Ch’en Ying-chen (born Ch’en Yung-shan) is one of the earliest and most prominent native Taiwanese writers educated in post-1949 Taiwan. He was born and raised in a town near Taipei, and in 1960 graduated in English from Tamkang College. In the 1960s he was active in the then young literary movement that was beginning to fill the literary void of the 1950s. His writings appeared in several literary magazines at the time, The Pen (Pi-hui), Modern Literature (Hsien-tai wen-hsüeh), and Literature Quarterly (Wen-hsüeh chi-k’an), and for a time he was the editor of the last.
In 1968, just before he was to come to the United States to study at the University of Iowa, he was arrested and sentenced to ten year’s imprisonment for his allegedly dissident activities. He was granted amnesty in 1975 along with other political prisoners by Chiang Kai-shek’s son and successor. His prison experience seems not to have intimidated him, for recently he has again been quite open about expressing his views on Taiwan, China, and humanity in general.
Prior to his arrest in 1968, Ch’en Ying-chen had published numerous stories, essays, and movie reviews, which were collected by Joseph S. M. Lau in Selected Stories of Ch’en Ying-chen (Ch’en Ying-chen hsüan-chi, 1972). A collection of his pre-prison writings entitled The First Case (Ti-i-chien ch’ai-shih) was published in 1975 with a new preface. Ch’en’s first post-prison story, “Night Freight” (Yeh-hsing huo-che), was published in 1978, and his latest story is “Clouds” (Yün), which appeared in Taiwan Literature (T’aiwan wen-i), no. 68 (August, 1980).
Perhaps due in part to his religious faith—his family are missionaries-Ch’en Ying-chen’s writings are characterized by a deep concern and sensitivity for the oppressed peoples, not only of his homeland, Taiwan, but in all of China and throughout the world. “A Rose in June” (Liu-yüeh-li te mei-kuei-hua), published in 1967, demonstrates remarkable insight into the Vietnam War, the position of blacks in America, and the commonality of oppressed peoples from two entirely disparate societies.
THE DOOR OPENED. For an instant, the white sunlight flashed past into the bar, dark as a cellar. A thin, tall black man walked in. The heavy door closed slowly behind him. He hummed softly a song which he had been humming before he entered the bar, and groped his way to a small table near the air-conditioner. He put his camera on the table and with his thick lips pecked out a long cigarette from a cigarette pack; he lit it. As he puffed out some smoke, he kept on humming:
Melinda, pretty Melinda;
Has a white, plump baby . . .
A bar girl came over and sat down beside him. The black man kept on singing, “Melinda, you are happy, never complain.” She glanced at the waiter standing to one side, then said to the black man, “Buy me a drink, how about it?”
Stretching himself with eyes half closed, the black man opened his mouth, revealing a row of teeth that glistened in the dark—teeth that occupied almost the whole lower half of his face. “Sure,” he said.
“Whiskey and soda,” she told the waiter. “What about you?”
Now he took a good look at her, his snow-white horse teeth covered by his thick lips. His hair was thickly kinked like unraveled woolen yarn; it looked as if it were only pasted to the bald pate at the back of his head. His eyes were big and bulging. They took her in earnestly, in a way that reminded her of an overworked old ox in her home town.
“Hey, sweet sister,” he said tenderly.
“My name’s Emily Huang,” she said. “The guys call me Emmy.”
“Hey, Emmy,” he said.
“He’s waiting for you to order a drink,” she smiled.
“Gin on the rocks.”
The cellar was packed with American G.I.’s in civilian clothes and military uniforms.
The low ceiling was decorated like the upholstery of a sofa; dim lights were inlaid into it like so many tired moons.
Emily Huang dug out a pack of cigarettes from her hand bag.
“Seems like I’ve met you somewhere before,” she said, not very convincingly.
“I can’t remember,” he said playfully, flashing a toothy smile. She let him light her cigarette. She understood this kind of flirtation. Unmindfully, she let him stroke her bare back. “For example, on the way to your military base,” she said.
He let out a hearty laugh, half closing his oxlike eyes. A drunk fat guy was shouting loudly, “God, I tell you, the girls here are a million times better than those in Tokyo—they’re delicious and they’re cheap.”
“Emily, sweet sister,” the black man said, “we never met on the way to any military base. I just got here from Vietnam.”
