Welcome to Installment #12 of DOUBLE THUNDER.
If you recall, in Installment #11, Hardu is caught stealing medical supplies by the Polish refugee Vera Polsky and is taken by kempetai—Japanese military police—to Bridge House, Shanghai’s most notorious prison. (China is engaged in a brutal war with Japan [1937—1945] and Shanghai is under Japanese control at this time.)
In this installment, we flash forward from 1941 to 1973. Hardu has delivered the siming blanket and its precious cargo to Bittersweet in Guilin and is heading back home. During the long train ride to Shanghai, he recalls the horrors he endured at Bridge House, the “Chinaman’s luck” he enjoyed throughout his incarceration, and the woman who unwittingly sent him there to almost certain death—the same woman who ingeniously helped save his life.
Please expect a few flashbacks—indicated by three asterisks [***]—to alert you to a change of year from 1941 to 1973, or vice versa.
Image: Karst formations, Guilin, China. Courtesy of Amy Middleton.
CHAPTER 4: RETURN TO SHANGHAI FROM GUILIN—1973
Hardu was asleep on his feet, wedged tightly between two fellow passengers likewise forced to stand in the crowded aisle. He’d been asleep for an hour or more. All the seats in the hard-seat section of the train had been occupied when the clanking, wheezing steam-driven northbound train chugged into Guilin station. He counted himself lucky—a Chinaman’s luck—to have squeezed aboard. Now the scowling woman sitting in front of him gave him a shove, waking him, accompanied by a grumble, then a curse. No matter. Not only had he been lucky to board the train, he’d accomplished the feat without paying the fare. He knew he’d have to make his way back to Shanghai on just a few hundred renminbi, and riding the train for free was a good way to start the journey. He wondered how far he’d get before he was asked to show his ticket—and where he’d be put off when he couldn’t produce it. As far as Wuhan, he hoped. Or perhaps even farther, at Wuhu.
The long trip to Guilin followed by the walk from the train station to Li Tai-tai’s house on Folded Brocade Road had exhausted him. The siming blanket had seemed to increase in weight and bulk with every step he took. Now that he’d seen her, spoken to her, delivered the quilt and its precious cargo, finally completing the task he’d set for himself decades ago, he was physically and emotionally spent. But he wasn’t quite done. Not yet. There was a second task to execute and fulfill.
The rocking of the train, his own exhaustion, the stagnant air, the warmth and comforting pressure of the two passengers on either side of him, steadying him, keeping him upright, were more than enough to overcome the gnawing he felt in his stomach and diminish the stench of the overflowing toilet two feet away, and he was able to doze off again—dreaming, remembering, imagining, sometimes a mixture of all three.
He dreamed/remembered/imagined he was being led into a shabby eight-story red brick building by two kempetai, one on each side. From the outside, it was nondescript. It could have been a department store, or an apartment building. But inside, Bridge House was unique in all of Shanghai, perhaps in all the world. Forty inmates shared two buckets of water a day: one as a toilet; the other for bathing, but only after a leering guard had used it to wash his buttocks and genitals. Physical torture included the cattle prod, water torture, and the insertion of sharp needles under the prisoner’s finger nails—the last two techniques borrowed from the Chinese. But these methods of extracting information from the more obstinate prisoners weren’t the worst type of brutality Bridge House had to offer.
“Where the flesh is strong, the spirit may be weak,” a fellow inmate informed Hardu soon after the latter’s arrival. “And in that case, there’s always psychological torture: solitary confinement, or the courtyard,” he intoned, raising his eyebrows. “The courtyard can mean only one of two things. Recreation, that is, walking in a clockwise circle, then reversing direction and walking counter-clockwise, twice a day, half an hour each time. Or the pièce de résistance in mental toughness—baptism by fire. I say ‘psychological torture’ because the firing squad doesn’t always end with physical death.”
The inmate’s eyes clouded over in recall, and his voice became almost a wheeze.
“We were allowed to write farewell letters to our family or loved ones. We were marched out to the courtyard, which was spotlessly clean and cleared of anything and anyone—only the firing squad was present. Our hands were tied in back of us around the courtyard’s pillars. Our eyes were blindfolded. There was a long drum roll followed by the shrill scream in Japanese, ‘ready, aim,’ but not ‘fire.’ My firing squad experience had been a false alarm. A mock execution. Our hands were untied. Our blindfolds were removed. We were returned to our cells—that is, those of us who hadn’t suffered a heart attack out of sheer fright or who hadn’t lost his mind. As for me, I’d fainted during the brief yet, to me, long silence that replaced the unspoken ‘fire.’ When I was slapped awake, I found that what at first I thought to be blood flowing out of my body was actually the product of incontinence. There are other ways of dying here at Bridge House. Slowly, bit by bit, by all sorts of indignities.”
Hardu juddered awake when the train slowly rattled into Changsha station. The platform was swarming with people. Among them were food vendors selling everything from a full-course dinner to a bowl of noodles to a breakfast cruller. He wriggled his right hand free from his tight enclosure between the two passengers on either side of him, thrust it out the window, and bought his first meal in twenty-four hours: a bowl of rice topped with vegetables and tofu. He ate it quickly, greedily, letting not even a grain of rice escape his chopsticks, smacking his lips throughout and belching and farting loudly when he was done. Not once during his incarceration at Bridge House had he known the enjoyment of a full stomach, the feeling of satiety, a sense of safety and security. And because the present was a far cry from the past when he’d been a prisoner there, and because he was already half in and out of sleep now that the train was rocking its way out of the station, his liminal mind could summon up memories of those wretched months in captivity and color them in such a way that they were not only vivid but ultimately pleasurable—memories whose actual source, if recalled, would have been too painful to bear.
