The automatic rifle fire was followed by an unnerving whistle at Ti’s ear. He gripped the shopping bags, grabbed Lo Ling’s arm and pulled her into a sprint. Together they made for the alleys with the rest of the crowd.
He could not believe it – the troops were shooting again. His shock endured even as a line of wet red spattered up his shirtsleeve. A man spun and fell. Any thought of helping was gone before it was fully considered. The pulpy mess was soon out of sight.
Lo Ling was screaming, struggling to keep up. Ti held firm at her elbow. He dared not slow down. His grandfather’s sìhéyuàn was close by and would be safe.
There was another crack of gunfire. More whistles. Panic stretched across his belly, bound tighter and tighter by the footfall of everyone running. The relentless stomp-stomp-stomp alarmed him most, over the barging and stumbling; the regular cries of ‘They’re coming! They’re coming!’
Not for the first time, he cursed the students in the square. His anger was personal, far from any political point of view. More than anything he wished for a return to normality.
If the students dispersed, the army would leave and order could be restored, which was best for all. People could get on with their lives. He could get on with courting Lo Ling in peace.
‘I need to stop,’ she called behind.
‘Not far to Wài Gōng’s,’ he answered and hauled her into another side lane of the hútòng.
They ran on, as fast as his heavying legs and scorching lungs could carry them. His grandfather’s courtyard residence was at the end of the next passage, less than ten minutes’ away.
‘Please.’ Lo Ling pulled harder against him. ‘I’m going to be ill,’ she sobbed.
Hesitantly, he stopped to let her catch her breath. She bent double and panted at a wall. Despite a searing thud to his own chest, he fought the urge to join her.
Their fellow citizens rushed by. They warned Ti not to stay out of doors. It was not safe tonight. He nodded at them politely, a whir in his ears causing him to miss much of what was said. He waited until the last person had gone by, and finally blew out his cheeks, drawing in a long breath.
The smell of scalded mutton caught him off guard. Its aroma arrived from a nearby kitchen. He sniffed and lost himself, distracted by how pleasant it would be to sit down to supper somewhere.
Twinges in his stomach were hastily banished by an explosion. Low watt lamps flickered and babies wailed. Ornaments toppled and shattered. Above the replying courtyard chatter, a man’s voice bellowed, “Get down! Take cover!”
Ti was at Lo Ling’s side before the ground was still. He comforted her as she threw up in distress. He held her satchel out of the way and rubbed the small of her back, suppressing repulsion at seeing her in such an exposed condition. He concentrated on the night sky, which flashed.
There were further volleys of gunfire. The rat-tat-tat-tat reminded him of firecrackers at New Year. From the noise, he judged the troops were sticking to the main avenue, and there was time for Lo Ling to recover a short while longer.
Her condition was improving. She had stopped retching and was weeping between deep breaths. Ti took the upturn in her state as an opportunity to step away and check his shopping.
To his surprise, the ingredients – dried red dates, lotus seeds, candied plums, sweetened winter melon, dried longan – were unspoilt, surviving the hasty retreat. Nevertheless, he felt a cruel sense of insult, as if the produce had conspired to stay intact only to mock him.
It was an agonising reminder. The evening was a disaster and there was no chance of salvaging it with the hour well past midnight. He cursed the events in the square once again, and lamented his agreement to accompany Lo Ling to see the troops and barricades.
His original plan had been simple, considered over several weeks of anticipation. Tell Lo Ling that he loved her and wished her to be his bride; and cook Ba Bao Fan in celebration of her agreement to become his wife.
The dessert of sticky rice and fruit was his favourite dish, and worthy of the auspicious occasion. His mother’s recipe was widely considered the finest amongst their acquaintance, dating back to the oldest traditions. Its saccharine taste held as much personal significance to Ti as the new day’s date, June 4, the anniversary of his mother’s death five years earlier.
Ti’s intention had been to honour her memory with his engagement and the food of his childhood. He had been rehearsing the dish for several weeks, and purchased the very best ingredients at market.
‘Can I see now?’ Lo Ling had recovered. She was curious about the bags again. He’d been teasing her with them all night.
