Train to Harbin
I once met a man on the train to Harbin. He was my age, just past his prime, hair starting to grease and thin in a way one might have thought passably distinguished in another context, in another era, when he might have settled down, reconciled to finishing out his long career predictably. But it was 1939. War had officially broken out between China and Japan, and like all of us on that train, he too had chosen to take the bait, that one last bite before acquiescing to life’s steady decline. You see, for us university doctors, it was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. We all knew it. Especially back then.
Two nights and three days from Wonsan to Harbin the train clattered on, the lush greenery interrupted by trucks and depots manned by soldiers in military khaki. Despite the inspections and unexplained transfers, this man I shall call S remained impassive, shadowed by a dusky light that had nothing to do with the time of day or the dimness of the car’s interior; he sat leaning against the window, face set, impervious to the din around him. Later, I would come to recognize this as a posture of self-recrimination, but at the time I had barely recovered from our initial journey by sea, and I was in a contemplative mood myself, in no condition to pause over the state of others, much less engage with my colleagues, who by now had begun drinking in earnest, liquor still being plentiful then, loosening even the most reticent of tongues. So I excused myself and must have promptly nodded off, for the next moment it was dawn, the day just beginning to break, the long length of the train still shrouded in sleep. I was the only one awake, the only one woken by the sudden cessation of rhythm, which drew me to the window, still dark except for my reflection superimposed on it.
We had apparently stopped for cargo, the faint scuffling I could hear revealing a truck ringed by soldiers, their outlines barely visible against the paling horizon. Later, I would learn the significance of this stop, but for the moment the indistinct scene strained my eyes, and I pulled back, hoping to rest for another hour.
Forty years later, this scene returns to me with a visceral crispness that seems almost specious, when so much else has faded or disappeared. Perhaps it is simply the mind, which, in its inability to accept a fact, returns to it, sharpening the details, resolving the image, searching for an explanation that the mind, with its slippery grasp on causality, will never be able to find. Most days I am spared by the habits of routine. But when the air darkens like this, turning the windows inwards, truncating the afternoon, the present recedes, its thin hold on consciousness no match for the eighty-two years that have already claimed it. If hindsight were more amenable, I might long ago have been granted the belated clarity that might have illuminated the exact steps that led me into the fog of my actions. But hindsight has not offered me this view; my options and choices are as elusive now as they had been then. After all, it was war. An inexcusable logic, but also a fact. We adapted to the reality over which we felt we had no control.
For what could we have done? After seven years of embroilment, followed by two years of open war, the conflict with China had begun to tax the everyday, with small signs of oncoming shortages—empty shelves, shuttered windows—beginning to blight the streets, so that even menus at the fanciest restaurants soon resembled the books and newspapers blatantly censored by the Tokko thought police. Then, when officials began making their rounds of sympathetic universities, seeking candidates disposed to patriotic service, our director submitted a list of names, eliciting more visits from other officials, this time escorted by military men. Were we alarmed? Some of us were. But the prospect of a new world-class facility with promises of unlimited resources stoked our ambitions, we, who had long assumed ourselves dormant, choked off by the nepotism that structured our schools and hospitals. If any of us resisted, we did not hear about it. Flattered and courted, we let ourselves be lured, the glitter of high pay and breakthrough advancements all the more seductive in the light of our flickering lives.
So the day we set sail, we were in high spirits, the early sky heavy with mist, the hull of the Nippon Maru chopping and cleaving as the sound of rushing water washed away our coastline, leaving us to wend our way through our doubts and worries to arrive in Wonsan, stiff and rumpled, but clear in our convictions. After two turbulent days, we were grateful to be on steady ground, overwhelmed by new smells and sounds, the bustling travelers and hawkers broken up by the young, bright-eyed representative dispatched to meet us. This youth was energetic, if brashly so, and perhaps it was this, along with the sudden physical realization that we were no longer in Japan, that reminded me of my son, but it plunged me into a mood that would last the rest of the trip. Of S I have no recollection at this time, not until a few hours’ gap resolves into the memory of that cold window of the stilled train, my eyes pulling back from the soldiers and the truck, their dark outlines replaced by the reflection of my face, above which I caught another face, its eyes watching me.
