The novel is the only place for a great many of life's truths. Because it is only in fiction that certain facts can be held up to the light.
The novel it is, then, for this particular truth. The story I'm about to tell, you see, bears some resemblance to real characters and events. Or—if I may put it this way: life has imitated art, re-rehearsing the plot of Serve the People!
Wu Dawang, Sergeant of the Catering Squad, now General Orderly for the Division Commander and his wife, stood in the doorway to the kitchen, a bunch of pak-choi in hand, acknowledging a devastating new presence in the room. The wooden sign ordering its beholder, in bright red letters, to "Serve the People!" had moved from its usual place on the dining table and on to the kitchen worktop. To the left of the exhortation, five stars gleamed; to the right, a water canteen dangled from a rifle while a luxuriant row of wheat bristled beneath.
The pride of the entire division, an exemplar, a model of political correctness, the Sergeant enjoyed an extraordinarily well-developed understanding of the sign's symbolic language. The five stars (the Revolution) together with the rifle and canteen (the Party's history of armed struggle) were reminders of the long, arduous path to Revolution. The wheat pointed to the glorious future: of glorious harvests in the glorious times to come once Communism had been realized.
This sign, its letters burning scarlet against a whitewashed background, its stars, rifle, canteen and wheat emblazoned in red and yellow, had come home one day with the Division Commander. He had gazed solemnly at Wu Dawang as he laid it on the table. "Do you know what this sign means?" he asked, while his General Orderly set down dishes of food before him.
After a long, hard look, Wu Dawang produced a careful critique.
"Good," declared the Commander, his face brightening slowly into a smile. "Very good, in fact—much better than them."
Though Wu Dawang didn't know who the Division Commander meant by "them," he did know, and better than most, the People's Liberation Army's three rules of thumb: Don't Say What You Shouldn't Say, Don't Ask What You Shouldn't Ask, Don't Do What You Shouldn't Do. He therefore went back to the kitchen to prepare soup for the Commander and his wife. And from that moment on, the sign became the most distinguished, most illustrious resident of the dining table, casting its mighty symbolic shadow over the lowly bottles of vinegar, chili sauce and sesame oil.
The days passed, one after another, as time trickled peacefully, indeterminately through the barracks.
Every day at dawn, before reveille, the Commander would come downstairs, immaculately uniformed, and set out for the parade ground—for his daily round of drills, and yet more drills. Every night, long after lights-out, he would return home exhausted, take off his uniform, wash his face, brush his teeth, and climb upstairs to bed. Revolution and work were the epicenter of the Commander's life, dominating his entire being. Since earliest boyhood, he had held up the Great Events in Our Nation's History—the Sino-Japanese War, Land Reform, the Fight for Liberation—as a yardstick against which to measure the significance of his every day of existence. Even now, on the wrong side of fifty and gazing down the slope to old age, he still relied on the same gauge to calibrate the meaning of his life.
His young, pretty wife, Liu Lian, by contrast, led a much less meaningful life. A nurse by training, and seventeen or eighteen years his junior, she hadn't set foot in a hospital since her marriage. No one knew whether she'd given up work voluntarily, or because her husband had wanted her to, but for a full five years now she had stayed at home, ruling this senior officer's roost, keeping company only with the four walls around her and the prestige of their master.
Of Liu Lian, Wu Dawang knew next to nothing. Before he'd taken up his present post, he'd known nothing at all. He had no idea where she'd grown up or when she'd joined the army as a nurse. He didn't know she hadn't worked for five years or, apart from mealtimes, what she did upstairs all day. He didn't know whether the army still paid her salary even though she didn't turn up to work; whether she was from a military family; whether she'd forgotten army protocol in the years she'd been out of uniform. To him, her personal history was a gigantic blank, a mountain range shrouded in impenetrable mist. Beneath the blankets of cloud, the peaks might have been desolate crags emerging from ravines, or carpets of green serenaded by songbirds and festooned with gorgeous flowers and gurgling brooks; but Wu Dawang had no way of telling.