‘No.’ He pulled the groceries to his body.
Lo Ling whimpered. Anger was a rare emotion in Ti, who quickly changed his demeanour to embrace her.
‘I’m sorry.’ He kissed her forehead. ‘It’s meant to be a surprise.’
She snivelled, and trembled against him. Ti swayed her still, no longer concerned by a trace of vomit. His attention was caught elsewhere, beguiled by something that could stir his being beyond anything he had ever known – Lo Ling’s summer dress and the contours beneath it.
The cotton touch enticed him to speak. He lifted some strands of hair and poured his pent up affection into her tiny ear. He informed her of his desire for them to marry and grow white-headed together. He described how they would create every future happiness as the most perfect companions.
He ran out of breath to speak with, but compensated by tightening his squeeze at her waist. Their hearts pounded, beat to offbeat, audible to one another above the bustle of the courtyards.
Residents were emerging, curious about all the disturbances. Ti boldly ignored them. He sensed Lo Ling’s answer was near and refused to countenance any shame or embarrassment. He was certain she was about to say yes and he intended to treasure the moment.
In his defiance, he hardly noticed a second wave of retreating citizens, and the return of close gunfire.
Lo Ling tensed. She did not acknowledge anything of what had been said to her.
‘Come on!’ She broke off. ‘Let’s get to Wài Gōng!’ She placed her hand in his and began to run.
In instinct, he re-found his stride in the fleeing pack, though his thoughts stayed behind, fixed on the proposal. Had she not heard him? Did she not love him? Why had she not immediately said yes?
The flow of inquiry was interrupted by something popping. A fine mist landed on his face and, in front, Lo Ling lost her footing.
He caught her, keeping his step in an awkward skip. He struggled to bear her upright while maintaining a hold of the shopping bags. The plastic handles were tangling up his forearm. In an attempt to discard them, his hand ran through her hair and discovered the bullet wound.
He palmed the awful sight out of view and howled. The outburst dumbfounded those around him to picture stills of alarm and fury.
There followed a second of near silence. The entire upheaval appeared to take breath.
‘She’s been shot! She’s been shot!’ a woman then shrieked, and the mayhem resumed.
Flashes of hot light were accompanied by sirens and sustained shooting. One man stumbled, another dropped to his knees. The crowd ignored the pair to join Ti in carrying Lo Ling away. He supported her head and neck. Strangers held her legs and buttocks.
They raced out of the alleys into chaos. A bus and an army truck were engulfed in flames. Swarms of citizens had gathered around them, chanting and yelling, seemingly immune to the fierce smoke and petrol heat.
Blinded and deafened, Ti met the turmoil head on, with total focus on removing Lo Ling from it. His goal consumed him so entirely, he remained ignorant of the fact that he had no idea where they were going, or where exactly he should be taking her.
‘Here! Here!’ a rickshaw driver called. ‘I’ll get her to the hospital.’
Ti missed the offer of assistance. He felt his fellow carriers tilt in a new direction and wondered why. By the time he took in what was happening, other members of the group were discussing Lo Ling’s change of conveyance.
He watched the rushed negotiations in shameful relief. The indignity of the situation being taken out of his control would have festered, only his attention was overtaken by incredible joy – the sound of gurgling in Lo Ling’s throat.
She was alive.
He almost laughed but hurriedly fastened his lips. The rickshaw driver was being directed towards him. The old man greeted Ti with a nod of unfortunate breath, and began to untangle the bags from up his arm. He encouraged him to put Lo Ling on the back of the bike.
The carriage was not an appealing sight. A sheet covered the wooden slats, soaked in all manner of blood and grime. From their distance some way back, the material already held a vicious stink of recent bodily harm.
One of their party began to lift. Ti resisted, inadvertently reasserting his command. Free from the plastic bags, his priority was to rearrange the hold on Lo Ling’s head wound. He shuffled his fingertips into the warm softness, plugging the hole as firmly as he dared. He kept the injury concealed throughout, and answered her guttural breathing with soft words of comfort.
