We don’t publish a lot of fiction — it’s hard to compete in the marketplace with the big names — but occasionally we find an author with a set of stories so relevant we have to go with it. Such was the case with Xujun Eberlein’s Apologies Forthcoming, a collection of short stories set in and around China’s Cultural Revolution. The tales are fictional but Xujun drew on her own personal experience of those times to write them. The book won the third annual Tartt Fiction Award in the US, and opinion on this side of the Pacific has been equally encouraging:
“Chinese-American authors such as Iris Chang and Amy Tan have made a significant contribution to factual and fictional literature, but few have a tale to tell as piquant as Xujun Eberlein’s.” — South China Morning Post
“Laudable in its own right, Eberlein’s collection is also a reminder of all the great stories that could and should be written in China today. Unfortunately, exile continues to be the home of China’s most honest and moving narratives.” — Asia Times
“With subtle political censure, Eberlein brings to life characters that draw out the helplessness, hope and heartache of the people who lived through the decade and its long, awful aftermath. The author has a way of delivering pathos that leaves a pang in the chest.” — Time Out
Below we print one of the eight stories from the book. In Feathers, a teenage Red Guard dies from wounds suffered in a clash between opposing factions, but her mother and sister hide her death from her doting grandmother.
On Wednesday, three uninvited messengers came.
That morning, ten-year-old Sail was bending her head low over the square dining table, concentrating on making a paper-cut of a scene from The Red Detachment of Women, the model ballet. A few weeks ago, Sail’s big sister Jia, a Red Guard in the 3rd middle school, had brought home several paper-cut patterns, and the novel activity spread in the neighborhood like spring flu. With the same zeal they had collected Chairman Mao’s photo buttons a year before, the kids now made, collected, and traded paper-cuts of everything: revolutionary heroes, flowers, animals, and landscapes. They showed off their collections to each other and competed. Regardless of their parents’ political factions, the ones who collected the most patterns won the looks of admiration. Sail wanted to be the biggest collector of paper-cut art in the world.
Sail was home alone: Jia was in her school “doing revolution” and wouldn’t be back until the weekend. Their little sister Windy had gone with Gaga, their grandmother, to the countryside, to hide from the armed fights between two factions of the Red Guards. Her father was at work — or more precisely, was under the scrutiny of the Revolutionary Rebellion Team. Her mother, a school principal with no functioning school to run, had gone to a grocery store before it opened, to ensure an up-front spot in the long line.
About eleven a neighbor peeked in the window. Sail glanced up and saw Uncle Luo, the head of the Revolutionary Rebellion Team. “Are you looking for my father?” she said. “He’s not home yet.” The man’s eyes searched inside; he shook his head slightly and left without a word. There was something strange in his stern face.
About noon appeared three uninvited guests, all teenage girls of Jia’s age. Sail recognized one who wore a Red Guard armband as Jia’s close friend, nicknamed “Foreign Ginger” for her pale skin.
Sail jumped up, “Is my big sister coming home early?”
The three teenagers looked at each other, none eager to reply. Foreign Ginger said, “Where are your parents?”
“They’re not home. I’m in charge,” Sail said. “Does my big sister have a message for me then?”
Foreign Ginger said with great hesitation, “Your sister . . . she was wounded.”
“How? How bad is it? Where is she now?”
“She is in the hospital. No, not too bad. We came to fetch your parents.”
Sail exhaled in relief as her father walked through the door. All the girls fell silent again. “Sail, go to the dining hall and get lunch for our guests,” her father said after greeting the teenagers.
Sail obediently put a pan and a couple of meal pails into a basket and walked out. The July sun was directly over her head, scorching and blinding. Nothing really bad could happen on such a bright day.
Sail’s family lived on the bank of the Jialing River near to its confluence with the Yangtze, and downstream from the 3rd middle school in a northern suburb. The three daughters were baby-named Jia, Sail, and Windy, results of their mother’s life-long romance with the river. When Mother gave birth to each, she looked out the hospital window, and used the first thing she saw for the baby’s name. Jia was born in winter, and Mother saw nothing but the Jialing River itself. Sail was born in spring when boats crowded the water. Windy was the consequence of Mother’s failed birth control. When baby Windy arrived in the world on a stormy summer day, Mother could hear nothing but the wind against the glass and see nothing but flying sand and rolling pebbles. The girls were 6 and 6 years apart in age, like the beginning of a neat number series. Between the oldest Jia and the youngest Windy, a recurrent cycle of 12 years of Earthly Branches was completed, so those two sisters shared the same animal symbol, Dragon, a respectful and worrisome Zodiac. Sail, on the other hand, was only an ordinary Monkey, with an ordinary face sandwiched between her two beautiful sisters. When she was little, Mother used to joke, Hey, was my Sail switched by the hospital?