No doubt it was the hour, and the invasiveness of having been watched, but the shock colored all my subsequent encounters with S, so that even decades later I am left with an ominous impression of a man always watching as the rest of us adapted to our given roles and fulfilled them perfectly. Did we exchange words? I regret that we did not. For by the time I gathered myself, he was gone. Two hours later we pulled into Harbin, our Emperor’s celebrated new acquisition.
From Harbin we were to head twenty-six kilometers southeast to Pingfang. But we were granted a few introductory hours in the famed city, and we set about familiarizing ourselves with the cobblestone streets flanked by European shops and cafes still festive with wealthy Russians and a few well-placed Chinese, all of whom politely acknowledged our entourage. If people were wary, they did not show it, and we, for our part, acted the tourist, taking turns deciphering the familiar kanji strung together in unfamiliar ways on signs and advertisements as onion domes and mina- rets rose beside church steeples and pagoda roofs, obscuring the city’s second skyline: the “Chinese” sector of this once-Russian concession city. Once or twice unmarked vans stole by, but overall our impression was of wonder and delight as we strolled through the crowd, the hot sun on our backs coaxing out a healthy sweat despite the chill in the October air.
If not for a small incident, Harbin may have remained an oasis in my memory of China. But our young representative had irked me from the start, and the farther we walked the more he chatted, pointing out this or that landmark we must have heard of, and soon his loud voice, lilting with presumptions, began grating on me, and I snapped back with an energy that surprised even me.
My colleagues were quick to intervene, rallying around him like mother hens, clucking at my lack of magnanimity. But, you see, my son and I had been getting into it just like this, and I could not abide the youth’s hooded eyes; I lashed out, admonishing his audacity, his misguided courage and naïve ideals—the very things that had pushed my own son to run away, presumably to enlist. I might have lost my head, save for the tether of my wife’s face, her pleading terror checked by her refusal to blame me every day I failed to find him. I dropped my voice and let myself be pecked back, the sun-dappled street once again leading us on, this time, to our first proper meal in days.
The day’s specialty was duck. Despite our meager group of thirty-one, the restaurant had been requisitioned, its large dining room conspicuously empty, its grand floors and walls imperiously echoing the stamps and scrapes of our shoes and chairs as we accepted the seats arranged around two large tables set in the center of the room. S was observing us, his stolid face highlighting the garishness of ours as our tables brimmed with plates and bowls, and our chopsticks swooped and pecked, securing a morsel, punctuating a quip, our cheeks glowing rosy as platter after platter crowded the wheel ingeniously fitted at the tables’ centers. At last the duck was set before us, its dewy skin crisped and seasoned, the complex aroma of fruit and game emanating from it. For most of us, this was our first taste of the bird, and the pungent flesh, voluptuously tender, provoked our passions, prompting us to trade stories of our youthful lusts. But I for some reason found myself remembering the days I had spent toting siblings who never tired of feeding the ducks that splashed in the pond behind our house. I earned my title as the group’s sentimentalist that day, but I believe it was at this moment that we fell in with each other, our shared pleasure piqued by our unspoken guilt at gorging on such an extravagance when our families back home had mere crumbs grudgingly afforded by the patriotic frugality demanded of them. Perhaps this is why Harbin has stayed with me, nostalgic and laden, edged with a hysteria I would come to associate with this time.
I believe few of us forget what we keep hidden in our memory’s hollows. True, many of us are capable of remaining professionally set, tossing out facts of our wartime accomplishments the way we toss our car keys, casually and full of the confidence of important men who have worked hard and earned their keep, rightfully. But forgetting?
My two colleagues and I have been debating this point over our yearly meals taken here in the rural outskirts of F City, where by chance we converged fifteen years ago. They claim that, if not for these meals, they too might have forgotten, these memories, stowed for so long, buried by a present that discourages remembrances so that a trace of feelings, occasionally jostled, might momentarily surface, but nothing more. For why dig up graves from a banished past, selfishly subjecting all those connected to us to what can only amount to a masochistic pursuit? Isn’t it better to surrender to a world populated by the young, who, taught nothing, remain uncurious, the war as distant as ancient history, its dim heat kindling the pages of textbooks and cinemas, occasionally sparking old men with old grudges, but nothing to do with them?
