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Through the gaping hole where the covered balcony used to be, you see the bulldozed locust tree slowly begin to rise again. This is a clear sign that from now on you’re going to have to take your life seriously.
You reach for a pillow and tuck it under your shoulders, propping up your head so that the blood in your brain can flow back down into your heart, allowing your thoughts to clear a little. Your mother used to prop you up like that from time to time.
Silvery mornings are always filled with new intentions. But today is the first day of the new millennium, so the dawn is thicker with them than ever. Although the winter frosts haven’t set in yet, the soft breeze blowing on your face feels very cold.
A smell of urine still hangs in the room. It seeps from your pores when the sunlight falls on your skin.
You gaze outside. The morning air isn’t rising from the ground as it did yesterday. Instead, it’s falling from the sky onto the treetops, then moving slowly through the leaves, brushing past the bloodstained letter caught in the branches, absorbing moisture as it falls.
Before the sparrow arrived, you had almost stopped thinking about flight. Then, last winter, it soared through the sky and landed in front of you, or more precisely on the windowsill of the covered balcony adjoining your bedroom. You knew the grimy windowpanes were caked with dead ants and dust, and smelt as sour as the curtains. But the sparrow wasn’t put off. It jumped inside the covered balcony and ruffled its feathers, releasing a sweet smell of tree bark into the air. Then it flew into your bedroom, landed on your chest and stayed there like a cold egg.
Your blood is getting warmer. The muscles of your eye sockets quiver. Your eyes will soon fill with tears. Saliva drips onto the soft palate at the back of your mouth. A reflex is triggered, and the palate rises, closing off the nasal passage and allowing the saliva to flow into your pharynx. The muscles of the oesophagus, which have been dormant for so many years, contract, projecting the saliva down into your stomach. A bioelectrical signal darts like a spark of light from the neurons in your motor cortex, down the spinal cord to a muscle fibre at the tip of your finger.
You will no longer have to rely on your memories to get through the day. This is not a momentary flash of life before death. This is a new beginning.
‘Waa, waaah . . .’
A baby’s choked cry cuts through the fetid air. A tiny naked body seems to be trembling on a cold concrete floor . . . It’s me. I’ve crawled out between my mother’s legs, my head splitting with pain. I bat my hand in the pool of blood that gathers around me . . . My mother often recounted how she was forced to wear a shirt embroidered with the words wife of a rightist when she gave birth to me. The doctor on duty didn’t dare offer to help bring this ‘son of a capitalist dog’ into the world. Fortunately, my mother passed out after her waters broke, so she didn’t feel any pain when I pushed myself out into the hospital corridor.
And now, all these years later, I, too, am lying unconscious in a hospital. Only the occasional sound of glass injection ampoules being snapped open tells me that I’m still alive.
Yes, it’s me. My mother’s eldest son. The eyes of a buried frog flash through my mind. It’s still alive. It was I who trapped it in the jar and buried it in the earth . . . The dark corridor outside is very long. At the end of it is the operating room, where bodies are handled like mere heaps of flesh . . . And the girl I see now – what’s her name? A-Mei. She’s walking towards me, just a white silhouette. She has no smell. Her lips are trembling.
I’m lying on a hospital bed, just as my father did before he died. I’m Dai Wei – the seed that he left behind. Am I beginning to remember things? I must be alive, then. Or perhaps I’m fading away, flitting, one last time, through the ruins of my past. No, I can’t be dead. I can hear noises. Death is silent.
‘He’s just pretending to be dead . . .’ my mother mumbles to someone. ‘I can’t eat this pak choi. It’s full of sand.’
It’s me she’s talking about. I hear a noise close to my ear. It’s somebody’s colon rumbling.
Where’s my mouth? My face? I can see a yellow blur before my eyes, but can’t smell anything yet. I hear a baby crying somewhere in the distance and occasionally a thermos flask being filled with hot water.
The yellow light splinters. Perhaps a bird just flew across the sky. I sense that I’m waking from a long sleep. Everything sounds new and unfamiliar.
What happened to me? I see Tian Yi and me hand in hand, running for our lives. Is that a memory? Did it really happen? Tanks roll towards us. There are fires burning everywhere, and the sound of screaming . . .And what about now? Did I pass out when the tanks rolled towards me? Is this still the same day?
When my father was lying in hospital waiting to die, the stench of dirty sheets and rotten orange peel was sometimes strong enough to mask the pervasive smell of rusty metal beds. When the evening sky blocked up the window, the filthy curtains merged into the golden sunlight and the room became slightly more transparent, and enabled me at least to sense that my father was still alive . . . On that last afternoon, I didn’t dare look at him. I turned instead to the window, and stared at the red slogan raise the glorious red flag of Marxism and struggle boldly onwards hanging on the roof of the hospital building behind, and at the small strip of sky above it . . .