His big black palm pressed on her not very white hand. Emily Huang looked at this big black hand: the fingernails were like light brown pebbles which had been scrubbed very clean by the waves on a sandy beach. Emily’s whiskey and soda and the black man’s gin on the rocks came. He reached out for the drink, brought it directly to his lips and drank it. Squinting his big eyes, he said: “Very thirsty.” With his free hand he stroked her back. “No, we never met anywhere before. This is my first time here to spend my seven-day vacation.”
“Oh,” she said. His touch was gentle beyond her expectation. “Anyway,” she said, “welcome, Mr. Soldier.”
They clinked their glasses.
“You can call me Barney.” Then he announced in a military manner, “United States Army, twenty-sixth regiment, under the direct command of the artillery company, Private First Class Barney E. Williams invites you to dance.”
He stood up, like a long-legged ocean spider. Being with this not-very-good-looking black soldier was beginning to make Emily a little happy. She understood very well the importance of this kind of happiness. Girls like them didn’t often meet clients who made them happy. Someone rare like this could make them forget their professional nature, or could even give them, from time to time, a kind of intoxicating feeling of being in love.
Although the music was fast and frenzied, they unhurriedly pressed against each other in a corner, oblivious to other people. She strained her neck to look up at him and let him press his face to hers. His black hand caressed her bare, not very white back. She was a sturdy woman, you could tell just by looking at her unusually wide shoulders. Two people of different colors embracing each other, there was something particularly erotic about it.
“Are you very brave when you’re in battle?” she asked.
He found her ear with his thick lips and whispered into it, “You’ll find out in bed tonight.”
She begant to titter. “You’re a bad boy,” she said. Suddenly she saw, across from them, a handsome white officer dancing the surf with a girl who was pretty enough to make one jealous. The fair-skinned girl had long hair in the style of Suzie Wong. Her dance movements were like the tides under the full moon, icy, yet intense. Emily Huang scrutinized her for a moment. Then she said, “Barney, I want you to see a pretty ‘piece.’” She held his head even closer to her face. “But I don’t want you to fall in love with her.”
The black soldier laughed. “Sweet sister, I won’t.”
“I promise,” Her fragrant scent began to excite him. He stroked her whole bare back. She pushed him away. He looked over at that pretty “piece.”
“Ah!” he said, “Captain Stanley Birch!”
The handsome white officer turned his head and looked around.
“Jesus Christ!” Barney said, “He’s a nasty pompous pig!”
“You stupid ass!” The officer saw him. “You stupid ass!” he called out ecstatically. He came over, pulling along the girl with the long hair.
“Captain Stanley,” the black man said smiling, “it’s really great to see you here.”
The officer let out a lusty laugh, revealing a row of straight teeth. His chest was broad. A short-trimmed mustache grew above his thin lips. Blond hair lay neatly pressed on his square head. “You are a stupid ass,” he yelped with joy. He was a classic scion of an East Coast, upper-crust family. His face was flushed red—due to either a suntan or the effect of alcohol—and looked full of vigor. He gazed proudly at this lowly black soldier who had suddenly become subdued.
Then he announced, “Do you know? Today is a great day for you.” He started to laugh aloud again. Captain Stanley Birch was in fact already a little intoxicated. He lowered his voice and said, “This is perhaps the greatest day in the history of your family.” He winked his eyes mischievously, then raised his voice and said:
“Gentlemen, quiet, quiet.”
He walked toward the bar. “Gentlemen, quiet,” he said. He stood smiling under the light, like a young senator who was about to give a speech. The cellar-like bar quieted down; only the hi-fi, which had been turned down, could be heard. He said:
“Captain Stanley Birch hereby announces the honor that our great government of the United States confers on Private First Class Barney E. Williams.”
The G.I.s in the bar all turned their eyes to the black soldier in the corner. They saw him embracing Emily from behind and standing there dumbfounded. Drunken laughter and jovial applause broke out in the bar.
Captain Birch, with his Eastern accent, which sounded peculiarly affected, announced that black private first class Barney E. Williams was by order promoted to sergeant for his courage in annihilating the enemy who had long been hiding in a village. He spoke in a manner reminiscent of some college speech class:
“Barney E. Williams is a great soldier of the United States and a great patriot. He battled in a distant land to defend the principles upon which our United States was founded. In fighting to protect and assist in building an independent and free ally, he has added glory to the traditions of justice, democracy, freedom and peace in which we have had deep and unshakable faith since the founding of our country!”
