Read Ocean of Words Online

Authors: Ha Jin

Ocean of Words (7 page)

Without replying, Kang went out into the open air. He wanted to bolt into the snow and run for hours, until his legs could no longer support him. But he paused. On the drill ground, a dozen soldiers from the Line Construction Platoon were practicing climbing telephone poles without wearing spikes. Behind the brick houses stood the thirty-meter-tall aerial, made of three poles connected to one another, which had been raised for their station by these fellow men. In the northeast, the Wusuli River displayed a series of green, steaming holes along its snow-covered course. On the fields and the slopes of the hills, a curtain of golden sparks, cast by the setting sun, was glittering. The gray forests stretched along the undulating mountain ridges toward the receding
horizon. The sky was so high and the land so vast. Kang took a deep breath; a fresh contraction lingered in his chest. For the first time he felt a person was so small.

That evening he wrote a letter to the company’s Party branch, imploring the leaders to transfer him to the Line Construction Platoon. He did not give an explicit reason, and merely said that somehow his mind was deteriorating and that he could not operate the telegraphic apparatus anymore. The letter ended as follows:

If I can no longer serve the Revolutionary Cause and our Motherland with my brain, I can at least work with my hands, which are still young and strong. Please relieve me from the Wireless Platoon.

After writing the letter, he wept, filling his hands with tears. He used to believe that when he was demobilized he could make a decent living by working as a telegrapher at a post office or a train station, but now he had ruined his future. How painful it was to love and then give it up. If only he could forget that woman’s voice and her telegraphic style. Whether he could or not, he had to try.


I met Dragon Head on our first evening in Guanmen Village, which is twenty
north of Hutou. After the Battalion Headquarters settled in a small adobe house, whose owner of the landlord class had been exiled inland because of the tense situation at the border, the commander of the First Battery, Lin Hu, brought over a militiaman. They stepped in and whisked the snow off their clothes with their fur hats. The militiaman unbuttoned his blue overcoat, and a pair of large Mauser pistols, probably captured from the Japanese, were revealed at his flanks. He was tall and broad shouldered. The room grew darker as the flickering flame on the kerosene lamp cast his huge wavering shadow on the white wall.

“This is Militia Company Commander Long Yun,” Lin Hu said. Then he turned to the militiaman. “This is our battalion commander, Gao Ping.”

“How do you do?” I held out my hand.

“Happy to meet you,” Long Yun said and put his mittens on the table. We shook hands. His palms and fingers felt like an emery wheel. “You can call me Dragon Head, Commander Gao. All my soldiers call me that, because my surname is Long — dragon, you know. Ha-ha-ha!” He laughed heartily, ruffling up his hair with his hand. Two rows of tea-stained
square teeth were displayed under his straight nose and moistened mustache. His bulging black eyes glittered with the unrestrained candor that marks the men on the Northern Frontier. I smiled, amused by this young man who took the militia as the regular army.

“Commander Gao,” Lin Hu said, “my battery has been lodged entirely, all together in seventeen homes. Our cannons and trucks are stationed at the threshing ground of the Third Production Team. If not for Dragon Head’s help, some of us would have to sleep outside tonight and turn into frozen meat tomorrow morning.”

“Don’t be so polite, Commander Lin,” Dragon Head said. “You fellas are the people’s army, our own army. You came to defend our country and protect our homes and land. How can we let you sleep in the snow? Our houses are your houses, and our beds your beds too.”

“Well said, Comrade Militiaman,” Commissar Diao Shu said loudly as he came in from the next room. He stretched out his hand to Dragon Head and continued, “Chairman Mao instructs us: ‘The army and his people have united as one man; see who can be our match under Heaven!” ’

I moved forward a little, intending to introduce them, but Diao made a gesture to stop me. “We met two hours ago,” he said to me, and then he turned to Dragon Head. “I’m glad to meet you again, Comrade Long. Ah, how could I forget ‘Dragon Head’! What a thunderous name! From now on, we are friends and comrades-in-arms, am I right?”

“Right. We certainly are.” Dragon Head looked pleased, his mouth spreading sideways with a broad smile. He inserted his hands behind the holsters of his pistols.

