why did I look to the wall of madams and wealthy men, for one of those citizens of the world to cry out miracle? I alone was witness.
I dropped my money on the paving stones. I remember the healed man's eyes meeting mine, Hao Xue's hand, and we two moving through the light and dark of the hutongs; her broken voice repeating that I must tell no one. And I promised. A promise I have kept until now, when I believe I am freed from it.
THE AFTERNOON OF MY SECOND DAY in Beijing found me on a street in Haidian with three government men: an advisor whose capacity I never discovered, a man from the Beijing Municipal Environmental Protection Bureau, and one from the Lighting and Advertising Department. We examined a street of contesting residences and commerce cut by a main thoroughfare. I pointed out an unnecessary cluster of lamps that at a dip and rise in the road exposed motorists to unshielded light. I mentioned the lesser known effects of continued exposure to the seventy-five decibels of noise my meter read on the street: increased incidence of neural and cardiovascular disease and even the strange, as yet inexplicable, insistence of bad memories. Hopelessly I suggested city planners and a team of acoustic engineers and designers I was acquainted with in Berlin, and I wondered in what obscure file in which one of the thousands of government buildings the report I made to the Committee would shortly rest.
When the men were gone I sat in a cafe and watched dilapidated buses peeling from ranks, packed tight with passengers. Being in those human cans was not so unpleasant now in winter. The passengers were mostly labourers, some students, and women shopping for the evening meal. The workers stood with their tools: shovels, picks and sledgehammers. They wore blue flannel or the cheap business suits they laboured in day after day. The buses threw cold dust over them and each waited for the one that would take him to his nook of the labyrinth. Some of the students standing beside the workers were immaculately dressed, and some of the girls, I knew, were very beautiful, though I could not see their faces from here. The city echoed the awful redundancy of the Classic of Mountains and Seas: where entry after entry, page after page, landscapes, men, gods and animals are catalogued and distinguished by a mere shuffling of physical attributes. It is the book no one man could ever have written, or read, let alone understood. Laying its unmeaning map upon the city I felt, for the first time, a sense of hopelessness.
The weather had turned bitterly cold. I thought it would snow tonight, or one night soon. I took a bus to Tiananmen and walked to the east city hutongs where she was from. I cannot be alone in remembering a place so fondly one fears to enter it. I feared change: particularly, a stone wall bearing the white painted character that meant ‘demolish', or worse, her hutong might already be gone. But the place I remembered had survived, albeit shabbier and lonely with desertion. I wandered aimlessly beside lamp-lit games of mahjong and checkers, avoiding those dark threads where the hutongs were abandoned to ghosts. I entered lanes so narrow they barely admitted my frame. Smells of fish, raw sewage, and wood and coal smoke commingled. Women roasted sweet potatoes in fire-drums and children and old men came to warm their hands. I mentioned Hao Xue's name at the fire-drums but the people shook their heads. I spoke to the black-faced coal carrying boys who had probably not seen more than a few days school in their lives and who laughed at the novelty of a foreigner. I became disoriented. Instead of asking after Hao Xue I found myself asking an old cobbler the way back to one of the places I knew. A few guttural words of Mandarin and contradictory hand gestures made the way no clearer.
I was at the frayed edge of the hutongs, where concrete and ill laid bricks replaced cobblestones and the sounds of people were drowned by those of machines. The light of incandescent lamps lay like stagnant water, making banks of shadow. A crowd of people came flushing through from a modern avenue and a bicycle crashed into me and sent me sprawling to the ground. I picked myself up and was face to face with a deeply apologetic middle-aged man who had flung his bicycle aside. He took hold of my arm. Apparently I had come down on a jagged brick. Blood seeped through my shirt. The man took me to a tap to wash out the grit. I assured him I would be fine. Nonetheless he invited me to his home, to have my wound tended by his daughter. He said his name was Lu Yaodong. He straightened his coat and collected his bicycle and pointed to the bag support where I should sit. I asked where we were going.
‘Jinyu hutong,' he said. ‘Golden Fish.'
The classic circular entranceways appeared. Lanterns hung from the branches of sycamore and gingko trees. We entered a lane, then a narrow brick archway crested with a blue-stained fanlight. Finches fluttered against the withes of a hanging cage before a wooden door. Behind the door was a steam-filled room and a girl I supposed was Lu Yaodong's daughter. She smiled bashfully at me from across a low table where she knelt laying out the evening meal: dumplings and a fragrant soup. When she stood up from the table I saw that she was lame; her left shin was as curved as a rugby ball. She took a wooden crutch from where it rested on a lattice sill and led me to a basin. She washed my arm and dabbed it with iodine and laughed when I flinched.