During those last days of his life, my father talked about the three years he spent as a music student in America. He mentioned a girl from California whom he’d met when he was there. She was called Flora, which means flower in Latin. He said that when she played the violin, she would look down at the floor and he could gaze at her long eyelashes. She’d promised to visit him in Beijing after she left college. But by the time she graduated, China had become a communist country, and no foreigners were allowed inside.
I remember the black, rotten molar at the side of his mouth. While he spoke to us in hospital, he’d stroke his cotton sheet and the urinary catheter inserted into his abdomen underneath.
‘Technically speaking, he’s a vegetable,’ says a nurse to my right. ‘But at least the IV fluid is still entering his vein. That’s a good sign.’ She seems to be speaking through a face mask and tearing a piece of muslin. The noises vibrate through me, and for a moment I gain a vague sense of the size and weight of my body.
If I’m a vegetable, I must have been lying here unconscious for sometime. So, am I waking up now?
My father comes into view again. His face is so blurred, it looks as though I’m seeing it through a wire mesh. My father was also attached to an intravenous drip when he breathed his last breath. His left eyeball reflected like a windowpane the roof of the hospital building behind, a slant of sky and a few branches of a tree. If I were to die now, my closed eyes wouldn’t reflect a thing. Perhaps I only have a few minutes left to live, and this is just a momentary recovery of consciousness before death.
‘Huh! I’m probably wasting my time here. He’s never going to wakeup.’ My mother’s voice sounds both near and far away. It floats through the air. Maybe this is how noises sounded to my father just before he died.
In those last few moments of his life, the oxygen mask on his face and the plastic tube inserted into his nose looked superfluous. Had the nurses not been regularly removing the phlegm from his throat, or pouring milk into his stomach through a rubber feeding tube, he would have died on that metal bed weeks before. Just as he was about to pass away, I sensed his eyes focus on me. I was tugging my brother’s shirt. The cake crumbs in his hands scattered onto my father’s sheet. He was trying to climb onto my father’s bed. The key hanging from his neck clunked against the metal bed frame. I yanked the strap of his leather satchel with such force that it snapped in half.
‘Get down!’ my mother shouted, her eyes red with fury. My brother burst into tears. I fell silent.
A second later, my father sank into the cage of medical equipment surrounding him and entered my memory. Life and death had converged inside his body. It had all seemed so simple.
‘He’s gone,’ the nurse said, without taking off her face mask. With the tip of her shoe, she flicked aside the discarded chopsticks and cotton wool she’d used to clear his phlegm, then told my mother to go to reception and complete the required formalities. If his body wasn’t taken to the mortuary before midnight, my mother would be charged another night for the hospital room. Director Guo, the personnel officer of the opera company my parents belonged to, advised my mother to apply for my father’s posthumous political rehabilitation, pointing out thatthe compensation money could help cover the hospital fees.
My father stopped breathing and became a corpse. His body lay on the bed, as large as before. I stood beside him, with his watch on my wrist.
After the cremation, my mother stood at the bus stop cradling the box of ashes in her arms and said, ‘Your father’s last words were that he wanted his ashes buried in America. That rightist! Even at the point of death he refused to repent.’ As our bus approached, she cried out, ‘At least from now on we won’t have to live in a constant state of fear!’
She placed the box of ashes under her iron bed. Before I went to sleep, I’d often pull it out and take a peek inside. The more afraid I grew of the ashes, the more I wanted to gaze at them. My mother said that if a friend of hers were to leave China, she’d give them the box and ask them to bury it abroad so that my father’s spirit could rise into a foreign heaven.
‘You must go and study abroad, my son,’ my father often repeated tome when he was in hospital.
So, I’m still alive . . . I may be lying in hospital, but at least I’m not dead. I’ve just been buried alive inside my body . . . I remember the day I caught that frog. Our teacher had told us to catch one so that we could later study their skeletons. After I caught my frog, I put it in a glass jar, pierced a hole in the metal cap, then buried it in the earth. Our teacher told us that worms and ants would crawl inside and eat away all the flesh within a month, leaving a clean skeleton behind. I bought some alcohol solution, ready to wipe off any scraps of flesh still remaining on the bones. But before the month was out, a family living on the ground floor of our building built a kitchen over the hole where I’d buried it.
The frog must have become a skeleton years ago. While its bones lie trapped in the jar, I lie buried inside my body, waiting to die.
Excerpted from Beijing Coma by Ma Jian. Copyright © 2008 by Ma Jian. Translation copyright © 2008 by Flora Drew. Published in May 2008 by Farrar, Straus and Giroux, LLC. All rights reserved.