Shortly after Jia’s birth, Gaga arrived from the countryside to help take care of the baby. She adored the Little Jia so much that she stayed. How could she not? In her whole life she had given birth to thirteen children in a small village, and none, except Sail’s mother, lived to see their first birthday. So Gaga began life a second time in the city, rearing one baby after another with great pleasure, while the babies’ mother was constantly busy running a school district and working as principal.
Sail knew why Windy went with Gaga — because her little sister could not fall asleep without clutching at Gaga’s flabby, empty bag breasts, Windy’s security blanket. When Sail was little she too liked to sleep with Gaga; Gaga had this clean fragrant smell like no one else, because she used only the Chinese honey locust tree pods to wash clothes, as the concept of soap was too new for her to trust. But Sail did not know why Mother kept her in the city with bullets flying around day and night. She wondered, but she did not ask.
Fifteen minutes later Sail returned with steaming rice in the pan and a couple of dishes in each pail. She paused at the door: her father was crying, collapsed on Gaga’s bamboo chaise. He never cried, not even when the Rebellion Team shamed him. He never sat on Gaga’s chaise either.
Jia’s friends were crying too. Sail quietly put down the lunch basket, took five bowls out of the cupboard, and spooned rice into each bowl. “Please have lunch,” she said in a normal voice. No one answered.
She handed a bowl of rice and a pair of chopsticks to each visitor. To her father she gave his blue-white china bowl, slightly bigger than the others. He took it and placed it on the floor beside him without looking. Foreign Ginger had just popped a clump of rice into her mouth, but seeing Sail’s father she put her bowl down beside the paper-cut of the woman soldier. The two other girls followed suit. The steam from the rice bowls wafted unattended; the girls avoided glancing at them.
Sail’s father got up with effort and said to the girls, “If you don’t want to eat, let’s go to the school now.”
“Am I going with you?” Sail said.
“No, you must wait for your mother. Tell her what happened and come with her.”
With these words he took to his feet, and the three girls quietly followed him out. Sail watched them disappear through the door of the courtyard.
Alone, she waited for her mother; it was impossible to do her paper-cut now. Sail tried to eat a bit of rice, but could not swallow. She was not sure what had happened, and did not want it made clear. She went to the courtyard door and peered down the noisy road several times, but her mother was not among the crowds. She must have been in a long line waiting to be yelled at by the grocery store workers. These days a grocery store worker was like a queen.
Half an hour passed; Sail decided to go look for her mother. She wondered if she should lock her door with the “iron-general” lock. Didn’t Gaga always lock the door when no one was left inside? She locked the door, put the key in her pants pocket, and went out to the street.
Two hours later Sail returned home exhausted, her shirt soaking in sweat and her wet hair stuck to her neck. She had gone to several stores and squeezed into every line to be cursed by frustrated grocery shoppers, but found no trace of her mother. At her door she gasped: the hasp and staple were pried out. Then she saw a grocery basket crushed on the ground, a few yellowed vegetable leaves littered around.
Aunt Tang, Uncle Luo’s wife, approached, crossing the courtyard. “Your mama said, ‘What a silly Sail, locking the door without leaving the key!’ ” Aunt Tang mimicked. “Then I told her, Jia is drowned, and she fell like this.” Aunt Tang opened her arms to topple backward.
“You made that up!” Sail said.
“Yeee! Am I like one to make things up?” Aunt Tang raised her voice. But when she saw Sail’s teeth bared like a cat, she stepped backward.
“The 3rd middle school called the office this morning! Your Uncle Luo answered the phone!” Aunt Tang said. Sail just stared at her. “Your mama’s gone to your sister’s school. Look at you. You better go wash your face.”
Sail considered walking to Jia’s school. She didn’t have a penny, and she could not take the bus. But how many hours would it take to walk? Jia rarely took the bus when she came home on the weekend. She walked, to save money, and to learn from the Red Army’s long march. “This is only a thousandth of the long march,” Jia once said. Sail wished she had asked her big sister how many hours it took.