I would like to disagree. But life did move on, the war’s end swallowing us up and spitting us out different men, who, like everyone else, slipped back into a peacetime world once again girdled by clear boundaries and laws meant to preserve lives, not to destroy them. And yet, for me, S has continued to tunnel through time, staying in my present, reminding me of our shared past, which we, whatever our excuses, have been guarding as tightly as the walls that surrounded us in Pingfang.
You see, you must understand something: We had always meant to preserve lives. A few thousand enemies to save hundreds of thousands of our own? In that sense, I hardly think our logic was so remarkable or unique.
What was remarkable was Pingfang. Its imposing structure looming in calculated isolation, its vast grounds secured by high-voltage walls, its four corners staked with watchtowers overlook- ing its four gates armed with guards whose shouts were regularly drowned out by the clatter of surveillance planes circling the facility. Approaching it for the first time in trucks bouncing along bumpy roads, we watched the walls of a fortress compound unroll endlessly before us, each additional meter contracting our nerves so that our faces, initially loose with excitement, began to tighten, eliciting a lustrous laugh from our young guide, who turned to remark, Of course, we don’t bear the Emperor’s emblem here.
Sure enough, when we stopped for authorization at the northern gate, we saw that the walls were indeed ungraced. In a world where even our souls were expected to bear the mark of the Emperor, the absence was terrifying, and perhaps this was when I saw Pingfang, its forbidding grandeur, cloaked by its unmarked walls, presaging what it was capable of. By then it was clear that the warning emanating from it made no exceptions, even as it opened its gates and saluted us in.
In increments we would become privy to the extent of Pingfang’s ambitions. But first we were dazzled. Our days snatched away by seminars and orientation tours, we scarcely had time to unpack, our bodies as well as our minds collapsing into an exhausted sleep that always seemed white with sunlight, so that even the hardiest of us grew weary, dragging from conference room to auditorium, the occasional outdoor tour whisking us off in rattling trucks that clattered our teeth and fibrillated our brains, so that we soon developed an aversion to Pingfang’s jumbled landscape. After a fortnight, we reached our threshold. We broke down, all of us mere husks of ourselves, our individual drive wrung out of us. Until then we had been accustomed to mild routines with little expectation; to be inducted into a life ruled by the exigencies of war proved transformative. We readjusted, our senses and sensibilities recalibrated to accommodate the new demand. After all, humans are remarkable in their ability to adapt. Time and again we would find ourselves reminded of this fact, which, I believe, was at the root of what came to pass at Pingfang.
Had I understood what I glimpsed that night from the train window, would I have turned back, returned to the circumscribed safety of my home and career? I would like to imagine so. And in my right mind I am certain I would have. But, you see, there is the problem, and I come back to the issue of “transgression.” In peacetime lines are clearer; even if procedures are flawed and verdicts inconclusive, one generally can and does know if one has transgressed. But in war? Does transgression still require intent? Or is it enough for circumstances to conspire, setting up conditions that pressure one to carry out acts that are in line with, but not always a direct result of, orders? I do not know. Yet I find myself looping through memory’s thickets for that exact bridge that let us cross our ambivalence to another side.
My two colleagues believe it happened in Harbin. They claim that, as tourists, we were set up to accept the exotic and so dismiss what would have been, in another context, obviously amiss. I do not dispute this view. Yet I wonder whether we hadn’t been set up—inoculated—long before we set sail for Wonsan. By then the mood of war, long since gathered in the air, had precipitated into crackdowns, the once distant patter of the jingoists’ tattoo pounding down doors, sending us scurrying under the official wing. Even our mandatory participation in the bucket brigade, as well as our patriotic duty to look the other way, had already become two more chores as seemingly unavoidable as the war itself. Resisting would have been foolhardy, the hard-line climate a meteorological fact, its terrorizing power mystical in effect. Yet I am a man of science; I have never been swayed by weather’s mystical claims. Nor have I been captive to its blustery dramatics. So I was arrested. My son, Yasushi, was six then, a bright child already fiercely righteous. He never mentioned my arrest, but I believe it left an impression. He became rebellious, his childish disobedience erupting into full-scale mutiny by the time he was fourteen. My wife urged me to confront him; I did nothing of the sort. Because, you see, I recanted my beliefs. True, I was thinking of them, their torturous road if I refused to cooperate. But finally, I could not bear it, the dark shapeless hours sundered by wood and metal and electricity; in ten meager days, I gave in.