Because these were matters of which he knew nothing, he paid them no attention; and because he paid them no attention, the Division Commander delighted in his choice of orderly. Even though Wu Dawang was a veteran revolutionary of several years' service, even though his personal file was piled vertiginously high with honors, despite all his commendations, awards and citations, despite the fact that twice a year the brigade's Head of Management would name him Model Soldier as unhesitatingly as one would hand a narcoleptic a pillow, still he wanted more—much, much more. Wu Dawang was, in short, a man greedy for laurels, an exceptional soldier fixated on promotion. And it was after one particularly exhilarating performance at a Mass Theory and Practice of Frontline Logistics Competition—in which Wu had recited, word-perfect, 286 quotations and three classic essays ("Serve the People," "Commemorating Norman Bethune," and "The Foolish Old Man who Moved the Mountains") by Chairman Mao; had dug a stove, chopped ingredients and presented an immaculate gourmet banquet of four dishes and a soup all within thirty minutes; and had, yet again, been lauded up and down the barracks ranks as Model Soldier—that the Division Commander had selected him as his full-time orderly and cook.
"What is it you must always remember," the Head of Management had asked, "when you start work for the Commander?"
"Don't ask what I shouldn't ask, don't do what I shouldn't do, don't say what I shouldn't say," he replied.
"To serve the Division Commander is to Serve the People."
"More important even than that," the Head of Management added, "you must mean what you say, unite theory with practice, and make sure your actions speak as loud as your words."
"Please reassure the Commander that I will speak as I think, and act as I speak, that I will be both Red and Expert."
"Excellent," the Head of Management said. "Off you go then, and I'm sure more accolades will come your way soon."
And with that, Wu Dawang was transferred to the Division Commander's own household.
For the past six months, he had stuck cautiously, conscientiously, scrupulously to his brief: he had cooked, grown vegetables, kept the floor and the front yard spotless, tended the herbaceous borders and pruned the trees regularly. After a short spell of home leave, he'd barely left his new place of work—Number One in the senior officers' compound—this whole time. Because of Wu Dawang's tireless dedication to duty, and because of the Division Commander's almost obsessive zeal for the tasks of the Revolution and of the Party, during a recent, centrally orchestrated Streamline-and-Regroup Initiative, the Commander had set an example for everyone by cutting his own household staff to one. This meant that now only two people were left rattling around this Soviet-built military residence once the Commander had gone to work each morning: Liu Lian, the Commander's thirty-two-year-old wife, and Wu Dawang, his twenty-eight-year-old General Orderly—like a single rose and a hoe left abandoned in a vast, bare flowerbed.
As to how the whole thing began, Wu Dawang had no idea. He was unaware how many times in the last six months the Commander's wife had looked him over at the dinner table. Or how she had stood at the window, never taking her eyes off him, as he hoed the vegetable patch at the back of the house. He didn't know that, while he'd been pinning back the grapes in the front yard, she'd found herself compelled to draw him closer, magnifying his image through the Commander's telescope, because the vines—as densely fruitful as a Marxist-Leninist-Maoist study meeting—were obscuring her quarry. Over the days and months, she had studied him. Just as a jeweler would scrutinize a diamond or a chunk of agate through an eye-glass, she studied the pearls of sweat on his forehead; like a connoisseur appreciating a piece of rare, purple-threaded jade, she perused the veins in his neck and along his bronzed shoulders. But he—just as a wild pagoda tree is oblivious to the scent of a garden-bound peony—remained insensible, unknowing. Beyond the Division Commander's gated compound, time passed as unstoppably as water flows to the east and the sun sinks in the west. Outside, the furnaces of the Revolution raged, the great rivers rolled and billowed, but within—within, all remained as peaceful as a valley of fragrant peach blossom, of gentle streams and lush, undulating hills, swaddled in a poetic mist of desire.
It was against this idyllic backdrop that, three days ago, as dusk was falling on whichever secret meeting had been scheduled for the second day of the Commander's all-important two-month study-and-discussion conference on streamlining army administration and performance in Beijing, after Wu Dawang had taken dinner with Liu Lian and begun clearing the table, she had sent in his direction a glance beneath whose coolly decorous exterior burned a seething fire. Taking the Serve the People! sign from its place against the wall, she set it down on the mahogany dining table—as lightly, nonchalantly and guilelessly as if she were asking him to fetch something from the yard, or pick something up from the floor.