She lay on her bamboo mattress, closed her eyes, and tried to think. The mattress was cool at first, but soon became uncomfortably hot on every spot she rolled to. She did not like that gossipy neighbor. She did not like what she’d heard. Drowned and wounded were two different things. Or perhaps Jia fell into the river, and the river took her to some point downstream, near home, and good-hearted strangers rescued her. I should take a nap, she told herself, and let Big Sister wake me up when she returns home.
When she awoke, outside was dark and inside was quiet. She looked at the double horse-hoof alarm clock on the nightstand and saw it was five in the morning. She got up, thirsty and hungry. When she left her house she did not lock the door. It could no longer be locked. There were still stars in the sky, and an occasional small breeze, but the air was already working up toward another hot day. She walked to the Number 2 bus line, where she had seen Jia off four days before. A long line had already formed for the first bus, but the conductor selling tickets was half asleep. Sail waited until the bus was almost filled. She hid her small body between several impatient men and sneaked on without incident. The crowded bus took more than an hour to arrive at Sha’ping terminal.
Sail ran across the dusty suburban street to the gate of the 3rd middle school. Inside the gate she ran toward the larger-than-life statue of Chairman Mao. At the statue she turned right to the three-story classroom building. In the second floor’s meeting room, she saw her parents sitting silently, surrounded by a crowd of teenage girls and boys. Mother’s eyes were swollen like walnuts. When Sail appeared at the door, her parents stared like they didn’t recognize her. There was no life in their faces. Sail looked around fiercely but did not see Jia anywhere.
“Where is my big sister?” she demanded.
Foreign Ginger emerged from the crowd, pulled her out to the hallway and whispered that Jia had already been buried the previous afternoon. The weather was too hot, she said.
“No—!” Sail screamed. “Where is she? I want to see her! I want to see her!”
Foreign Ginger started to weep. Sail charged into the meeting room again and shouted to Mother: “I want to see Big Sister! Take me to see her!”
Her father responded in a low roar: “Stop it! Your mother hasn’t slept the whole night! Don’t make her cry again!”
Then Sail heard Mother’s trembling voice, “Sail, my child, your sister’s coffin has been nailed. You can’t see her any more.”
“I am going to pry the coffin open!” Sail said. Mother choked with sobs, tears streaming down her cheeks like a broken chain of beads.
Foreign Ginger came up again and looked into Sail’s eyes. “Little sister,” she said earnestly, “Jia is a hero. She died for Chairman Mao.”
Sail stared at her. So it was all right for Jia to die?
That day Foreign Ginger gave her Jia’s diary. On the inside of the front cover was a hand-copied poem:
“Life is precious
Love is more so
For my belief
I let both go”
When Sail was little, four or five perhaps, Gaga used to tell her: Listen, Cute, if you dream of a dead person, if she asks you to go with her, don’t. Sail would snuggle at Gaga’s knees and ask, But, what if I like her?
Uh-uh, Gaga shook her furrowed cheeks, in the affectionate way she did. Not if you don’t want to die, Cute.
Why don’t I want to die, Gaga?
Your torso, hair and skin, are benefits from your father and mother. You die before they do, that is unfilial.
I’m filial to you, Gaga, Sail said eagerly.
Good girl. Gaga stroked Sail’s hair, with her work-worn palm, callused like a lump of old ginger. Sail could hear the sizzle of the static on her hair.
But when Jia appeared in her dreams, no such question was ever posed. Jia kicked a shuttlecock made of rooster feathers, or jumped around a rubber rope while singing. It was Sail who ended up asking to go with her, wherever she was. Jia never answered; she just turned to mist, leaving Sail to wake to blankness.
Mother kept herself in bed most of the time. At her better moments she would sit up, empty-eyed, and repeatedly chatter: “I shouldn’t have named her ‘Jia’ . . . then the Jialing River wouldn’t have taken her back. . . .”
Or she would say with a blind smile: “What a strong child, like a calf…” as if Jia were still alive.
She kept all the windows in the house open, day and night. If Sail wanted to close them on a rainy day, Mother would scold, “Stop! How can your sister find a way to get back inside?”
Jia, in the meanwhile, found easy access to Sail’s dreams.
No one told Sail how Jia died. From overheard words here and there, she pictured her sister swimming with Chairman Mao in the river, her shoulder-length black hair fading in and out of the brown waves.
A month after Jia’s death, the Red Guard factions ceased fire. Gaga and Sail’s little sister Windy returned home from the countryside. Mother managed to pull herself out of the river of grief she had sunk into, and took Sail to meet them at the port.