Lu Yaodong invited me to eat with them. His daughter, he said, was a fine cook. ‘Xiao Lu', Lu Yaodong called her plainly, ‘Little Lu', for in China at least a million girls are called ‘Little Lu' one hundred times a day. He told me they lived alone. His wife had been dead six years. Xiao Lu was of marrying age and her deformity troubled her father. ‘Only a wealthy man can afford a lame wife,' he said. ‘But how she can cook! I'm trying to find her a little restaurateur. She would be very useful to such a man.'
Lu Yaodong regretted he was more than forty-five years older than his daughter. He had only a low-level hospital administrator's wage. His lungs were not good. If he became sick what would become of her?
When the food had satisfied him, Lu Yaodong disappeared behind a wall, leaving me to a few bashful moments with Xiao Lu, and returned with bottles of Qingdao beer and a packet of French cigarettes. We talked of the hutongs.
‘More destroyed each day,' he lamented.
Of course, I had waited for the moment to bring up what was always on my mind.
‘I knew a girl who was born here,' I said, ‘here in the east city hutongs. Her name was Hao Xue.'
Even the girl who knelt washing dishes stopped and looked up at me. Lu Yaodong's look of geniality was replaced by one of suspicion.
‘You knew her?'
‘I was her friend at university.'
‘Yes. Hao Xue went to university.'
‘Has she graduated?'
‘She never got that chance. You see ...' but the man paused and looked at his daughter, even a foreigner these days may not be safe to talk to, particularly one who spoke Mandarin and admitted to being on the government payroll.
‘Hao Xue – was very special,' he said. ‘She ...'
‘Could cure the sick.'
Again the eyes of father and daughter met in silence. Lu Yaodong stubbed out his cigarette and asked me directly: was I Wo'di or Tianzhujioade? I did not recognise the first word – tonight I know it means ‘secret police'. The second meant Catholic.
‘I am Hao Xue's friend,' I told him. ‘Nothing more or less. I loved her.' I had never admitted so much even to myself. ‘I lost touch with her after I returned to my country.'
Lu Yaodong lit another cigarette and spoke in tones I thought unnecessarily hushed: ‘We of the hutong kept the strange stories that surrounded her very quiet. She would go from here with a hooded man on the subway to Qiananmen and Nantang Cathedral. The hooded one was a holy man from Poland. Hao Xue spoke with him regularly. There was no law against it. At least none that the government chose to enforce, which amounts to the same. But then Hao Xue contracted a disease. She was so often among the poor and sick. A disease of the skin.'
I sighed at the injustice. Was she still sick? Lu Yaodong could not say. And the nature of the disease – did it affect her face? I recalled with regret the wild eyes and earth-coloured skin she had in common with the mountain girls I had seen in her mother's home.
‘Her hands,' said Lu Yaodong, holding out his palms, ‘and her feet. She would not stop bleeding.' I do not know how long I sat in silence with my breath stuck in my chest. ‘Hao Xue refused the doctor,' said Lu. ‘Rumour of the strange disease leaked out. She stayed in the hutongs more than ever. Finally, she had to be hidden, even here. Poor people began sitting in the lanes as though they belonged, but whose homes and names were unknown and whose hands were without marks of work. Questions of Hao Xue were always in their talk. On the last night I ever saw her, the hooded man from Nantang was here. I peered through a window into the home of an old seamstress and saw him make a compress for Hao Xue's hands and he wept with great apology in his face, but first he spoke words in a strange language and kissed her hands and feet and even her stomach without fear of contagion.
‘You saw the – disease?'
‘They were deep sores, friend. I saw with my own eyes how deep! But those nearest her said they never festered or spread and there was no smell of pollution. That last night, I saw the dressing of her wounds and a session of prayer begin. I left two or three old women at the window. They say the hooded one took her back to Nantang. It was not unusual for Hao Xue to be gone for days, but a policeman came to the hutongs asking for the names of all those who were friends of the girl Hao Xue, spreading the story that the disease was not a disease and that Hao Xue was insane, that she made the sores herself with acid.'
At this point Xiao Lu hobbled to the doorway of the kitchen. Her eyes were wet with unfallen tears. ‘Hao Xue was not insane, was she? She said she would cure me. The God she prayed to, it is your God, yes?'
I told her every good thing that was said about Hao Xue was true and every evil thing was a lie. Lu Yaodong shooed the girl away.
‘Hao Xue knew of my daughter and our troubles. Once like thunder out of sunshine she said, "Before I die Xiao Lu will walk as I do, Lao Lu." Like a fool I told the girl.'