The group waited on him. When he nodded, they kept to his direction. They held off while he gained purchase in an awkward crouch and clambered up the back of the rickshaw. Once settled, Lo Ling’s bottom half was bungled on board, one ankle crossed over the other, her satchel twisted by her side.
The vehicle moved-off. Some of the helpers pushed, panting and puffing. Ti turned away from their efforts, into the vehicle’s motion and the uproar of the avenue ahead.
The road he knew so well was unrecognisable. A streak of bullets blazed pink against the night sky and more fires fumed. The driver defied his years to skilfully weave between burning debris and jagged human shapes that never completely formed out of a shimmering haze.
The grey-white vapour clung to everything. It was coarse and bristling hot, and as the bike gained speed, whipped against Ti’s face. The warm sting sent tears steaming down his cheeks, and forced his eyes shut. He willed for the ability to shut his ears, too.
The monstrous anger of guns and swells of noise felt like a personal affront. So ugly. It was an offence to the calm quiet he was accustomed to after dark. Someone would have to answer for it, he thought with a rage that briefly seethed, until it was displaced by the pains to his wrist and fingers.
His hand was caught at a slant under Lo Ling’s head, and beginning to cramp. Wilfully he embraced the discomfort, using its throb and ache to fuel a frenetic, all-encompassing faith. Faith in the resilience of a pulse that had waned to near nothing; faith in the doctors that would be ready to revive it; faith in the leaders who would soon restore order.
A jolt announced their arrival at the hospital. Ti couldn’t have said how long the journey had been. He opened his eyes on a building, though it was not the one he had been expecting. They were outside the children’s infirmary.
There was no time to question it. Some of the group had held on to the side of the rickshaw and travelled with them. They were grappling at Lo Ling, looking to hasten her inside. Ti contorted his legs to stay the pace.
The hospital was bedlam. Casualties were being received en masse, escorted by the hollering, the distressed and the distraught. The wounded were unsettlingly composed in comparison to many of the carriers. They appeared to have retreated deeply into themselves, allowing their bodies to be carried or led forth.
Lo Ling was bustled towards the entrance, along a throng of hysterical citizens. Ti bellowed the folk out of the way and led the charge at the crowded doors. Inside, they were met with an eye-clouding stench of antiseptic and lacerated flesh. The surface of the floor rapidly became slick with blood, absolutely running red. It was like ice underfoot and nearly toppled the lot of them.
Their balance kept, they overtook slower bearers to arrive at a main waiting area. The space was crammed with incapacitated people and the fuss of make-do surgeries. Ti heard his own voice, desperate yet distant, pleading to the few faces that noticed newcomers.
Out of the vacant stares, a dishevelled nurse hurtled towards them. She signalled at a gurney and coordinated a dash to secure Lo Ling atop of it. They were joined by a man in a surgical mask. He appeared more butcher than doctor, smothered chin to shoe in glistening gore.
The nurse yelled for everyone to move as she pushed the trolley towards another room, down another frantic corridor. The doctor fumbled with his stethoscope. Ti doggedly kept his hand over the hole in Lo Ling’s skull, repeating that she still had a pulse. He could feel…
He faltered over a leg. A woman’s leg, with a blue sandal on the foot. No body. Ahead, directly in his path, a teenage boy was having arm surgery. Splintered bone was splayed through the skin like a snapped twig. He was sobbing.
Ti climbed the side of the bed to avoid a collision. It forced his hand out of Lo Ling’s hair. The extent of the bullet damage was exposed.
The trolley came to a halt. Nurse and doctor exchanged looks. They shared a nod. The jaded clinician sighed behind his mask. He muttered something indistinct and turned down the corridor to meet the next casualty.
The nurse spoke. Her voice was gentle but she offered no condolences. She simply explained that they needed the bed for someone else. She helped lift Lo Ling into his arms.
She was heavy. He was surprised.
The nurse pointed somewhere further into the building. Ti drifted in the direction indicated. He negotiated the wounded and the dead, another severed limb and a trail of discarded medical supplies. He pushed through a set of double doors.
The next passageway reached out like a slaughterhouse. A vast array of red garlanded every surface – smears, pools, daps – from brilliant bright to deep black.