Gaga had brought with her big and small bags of red beans, green beans, broad beans, sweet potato chips, and sunflower seeds. Mother squeezed out a smile, said a few words of greeting, took the bigger bags, and handed a small one to Sail, then abruptly turned and walked ahead.
“What’s your ma’s hurry?” Gaga jolted along with her once-bound feet. Four-year-old Windy, cute as a doll with sun-reddened face, imitated Gaga like a parrot, “What’s Mama’s hurry?” and she sneaked a little hand into the bag of sweet potato chips. Gaga pulled her hand out and said, “Haven’t you had enough? You little naughty! This is for your sisters.” She turned to ask Sail, “Does your big sister come home this weekend?”
Sail pretended she didn’t hear. She ran ahead and caught up with her mother and whispered. Mother said, “Whatever you do, don’t tell Gaga. It’ll kill her.” Tears swelled up in her eyes.
“Make up a story,” Mother said. She sped up again and it was hard for Sail to keep the pace with her. The August sun was too bright, it hurt her eyes.
“What story, Mama?”
Mother stamped a foot. “Don’t follow me so tight! Gaga’ll suspect!”
Sail twisted her neck to see how far Gaga was behind; instead she was startled to meet the dark eyeballs of her baby sister. Windy stood right before her, sucking a thumb.
“I heard, I’m gonna tell,” Windy babbled.
“Heard what? Tell what?”
“I heard, I heard!” Windy clapped hands and hopped around. “I tell Gaga, tell Big Sister!” Then she stood on toes and hissed, “But I won’t if you give me a new flower dress.”
Windy wanted a floral dress! As if this were a lollipop like other 4-year-olds wanted. Sail looked around a street full of pedestrians in gray, blue and military green, then glanced at her own patched, hand-me-down shirt. She was momentarily amused by Windy’s request, a smile almost opened. Then she looked up and saw Mother’s back hunched beneath many bags. Turning her head she saw 75-year-old Gaga behind them struggling to hurry with her inconvenient feet. Lowering her eyes she saw Windy’s thumb in her mouth again, her mischievous eyes twinkling. What was Sail going to tell Gaga?
Many years later Sail realized that was the moment her childhood ended, in the hot and blood-stink summer of 1968. Her maturity began with a big lie, at the age of 10.
When they arrived at their courtyard door, a neighbor was already waiting. Aunt Tang greeted them eagerly by saying, “Gaga, I’m so sorry about Jia. . . .” And Sail interrupted, “You are sorry about my sister joining the army? Is this a reactionary view or what?” She steered Gaga toward home and Gaga sighed, “Even the neighbor knows I’ll miss my Little Jia. You shouldn’t be so rude to her good intention.”
A flock of black crows landed on the roof. One made a raucous cry. “How inauspicious,” Gaga said, “Someone dead nearby?” Sail shook her head like a rattle-drum. “No, no no no,” she said.
That evening after Gaga went to bed early, tired after the long trip, Sail visited each and every family in the courtyard and told them the truth about her lie. Men shook their heads and opined various advice, while women wiped their moist eyes and promised to comply. But it was the children that worried Sail. She knew from now on she would have to keep an eye open even in sleep.
Before Gaga’s return, Sail once eavesdropped on Mother sobbing out to a relative that, when she arrived at the school, Jia looked as if asleep, but as soon as Mother began calling her name, white foam seeped out of Jia’s mouth. “She heard me, my poor daughter, she heard me. . . .” This seemed a sign to Sail that Jia did not really die; after all, Sail had never seen the body.
Sail began to look for Jia, on the streets, in stores, at mass meetings, as if fact and belief were unrelated notions. When she started middle school the next year, she spent months scrutinizing the faces of older girls in the noisy schoolyard. Only one made Sail pause: the girl’s cheekbones were a bit prominent, like Jia’s. She followed her everywhere: to her classroom, to the playground (where she jump-roped like Jia), to her bus station after school. The girl at first ignored Sail. Then one day she blocked Sail’s way and exploded, “Do I have four arms or eight legs? Why do you always stare at me?”
Sail flinched and mumbled, “You look like my big sister.” She showed her a photo, in which Jia wore a paramilitary uniform and held a book of Chairman Mao near her heart. The girl examined the photo and laughed, “You call that alike?” Then she looked at it again more closely and paused. “Hmm, she seems a bit like my cousin Xiaodi.” They became friends after that. Her name was Yingbo, reflection in the waves.
Sail told Yingbo about her lie to Gaga that Ji