"Xiao Wu," she said, tucking the diminutive "xiao" in front of his surname in a casual, blandly affectionate kind of way, "whenever this sign's not in its usual place, it means I need you upstairs for something." Her communication concluded, she knocked the wooden sign meaningfully against the table—a cool, darkly enigmatic sound, like that of jade on agate. Then, just as she did after every meal, she glided sedately up the stairs.
He stood there, dazed, not sure what was next expected of him, a hint of pleasurable disquiet percolating through him. He gazed at her retreating figure as if it belonged to a woman he'd never seen before, following it with his eyes until she turned the bend in the stairs and her shadow disappeared like a tree's evaporating at sundown. He then returned the sign to its proper place, and set about his usual washing of the dishes and other richly revolutionary chores around the house.
Even today, that dusk still gleams bright in his memory, the dying sunlight as red as a political slogan freshly daubed across a wall. After Serving the People a respectable while in the kitchen, he went out into the front yard. There he pruned a few superfluous blooms off an extravagantly vigorous bush of scarlet roses, letting them fall into the plastic bucket reserved for the household of top-ranking officer—even his deputy received only the old-style iron model. After he had watered the other roses and shrubs by the cobbled pathway, the sun finally sank beneath the horizon, taking its vermilion blush away with it to the west. This is the time, on the plains of eastern Henan, when evening cedes peacefully to night, when the voices of the cicadas fade away to almost nothing—the occasional chirruped exception echoed through the barracks like a rousing army chorus, bringing a welcome respite from the eerie quiet. Just beyond the red-lacquered gate of the Division Commander's compound, the footsteps of the relief patrol clattered across the courtyard. Looking up, Wu Dawang recognized a member of his old company, and they exchanged salutes through the reinforced steel gate. He then went back inside the house, still carrying his bucket.
It was at this moment that Liu Lian quietly lit the firebrand of love in her innocently unknowing orderly. He immediately saw that the sign he had returned to its proper home only half an hour ago had been placed, with heart-stopping brazenness, in the middle of the living room, against the bottom of the stairs. Time had begun to wear the stairs' red lacquer into cracks and scars, exposing in places the grain of the wood, which, like the coquettish features of capitalist women in films, now peeped coyly out at the room. Wu Dawang wasted no time: the sign's new position was a silent call to arms more imperative than any barked order. It told him that upstairs there was work for him, and for him alone.
He immediately set down his bucket, as if a command was echoing through the house. But only a few steps up, his mind cast back six months to the day he'd first reported for his new duties. "You needn't concern yourself with the upstairs," the Division Commander had said, an understated steeliness to his voice, "and especially if my wife's not about." These words now rang in Wu Dawang's ears as deafeningly as if Chairman Mao himself had spoken them, and when he reached the bend in the stairs he slowed and lightened his step—as if the treads were made of glass, barely able to support his weight.
The residual glimmer of the dusk was seeping through the window, like silk gauze washed red and white. A faint yet pervasive scent of decay floated about him. He couldn't tell where it was coming from—the wooden window or door frames perhaps, or the lime cementing the greenish-black bricks—but it was, somehow, curiously feminine. Though he knew perfectly well that it was utterly inappropriate for him to feel now, obeying the summons of his Commander's wife, as he had done on his way to meet his own intended for the first time, still his heart began thumping uncontrollably. This state of agitation, brought on by the prospect of presenting himself before Liu Lian, was unbecoming to a revolutionary soldier's dignity and education, to the lofty emotional and ideological state he aspired to. And so he pulled himself up, thumped his chest and reminded himself severely that he was climbing the stairs because there was work for him at their summit—as if a crucial link in the great chain of Revolution were waiting for him up there, leaving him no choice but to go and retrieve it.
