Read Ocean of Words Online

Authors: Ha Jin

Ocean of Words (9 page)

As I was speaking, Dragon Head and his men came running toward us. He came directly to me, bareheaded, puffing out warm breath and fanning himself with his hat. “All my men’re here. Are we leaving for the front now?”

“No, these are exercises.” I glanced at Commissar Diao, whose face fell.

“Exercises!” Dragon Head yelled, and he put his hands on the Mauser pistols. “Exercises at midnight? Why the hell didn’t you inform me before? Damn you both!”

“Comrade Dragon Head,” Commissar Diao said, “please do not misunderstand us. Night fighting is our army’s tradition, you know that. We didn’t notify you beforehand because we didn’t want to disturb you. This is not a real action, and we just had the cannons pulled out. Please forgive us.”

“Damn it, see what you’ve done.” He turned in the direction of the village, his hand pointing at the glimmering sky above the waves of the thatched roofs. “See, every family lit a fire for cooking, and I’ve ordered them to send the food
here.” He raised his voice, shouting to the crowd of his men. “Hey, Ma Ding you run back to the village and tell them to stop, no more cooking, and no more killing sheep and pigs.”

I felt awful. But it was not our fault. Even all of our platoon leaders had not been told of the muster in advance; why should we inform the militia? Dragon Head had made the mess himself; yet it would be senseless to blame him. “Dragon Head,” I said, “we apologize. I mean it sincerely. Tomorrow I’ll go with you to apologize to the people, home by home.”

“Drop your apology. Who wants it! We take you fellas as our own army. Then you have your secret plans and make asses of us all. We’ve been wronged, you know. You treat us as outsiders.”

“Comrade Dragon Head,” Commissar Diao said loudly, “you’re mistaken. I swear by my Communist Party membership that we always regard your company as our own troops. Your company is our infantry force, but you see tonight we have purely artillery exercises. Even so, we should indeed have notified you in advance. Please accept our sincere apology and pass it on to the villagers. I promise, from now on, we will let you know all our plans of action.”

“You always speak well, Commissar.” Dragon Head looked somewhat pacified. “All right, it’s not a big thing. Nobody’s lost his head yet. I’ll talk to them and they’ll understand. But no second time.”

“You have my word,” Diao assured him.

After Dragon Head led his men away, Diao turned to me and said, “It’s negligence on our part.”

“Why? I don’t think so. The exercises are a military action; how come we have to tell him beforehand?”

“Old Gao, you forgot the action is also political. It could
damage the relationship between the army and the people if it’s not done appropriately.”

“I agree, my comrade commissar. Only because we live here, we have to share everything with him. Fine, it’s all right with me. I must say, it’s a pity that those sheep and pigs were not butchered for a holiday. Next time I’ll order Dragon Head’s company to make a forced night march to Hutou Town. See how he’ll enjoy that.” We both laughed.

Although I said that, we dared not have another emergency muster for the rest of the winter. It would be unwise to wake up the whole village at night without giving a genuine reason. Besides, if we had done it too often, the villagers would have got used to it; when a real emergency arose, they might have ignored it as exercises. So we wouldn’t try again. Dragon Head had our promise that he would always be informed. All right, he could have our word, but there was no need for us to carry it out.


Spring came, and the Wusuli River thawed. The tension on the border eased up. Since the deep water could obstruct the Russians’ armored vehicles, a large battle was unlikely. As soon as the weather allowed, we set about constructing our barracks, which were located on the slope of a hill three
west of Guanmen Village. Every day we busied ourselves felling pines for lumber, trucking bricks and cement from Hutou, leveling and digging the ground, and quarrying rocks. The whole battalion turned into a construction brigade. Our artillery skills were out of practice, and many soldiers went about without uniforms on all the time. But we had to have our own barracks, the sooner the better, for it was impossible to live with the villagers for long without a bicker or a row. Besides, it was difficult to impose discipline
on army men who rubbed shoulders with civilians every day. My men were chosen fighters from three renowned armies, and certainly they would attract the attention of the womenfolk. Affairs were reported one after another. A young widow even sneaked into the brick bed shared by three soldiers in the First Battery. We had to move out of the village as soon as possible.