Apparently Lu Yaodong was hard of hearing as he did not turn when poor Xiao Lu made her best attempt at stepping quietly to the doorway she was banished from. Her boyish haircut and plain Chinese face appeared and I gave her a smile over her father's shoulder.
‘Understand, we loved Hao Xue, even those who did not believe in her gifts. But the children here were not to mention her name. A policeman gave them sweets and instructions – a telephone number and a meeting place – should they hear their parents mention the crazy woman, Hao Xue, the witch who drank her own blood. Finally, a story reached the hutongs that she had been taken from the hooded one at Nantang and her whereabouts were unknown. No one has seen or heard from her since.'
Even those who did not believe – Lu Yaodong's phrase resounded in my head. I thought of the prodigy I had witnessed. Had I been tricked by the light that night? Perhaps the man had not been as sick as he appeared now in my memory, perhaps he had not been as cured; I knew what specious light memory casts on the past, and my memory is uncannily fallible.
‘You don't believe the stories?' I whispered.
Lu Yaodong sighed.
‘Sometimes the great want of something, the need for it to be, can make it appear as if it is, when we see only our desire. Secretly I have thought this about myself and Hao Xue: if it was only for the sake of my daughter ...'
‘But you saw ...'
‘What did I see? I heard rumours of healings. I saw a hooded man kiss her bleeding hands and make prayers. In the end that is all I have. How can I, a poor half-educated man, make any sense of this world? Only, Hao Xue was not insane. That is the one thing I know for certain. That one thing troubles me.'
We had exhausted our knowledge of Hao Xue. Darkness bedded in the abandoned rooms of the house. A lantern lit the emptiness of the courtyard. I thanked Lu Yaodong and his daughter for their hospitality. Lu made me promise to return before I left the city.
THE NEXT DAY I TRIED TO ARRANGE an interview with the bishop at Nantang. A lay assistant regretted that the bishop and all the priests were busy and would be indefinitely. I looked up a friend I had made reading copy for the People's Daily. It was a relief to speak English. I asked Juan if he had heard the story of Hao Xue – perhaps he had seen her with me in the old days? Though I realise now I had jealously guarded her.
‘The girl from the hutongs,' I said.
He had heard of her and her mysteries.
‘You didn't run the story, at the Daily?'
Juan lit a cigarette and smiled wryly at my need to ask.
‘Even the word "stigmata" is forbidden. Try to find it in a dictionary here. We would've had to use "haemophilia". The story wouldn't have made sense. I went over there myself. I remembered the name in association with you. But the truth is there wasn't much of a story to tell. Innuendo, conflicting rumours, the official accusations of immolation – official statements are harder to track to one man than rumours. No one was willing to definitively say anything. I don't understand what the Central Committee has to worry about. She represented your executed criminal god – it's unlikely such an unprosperous god would ever take hold here.'
No less likely than in my country, I thought.
‘My country has set up Baal in Christ's place, though the names get confused. A man who ran as a Palestinian mystic with no fixed address or money would never see a day outside barbed wire if he landed in Australia.'
Juan tapped cigarette ash into a tray and whistled to the bleary eyed waitress.
‘Is this Baal a worthy god?'
‘He has provided many good harvests. Our people have no reason to complain.'
I mentioned my idea of going to Nantang to surprise a priest and ask after Hao Xue.
‘You can try, but the Church is run by patriots. Authentic Catholics rarely contact it now days. Fake bishops are appointed without the approval of Rome. You must have heard? Same as the Tibetan strategy. It's easier to become a bishop or llama than a street sweeper,' Juan chuckled.
‘But the methods the government use for extracting apostasy are no joke.'
‘No.' Juan shook his head and commented that it was uncommonly cold tonight. ‘You work at a paper. Tell me.'
Of course I had heard of tortures carried out on Buddhist nuns and monks and members of Falun Gong. But the Western media knows little of China and is allowed to tell less. Juan was an insider.
He was reluctant. I pushed him.
‘I have seen photographs,' he said. ‘Electrocution. Men and women tied up with barbed wire. Noise tortures. Burning of hands and feet. I do not truly know.'
And I had the certain feeling he had spared me.
‘You Orientals are brutal.'
Juan did me the courtesy of turning to his food and not replying.
I RODE THE CROWDED SUBWAY TO QIANANMEN and was once again in the centre of Beijing. Work was going on through the night on a new monolith, larger than any in the district, judging by the depth of the foundations. White floodlights pressed a false day down upon the site. Behind a wire hoarding Mongolian and south-western people yelled bluntly at each other in the rudiments of their acquired common language that sounded like barking dogs and could express only the demands of the building. I wondered how many lives had been sacrificed to it already. There was at least one for every high-rise. I felt the insidious beauty of the blind sky, the pollution that refracted light into the surrounding atmosphere and became alluring violet. I walked Qianmen Road to the cathedral. A girl passed me whose flashing face recalled Lu Yaodong's daughter, but I turned and saw her scuttle down the pedestrian underpass. I checked my watch and the notice board. Mass was not long finished. I lit a taper and placed it before the Mater Dolorosa and hoped the light would perpetuate my prayer.