Once he had, with some effort, managed to dam the busy brook of counter-revolution within and calm the beating of his heart, he completed his ascent with a light, steady tread. It didn't take him long to work out that the arrangement of the first floor was precisely the same as the ground: two rooms to the east, a toilet to the south and an extra room facing west. Located directly above the kitchen and dining room, this extra space seemed to be fitted out for conferences, its center ringed by a circle of wood-framed sofas and tea tables, its walls hung with all manner of administrative and military maps.
This, plainly, was the Division Commander's workroom—like a novelist's study, but a hundred thousand times more important. Wu Dawang blinked at the frenzies of blood-red arrows and multicolored lines swarming over maps punctuated by brightly scrawled circles, triangles and squares—as if an entire garden had burst into glorious bloom inside the house. He instinctively averted his gaze, suddenly understanding the Commander's warnings about going upstairs. If a man was allowed even a glimpse of the doorway to secrets, those secrets were as good as out. As a soldier, Wu Dawang's sacred mission in life was to keep military secrets secret: to make it his business not to mind what wasn't his business. It was this discretion that had won him the affection and trust of the Commander, his wife, the Revolution and the state.
Once his heartbeat had slowed again, a new, solemn self-possession descended on him. He fixed his gaze on an old-fashioned carved door to his left. Striding over to it, he raised his shoulders and straightened his spine—precisely as any rank-and-file soldier who found himself in the doorway to his Division Commander's office should—tilted his head back, thrust both chest and eyes forward, and barked out six over-enunciated syllables: "Reporting for Duty."
He was greeted by silence.
Bracing his vocal cords, he barked out a second time: "Reporting for Duty."
Silence, like the twilight, continued to wash through the house.
He knew that the Commander and his wife slept in the bedroom in front of him. While working outside, he'd often seen her face at the window, her youthful, aristocratically pallid features poised there, as if frozen within an antique picture frame. Just as the Revolution itself advanced in lopsided paces—now slow, now fast, now inching, now striding—her imprisoned face was sometimes impassive, sometimes animated.
She had to be in there. He'd never known her to call at other houses in the compound, at the homes of the Political Commissar or Deputy Division Commander, or pass the time with their wives. She hardly ever spoke to them, just as the Division Commander hardly ever wasted idle words on his subordinates. This bedroom was the nucleus of her existence, the building around it her whole life. He knew she was in the bedroom and, as he considered trying another "Reporting for Duty," he instead found himself knocking— twice—on the door. His knuckles rapped against the wood, as on the surface of a drum.
"Come in," she replied at last. Her voice, low and hoarse, had a narrow tremble to it, as if something—a slight, yielding obstacle—were lodged in her throat.
He pushed the door open. Only then did he see that the light was off; that the room was cast in shadows, the bed, table and chairs melting into partial obscurity. She was seated on the edge of the bed, a book in hand: volume I of The Selected Works of Mao Zedong. Later, much later, as he cast his mind back over a memory that had sweetened with age, it would dawn on him that it had been far too dark to read, that she had only been holding the book for show. But at that moment—as it was happening—he had believed she truly was reading, just as he had believed everything else that happened had followed on as naturally and spontaneously as rain falling from an overcast sky, or the sun emerging into a blue one.
"Aunt Liu," he said, "what can I do for you?"
"The light cord is stuck," she replied. "Would you get it back down for me?"
Following her gaze, he saw that the cord for the light over the bedside table had wrapped itself around its discolored fitting, and he would need to stand on something to untangle it. So he walked over to her side of the bed, pulled out the chair from under the bedside table, took the woven cane mat off it, removed his shoes, brushed the soles of his feet—which were, as it happened, not in the slightest bit dirty—and laid an old newspaper out on the chair. He then stepped on to it, unwound the cord, and while he was up there, gave it a tug.
The room was flooded with light.
