Inspired by the life story of the Canadian surgeon Norman Bethune, Chinese-born writer Ying Chen reimagines an unnamed Western doctor's encounter with a local child soldier and with himself.
The boat heaved, swept up in the night wind. His bed was narrow and hard. He held himself at the edge of sleep, afraid of falling in the dark. Despite this, he dreamed. He saw his great-grandfather on a similar journey, navigating the ocean on a frozen black night like this one, listening to waves breaking against the ship’s walls, unnerved by the silence of the open sea, anxious for sounds of land. He had never felt so alone, so removed from the world. He would remember this night throughout the turbulence that followed, this night when his body was infinitely small, when his usual preoccupations scattered in the immensity around him. This calm felt absolute, as though land and the earth itself had ceased to exist. He would remember this later on, during the whirling mess of political rumors and broken illusions, amid the deafening chaos, the pounding canons, the explosions, the groans of the dying.
His ship docked near a camp. An officer from some army—there were so many armies—tried to recruit him by inviting him to a banquet so lavish it could have fed a hundred peasants for a month. He couldn’t pass up the chance of a drink. Later, he felt nauseous and left early. Seasickness, he told himself.
Soon after, he was flown closer to the front, to a mountainous region the railways had yet to reach and where it would be safer, he thought. He and his companions walked hundreds of miles. They were eight when they set out, only five by the time of the attack.
He remembered the buzz of the airplanes coming closer and closer, their shadows approaching quickly, blocking out the sun. He hardly had time to throw himself behind a carriage before everything seemed to stand still.
It was as though he’d slept a long time, but he regained consciousness almost immediately.
He wasn’t sure he could move his legs when he saw the carriage on top of him. It was missing a wheel.
His eyes sought out his companions.
A child’s dusty face appeared before him. He was seven or eight years old. Beam Number Two said something the doctor didn’t understand, then held out his hand and smiled. When the doctor finally stood up, the boy examined each bloodstain to see if he was injured.
Beam Number Two, child soldier. The boy had learned to shoot, to write his name, to decipher simple characters and recite the words to every slogan. He was the doctor’s guide. He knew this region’s terrain and its every path by heart.
The boy and some others had been sent to meet the doctor. They were told that “a foreigner” had arrived near the territory their army now controlled.
The boy came with food, water, and a horse.
The doctor and Beam Number Two walked silently together in the night, occasionally glancing down at their shadows under the nearly full moon—an adult, a child, side by side.
They were already used to being together this way, without speaking, free of the embarrassment that comes from silences between those who aren’t close family, those who didn’t know us as children. This embarrassment can exist among the best of friends, even despite natural affinities, varying in intensity depending on the intervals between meetings. Conversation can create intimacy as much as distance.
Not knowing each other’s language, the doctor and the young boy connected in a wordless space usually reserved for more intimate circles. Both were surprised at how easy it was. Neither desired or attempted a deeper or more sophisticated communication, neither felt frustration or regret.
Beam Number Two never felt the need to speak at length about anything. When he addressed the doctor it was always in silence, and only to point out basic things: a stone in their path, a branch to avoid. All part of fulfilling his guiding role. But his childlike gestures could not hide his feelings—this child without a family, encountering an adult as isolated as he was.
After the long meeting between the generals, the boy was happy to see the doctor emerge alongside important officers. He had been right about the doctor’s status in this army. The doctor’s white shirt shone in the moonlight and stood out to the boy, just as the doctor’s cleanliness had made him stand out among his colleagues. For weeks, the doctor’s cologne had been a topic of conversation among those who worked alongside him. Even if they had worn straw shoes for generations, the mountain dwellers were not insensitive to elegance. As the doctor approached, Beam Number Two raised his hand as though in salute, letting his dirty fingers brush the white sleeve. He inhaled the doctor’s scent. The doctor handed the boy a hard-boiled egg he had taken from the conference table.
When the weather was good, the lessons were given outside. The students—adults and children, men and women—sat on the ground in rows, watching the doctor and listening to his interpreter. Their knowledge grew daily. One by one, each student assisted during the operations. They treated those who were recovering. They bandaged the newly wounded arriving from the front. They tended to as many of the sick from neighboring villages as possible.
The doctor liked this work of building something. In his past, civilized world, his profession had frustrated him as too regimented, too coded, suffocating all creative impulses, shutting down any potential for alternative approaches. There, his colleagues had behaved like members of a private club, one that discouraged newcomers, that tolerated differences with difficulty.
Even as he joked with his interpreter, the doctor couldn’t hide the satisfaction he felt from his situation. Here, he always had the last word. Here, he held absolute authority and was a leader, not of combat and rescue, but of a different type of resistance. Here, he could show how to lead a life, simply through his decisions about treatments and how he organized his team. All of this was his world—a world driven by his vision, his clear intentions. It was a stage where he knew he actually played a minor, insignificant role, one evidently controversial in the eyes of his homeland’s compatriots. Yet here, he knew himself to be useful, indispensable, admired, forgiven for his weaknesses, perhaps even loved or idolized, and above all, free. Freer than he had been anywhere else, especially from his past, and all this in spite of his domineering nature. He would always challenge the strong and pity the weak.