A rousing round of drunken but earnest applause broke out. Sergeant Barney Williams didn’t know when he started to cry. “Oh, Jesus Christ,” he sobbed.
“Don’t cry, my baby.” Emily, overjoyed, was hugging him as if he were a tall, strong tree.
“Jesus Christ, I’ve never been so happy in my life!” His voice cracked and finally he burst out crying. “Jesus Christ,” he kept on saying.
“Don’t cry, good baby.” Emily’s eyes became red. “Don’t cry, good baby.”
“Don’t cry, baby, don’t cry,” several voices echoed mockingly.
“Jesus . . . oh, good Jesus,” practically losing his voice. “My great-grandfather was only a slave!”
“Don’t cry, good baby,” she said.
“Don’t cry, baby, don’t cry!” the drunken soldiers echoed in chorus.
Barney and Emily had a wild evening. For Barney, it was as if the doors to everything in the world had been opened for him: success, hope, glory and dignity were all smiling gently and humbly at him. And Emily was completely infected with his glory and happiness. “Do you know,” Barney had pinched her flat nose with his fingers and said, “You chatter endlessly like a little sparrow.”
She grew sullen. “You don’t like it?” she asked with a trace of melancholy. Barney hugged her. His black body was like a wild tropical tree. He kissed her little nose.
“Oh, oh, not at all,” he said. “You’re the only girl in the world who has shared my happiness.” He loosened his hug and knelt facing her. With his left hand half raised and his right hand on her shoulder, he assumed a solemn expression: “I am a king of Africa who rules the hot and dark land and reigns over its forests, surging currents, pythons, fierce lions, ivory and diamonds.”
She immediately started to bow to him on the bed. Her breasts dropped onto the sheet like two fruits hanging quietly at harvest time. She hailed him repeatedly, “King, oh, King. . . .”
“You are the King’s sparrow, you are the King’s beloved consort,” he said. “You are the only woman with the good fortune of accompanying the King through his vacation.”
The little sparrow compulsively and passionately hugged Barney. She kissed him, like a little, charming white hen happily pecking for food on the black earth. “I’m your little sparrow, the King’s beloved consort,” she murmured. “I want to wait on you, and take you to another village where the wind blows.”
“Another village where the wind blows?”
“Yes, my King,” she said. “Like that little village we went to today.”
The King said, “Oh it’s a village where the wind blows like the one I grew up in.”
The black King was lying on the bed. This was a big luxurious bed in a tourist hotel. At the head of the bed there was an exquisite golden carving.
“I wish you’d been to our old, old South,” Barney said. “We lived there generation after generation. There we sang, prayed, wept, drank, labored, and then buried our bones.”
“If you like, I’ll take you to another village tomorrow,” the little sparrow chirped excitedly, “a small fishing port; the fishing boats busily drag huge batches of fish and shrimp out of the sea and unload them on that little port.”
“Ah, no,” said Barney.
“As you please,” she said, and got up to pour him a glass of water. Her shoulders, broad and smooth, were like a mountain slope, waiting to be plowed.
The sergeant propped himself on his side to drink. He held the cup with both hands like a baby. She stroked his black stomach; her hand appeared very white against him. And yet she knew she was definitely not a fair-skinned girl. “Didn’t you say the sights are all the same everywhere?” he said apologetically.
“That’s true,” she smiled, “yeah, that’s true.”
“Yeah, that’s true,” he said. He peered at the ceiling through the bottom of the glass, squinting the other eye, as if he were gazing at a distant place through a telescope. He echoed in almost a whisper, “Yeah, that’s true, it’s the same everywhere, the countryside is the same all over the world.”
Her hand was traversing his black body. “Is that true?” she asked.
“Today I saw your countryside, large rice paddies everywhere. The sun shone on the grain that rippled in the wind. The only things missing were the roar and smoke of artillery, the dense forest—otherwise, it would be too much like the place where we fought.” He suddenly started to giggle, because Emily was stroking his pubic hair. He dodged her and put the glass on the table beside the bed. He giggled again. He grabbed her hand. “Don’t do that,” he smiled, “You’re a little whore.”