After they left, Commissar Diao and I went out to see how well the three batteries had been settled. He was to inspect the western half of the village; I would go through the eastern half. It was snowing lightly. A large flock of noisy crows
flew by and merged into the indigo air. Stars, scrubbed by snowflakes, were dangling in the murky sky while kerosene lamps burst forth one after another at the windows of the dwarf houses. A whiff of fresh corn cake mingled with the smell of cow dung.

There were some two hundred and thirty homes in Guanmen Village, and our battalion, three hundred and four men, was quartered in ninety of them. We were a newly formed unit, whose three batteries came from three different armies in Liaoning Province. With brand-new weapons and equipment we arrived at the frontier to reinforce the anti-tank firepower of the Fifth Regiment. It looked like a war was about to break out. We were prepared to fight the Russians, and every one of the soldiers had written an oath in his own blood to show his determination to defend the Motherland. Before coming to Hutou, I had sent a letter home, telling Guihua, my wife, that she should marry another man if I could not return, but that she must take good care of our two children. The soldiers never complained about the hardship we had to undergo — no barracks, not enough nutritious food, the severe cold of Siberia. As the head of the battalion, it was my duty to make sure that every one of them had a warm place to sleep for the night. That evening I ended up having dinner with the Fifth Squad of the Third Battery at the eastern end of the village. We ate sorghum and stewed frozen radishes.

To express our gratitude to the villagers, we had a movie shown the following evening. People assembled at the marketplace in the center of the village, waiting excitedly to see
The Guerrillas on the Railroad
. A small electric generator was whining away, and two bulbs were shining on the poles holding the white screen. Pulling on long pipes, old men and old women sat on small stools, muffled up in fur overcoats. Young mothers held babies wrapped in cotton quilts, and the
large gauze masks that shielded the women’s noses and mouths exuded warm breath. Children were running around and through the crowds; some of them perched on naked trees, waiting for the movie to start.

As soon as our three batteries sat down, Dragon Head’s men arrived. They were singing “Carry the Revolutionary Guns” and marching in good order directly to the front ground below the screen. All together about seventy of them passed by, and every one shouldered a weapon — Russian 1938 rifles, American carbines seized from Chiang Kaishek’s troops, three light machine guns of Japanese make, a small sixty-millimeter mortar also captured from the Japanese, a pair of antitank mines, and — most advanced of all — one Russian bazooka. A few soldiers rose to their knees to have a better view of the militia. Having noticed our attention, Dragon Head kept his men marching in place at the front for a good minute. Then he ordered loudly: “Si-t down!” In a unified hop they sat down on the ground. To my surprise, most of the militiamen, including Dragon Head, wore army uniforms, though without collar badges or hat insignia. It seemed they had really got it into their heads to emulate the regular army unit.

Hardly had they sat down than they started a song, “Down with the New Czar of Russian Revisionists.” In their tuneless chanting, there was a deep, booming voice directing all other voices, as though dragging them to an uncertain end. I could tell it was Dragon Head.

When they finished, Dragon Head jumped up and shouted: “People’s Army — ”

“Sing us a song!” His men followed in one voice.

“People’s Army — ”

“Sing us a song!”

The Second Battery began to sing a song composed for Chairman Mao’s quotation: “Who are our enemies? Who are
our friends? This is a question of the first importance for the revolution. To ensure we will succeed in our revolution, we must unite with our real friends in order to attack our real enemies.”

When our men finished singing, without a request from the army side, the militia started another song, which was also a quotation from Chairman Mao: “A revolution is not a dinner party, or writing an essay, or painting a picture, or doing embroidery; it cannot be so refined, so leisurely and gentle, so temperate, kind, courteous, restrained, and magnanimous. A revolution is an insurrection, an act of violence by which one class overthrows another.” So they sang. But this time Dragon Head stood in front of his men, beating time with his big fists. The Mauser pistols were fluttering at his sides like a pair of hawks.

We had no time to sing another song back because the movie suddenly started. Soon, laughter and applause rose and fell in the hush of the night.