Four decades later I do not have reason to believe Yasushi is still alive, but every so often there is news of yet another Imperial Army straggler emerging from the jungles in Southeast Asia, and I am unable to let go.
The latest straggler, one Captain Nakahira Fumio, is currently on the run. His hut, discovered on Mindoro island two weeks ago, had evaded detection for thirty-five years. Widely speculated to be the last repatriate, the authorities finally released his picture.
What could I do? I bought up the newsstand. The image, a grainy reproduction of a school portrait, showed a hollow-chested boy with an affable face. A little thin-framed, he was nevertheless generic enough to be any youth. Could Yasushi have taken his identity? Because, you see, Yasushi had been too young for service. Needing my consent, he had approached me with the forms. I, of course, refused, taking precautions to prevent him from forging them. But forms are traceable; Yasushi, realizing this, opted to trade in his identity. What name he assumed we never found out. Even then the military was eager for soldiers, and I, despite my connections, had a record, an official charge of treason.
Comparing the images for quality, I tucked several newspapers under my arm and hastened into the street still burnished with morning light. That’s when I saw him—S—his old man’s shape bearing the shadow of his younger self, his rounded back craning as if beckoned by a destination. He did not see me; his ornithic neck bobbing forward, he sped up his once languid gait to a near footloose shuffle. I opened my mouth. But what could I have said? Had I been a different man, able to withstand the eyes of those eager to condemn me for what they themselves might have done in my position, I might have mustered the courage to catch the attention of the one man who may yet have the right to judge us. But I am not that man; I did not call out. Humans may be adaptable, but that has no bearing on our ability to change.
All told, I spent twenty-four months in Pingfang. Officially, we were the Boeki Kyusuibu, the Epidemic Prevention and Water Purification Department, Unit 731, a defensive research unit. Materially, Pingfang spanned three hundred hectares, its fertile land dappled with forests and meadows, its innumerable structures —headquarters, laboratories, dormitories, airfield, greenhouses, pool—luxuriously accommodated within its fold. Locally, we were known as a lumber mill, our pair of industrial chimneys continually emptying into threatening skies.
I remember the first time I stood beneath one of these chimneys. Having finished a procedure, we had followed the gurney out, the damp air white with frost, the bare earth crunching underfoot. S, like the rest of us, was in a morose mood. At the time our work, bacteriological in nature, was making useful gains, but we had not succeeded in developing the antidote we had been after, and I, for one, had become increasingly restless. By then the war, in gridlock in China, was beginning to fan southward, and I was convinced that if Yasushi had indeed enlisted, he would end up in the tropics, where the fruits of our work would be most vital.
I do not know why I risked airing these thoughts. Perhaps it was my way of acknowledging my son. I approached S. Until then we had all been careful to keep to the professional, repeating stock answers whenever we strayed. But S was sympathetic. He replied openly, agreeing with my prognosis, adding only that the war was likely to turn west before pushing farther south—an unentertained notion at the time. I was about to press him on the feasibility, indeed the audacity, of such a course, but just then a flare of heat drew our attention, and the gurney, now emptied of our maruta—yes, that’s what we called them: logs—pulled us back to our duty.