“Don’t you like it?”
“No, not now,” he said, kissing the hands that he had grabbed, with a tinge of melancholy. She laughed.
“I mean,” she said, “you don’t like the way the village is, because
“I don’t know,” said Barney. His thick lips, like a suction cup, were powerfully sucking the back of her hand.
“Because of the war?”
“Ah, no,” he quickly replied. “My great-grandfather was also a soldier. He joined General Lee to fight the Yankees.” He looked over at the table, picked up a pack of cigarettes lying between the cup and a small harmonica, and pecked out a long, white cigarette with his thick lips. She lit it for him. He was just like a soldier.
“Now I am a sergeant,” he said, full of self-confidence. “Above sergeant is second lieutenant, first lieutenant, lieutenant, then major, lieutenant colonel, and then colonel.”
“You’ll make it,” she said happily. “You’ll make it for sure.”
“By that time, people will call me Colonel Williams—then for the rest of my days the young fellows will respectfully call me Colonel Williams, Colonel Williams.”
She didn’t actually understand what the honor of being a colonel meant. Nevertheless, she faithfully believed that one day he would become a colonel, a devilish and dashing officer, like that Captain Birch who had conferred the promotion on him.
“By that time, people will invite me to be a member of the neighborhood good-will committee, to attend parties with whites, and even to give young white fellows some useful smart advice,” he smiled. “What’s more, I’ll live in a big, clean comfortable house, sheltered by tall southern banyan trees. In the shade of the banyan trees the lawn will always be green …”
“Colonel Williams,” she whispered,” You haven’t mentioned Mrs. Colonel yet.”
The sergeant was pleasantly startled. His little sparrow was anxiously toying with a silvery barrette. He held out his arms to hug her, saying, “You’re my baby, little sparrow.” She didn’t say a word, but, as tame as a pigeon, let him kiss her. However, her mind couldn’t rest. She asked: “Are they all high-class people?”
“What high-class people?”
“The friends of Colonel Williams.”
“Of course, they’re all high-class people.” The sergeant laughed.
“You’ll want to marry one of their daughters,” she said sadly.
The black sergeant silently stared at the air-conditioning vent. The cold air flowed in steadily and blew against the thick drapes. Because of his new ambition, he was trying, with some difficulty, to maintain a certain stoic mien. But he said: “I won’t marry anyone but you: my baby, my little sparrow.”
“Really?” she said delightedly.
“Really,” he said.
Emily, wriggling, squirmed into the crook of his arm. It reminded him of a groundhog back home.
“Really?” she said again.
“I swear by Jesus Christ, you’ll be my Mrs. Colonel for sure,” he promised. He began to kiss his groundhog. But he knew she just couldn’t concentrate on making love.
“Barney,” she said affectionately.
“Barney, listen to me.” She was nibbling on his black finger. “What you said is enough to make me very happy.”
“What do you mean?” he asked.
“What do I mean?” she said with a smile. “I’m just a bar girl. I can’t be Mrs. Colonel.”
“Even if I wasn’t a bar girl, I’m a bartered bondmaid—do you understand?”
“No, I don’t understand,” he smiled. “But it doesn’t make any difference, you’re my Mrs. Colonel.”
“A bondmaid is a girl who was sold by her family as a small child,” she said. “My mother was also a bondmaid, her mother too.”
“Jesus!” the sergeant sighed, “a hundred years ago we were auctioned off like cattle! But look, I’m a sergeant now …”
“Yes, I’m happy for you,” the little sparrow said. “I was brought up in those dark dingy huts, the kind you saw in the countryside. But what does it matter? I live more comfortably now than any of them. It’s just like you’re a sergeant now, but tomorrow you’ll probably be a proud colonel.”
“You were brought up in those huts?” the sergeant pondered. “I remember the battlefield where I did my distinguished service. It too had those low, dark huts. I walked into one of those huts holding a gun. A little girl huddled in a corner was holding a rag doll with broken arms. She wasn’t terrified, nor did she cry. You grew up in that kind of hut too?”
“Tell me that you gave chewing gum to that little girl,” she begged earnestly. “That you took that little girl to the camp and gave her lots of canned goods and food.”
“Of course,” said the sergeant, “of course! О Jesus Christ, I gave her all the chewing gum, canned goods, and food.”