Against the sudden electric brightness of the interior, the window shone dark, and threadlike cracks crept, exposed, across the plaster walls. Like an armory bereft of exciting, new-issue weapons, the room held no surprises: a portrait of Chairman Mao and a framed print of his quotations hung on the wall, while a plaster bust of the Great Helmsman kept watch over the writing desk. A large mirror—its upper edge inscribed with the Chairman's key imperatives—rested next to a washbowl; to one side hung the Division Commander's telescope, to the other the .54 revolver he rarely wore, its leather holster gleaming dark burgundy. Directly beneath the mirror was a dressing table, its glassy green surface covered with jars of face cream, pots of face powder, scissors, combs and other such objects—luxuries you didn't often see in those days.
None of this, however, confounded Wu Dawang's expectations. Though he'd never before seen the first floor of the Division Commander's house, he had been upstairs in the residence of the Political Commissar and his wife, who worked in the division's accounts office. Their home (another two-story, Soviet-style construction) was exactly the same as the Commander's: simple, modest, every surface inspirationally resplendent with the glorious traditions of the Revolution. It roused, urged, all visiting subordinates to the most exalted, the most revolutionary homages they could muster—to recount to anyone who would listen the revolutionary past and present of their senior officers, to worship them as idols of political correctness, as lustrous reflections of their glorious Party, as proof positive of the astonishing fortune and honor that had fallen into their laps, permitting them to become soldiers in such a miraculous era.
Wu Dawang was overwhelmed by the hidden, abyss-like reservoirs of simplicity lurking upstairs in the Commander's home. As he jumped back down off the chair, he searched for a sentence that would express to Liu Lian his sense of awed respect. He thought of the phrases that rang out most often during New Year house-visits in his village: the simplest homes are the most glorious, the most glorious are the most revolutionary; take pride in the traditions of the Revolution, struggle for glory. And so on and so forth. A number of salutations from his military education classes also sprang to mind. For example, the power of tradition can transcend the passage of time to shape our tomorrows. Or, the simplest things are always the most moving, the most moving things are always the simplest. Or (as his Political Instructor had once read out from an editorial), if our leaders can inherit and disseminate the Yan'an Spirit, can embody and pass on the simple virtues of our illustrious Party leadership, our revolutionary endeavors will glow red like the sun, bringing radiant hope wherever they shine.
Intensely moved by the wealth of beauteous expressions that had come so readily to him, he was on the verge of blurting out a few when suddenly he thought better of it. He began to feel that, however impressive they looked written down, if you actually spoke them out loud, they might sound a little indigestible, a little off, like undercooked rice, or sour soup. You might even sound like you were a bit, well, not all there—not quite right in the head. Especially as this was his first time upstairs, the first time he'd been moved by the Yan'an Spirit in Liu Lian's bedroom, the first time he'd wanted to express his admiration to her, he didn't want to regurgitate the pompous formulations found in essays. He wanted to come out with some priceless gems of his own, with the simplest, purest, most moving words he could find.
But the moment he left those fine, worn phrases back where they belonged—in the posters, newspapers, books and deafeningly public broadcasts that were their natural habitat—his head became a vast, echoing cavern, a colossally deserted public square, rudely stripped of its festoons. His face throbbed bright red under the pressure of this inarticulacy, his lips trembling beneath the anxious weight of everything he had on the tip of his tongue but was unable to verbalize.
After removing the newspaper, he put the chair neatly back under the table, replaced his shoes and straightened up, nervous sweat pouring off his face like water from a spring. He listened to the drops hitting the ground, one after another, like rainwater falling from the eaves of a house on to tiled ground below. Finally he managed to garble: "Is that all, Aunt Liu? If so, I'll be off downstairs."
"Don't call me Aunt," she said, sounding irked. "It makes me sound so old."
Smiling brightly, he meant to risk looking at her but instead heard himself saying: "Aunt sounds more—more personal."
She did not smile back. "Xiao Wu," she said, her words heavy with undeclared meaning, her solemnly benevolent expression tinged with a certain nervousness, "you can keep calling me Aunt in front of the Division Commander and other people, but when there's no one else around, you can call me Sister."
