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