Because, you see, that was what Pingfang was built for, its immaculate design hiding in plain sight what we most hoped to control: the harvesting of living data. For how else could we compete? Our small nation, poor in resources and stymied by embargoes egregiously imposed by the imperial West. Our one chance lay in our ability to minimize loss, the most urgent being that of our troops, all too often wasted by war’s most efficient enemy: infectious diseases. But war spares no time. We found ourselves beating against the very wall that had always been the bane of medical science. In other words, our problem was ethical; Pingfang sought to remove it. Its solution was nothing we dared imagine, but what we, in medicine, had all perhaps dreamed of. All we had to do was continue administering shots, charting symptoms, studying our cultures—all the things we had always done in our long medical careers—except when we filled our syringes, it was not with curatives but pathogens; when we wielded our scalpels, it was not for surgery but vivisection; and when we reached for sample tissues, they were not animal but human. This was perhaps Pingfang’s greatest accomplishment: its veneer of normalcy. We carried on; the lives of our soldiers, indeed our entire nation, depended upon us.
I do not know who came up with the term “maruta.” It is possible that its usage preceded us, though I do not recall hearing it used in those introductory days. The first time we saw them we were in the hospital ward, where they looked like any patients, supine under clean sheets changed daily. The second time we saw them it was at the prison ward, where they looked like any prisoners, uniformed and wary. Both times, all I remember is the pause that settled between us as we registered exactly what we were being shown before we were briskly ushered away. By the time we were given full rein over our research, we were using the term, counting up the beds, tallying our maruta in preparation for our next shipment, always by train at night. Indeed, I believe it was a cargo transfer that I witnessed that morning on the train to Harbin.
I was asked to accompany the inspection of such a cargo just once. Woken abruptly, I was summoned by an officer who, for this occasion, had driven his private jeep. Throughout the ride, I had been bleary, my mind cottony with sleep, and once I gleaned the purpose of the trip—a preliminary health scan—I shut out the chatter and arrived unprepared for the secluded station, the small squadron of military guards patrolling the length of the curtained train, the cargo’s white tarp peeled back to reveal twelve prisoners strapped to planks and gagged by leather bits.
My first reaction was morbid fascination, my mind unable to resolve the image of these people packed like this, and the term “maruta” acquired an appropriateness that struck a nerve. I began to laugh, a sputtering sound that elicited a disapproving glance from the officer who pressed me forward. How they managed to survive I could not imagine. Trembling with exhaustion, they lay in their thin prisoners’ clothes, wet and stinking of their own unirrigated waste, until one by one they were unstrapped, forced to stand, their movements minced by the shackles that still bound their hands and feet. No one protested, the only shouts coming from the guards as they stripped and prodded them, the tips of their knives shredding their garments, exposing them first to the cold, then to the water as a pair of soldiers hosed them down.
Had I been able to, I would have abandoned my post, and perhaps I had made as if to do so, for the officer gripped my arm, his placid face nicked by repulsion, though it was unclear by whom or what. As the water dripped away, and the maruta were toweled off, I was led to the nearest plank, where four women, now manacled together, sat shivering. All in their twenties and thirties, their eyes were black with recrimination and their bodies so violently pimpled by the cold I could hardly palpate them. The second plank was an all-male group, each man, wiry with work, radiating humiliation so primal my own hands began to shake. The third and final plank was a mixed group, perhaps a family. One woman grew so agitated by my attempts to minister to a limp girl, I barely registered the man pulled from the train and added to the cargo. This new prisoner was my age, in good health and spirited enough to have risked the curtains to “spy” from the train window. He was brought to me to be tranquilized; and though I must have complied, I remember nothing else, only the leering heat of the soldiers snapped to attention behind me, and then later, the vague relief that flooded me when the next day I stepped into my ward and did not recognize a single face.
I do not believe anyone was so naïve.