As it had been divided between us, I was in charge of constructing the barracks, whereas Commissar Diao organized all political studies and handled our dealings with the local people. I would leave at dawn for the building site and return at night, so for three months Dragon Head was almost out of my mind.

Then one summer morning Scribe Niu Hsi and I went to Wudao Commune Administration to hire some experienced masons. When we were coming out of the Leopard Mouth, a pass between two steep hills, we heard some gunshots. On our right, a group of militiamen stood at the edge of a graveyard, aiming their rifles and firing at the foot of the hill. Some of the shots whined away in the air and hit nothing. Dragon Head stood with arms akimbo. He saw us and waved. We got off our bicycles, laid them at the roadside, and went up to him.

“Hey, Commander Gao.” He held out his hand. “Haven’t seen you for a long time.”

We shook hands and began to chat. He told me this was their practice range. There were two targets erected against a deserted quarry a hundred meters away. Numerous tiny white balloons, tied to the boles of young birches by threads, were fluttering in the warm breeze.

“It’s a good idea to shoot balloons,” I said. “A good way to practice how to shoot paratroops.”

“You think so?” Dragon Head asked with a broad smile. “It’s no fun to fire at dead objects, you know.”

“Maybe we should use balloons in our practice too. Where did you get these?”

Dragon Head and the men around laughed. “It’s easy, from the Commune’s Family Planning Office. Free. Ha-ha-ha.”

I shook my head and smiled. There was no way that we could get condoms free for our firing practice. At this moment, Wang Si, bareheaded, ran over and reported to Dragon Head, “Big Brother, everything’s fixed now. We can start again.”

Dragon Head turned to me and Niu Hsi. “Want to shoot down a paratrooper, eh?”

“All right,” I said.

They gave each of us an old Russian rifle and five long cartridges. We loaded the guns and started to fire away. After every shot we pulled back the bolt lever to throw out the shell. Niu hit one “paratrooper,” while I got four.

“Not bad, Commander Gao,” Dragon Head said. “I can tell you’re an old hand with guns. Not bad.” Then he took a rifle from Ma Ding and fired rapidly at the floating targets. With five shots he brought down five.

“Good job!” I said. “Dragon Head, you’re a marksman.”

He narrowed one of his large eyes. “If I have a semiautomatic rifle like those used by your army, then I can wipe out all the paratroopers in seconds.”

In fact, now only three were left bobbing in the distant air. A man holding a bunch of fully inflated condoms was about to leave to set up more. “Wait,” Dragon Head ordered. “Wait a minute, Li Wu. We haven’t done the real work yet.” He turned to me and asked, “Don’t you want to try the machine gun?” His hand pointed at a light machine gun of Japanese make that perched at the edge of a sunken grave.

I hesitated, because I had never touched a machine gun that old. “You know, Dragon Head, I’m not good at machine guns. I can handle any artillery pieces but not this kind of gun.”

“Don’t be modest,” he said. “I know you’re an old hand.
You shoot at the right target and leave the left one for me, okay? We’ll do it just for fun.”

Without my agreement, Ma Ding skillfully loaded the gun. “You have fifty rounds,” Ma said in a nasal voice.

Somehow I did feel like giving it a try; so, lying prone at the side of the grave, I began shooting away. Clouds of dust were thrown up below and above the target as if I was raking the quarry. The recoil was so tremendous that the gun jerked and jolted in my arms like a struggling beast. A straight line of misty balls jumped up from the ground twenty meters ahead of me, stretching beyond to the top of the hill. The last few shots were sent into the faraway clouds.

“Damn it!” I shook my head, which was still ringing inside. “This gun fires like a machine cannon. I wasn’t prepared for it.” The men around were laughing.

Dragon Head smiled as though to himself and said, “I can tell you’re not familiar with it. It’s not so hard to handle once you’re used to it.”

In the meantime, Ma Ding loaded the gun with another fifty rounds. Dragon Head pulled the visor of his cap around to the back of his head, jumped into the grave, and started shooting at the target on the left. The gun was honking in fixed fire — every three or four cracks formed a beat. Wooden splinters flew about the green human silhouette, behind which bullets were whistling off rocks in all directions. The target quaked as if it would fall down. I could tell that most of the shots hit the mark. Wry smiles trembled on his face as Dragon Head fired away, until he split the target’s wooden leg and swept the whole thing out of sight.