I approached the altar where a young priest was removing his soutane.
‘Am I too late, Father?'
He told me I should return tomorrow then stooped to blow out a row of altar candles.
‘Actually, I'm not here for mass. I want to speak to you about a friend of mine. You may know her. A girl. Her name is Hao Xue.'
At the name the young man stopped and stared at me. ‘That name means nothing to me except a sick person.'
‘I'm only trying to find her. I have no interest -'
‘In her miracles? There were no miracles. She made her wounds with acid,' he pointed to his palms. ‘The age of immolation is long past. She brought dishonour to our Chinese Church.'
‘You saw the wounds?'
‘No,' he said. ‘I never met Hao Xue. She happened before I came here. But I have it on authority ...'
‘Where is she now, Father?'
‘How should I know? I say the mass tomorrow at nine. Confession is an hour before. Come if you have any interest in the Church besides gossip and magic.'
‘Just give me a name. One name. Someone who might help me!'
‘I don't know one.' He waved me away, blew out the last candle and left via a passageway. There was no point following him; I felt he had told me the truth.
I stood at the top of the Cathedral stairs and wondered if any of the night's electric lamps lit that face my memory struggled to light tonight, though it had only been three years ... if one of the yellow windows, into whose hideous room I feared to allow my thoughts to enter, was hers. A wall of cold Mongolian wind struck my face. I could not go back to the hotel. I knew I would walk the labyrinthine streets, unable to help searching for her face among the thousands of faces I would pass.
I spoke to the starless sky.
‘If You are there, why did You give her signs You knew would get her killed in a deaf and blind room, where none would ever see and believe? Why do You hide Yourself? Come now and save her! Even if I believed in You I would have no faith in You because You close off every avenue to Your people. You have killed her for nothing, and You have toyed with me. You let every light outshine You; every voice shout over You. We have all of us suffered for nothing. No one believes in Hao Xue now. Not even me. You have achieved nothing.'
I sank into the streets of the unfathomable city like a lost child. Everything was strange and everyone a stranger. Slate-grey building gave way to slate-grey building, blank determined face to its like, till I saw all the city go by a thousand times and not nearly once, and I felt the full brunt of Beijing's immensity, the hopelessness of searching for anyone or thing within it. So I would go to the one house in the city that had invited me.
The long-awaited snow began and seemed to lend a little of its silence to the crowded night. Amazingly, I found the way without a false step. Lu Yaodong was not home. His daughter stood in the open courtyard weeping, the snow slanting down upon her through the light of an orange lantern. I lay my hand on her face. Her voice shook.
‘I walked to Nantang this afternoon. It was cold so my leg pained more than usual, but I felt I must go. You see, when I heard you speak of Hao Xue, I knew you believed in her, and then I believed in her again too. So I went to the cathedral to pray. I went to the altar. A white-robed girl knelt at the front. I knelt beside her and put my hands together. I saw her face, but closed my eyes. She whispered that my wrongs were undone and when I stood up she was gone. I felt so well I did not want to ride the bus home. I walked. I was halfway home ...' she looked down at her leg, weeping again. She held a wooden crucifix to her lips.
I did not know the power of the innocent.
‘Pray for it to be undone. They will come for you. You will be hurt.'
She shook her head.
And I felt shame for the painless way I had made through the world. And again I looked to the sky.
Now You've marked a child even smaller, less protected, than Hao Xue. Once more You have merely whispered, as You always do through peasants and shepherds and cloistered religious. Why not me? The newspapers would listen to me. Even governments must respect a white-skinned, English-speaking scientist. I could give Your message, whatever it is, the volume to compete with the din of Your enemies. I would be even louder!
Silence was my answer.
A dirty faced urchin came through the open door to deliver a bucket of coal. The boy gasped. Xiao Lu smiled at him and called him little brother.
‘It was Hao Xue,' she said.
The boy ran his hand over Xiao Lu's shin. She allowed his coal-blackened fingers to touch the wooden figure of He who wrote only a few obscure letters in the sand that were blown away. And the snow fell quietly on the three of us in the courtyard and on the cobblestones and mudded ways without, hushing even the great city. At some point during the night the most painful cries would be enveloped by a gentle whisper. ♦