He knew he was a tyrant in his own way.
Here, deep in the heart of an ancient mountain lost in time but still touched by war, there was no one left to challenge him. There were only the wounded to treat, bones to reset, flesh to stitch. His life became simple again, as simple as it had been in his childhood, when he rode his bicycle in that faraway bright valley that echoed with his parents’ relentless prayers, while he dreamt of love or remembered his grandfather.
He summed up his brief existence in this part of the world: “I am good here, I am happy.”
His daily activities and pure intentions kept him free until the end. He never had to negotiate or compromise. Social niceties didn’t exist at the frontlines, where bodies fell in swathes. He knew that this life on the battlefield, far away from an intellectual world, suited him—helped him breathe better, made him a better man.
He is mortified to find himself in this well-maintained cemetery, filled with cut flowers and constant visitors, without Beam Number Two nearby. Instead, the boy’s body rests silently at the bottom of some ravine. Exactly where is unknown.
He reproaches himself for having accepted the penicillin when he knew it was too late, his body irreversibly poisoned by the tainted blood. He hadn’t been able to resist the temptation to survive and couldn’t overcome the panic and confusion that suddenly overwhelmed him when it was offered. Normally he would have been lucid enough to know that it wasn’t necessary to ask him whether they should administer the precious drug, and if he was being asked the question, it was because they expected him to refuse—the hero, this man of a superior race from a civilized land, braver, more courageous, selfless even in the face of death. They had expected him to refuse because it could no longer save him, because it was so rare.
Yet instead he had murmured, yes, for that dose of penicillin he could no longer even see, that he knew was useless.
Whether it was politeness or hypocrisy, because of some absurd procedure or comforting lie, the doctor had been tested—forced to examine his conscience until his last breath.
He might have been spared the question.
In the middle of the night, the doctor woke to the sounds of people running. By the time he arrived at the infirmary, Beam Number Two’s eyes were still open, but he could no longer speak. The doctor took the boy’s hands, already cold, and closed his eyelids, allowing his palm to linger a moment longer on the child’s eyes, full of blood.
He remembered having laid his hand, not long ago, on this same face. After their first meeting, while walking back toward their army’s camp at the bottom of the mountain, Beam Number Two had been hit by a sniper’s bullet. The boy had kept moving, not saying anything, not wanting to slow down their convoy where it was still so dangerous. It wasn’t until the next day that they understood what he had endured, as the child suddenly collapsed in the middle of the march. Examining him, the doctor calculated the number of hours that Beam Number Two had silently withstood his wound. He was overwhelmed by the stoicism, by the almost innate sense of sacrifice revealing itself at such a young age in this noble, uneducated, heroic child.
It started as soon as Beam Number Two’s fearless, clear-eyed gaze was extinguished. The doctor was alone, released, and knew that there would no longer be anyone watching over him at his typewriter in the evenings. He doubled his alcohol consumption, rapidly exhausting his supplies. Drunkenness allowed him to enter a world more luminous than the one he was living through, to the point that he believed sometimes, especially at night when he sleepwalked, that he was finding, there in his glass, a path that would lead him to some kind of real home. A path he could never find again when he awoke.
The arrival of the doctor and his team in the middle of the battlefield set off a wave of elation. Soldiers shouted his name.
The team moved ceaselessly. Their supplies were exhausted. Food was low. Contact with the world outside the valley would soon be cut off.
They slept little, as the enemy enjoyed attacking at night.
His stomach often empty, the doctor would go dizzy from the constant jerking of the wounded bodies around them. There was nothing left to give them to dull the pain so they suffered in the dark and the cold, in the dust and smoke from the fires coming ever closer. All around them, the wind whistled in concert with the buzzing airplanes and falling shells, as they suffered in makeshift shelters continually shaken by explosions.
The fatal cut to his finger happened during an operation without gloves. That night, his finger burned. Day after day, it swelled. Watching it, the doctor felt as though this foreign land, which until now had revealed as much good as evil, would finally swallow him whole.
He continued turning up to his post like normal, silent most of the time. His communication with the world now limited itself to medical terms. He lost his sense of humor.
The number of wounded increased daily. The seriously injured received treatment directly on the battlefield, and at least now had a chance of survival.
When it was time to move camp again, the doctor had to be helped onto his horse.
Soon, he could no longer hold anything in his hand. His arm was changing color. Finally, upon the insistent advice of his own students, the doctor agreed that his arm should be amputated.
The pain pounded on.
His fever climbed.
He knew it was time to say good-bye.
Night and day now, he was confined to a deep cave. He lay there and saw himself flying over a snowy landscape. My grandfather’s country, he thought. He tried to dive down but couldn’t reach the ground. Again and again he tried but could never land his feet. He climbed and glided in the air for a long time. At least this territory was free, he persuaded himself. The air remained the last part of the world to be free of surveys and claims, of boundaries. This territory could never be divided.
© Ying Chen. By arrangement with the author. Translation © 2017 by Pamela Casey. All rights reserved.