She spoke softly, affectionately, like a wise old mother counseling a son before he rides off to join the Revolution, or like a real sister taking her little brother to task. Unexpectedly moved, at that precise moment Wu Dawang wanted more than anything else to do as she said, to call her Sister, to seize this beautiful moment and cement their new sibling relationship. To file it, permanently, within the archives of their lives. And yet, Liu Lian was still the Commander's wife, while he was just the General Orderly. Social inequality loomed as insurmountably between the two of them as the Great Wall, their ranks as irreconcilably different as a skyscraper and a hut. Give him superhuman powers, the power to recite flawlessly everything Chairman Mao had ever written, to cook a ten-dish banquet in less than a minute—and still, still that marvelous word, "Sister," would be unutterable.
Though his lips had stopped trembling, they had instead begun to feel numb or scalded, as if by a sudden mouthful of hot soup. The word "Sister" died in his throat, killed by cowardice. Overwhelmed by a searing sense of self-loathing at his own failure of nerve, he resolved to look back up at the Division Commander's wife, his new sister and, with his eyes, to communicate his deep, sincere feelings of gratitude and respect.
He slowly raised his head. After a brief, violent explosion somewhere deep inside him, a gorgeous rainbow unfurled before his eyes—a blinding flash of color that a second, disbelieving look translated, more matter-of-factly, into the Commander's wife.
The light shone bright as day.
The room was so quiet that you could hear the faint buzz of the lightwaves colliding and merging with solid objects. Outside, a sentry was pacing about the barracks, his footsteps faint but distinct. Wu Dawang stood there, paralyzed, as if he were made of wood, without any notion of what he might do next.
Liu Lian, he now registered, had placed the book down on the bed and, as it turned out, was dressed only in a red-and-blue floral silk nightgown which, in the way of nightgowns, hung loose and flimsy on her as if it might tumble off her body at any moment. It occurred vaguely to him that when he had first come in, he hadn't noticed her state of relative undress because the room had been lit only by dusk. Liu Lian, he deduced, must have had the nightgown on all along, but the evening gloom had prevented him from engaging in a thoroughgoing assessment of the situation. Now, with the light back on and an uninterrupted view, the evidence was there before him, clear as day.
Of course, if it had been merely a question of Liu Lian sitting on her bed in a nightgown, he wouldn't have been hallucinating rainbows where his Division Commander's wife was meant to be. After all, he was no longer a boy, no callow member of the rank- and-file, but a man of rank, a squad leader, a married man—he was one of the few guardsmen who'd actually seen a woman. And what a woman! His wife, let it not be forgotten, was the only daughter of a commune accountant. No—it was all the weather's fault. What with it being so hot, Liu Lian had turned on the electric fan at the head of the bed and, every time it rotated in her direction, it dispatched a rippling breeze under the hem of her nightdress which then traveled inexorably upward to escape via the neckline. The nightdress was roomy enough that each well-aimed flutter of the fan exposed a delicately shimmering, naked expanse of long, slender, snow-white thigh.
In the interests of laying out all the relevant facts, it should probably be made clear that not only was this the first time in his life that the country-born Wu Dawang had seen a woman in a silk nightgown, but also that an enticingly feminine scent of osmanthus flower was wafting sedately out from under its hem, engulfing every corner of the room, billowing up around him, constricting his breathing. Its oppressive closeness was drawing the sweat from his palms. It left his fingers powerless stumps, hanging uselessly by his sides, trembling as the sweat coursed down them. A single glance at her brought the rainbow flashing painfully back, scorching his eyeballs. But just as he determined to wrest his eyes away, it became apparent once more that the breeze's only logical exit point was the neck of her nightgown.
And there—just one unguarded glance later—entirely at ease within the air-filled nightdress, were her breasts, as flawlessly, geometrically round as if they had been traced with a compass, rising up large and white as the mantou—the fluffily perfect bread rolls so dearly beloved of the Division Commander—that he steamed for his superior and his wife. The moment Wu Dawang's mind wandered from the generous display of Liu Lian's bosoms to the steamed rolls he so deftly prepared, his hands registered an impulse to reach out and knead them.