A dozen or so corpses were laid out in two rows on the floor, their smell the peculiarly sweet one of fresh meat. Sheets had been haphazardly placed over the top of them. Many efforts left final expressions exposed, or legs up to the knees.
The horror of the scene barely registered in him. Ti was nearing the point of collapse. After a few more steps, he backed into a wall and slid down to nestle in a line of dead. His neck slumped forward into Lo Ling’s matted hair.
He recoiled, mortified. There was no smell of her left. Only the reek of blood and ruin filled his nostrils. Surely, he thought, there had to be some fragment still recognisable, and he proceeded to sniff it out, homing in on the ghost of her scent.
Somewhere about her middle, he found it. Some urine. Her sweat, too. Beautiful. Unmistakably her.
He wolfed at the remnants of his beloved, kissing and licking the skin, deluding himself that there was still hope. The nurse and doctor could have been mistaken. Was that not a beat of her heart? Yes! It was! He was sure. If he just kept his faith and hoped and willed…
Someone touched him.
‘Lo Ling!’ he cried, believing a miracle had occurred.
His eyes opened on the rickshaw driver. The elderly man stood over him, dismayed at catching Ti in such an intimate act of grief. He dangled the two white plastic bags.
‘Yours.’ He dropped the groceries, making the cans clink.
Distraught, Ti met the man’s gaze. He meant to say thank you, but was struck by the injustice of it all. In every fold and wrinkle etched on the timeworn face he saw years stolen from Lo Ling, wasted on this worthless peasant.
‘Sorry,’ the rickshaw driver said, as though he knew what he stood accused of.
‘No,’ Ti whispered and reburied himself in Lo Ling’s midriff.
He wept. He cried to the point of physical pain and beyond, into delirium. Daydreams of their best times came to him, cruel in the detail. That day in the garden, stolen kisses in Wài Gōng’s courtyard – every intimate touch of their bodies and glances that he alone understood.
He regressed further, into childhood. He remembered his father and uncle, the disgraces of the family. They had spent eighteen months in a labour camp for reeducation.
Ti’s uncle used to tell about how his brother once misheard a guard’s order. It was taken for disobedience. They handcuffed him for six weeks in punishment. He had to lap his rice from the ground like a mongrel dog.
Curiously, his uncle told the tale like it was a joke, laughing at the end. Ti never appreciated what was so funny. The story terrified him.
Their mother had cooked a feast when their father arrived home. She conjured the money from somewhere. Ti’s overriding memory of the evening: a gaunt, oddly familiar man with an enormous appetite.
In awe, they had watched as he consumed an entire chicken and six rice bowls, and gulped down two thirds of a bottle of rice wine. Their mother woke up to a very contented corpse the next morning.
‘He’s dead,’ she’d screeched, waking the whole household. ‘He’s dead and smiling. Look at the way he’s smiling. Smiling like he knows something he shouldn’t.’
Over the years, Ti had whiled away countless hours trying to decipher what the piece of illicit knowledge might have been. His speculation had ranged from a divine visitation to there actually being nothing to his father’s ultimate grin. Just a pocket of trapped wind pleasantly released a second or two before the old man’s heart gave out…
He slept for hours, almost the entire next day through. He was roused only once, by a call of nature. In a daze, he got up, found a bathroom, attended to his needs, and returned to entangle himself back with Lo Ling.
At points he hovered just out of consciousness, aware of daylight, rain patter, hurried footsteps and barked orders – Put him here. Get her there. Leave them. We haven’t got time. They’re still coming in.
A voice finally woke him, a woman: ‘This one’s alive,’ she said.
‘Are you sure?’ a more distant voice answered, a man.
‘Yes.’ The word was spoken near Ti’s forehead. It smelt of minced-pork sauce and fennel. ‘He’s breathing. The girl’s definitely dead though.’ Ti felt a tap on his shoulder. ‘Hello. Can you hear me?’
‘You can’t stay here.’ The voice tapped harder. ‘It’s not safe.’
Ti tightened his hold on Lo Ling. It was challenged by small, busy hands attempting to pry them apart.
‘No.’ He shrugged them away.