Pingfang’s operation expanded with the war, its defensive function superseded by its natural twin: the development of biological weapons. This offensive capability had been pursued from the start, mostly in the form of small-scale tests surreptitiously deployed as creative endnotes to our ongoing anti-insur- gency missions, but it did not peak until the war took that fatal turn west. By then, many of us had been dispatched to newly conquered regions or strategic teaching posts back home, but news continued to reach us, mostly as rumors but sometimes through odd details we recognized in otherwise ordinary news reports. As the war entered its last throes, Pingfang rose in importance. By the time Germany began its retreat, Pingfang, already anticipating a Russian offensive, had begun testing, for example, the human threshold for the northern freeze. How they planned to use the data I do not know. With so few resources and so little infrastructure left, there would have been no way to manufacture, let alone distribute, any new equipment. Why these tests struck me as crueler I also do not know. Perhaps the obvious brutality of the method touched my conscience. Or perhaps it was simply a defensive reflex, the mind’s protective instinct that indicts another in the attempt to save itself. After all, had I been in their position, I too would have likely carried out these experiments, meticulously freezing and thawing the living body to observe the behavior of frostbite or assess the tactical viability of a literally frozen troop. While some of us still insist on our relative humanity, I do not believe we can quibble over such fine points as degree.
I, for one, return to the fact of the cargo inspection, and it was this that finally drove me from my practice, a quiet family clinic discreetly set up for me after the war. Having become an inconvenience for the university, the director had found ways of paying us off, and for a while the setup suited me fine. The clinic, bankrolled by the director, yielded enough to survive on, and I was able to keep to simple diagnoses and treatments. Even so, the body does not forget. A clammy arm, a quivering lip—my hands, once recruited for their steadiness, began to jump.
So fifteen years ago, following my wife’s death, I ventured to F City. At the time China had just normalized its relationship with Japan, and my two colleagues and I, having respectively come to a similar juncture, found ourselves reunited at the K noodle shop known to connoisseurs for its duck. To say we were surprised would be an understatement. It took us a moment before we could attempt a greeting, our old hearts fluttering like scattered chickens. Once again we ate with a greediness we dared not explain and parted with a gaiety that consoled us. But I believe we would have preferred to have sat apart, if not for our curiosity and relief that this moment, dreaded and yearned for, had finally come to pass. Since then, we have had an unspoken agreement to reconvene on the same day every October, the fateful month we boarded the Nippon Maru.
Only once did S and I manage a sustained conversation. That day I had gone in search of a colleague, T, a man of considerable promise, who had taken to visiting the female prisoners. Soft-spoken and decorous, he had become the most vicious among us, his increasing notoriety forcing us to take turns to restrain him. But T was not in the prison ward that day, and I made my way to headquarters, thinking he had gone to request more “materiel,” but nobody had seen him there either. I was about to retrace my steps when I glimpsed S emerging from a restricted office, slipping a sheaf of papers into his laboratory coat. When he spotted me, he paused but made no attempt to explain himself. Instead he fell into step with me, convivially opening the door to the underground passage that connected all the buildings in Pingfang.
“Who knows what’ll happen to him now,” I said, trying not to glance at the papers.
“T?” S shrugged. “Who’s going to miss him?”
“He could have had a whole career, a whole future.”
“Future?” S looked at me. “You think this is going to last?”
“I don’t think that’s anything we’re in a position to say.”
“What? That we’re going to lose?”
“Look.” I lowered my voice. “We’re just following orders.”
“And you think the world’s going to be sympathetic?”
“What choice do we have? T, on the other hand, is being excessive.”
“And you think that makes you different from people like T.”
“I’m saying the world will have to consider that.”
“And if it doesn’t?”
I was silent. It was true: the world had no obligations. What chance did we have in what was likely going to be a Western court? True, we were obeying orders, but we were the ones carrying them out; we could not look at our hands and plead innocence, dusting them off the way our superiors did, passing off their dirty work, expecting it returned to them perfectly laundered “for the sake of the medical community.” From the start this had been an untenable situation we were expected to make tenable. Forced to be responsible for what I felt we should not be, I had become resentful. I began misnotating my reports. Small slips, easily dismissable, until the accumulation became impossible to ignore. Instead of 匹, the counter suffix for animals, I began writing 人, the counter suffix for humans. I worked systematically, substituting one for the other with a calculated randomness befitting Pingfang. “I suppose it all depends on whether anyone finds out,” I said, glancing at his laboratory coat.
“We all have to do what we have to do, don’t we?” S patted his coat, grinning.
“After all this, maybe they’ll have no choice but to protect us,” I said.
S did not disagree. “There may already be interest in the matter beyond our small military and government,” he replied.