“I knew you would,” she was relieved. “Just like you did today, when you gave those children that surrounded you pieces of chew- ing gum.”
The sergeant grew silent, then lit another cigarette. He said, “But I don’t like your rice paddies here or over there. I don’t like the sun, the malicious woods, and those sons of bitches who hide in the jungle. They’re as disgusting as leeches.”
“The sons of bitches!” she echoed his curse.
“You can’t tell who is who. God damn it!” the sergeant said angrily. “But I don’t like to see us burn the villages to ashes, really, I was once a farmer …”
“But when the war is over, you’ll be a colonel.”
“That’s right!” the sergeant, who had started to brood suddenly perked up again. “Just think, when my great-grandfather joined General Lee, he was only a groom.”
Their passion flared again, and afterwards they fell asleep exhausted. At dawn, however, the sergeant suddenly started to scream in his sleep. His voice sounded like that of Homo sapiens in an age before language, yelling in terror.
YOU ARE A DUCK
Sergeant Barney E. Williams became ill. Since that day, he had had long nightmares every night, and just couldn’t shake them off. He was sent to a mental hospital in the suburbs. An ambitious young doctor was put in charge of his case. He could speak English very well, but Barney didn’t like him, because he constantly asked the sergeant many things about his past that he wanted to forget. However, the nightmares would return like ghosts to terrify Barney at a certain time every night. So he couldn’t help but gradually grow to depend on this proud Chinese doctor, although he had always hated and feared these self-assured, arrogant, upper-class people.
“Are you feeling better?” the doctor asked with a smile. He sounded more like a duck than a doc, the sergeant thought. He an swered despondently, “The nightmares just won’t stop, you know that.”
“Eventually we’ll find out what’s behind them,” the duck said. “We are trying to find out what events may have caused you to be like this.” He let out a professional laugh. He was really an arrogant duck, not a doc.
“Yeah, duck,” the sergeant laughed mischievously, “yeah, duck.”
“Very good,” the doctor said. “Now, think. Before this have you ever experienced nightmares?”
“Jesus! I’ve never had them” the sergeant was getting irritated. “Well, once, but that was when I was only a kid.”
“You said once when you were a kid. Very good,” the doctor said happily. “Do you remember why?”
“I don’t remember.”
They became silent. The doctor just smiled and looked at him. He was really an obnoxious duck, the sergeant thought. However, he began to feel worried.
“Maybe because I was scared—I don’t know,” he replied despondently. “My father could sing a lot of pretty songs, especially if someone lent him a good guitar.”
“Your father could sing a lot of pretty songs?”
“No one in the world can sing better than him,” the sergeant smiled wistfully.
“That didn’t seem scary, did it?”
“I don’t know.” The sergeant covered his eyes with his hands. He kept shaking his head. “I don’t know,” he said. “Doctor, do I have to tell you everything?”
“You must tell me everything,” the duck replied gently. “We want to help you, you see.”
The doctor lit a cigarette for the sergeant. Holding the cigarette, Barney’s hand trembled faintly. But the doctor deliberately ignored it.
“OK,” the sergeant said, giving in. “Often, late at night, he took me out to wander under the street lights. He was very good to me, Doctor.” He began to laugh wearily.
The doctor said, “Go on, I’m listening.”
“He would drink slowly, and then begin to sing softly in a strong, low-pitched voice,” the sergeant said. “In the cold nights, after he’d finished drinking and singing, he’d say: ‘Kid, let’s go home.’ ”
“Your father said: ‘Kid, let’s go home.’ Go on.”
“We’d go home. Sometimes, sometimes that white man hadn’t left yet, then we had to hide and wait for him to leave. Then, my mother would see that white man to the door—he was a dirty pig! And my mother, she would be all naked.”
The sergeant began to sob. A glass on the table held a blooming red rose.
“It’s good for you to let out your feelings.” the doctor said. “All that is over now. It’s good for you to let out your feelings.”
“I hope so,” the sergeant said. He lit another cigarette. “Then when we went home, my father would begin to curse and beat my mother savagely. But she only cried softly and never rose up against him.” He dropped the cigarette into the water-lined ash tray, and watched the water slowly soak through the cigarette butt. He said, “It was on those nights that I started to have nightmares.”