Both Commissar Diao and I were very busy. During the day he spent most of his time in the three batteries organizing the studies of Chairman Mao’s works and the documents issued by the Central Committee, while I was engaged in training the soldiers to operate the cannons more efficiently in the severe weather. We had to be well practiced. Guanmen Village was fifteen
from the Wusuli River, and the Russians’ tanks could cross the frozen river and arrive here within half an hour, so we had to be able to get ready in a very short time. My men were the best soldiers I had ever commanded; after three weeks’ drill, we could go into battle in twenty minutes.

One morning after breakfast I was about to set out with my orderly, Liu Bing, for the Second Battery for a training inspection. Suddenly Ma Yibiao, the battery’s commander,
burst into the Battalion Headquarters. “Damn it, Commander Gao. Screw Dragon Head and his mother, damn it!” he shouted, panting hard.

“What’s wrong, Old Ma?” I asked.

“Six of my men lost their hats!”

“Calm down, and explain it slowly. What exactly happened?” As I was speaking, Commissar Diao came in from the adjacent room.

“Early this morning, after the running exercises,” Ma said, his face red, “some of my men went into the latrine to relieve themselves. Six of them were squatting there. Then a hooligan wearing a large gauze mask came in, picked up their hats one by one, and ran away.”

“What?” I couldn’t believe it. “Six men were robbed like that?”

“Yes, it’s damned shameful. They thought it was a joke and merely shouted, ‘A good man doesn’t jump at a squatting man.’ Once they realized it was serious business, it was too late and the hooligan had disappeared.”

“Who’s the robber, do you know?” I asked.

“It’s a louse on a bald head — everybody can see it. He must be one of Dragon Head’s men. Who else wants army hats?”

“I’m going to Dragon Head to question him.”

“Wait a minute, Old Gao,” Commissar Diao broke in. “Don’t be hotheaded. We have to think about the whole thing before taking any action.”

“Why is it so complex, Commissar Diao?” Ma asked.

“Because if we don’t handle it well, it will damage our relationship with the villagers, which is vital for us now.”

“Old Ma, I think Commissar Diao’s right,” I said. Then I turned to Diao and asked, “What do you think we should do?”

“I suggest we hold a meeting this evening. Discuss it first and see what we should do. For the time being, let’s keep quiet about it.”

We all agreed. Together with Ma Yibiao, I went to the Second Battery. On the drill ground made out of a small soccer field, the soldiers were practicing directed fire. In the line of six cannons, the third one stood under its canvas cover. Ma pointed at it and said, “See, four men in the Third Squad have no hats and cannot come outside in the cold, so this cannon is not operated.”

I was enraged again and went directly to the Third Squad. In a small farmhouse, six bareheaded men were sitting on three benches, studying Chairman Mao’s “On Protracted War.” When they saw me come in, they bent their heads lower. I sat down and asked them what the robber looked like.

“We couldn’t see his face, Commander Gao,” said the squad leader, Li Lin. “He wore a pair of sunglasses and a gauze mask.”

“How tall and how big is he?” I asked.

“About a hundred and seventy centimeters tall, I guess, and of slender build.”

“I saw a wart under his left ear,” said a short man, whose name I remembered was Ding Zhi.

“Yeah, I saw the wart too,” another put in.

“You mean here?” Commander Ma asked, pointing his finger at the spot beneath his earlobe.

“Yes.” They nodded.

“Damn his grandma, he’s nobody but Wang Si, one of Dragon Head’s bodyguards,” Ma concluded.

“Good, we have clarified that,” I said. “Did you write your names inside your hats?”

“No.” They all shook their heads.

“Tell everybody to put his name inside his hat,” I told Ma.

Not knowing what the next step should be, we left the squad and returned to the drill ground. I was not very satisfied with the Second Battery’s training in directed fire, but I didn’t say anything, because it took time to master the skills
and we would mostly use point-blank shooting in fighting the Russians’ tanks.

That evening all the battery commanders and political instructors gathered at Battalion Headquarters. Commissar Diao presided over the discussion. In the beginning, most of us suggested holding a formal talk with Dragon Head and requiring him to return the hats with a promise that this sort of thing would not happen again. But Commissar Diao disagreed. He argued, “Comrades, we have to think about this matter in connection with the overall situation. If you view it this way, six hats are nothing — ”

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