‘She’s dead,’ the woman said with some distain. ‘You have to let go.
‘Let me try.’ The man was nearby now. His stronger, thicker fingers followed – ones that couldn’t be fought.
Ti was separated from Lo Ling and lifted to his feet. He kept his eyes closed and swayed. He felt safe in the undulating darkness. Cocooned.
‘We can’t let him go out like that!’ the woman said. ‘He’ll be shot.’
The man put an arm around Ti’s waist.
‘I have a spare shirt and trousers in the office,’ he said. ‘I’ll dress him in them.’ To begin with, Ti accepted being led away. Then he dug his heels in. He was forgetting something.
‘My shopping,’ he said.
‘The groceries?’ the man asked.
‘Those bags are his,’ he called to the woman.
‘What about the girl’s satchel?’ she asked.
Ti nodded again.
‘Yes, he wants that, too.’
Busy footsteps approached. Rustling occurred. It emitted an overripe sweetness – fruits and juices liberated from containers.
‘Everything is spoiling,’ the woman remarked.
‘I don’t think he cares,’ the man answered.
Busy footsteps departed. Their motion resumed. He was guided forward, led right then left. He sniffed the change from corridor to office, floor cleaner to carpet.
They stopped. His helper steadied him, and left him to rock. A draw was opened and a sink tap turned on. The man placed a cup to his lips.
‘Drink,’ he said.
Ti slurped and gulped until the cup was withdrawn, empty.
He was fed cold shrimp with noodles. The salty taste put in his mind Lo Ling’s lips. He recalled the curve of her mouth when she frowned, and how cracked and dry the pink skin could get when she didn’t wear lipstick.
He shut his teeth on the recollection, refusing the food after only two mouthfuls.
‘You must be hungry?’ the man questioned.
Ti didn’t answer.
The spoon was removed. The sink tap was run again.
‘This will be cold,’ he was warned.
He offered no resistance to the chilly touch of the sponge. His face and hands were scrubbed. His shoes were removed.
Leaning on his helper, he stepped out of one leg, then the next. He was shepherded into a clean pair of slacks. His shoes were replaced. ‘Arms up.’
Ti lifted his arms. His shirt was pulled over his head. His body was washed. A fresh shirt was dropped over him, slightly too baggy.
He tucked the shirt into the trousers and momentarily felt the man’s fingers against his chest doing the buttons.
‘Here you go. I’ve wiped them clean.’
Plastic handles were hooked on to Ti’s right palm. His hand grasped. Lo Ling’s satchel was draped over his left shoulder.
‘Open your eyes.’
Ti did as told.
He was disconcerted to be met with someone his own age. The exhausted young man peered back at him. They might have been friends from school days, and took one another in as if meeting on the first day of term. Ti wondered if his own eyes were as wide and glazed; projecting their disbelief at what had been taking place in front of them.
‘Was she your girlfriend?’ the orderly asked.
‘Wife.’ A surge of shame began to well at the lie. Ti dismissed it bluntly, swallowing. It could have been true – should have been.
‘I’m sorry.’ His companion blushed.
‘May I leave?’ Ti gestured Lo Ling’s satchel at the door.
He was ushered back out into the corridor. The harsher light narrowed his vision to a sore blur. Every object, curve and angle arrived in dull outlines, though he recognised his surroundings well enough. He recalled the sensation of treading in a gloss of blood, and knew the commotion of broken bodies being attended to. ‘I’m needed.’ His helper left him with a friendly tap.
Ti didn’t thank the man, or show any sign of acknowledgement whatsoever. He was too restless for common courtesies, caught in a battle between grogginess and the desire not to stop. To keep going. Do something. Anything.
Desire won through. He stumbled into the sultry night and kept walking. He maintained a stride through intermittent gunfire and the occasional boom of artillery. He took long detours through hútòngs and the old streets, avoiding anyone he saw, in a uniform or not.
Sluggishly the dawn came up. Not really a sunrise, just a greyness that grew faintly brighter and warmer. The fortified heat added nauseating volume to every smell – petrol, burnt rubber, khaki. The cloying odours dried the roof of his mouth and collected in his throat.