Instead, what Hardu now experienced was the bittersweet pang of having escaped the prospect of death a number of times. Not once had his name been called to line up with nine other men who were marched to the courtyard and set before a firing squad. Now that his stomach was full, he could be grateful that he had suffered from malnutrition at Bridge House. Lack of food had been the key to his longevity, since starvation served as a safeguard against the scourge of dysentery spread by prison food and water. While the better-fed prisoners dropped like flies from the disease, scarecrows like him survived. Having cheated death, he could entertain the thought that his survival in prison was due to his inadequacy as a human being, at least in Confucianist terms, since Confucianism defined a man as the sum total of his interpersonal relationships. Had he asked himself to what he owed the fact that he was still alive when so many stronger, smarter, and braver inmates were dead, he would have said it was because he had no family, no loved ones, no one with whom he’d formed a bond to make him want to live. His lack of human connectedness prevented him from clinging to life, and that indifference, or callous acceptance, increased his chances of survival the same way that near-starvation had protected him against dysentery. Deep human connection carried within it a fatal germ, like prison food and water carried within it bacteria that caused dysentery, like prison blankets carried within them lice that caused typhus.
The promise—or threat—of human connection—shallow or deep—had raised its spectral head a few times at Bridge House only to dissolve and disappear. The first time was during recreation when one of the prison guards whispered quickly in Mandarin as Hardu passed by:
“A woman has been coming here asking about you, ‘the Chinese prisoner with the blue eyes’.”
Not Mei-mei, Hardu had thought. She would have asked for me by name. Then who?
When Hardu passed the guard on his next circumambulation of the
courtyard, he was told: “She wears the blue and white badge of a youtairen.”
Ah, Hardu thought. Her.
On the third: “She brings food for you. And soup. Bitter melon soup. Very nutritious.”
My favorite, Hardu thought, beginning to salivate.
On the fourth: “She comes almost every day. The food she brings is tested for poison. Once it’s found to be safe, my superiors confiscate it.”
May it stick in their craw and may they choke to death, Hardu wished.
On the fifth: “She wishes to see you.”
Hardu stopped in front of the guard. “What for?”
“Keep moving,” the guard said. “To give you the food that never gets to you,” he whispered.
“Tell her the next time you see her,” Hardu said the next time he passed the guard, “that’s not necessary. Neither the food nor the visit.”
Several days later, a kempetai came to Hardu’s tiny cell and ordered the prisoner to follow him. Placed in solitary because of his infraction during recreation—speaking to the guard on duty—Hardu rolled over from his straw mat and threw his lice-infected blanket onto the floor. Glassy-eyed, his clothes soaked in his night sweats that had begun three days ago, he struggled to his feet, using a wall for balance. He knew the cause of his condition. In fact, he was surprised he’d been able to avoid typhus, or any of the other half dozen virulent diseases common to Bridge House, till now. You can only dodge the bullet so many times before one finds its mark.
He was led to the visiting room, where he’d never been, where there’d never been a reason for him to be. It was large, spartan, and windowless. Running down the middle of it were two long wooden tables: a prisoner sat on a bench on one side of the table; a friend or family member sat on the other. Everyone’s hands—both prisoner and visitor—were clasped together in front of him or her resting on the tabletop for the guards stationed around the room to see. But she was standing, grasping the handle of a picnic basket covered with an embroidered cloth in both her hands. Her, Hardu thought, with a sudden hollow feeling in his bowels. He motioned for her to take a seat at the empty table farthest from the others. She set the basket beside her on the bench. Then she sat down and clasped her hands in front of her and set them on the table. Hardu followed suit.
“I’ve come to Bridge House almost every day for the past three weeks. Thanks to a mutual friend,” she said in French, “I know you speak French, haven’t received the food I’ve brought, have been in solitary confinement, and have typhus.”
One of the guards moved closer to them and demanded, since they didn’t speak Japanese, that they speak Mandarin, which he could understand.
“We don’t have much time,” Vera said in Mandarin, placing the basket on the table. “I’ve brought you something that will help. It might even save your life.”
She uncovered the basket and unwrapped a loaf of black bread from a second embroidered cloth. The guard who had ordered them to speak Mandarin glanced over and then looked away, uninterested. She looked at Hardu meaningfully.
“I embroidered both these cloths myself. The stitches are my own special creation. The black bread I bought. From the best delicatessen in Shanghai. It’s the one thing I knew they wouldn’t confiscate.”
“So, black bread is going to save my life,” Hardu said in a derisive tone.
“This black bread will.”
“My gums can barely hold my teeth in place as it is. One bite of that, and I’ll be toothless.”
“The crust may be hard, but the crumb is soft. Just be careful when you eat it. I was doing some embroidery just before kneading the dough a second time. There may be a pin in there somewhere. Or even a needle.”
When visiting time was over, she filed out of the room along with the others. Moments later, the prisoners were led back to their cells. The guard at the door checked Hardu’s basket and, turning up his nose at its contents, threw the loaf of black bread back inside with the admonition not to drop it, or he might suffer a broken foot in addition to the typhus.
Back in solitary, Hardu used the bread, wrapped in the embroidered cloths, as a makeshift pillow and fell into a deep sleep uninterrupted by nightmares, not even that of Lu Xun’s iron house. When he awoke, he unwrapped the loaf. He thought of calling for the guard to bring him a cup of water so he could soften what seemed as hard and dense as a rock. Before he could, he noticed a zig-zagging line running along the edge of the loaf, like mortise and tenon joinery. He glanced up at the eye-slot in the door of his cell to make sure it was closed. Carefully, he pried apart the top and bottom halves. Some of the soft crumb had been carved out. In the depressions left by the missing bread were a hypodermic needle and two vials of penicillin. Hardu fitted the two bread halves back together, closed his eyes, and pressed the loaf to his chest.