But he was, when all was said and done, a man of education, a man who'd been to middle school, a man in whom the army had planted ideals, a yearning for the higher things in life. He was a man who enjoyed the esteemed regard and confidence of the Division Commander and of the army as a whole, a man who had pledged to fight for Communism until his dying breath. And he knew as well as his own name that he wasn't a son, or nephew, or brother, or cousin in this house—he was just a General Orderly. He knew what he should do and say—and what he shouldn't.
The forces of reason hammered down on his overheated brain like hailstones, dousing his raging fires with freezing meltwater. The Commander's wife, he reminded himself, was perfectly entitled to wear whatever she wanted—whatever it happened to reveal—in her own marital bedroom. (Barely a month after their wedding, he recalled, his own wife had taken to strolling around their bedroom naked from the waist up, without a trace of self-consciousness.) Women always remained guilelessly pure of it in the presence of men, he reflected; it was men with their diseased thoughts who were the problem.
And so it came about that, just as Wu Dawang's soul teetered perilously over a precipice of capitalist loucheness, the glorious forces of revolutionary reason rushed to its rescue. His gaze slid peacefully over and away from Liu Lian, as an eagle's eyes would skim a still body of water, and came to rest on the volume of The Selected Works of Mao Zedong that she had been leafing through. "Aunt," he asked again, "will that be all?"
Displeasure flickering across her face once again, Liu Lian tossed aside the book on which he had fixed his glance. "Xiao Wu," she asked icily, "what must you always remember when working in the Commander's house?"
"Don't say what I shouldn't say," he responded, "and don't do what I shouldn't do."
"To serve you and the Division Commander is to Serve the People."
"Well said—well said." Relaxing her expression of affront, she pulled her thoroughly aired nightgown back over her thighs. "Do you know how much older I am than you?" she asked in more kindly, sisterly tones.
"Only four years. Still think I'm old enough to be your aunt?" Without waiting for a response, she took a cloth from her bedside and passed it to him.
"Dry yourself off, I'm not going to eat you. Seeing as you can't get it out of your head that I'm your Commander's wife, you'd better answer all my questions—just like you'd answer him."
He wiped his face with the cloth.
"Are you married?"
"We had one the year before last. When I took home leave three months ago, you gave me baby clothes to take back as a present. Don't you remember, Aunt?"
She paused, as if something had suddenly stuck in her throat. After a brief silence, she resumed. "Stop calling me that: I'm your sister, remember."
He looked up at her once more.
"What do you want, more than anything else in the world?" she asked.
"To realize Communism—to struggle for Communism until my dying breath."
She flashed a curious, cold smile—like a thin veneer of embers smoldering over ice. She repeated her question, a harder set to her features: "I'm your sister, remember, you have to tell me the truth."
He mumbled a yes.
"So what is it you really want?"
"To become a Party official. To have my family transferred to join me in the city."
"Do you love your wife?"
"I don't know about love, but when you marry someone you have to look out for them, for the rest of your life."
"Sounds like love to me."
A silence fell over the room, as heavy as an army-issue tent. The electric fan was still whirring. Whether it was the heat or his nerves, the sweat kept pouring off Wu Dawang—stinging like seawater when it dripped into his eyes. He knew she was staring at him but for safety's sake he focused only on the eau-de-nil of her bedclothes and the silk mosquito net suspended above. Time limped by as slowly as a decrepit ox pulling a broken cart, until he could stand it no longer. "Aunt," he faltered again, "was there anything else you wanted to know?"
She threw him a cool glance. "No, nothing else."
"So, can I go back downstairs then?"
"Yes, all right."
But just before he reached the safe haven of the doorway, she called him back for one, last mystifying question. "Tell me the truth: do you wash, every night, before bed?"
"Yes," he replied, baffled. "When I was a new recruit, the Political Instructor didn't let you get into bed if you hadn't washed."
"So you wash every day?"
"You can go now," she dismissed him. "But remember: whenever that sign isn't on the table, I want you upstairs."
He fled quickly down the stairs. As soon as he reached safety, he turned on the kitchen tap and doused his sweat-soaked face in cold water.
From Serve the People! Forthcoming March 2008 from Grove/Atlantic. By arrangement with the publisher. All rights reserved.