“This is a sad story,” the doctor sighed gently. “But never regret that you told me these things. I’m a doctor. We are already beginning to move in the right direction: it was those emotional experiences of anger, dread, and anxiety that made you have nightmares. Let’s keep on in this direction. Never regret that you’ve told me all these things,” he said, “I’m your doctor.”
“That’ll depend on whether or not you can cure me.”
The doctor and the sergeant laughed together. “I feel better now,” the sergeant said. “Now I feel more at ease with you.”
The doctor smiled. “Very good,” he said, “very good. It says on the record that you have rendered distinguished military service. The was hasn’t been too terrible for you, I guess.”
“Not very,” said the sergeant.
“For instance, are you ever frightened?”
“Yes, a little,” the sergeant continued earnestly. “In the beginning, yes. But soon you begin to like it—you know, it was the first time in all my life that I was equal with whites: we hid in the same trenches, ate the same food, played cards, and went on missions. There was no difference at all. They could be shot down by the enemy too; there was absolutely no difference. In a war, you become a full-fledged citizen of the United States.”
“And before the war?”
The sergeant laughed. “Before the war! Jesus Christ . . . You knew from the time you were a tiny kid you couldn’t walk on the same streets as the whites. Ah, those clean, pretty, wide streets . . . Good Lord, you knew, even as a kid, you couldn’t play with Dick, Tom and Jimmy. This made you mad, Doctor. Your world was so small, forever disappointing and filthy.”
“You must have been a sensitive child,” the doctor said.
“One time, I secretly scrubbed my face very hard with soap,” the sergeant laughed lustily. “I was hoping to wash my skin white — Jesus Christ!”
“Ah,” the doctor said, “so you like the army. You’ve fought side by side with Dick and Tom, and you could leave your sense of inferiority behind.”
“I don’t know,” he said. “Sometimes I really wish the war would never end. Once I braved a hail of bullets to drag Roger back to the trench. I had known him since we shipped out. An enemy grenade blew away his left shoulder—it was all torn up. The son of a bitch!—he said: ‘Barney, I really want to thank you for saving my life. ‘And then he died as if nothing had happened. He said: ‘Barney, I really want to thank you. ‘ It suddenly occurred to me that never before in my life had a white man spoken to me in this way. I cried, Doctor.” The sergeant chuckled to himself. “They say Barney is a sentimental guy.”
“I don’t know,” said the sergeant.
“You are,” said the doctor. “Now, think a minute. Did anything special happen this time just before these nightmares began?”
“The fact is, recently I’ve been happier than ever before,” said the sergeant. “I met a girl.”
“You fell in love with her,” the doctor was delighted.
“I often ask myself, have I fallen in love with her?” the sergeant said. “She’s a bar girl. Have I fallen in love with her?”
“Is she upsetting you?”
“Of course not,” he said. “Emily’s a nice girl. She’s a pitiful good angel.”
“Emily is a pitiful good angel?”
“She is a pitiful good angel,” the sergeant said. “She’s a bartered bondmaid—the kind of girl who was sold as a little child.”
“Has she fallen in love with you?”
“I don’t know,” the sergeant said. “To use your language, she has a kind of ‘inferiority complex’—did I say it right?”
“Yes, inferiority complex.”
“Emily said she wasn’t fit to marry me, because some day I will be a colonel,” the sergeant was embarrassed. “That’s what she said.”
“At any rate, she didn’t upset you in any way?”
“Absolutely not—Lord Jesus knows—Emily’s a sweet girl.”
“You said she is a pitiful good angel?” the doctor asked. “That didn’t remind you of anything?”
“She told me she grew up in those small, dark huts,” answered the sergeant. “This bothered me, but it wasn’t Emily that bothered me—she’s a pitiful good angel.”
“Those small dark huts bothered you?”
The sergeant was suddenly alarmed. “I guess so,” he faltered. “I guess so.”
“We’ve come to a crucial knot, Sergeant,” the doctor said gravely. “Keep going.”
“Emily took me to visit a little village,” the sergeant said with a deeply troubled expression. “The sun there, the rice paddies under the sun, even the lush bamboo thickets reminded me of another village.”
“Do you remember that village?”
“I wish I didn’t. At that time, the enemy, about four times as many as we, had encircled us from all directions. Those leeches in black shirts, those sons of bitches!” he grew furious. “We were slaughtered. Those sons of bitches!”