Still he went on. Back on a main intersection, he went by burnt-out vehicles, trod over crushed bicycles and circled round metal barriers, mangled like they had been made out of noodles. He ignored the warnings that there were troops ahead. Troops and tanks.
His behaviour was mistaken for rudeness. Some called him a fool and said they wouldn’t be retrieving his body when he was shot. Ti made no response. He was withdrawn beyond the ability to notice the people or their comments – oblivious to anything but the next step he took.
It was some hours later when he did come to a stop. He was surprised to have reached the avenue, east of the square. Fatigued, he sat down at one of the opulent lamps that lit the boulevard. He rested beneath the trees there, appreciative of their cover, and considered eating some of the mulched fruit.
He didn’t. The moment his unsteady hand delved, it checked. He shouldn’t. It was disrespectful. Forbidden.
He let his attention be taken by someone loping up the steps of the grand hotel opposite. Though he wore no uniform, Ti suspected it was a policeman. The man joined a bunch huddled at the entranceway.
Beneath them a doorman and a chef loitered at the gates, smoking. They showed no sign of there being unusual circumstances, or paid any heed to the western journalist some yards away. The scruffy man was crouched at a row of bicycles, adjusting a camera.
Ti winced at the spectacle the visitor was seeing. Such a dishonourable mess had been made of the road. Portions were cracked to rubble and heavy tread marks, blood stains and debris blighted the entire thoroughfare. Further on, two orange diggers and the charred guts of a bus had been abandoned from a barricade.
Then he noticed it – the students were gone from the square. Whole battalions of armoured cars and tanks lorded the space where their camps and banners had been. Gun turrets were aimed out at every angle into the city.
Ti could not believe the depth of emotion it stirred in him. The odd sense of loss for something that he’d resented – “Who is going to clean it all up when they’ve left?” he used to ask. “Not the cursing students,” he’d instantly answer, believing it to be a fatal blow to all possible further discussion.
Scanning the army lines, he spotted a gathering persisting in their face-off with the troops. Their arms were linked and they were singing. Ti recognized the words. The same song had been sung on the avenue with Lo Ling.
The distant chorus ignited his memory and brought an awful premonition. He knew what was coming. He could see it. They were so fragile. How could they not realise? Hadn’t they learnt anything? Didn’t they know how easy it was? How easy it was to die.
Ti felt obliged to educate them.
Familiar, stuttering rattles halted his steps in the crowd’s direction. The singing turned to shrieks. The heart of the group collapsed. Ti’s knuckles turned white on the bag handles as survivors ducked and stumbled.
More rattles. More shrieks. More citizens fell. Some stayed motionless, flat on the ground. Others wriggled to their feet and staggered for cover.
Several armoured cars then left the square – five, ten, twenty. Behind them, a pack of tanks revved their engines. Plumes of thick smoke mingled with the late morning haze. The pavement shook.
The first military vehicles reached him. Ti marched along the path, wielding his shopping and ordering them to be gone. They had done enough harm. Enough killing. He shouted his throat sore, using Lo Ling’s satchel to point out their disgraceful violation of the traffic regulations.
‘How dare you not stay within the designated lines?’ He cried, stopping at a pedestrian crossing. ‘Slow down and stay inside the lane!’
The last armoured car hurtled by amidst another round of gunfire. The cackling ended in shrill whistles and shouting from afar. The noises no sooner registered than they were swallowed by the clamour of tank motors. Ti heard the crank and rumble through his entire body.
Unfazed, he remained where he stood. He observed the war machines perform an oddly delicate routine. Each one appeared to converse with its neighbour before pirouetting right or left. Slowly they rolled out from the square, forming a line.
Ti gestured at the approaching regiment. He waved his groceries to warn them of his anger. The containers inside rattled and syrupy fruit musk took to the humid air. It was answered with a spray of machinegun fire, just over his head.
Two men bolted for cover nearby. Another franticly peddled a bicycle on the other side of the street. He called over, asking if Ti was crazy.
Ti didn’t answer. He re-fixed his grip on the shopping bags, and stepped out into the road.