And he was right. That was more or less how it played out, with the Cold War descending on the infernal one, and the Americans, fearful of the Russians, agreeing to negotiate with our Lieutenant General for sole access to our research, the objective being the advancement of their own secret bio-program stymied by medical ethics. The result? Our full immunity in exchange for all our data, human and otherwise.
Few historians have unearthed, let alone published, evidence of Pingfang’s abuses. Those who have have been divided over the problem of numbers. At one end, Pingfang’s casualty rate has been estimated at several thousand. At the other end, the number hovers closer to 200,000, mostly Chinese but some Russian and Japanese deaths as well. I believe both figures tell a certain truth. While it is true that our furnaces saw no shortage of logs in their five years of operation, our goal was never mass extermination. Our tests, contingent on the human body, its organic processes and upkeep, were costly, and even our field tests, aerial or onsite, were limited to small villages and hamlets optimally secluded for tracking our data. But Pingfang cannot be confined to its five years of operation. Its construction took two years, 15,000 laborers, 600 evictions; and afterwards, when surrender triggered the destruction of the compound, whose walls were so thick special dynamite was needed, the final blasts were said to have released only animals, common and uncommon, the only witnesses to escape alive. And the gain? Militarily, history has shown the regrettable results, with reports of odd casualties surfacing now and again, if only in the half-light of prevarications. Medically, it is harder to assess, our research having pushed our field to the cutting edge, landing many of us influential positions in the pharmaceutical sector, where some of us are still directing the course of medicine, or the money in medicine, in not insignificant ways.
The irony of it all is how well we ate within those walls, our maruta fed better than us to maintain optimal biological conditions. This prurient coupling of plenitude and death, so lavish in its complicity, has lent a kind of heat to my memory of Pingfang, compressing its eternity into a vivid blur coalesced around two towering chimneys, their twin shapes always looming, gone the moment I turn to look. These days it is this collusion of the mind with Pingfang’s irreality that terrorizes me, the fog of the entombed past threatening to release a hand, a face, a voice.
My colleagues are more fortunate. Our annual meals seem to have done them good, churning up old soil, mineralized by the years, the new exposure letting them breathe. I, on the other hand, find myself hurtled back to people and places lost in time but not lost to me. At my age it is time, not space, that is palpable, its physicality reminding me of the finality of all our choices, made and lived.
This morning they deemed the story of the straggler a hoax. Captain Nakahira Fumio, whereabouts irrelevant.
And so it goes, all of us subject to the caprice of time as it releases not what we hoped for but what it does before it closes in on us and draws back, once again withdrawing the past from the present. And perhaps that is as it should be. For what would I have done? Would I have risked showing myself, braving the eyes of idle journalists, braving those of my son? I have not even had the courage to visit my wife’s grave.
I mentioned S to my colleagues for the second time last year. After the first time, I should have known better, but the urge had taken hold of me. Over slivers of duck prepared to our specifications, I gave my account, the papers he had stolen, the exchange we had had. As before, they listened patiently, commenting on his courage, his uncanny foresight and reckless integrity, wondering how they could have forgotten such a character. Again, I described his solitariness, the way he had observed us—so quietly, so persistently—until they finally remembered, not the man himself, but the previous time I had given this account. Should he have exposed the papers? I asked. As before, my colleagues turned on me, asking me why I returned to this, what stake I had in these moot moral questions, nothing but a masochistic exercise—was I certain I hadn’t made him up?
I defended myself, reminding them that we had each mentioned one person the other two hadn’t been able to recall, and frankly, I said, wasn’t the point to see if we could imagine it, another life, another self, because look at us, I said, year after year, three old men uselessly polishing stones.
The silence was prickly. For the first time we parted uneasily, our forced gaiety failing to hide what we must have all been dreading. Indeed, the last few times we convened, we had gone through our menu of memories rather mechanically, and despite our appetites, our bodies had grown less tolerant of the fowl’s fattiness, and I am not sure that we haven’t lost our taste for the bird now that we have exhausted our staple of remembrances. Perhaps at our age it is only natural to want that release, to move once more in time with the clock.