All the men shouted “Bravo.” Li Wu ran off toward the quarry to count the hits. A black dog was dashing ahead of him.

“A great job, Dragon Head!” I said, stretching out my hand. “How did you learn to use guns?”

“Through hunting when I was a boy.” He grinned at me. “But shotguns are no good, and we have sold all of them.”

“How about these brothers?” I moved my hand around. “Do they also shoot so well?”

“No,” Wang Si broke in, “only Brother Dragon can do it.”

“Some of them are good gunmen, I must say,” Dragon Head said.

“Hey,” Li Wu shouted from the quarry, raising the fallen target, “forty-six hits.”

“I wish they were forty-six Russian bastards,” Dragon Head grunted.

Then, pointing at the standing target, Li Wu announced in a cry: “Se-ven.”

All the militiamen laughed again. I felt embarrassed. It was the worst record in my life. If I had known the gun was so difficult to control, I would not have tried it or at least would have been more careful with it, and I wouldn’t have made a fool of myself like this.

We had no interest in lingering any longer, so Scribe Niu Hsi and I left them for our bicycles on the roadside. I told Niu not to tell anyone in our battalion about the shooting, and he promised he would not. To be honest, I did not take the slightest offense at the experience, for Dragon Head was indeed a superior shooter. A superb marksman, I had to admit. Actually, nobody in my battalion could be his match. It was said that he could shoot eggs from fifty paces off with his Mausers in both hands. What made me so cautious was that I was the head of the army unit. If my men had known I participated in the militia’s range practice, they would have followed me and started messing with those men.

By the end of August, we had finished the construction work. Four rows of brick houses were put up on the slope beyond
the western hill. A small drill ground was flattened out halfway up the slope, where we would put our trucks and cannons. The major virtue of the barracks was that it was behind the hill, so the Russian lookout towers could not see us and their gunfire could not bombard us. Now the three batteries were busy packing up and pulling down all the temporary dining sheds, storehouses, and latrines that we had built in the village. For four months I had not taken one day off, so on a Saturday evening I accepted Commissar Diao’s advice to have a break and go to Hutou the next morning, where I would take a hot bath in the town bathhouse and eat sautéed beef liver at a restaurant. Then I would pay a visit to an officer at the Regimental Headquarters who was from my hometown.

In Hutou everything went as I had planned. Around three o’clock, I walked back to the bus station at the town center, still a little hungover from the three bottles of brandy I had drunk with my fellow townsman. There I came across Dragon Head again; he was also waiting to take the bus home. With him was a familiar-looking girl.

“Hello, Dragon Head,” I said. “Why are you here?” We shook hands.

“Went to Hsiufen’s grandpa’s home in Garlic Village.” He pointed at the girl and introduced her. “This is my fiancée, Hsiufen.”

“I’m happy to know you two are engaged. Congratulations.” Then I said to the girl, “See how important you are? Dragon Head, the commander of the militia company, follows you around as your fully armed bodyguard.” She smiled, and her clear, large eyes rolled toward her betrothed.

“Commander Gao,” Dragon Head said, slapping his Mauser pistols. “I’m not carrying these fellows as presents for my in-laws, am I? Who knows when the Russians will come. We must keep them warm all the time.” By “them”
he meant the guns. The girl looked at me rather seriously and seemed to expect a positive response.

“You really have high vigilance,” I managed to say. He smiled, and so did the girl. I felt awkward, because I didn’t have my pistol with me. It was unnecessary to carry a gun when you were off duty in the summer. Truly, in the winter you could see many people bear weapons in the streets of Hutou; if you ate in a restaurant, very often some militiamen sat nearby, drinking and rejoicing, with their loaded guns propped against their tables. But other than in winter, few people carried weapons in town.

The bus arrived, and people were lining up to get aboard. I deliberately stood at the end of the line, not wanting to sit with Dragon Head and his fiancée, because I must have reeked of alcohol. As they moved slowly to the bus, I had a good look at the girl. She was tall, with a neck as white as that of a young goose. Her narrow nose pointed upward above a mouth shaped like a water chestnut. Her pink shirt and sky blue pants bulged a little around her breasts and hips. A pair of plastic sandals revealed her large feet. In a way, she seemed to match Dragon Head well in size and stature.

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