“You said you were being slaughtered. Go on, Sergeant.”
“I was the only one left alive. After the enemy left, I ran with my automatic rifle all through the night. Then, I think I must have tripped over the root of a tree, and just fallen asleep. Because when I woke up, I found myself clutching the rifle and lying under this tree. Perhaps because of the fierce sunlight, I felt extremely nervous. I grasped the rifle tightly and shot at anything that moved or made a sound.”
“So you became very nervous, you clicked off shots at anything that moved or made a sound,” said the doctor.
“Then I guess I walked into a small village, just firing off shots like that,” the sergeant murmured sadly. “That sun, those rice fields, those hideous woods. I shot without stopping until I walked into a small, low hut.”
“So you walked into a small, low hut. Go on.”
“In that hut sat a little girl, hugging a rag doll that had broken arms,” the sergeant said. “She wasn’t scared, nor did she cry, she just looked at me with big open eyes. Then I clicked the trigger . . . О Jesus Christ!”
The sergeant began to sob in terrible sorrow. The doctor poured him a glass of cold water.
“Doctor, I had to do that, you have to believe me,” he said.
“I believe you completely,” the doctor said. “Here, drink this. I believe you, completely.”
“You couldn’t tell who he was—they all looked the same: flat faces, slanted eyes, black cotton shirts. And I was all alone. Do you believe me?”
“I believe you, absolutely,” the doctor said. “I know that you were in battle.”
“I dropped into a groggy sleep outside that small, low hut,” the sergeant said softly, “until our troops arrived. They said I had annihilated the whole enemy village.”
The sergeant began to sob again. “Good God,” he said. “You must know I didn’t mean to do it. You just couldn’t tell the commies apart.”
“Drink some water, Sergeant,” the doctor said gently. “Letting out emotions is a good thing for you—a very good thing.”
“Ah, Jesus Christ,” murmured the sergeant.
Tears slid down his black cheeks, like rain drops sliding down an ancient black rock.
A RED KERCHIEF
Holding a big bunch of red and yellow roses, Sergeant Barney E. Williams got out of a taxi, stretched out his long legs, and walked up to a small apartment. The sweltering July heat surrounded him from all sides of the narrow stairway. Sweat had made his face shine with oil. And beads of sweat gathered at the roots of his curly hair. But the sergeant was singing happily:
Melinda, pretty Melinda,
You are happy, never complain
He panted from climbing up the stairs. He opened a small door, and immediately saw her cute, but not very sturdy bed. A silvery hair barrette was lying on the sheet.
“Emily!” he panted happily. “Emily, my little sparrow.”
She rushed out of the bathroom, wearing an old robe, her hair all wrapped up in a red kerchief. They rushed into each other’s arms, and he kissed her still wet neck.
“Oh, oh,” the little sparrow sobbed with joy. “Barney, you’re such a bad boy,” she said, “bad to the bones.”
The sergeant bent down to pick up the red and yellow roses which had scattered all over the floor. “Look,” he said, “I got out of the hospital, hopped in a taxi, and came straight here.”
“What beautiful roses!” she said, tears flowing down.
“The whole month of June!” He put the roses separately into four wide-necked bottles. “The whole month of June, they didn’t let us see each other.” He put the rest of the roses into cups, jars, and empty cans. “But you sent me a rose every day—for the whole month of June.”
“They told me they took very good care of you,” she said. “Is that true?”
“Why, yeah!” he laughed, again revealing a row of snow-white horse teeth. “They treated me like an old friend.”
“I was worried the whole time.” She unbuttoned his khaki uniform for him and kissed his black, slim chest. “I have an uncle, I remember him, he … ”
“He . . . ,” said the sergeant.
“They locked him up in a dark room. It’s been more than twenty years.”
“He was mad?” the sergeant said.
“Don’t mention him!” she hurriedly cut him off. “I was just worried.”
“Don’t be afraid of mad people,” the sergeant said gently. “They are only wounded in their hearts. It’s no different from being wounded on your skin—that’s what the duck said.” He started to tell her how that doctor was like a proud duck. She hung up the uniform for him.
“I’m not the least bit afraid,” she said happily. “Let’s forget it, OK?” He hugged her from behind.
The sergeant said, “Now I’m healthy as a contented bull. Emily, you’re my bride. Marry me, OK?”
