The city lost to heaven - Page 3
From Griffith REVIEW Edition 18: In the Neighbourhood
© Copyright Griffith University & the author.
Written by Patrick Holland
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.