As for S, he may as well have not existed the way things turned out; he never exposed those papers. Yet he had offered me a chance, and perhaps that is my final offense. I did not take that chance. Instead, I carried on, watching, as the world marched on—another war, another era—with fewer of us left every year to cast a backward glance.
So perhaps this is why I continue to return, tantalized by those moments during which it might have been possible to seize the course of our own actions. Because, you see, we all had that chance. That day, just before we walked to the chimney, we had performed a surgery. I was at the head of the table, logging the charts, while T glided the scalpel over the body’s midline. Y, my noodle shop companion, was tracking the vitals, calling out numbers, the beat of the pulse measured against the ticking of the clock, as the body underwent all the characteristic spasms—the fluttering of the eyes, the shaking of the head—the once warm flesh rippling with tremors as the skin grew clammy, its tacky surface soon sliding beneath our gloved hands, as we wrestled the mutiny of the body. Perhaps if Y had stuck to procedure. But, you see, Y was monitoring the vitals; he was looking at the body, its special condition, and it occurred to him that he should be tracking not one pulse but two—the second, unborn beat. So he pressed his fingers in; the maruta bolted up. Fixing her eyes on us, she opened her mouth, stilling us. Few of us had acquired the language beyond the smattering of words we kept in our pockets like change, but we did not need language to understand her, her ringing voice a mother’s unmistakable plea reminding all of us of our primary duty: to save lives, not destroy them.
Needless to say we did not save anyone’s life in that room that day. Instead we went on to complete a record number of procedures, breaking down bodies, harvesting our data, the brisk halls and polite examination rooms only reinforcing the power of omission as we pushed to meet the demands of a war that had heaved us over one edge, then another, leaving us duly decorated but as barren as the landscape we left behind.
As for S, his story began irrecoverably to diverge from ours the day he slipped the papers. While the rest of us hunkered down, he continued to plan and plot, imagining a justice that seemed inevitable. When the war ended and the proceedings began, he too must have waited, hoping and fearing that justice would find itself. But the sentences never came, and he, more than any of us, must have felt its weight doubled back on him. Yet he never disclosed the papers. Instead he stowed them away, perhaps planning to donate them someday to one or another bookstore frequented by frugal university students. Then, fifteen years ago, he retired to a house in the rural outskirts of a city, where an old cedar gives its shade to a backyard visited by birds in the spring and blanketed by snow in the winter. There he spends his days tending to the saplings he has planted behind the shed, where he keeps the papers stashed in a crate of old textbooks. Now and again his mind wanders to the crate, and he marvels at his own resistance, the unrelenting human will to preserve itself.
But today, with spring softening the breeze, and the birds abundant in the yard, he finds himself compelled to visit the papers. After all these years, it is a wonder they have survived, slightly yellowed but otherwise intact, and he places them on a workbench he keeps outside the shed. In this light, the pages are clear, and the neat script, painfully familiar, has the power to jolt him, once again invoking the face of the woman, her wide eyes and gaping mouth, silenced by the wet sound of the fetus slapping the slop bucket. For days he had smelled it, the sweet scorched scent drifting beneath the common odors of cooking and laundry and disinfectant, and he inhales, filling his lungs, as he steps back into the shed, pausing to appreciate his rake and shovel, the long-handled hedge shears now corroding on the wall. Reliable for so many years, there is comfort in this decay, evidence of a long life granted the luxury of natural decomposition. He untangles a knot of rope, empties the crate that had held his papers. The rope is sturdy, as is the crate. He drags them to a spot beneath the arching cedar and sets the crate’s open face squarely on the ground. He briefly wonders if his colleagues will meet this year. He hoists the rope, faces the wall. Once again creepers have scaled it, their dark leaves ruffled by a breeze eager to spread the fragrance of the neighborhood’s peach and plum blossoms. He grips the rope; the crate momentarily trembles, and while I never tested the precise time it takes for air to be absorbed by the lungs, the brain to starve of blood, and the body to cease its struggle to save itself, I am hoping that, in that duration, I will be able to wrest from myself the snatch of consciousness necessary to remember once more my siblings and those ducks that swam in the pond back home.