She turned around. They were silent. She started to laugh, her eyes were glittering with happy tears. “I’ll be your bride forever,” Emily said, her flat nose fluttered happily. “I’m your bride forever, but you can’t marry me; I’m only a bar girl.”
“Little sparrow, listen to me,” the sergeant said solemnly. He was so solemn that he could paint the whole sun black. He said, “Remember? I’m the great grandson of a slave—a slave.”
Even if she knew what a slave was, she couldn’t really understand what it meant to be a slave. She shook her head. “But you want to become a colonel.” She untied the red kerchief. Her short, half-wet hair slid down coldly. “But it’s all the same. I’ll always be your bride,” she said smiling. “As long as you love me before you leave, that’ll be good enough.”
“You’re a silly little sparrow,” he said, full of the confidence of a healthy man. “The sergeant says he wants to marry you, then he wants to marry you.”
“You don’t have to be that way, really.” She squirmed happily against his chest like a brown groundhog. “As long as you love me before you leave—completely love me—that’ll be good enough.”
Sergeant Barney E. Williams began to feel sad. He said, “They told you I’m going to leave soon?”
“You all leave sooner or later,” she said softly. “Forget it! Let’s enjoy the rest of your vacation. How many more days do you have?”
“Four days,” he sighed softly, looking at the red and yellow roses all over the table and on the shelf above the bed. They were silent.
“Four days,” she whispered.
“Little sparrow, listen to me …”
The little sparrow started to weep silently. “It’s OK,” she said. She began to take off her robe. Her breasts, which seemed slightly fuller, were trembling slightly. She turned on the fan beside the bed and lay down on her side.
“Little sparrow, listen to me/’ the sergeant kissed her. “When I was in the hospital, I told myself: for the first time in my life, there is a person who makes me feel important. That person is you, my little sparrow. I also told myself: for the first time, I have a purpose in life that I will fight for.”
“I love you,” the little sparrow sighed.
“I love you.” The sergeant kissed her whole body lightly. “I don’t want to leave you, do you believe me? But I want to go back to that battlefield; I want to kill all those black mountain leeches hiding in the woods, those sons of bitches. I want to become a brave soldier, a colonel. I want you to be proud of me.”
Several times Emily wanted to tell him that she’d been pregnant with his child for over a month. It must be a pretty little black boy, she thought, blinking a pair of big goldfish eyes, just like his father. But she only said, “I will be proud of you.” She smiled happily. The sergeant began to breathe heavily with excitement. The child must be a pretty little boy, blinking big goldfish eyes like his father, she thought to herself.
It was a foggy night. She came home from work and picked up a handsome white envelope lying at her doorway. She turned on the light and took the elegantly trimmed letter from the envelope. On it was a fierce eagle, grasping a bunch of sharp arrows in its claws, as if it were about to lift its wings and fly off. At once she remembered the certificate promoting him to sergeant. It too had a majestic fierce bird like this one on it. She kissed the letter happily. “Barney, you made it—I don’t know what rank, but you’ve been promoted again,” she murmured. “You made it, Barney, you made it!”
She put the elegant letter on the table. Sergeant Barney E. Williams was smiling gently from the picture frame. She took off her clothes and began to take a shower. She whistled his “Pretty Melinda” and thought of his manner as he boarded the ship. His profile in a peaked army hat looked truly like a brave soldier. The glorious sunlight was shining on the huge battleship and shining on his brand new khaki uniform. He was stretching his long arms, waving to her incessantly, and yet, she cried the whole time, as she stood on the pier.
“Sweetheart, I’ll be all right,” he shouted. “I’ll come back to see you, I will.” Then the ship slowly sailed out of the harbor. What glorious sunlight! Now her whole face was directed toward the shower head. She grinned.
“Tomorrow, I’ll ask the bartender to read the letter to me.” She said to herself, “This time, it’s at least a second lieutenant. Lieutenant Barney E. Williams!” She couldn’t help laughing out loud and spat out a mouthful of cold water.
Under the light, the elegant letter was lying in silence.
* * *
“He fought for the irrefutable ideals of democracy, peace, freedom and independence. He gave his life for the sacred principles and convictions of the United States. In his sacrifice, he has added a powerful boulder to the foundation for the struggle of the free peoples of the world against inhumanity and slavery.”
* * *