Special Investigator Ding Gou'er of the Higher Procuratorate climbed aboard a Liberation truck and set out for the Mount Luo Coal Mine to undertake a special investigation. He was thinking so hard as he rode along that his head swelled until the size 58 brown duck-billed cap, which was normally quite roomy, seemed to clamp down on his skull. He was not a happy man as he took off the cap, examined the watery beads on the sweatband, and smelled the greasy odor. It was an unfamiliar odor. Slightly nauseating. He reached up to pinch his throat.
The truck slowed as the potholes grew more menacing and made the creaky springs complain eerily. He kept banging his head on the underside of the cab roof. The driver cursed the road, and the people on it; such gutter language spewing from the mouth of a young, and rather pretty, woman created a darkly humorous scene. He couldn't keep from sneaking furtive looks at her. A pink undershirt poking up above the collar of her blue denim work shirt guarded her fair neck; she had dark eyes with an emerald tinge, and hair that was very short, very coarse, very black, and very glossy. Her white-gloved hands strangled the steering wheel as the truck rocked from side to side to avoid the potholes. When she lurched left, her mouth twisted to the left; when she veered right, it twisted to the right. And while her mouth was twisting this way and that, sweat oozed from her crinkled nose. Her narrow forehead and solid chin told him that she was or had been married -- a woman to whom sex was no stranger. Someone he wouldn't mind getting to know. For a forty-eight-year-old investigator, and an old hand at that, such feelings were ludicrous at the very least. He shook his large head.
Road conditions continued to deteriorate, and they slowed to a caterpillar crawl, finally settling in behind a column of stationary trucks. She took her foot off the gas, turned off the ignition, removed her gloves, and thumped the steering wheel. She gave him an unfriendly look.
`Good thing there's no kid in my belly,' she remarked.
He froze for a moment, then said, somewhat ingratiatingly:
`If there had been, you'd have shaken it loose by now.'
`I wouldn't let that happen, not at two thousand per,' she replied solemnly.
That said, she stared at him with what might be characterized as a provocative look in her eyes; she appeared to be waiting for a response. Scandalized by this brief and inelegant exchange, Ding Gou'er felt like a budding potato that had rolled into her basket. As the forbidden mysteries of sex were suddenly revealed in her ambiguous and suggestive remark, the distance between them all but vanished. With feelings of annoyance and uncertainty creeping into his heart, he kept a watchful eye on her. Her mouth twisted again, making him very uncomfortable, and he now sensed that she was a guarded, evasive woman, foolish and shallow, certainly no one with whom he had to mince his words.
`So, are you pregnant?' he blurted out.
Now that he'd dispensed with conventional small talk, the question hung out there like half-cooked food. But she forced it down her gullet and said almost brazenly:
`I've got a problem, what they call alkaline soil.'
Your tasks may be important, but no investigator worthy of the name would allow those tasks to be in conflict with women. In fact, women are a part of one's tasks.
Reminded of those lines, which were so popular among his colleagues, he felt a lustful thought begin to gnaw at his heart like an insect. Ding Gou'er took a flask from his pocket, removed the plastic stopper, and helped himself to a big drink. Then he handed the flask to the lady trucker.
`I'm an agronomist who specializes in soil improvement.'
The lady trucker smacked the horn with the palm of her hand, but was able to coax only a weak, gentle bleat out of it. The driver of the Yellow River big-rig in front of them jumped out of his cab and stared daggers at her from the roadside. Ding Gou'er could feel the anger radiating from the man's eyes through the gleaming surface of his mirror-lens sunglasses. She snatched the flask out of his hand, sniffed the mouth as if measuring the quality of the contents, then down the hatch, every last drop. Ding Gou'er was about to compliment her on her capacity for drink, but quickly changed his mind. Praising someone for drinking skills in a place called Liquorland sounded pretty lame, so he swallowed the words. As he wiped his mouth, he stared openly at her thick, moistened lips and, casting decorum to the wind, said:
`I want to kiss you.'
The lady trucker's face reddened. In a shrill, brassy voice, she roared back:
`I want to fucking kiss you!'
Left speechless by the response, Ding Gou'er scanned the area around the truck. The driver of the Yellow River big-rig had already climbed back into his cab. A long, snaking line of vehicles stretched ahead, while a canopied truck and a donkey cart had fallen in behind them. The donkey's broad forehead was decorated with a red tassel. Squat, misshapen trees and weed-infested ditches with an occasional wildflower lined the roadside. Powdery black smudges disfigured the leaves and weeds. Beyond the ditches lay autumnal dry fields, their withered yellow and gray stalks standing ethereally in the shifting winds, looking neither cheery nor sad. It was already mid-morning. A mountain of waste rock pierced the sky ahead, releasing clouds of yellow smoke. A windlass standing at the mine entrance turned leisurely. He could only see part of it; the Yellow River big-rig blocked out the bottom half.
She kept shouting the same sentence over and over, the one that had given Ding Gou'er such a fright, but she didn't make a move. So Ding Gou'er reached over to touch her breast with the tip of his finger. Without warning she crushed up against him, cupped his chin in the palm of her icy hand, and covered his mouth with hers. Her lips felt cold and mushy, not resilient; freakish, like puffs of cotton waste. That was a turn-off, it killed his desire, and he pushed her away. But, like a plucky fighting cock, she sprang back at him hard, catching him off guard and making resistance all but impossible. He was forced to deal with her the same way he dealt with criminals, try to make her behave.
They sat in the cab gasping for breath, the investigator pinning her arms down to keep her from putting up any resistance. She kept trying to force herself on him, her body twisting like a coil, her back arched like a leaf spring; she grunted from the exertion like an ox caught by the horns. She looked so fetching, Ding Gou'er couldn't help but laugh.
`What are you laughing at?' she demanded.
Ding Gou'er let go of her wrists and removed a business card from his pocket.
`I'll be on my way, young lady. If you miss me, you can find me at this address. Mum's the word.'
She sized him up, studied the card for a moment, then his face, with the keen intensity of a border guard examining a visitor's passport.
Ding Gou'er reached out and flicked the lady trucker's nose with his finger, then tucked his briefcase under his arm and opened the passenger door. `So long, girl,' he said. `Remember, I've got the right fertilizer for alkaline soil.' When he was halfway out the door, she grabbed his shirttail.
The look of timidity mixed with curiosity in her eyes now convinced him that she was probably quite young, never married, and unspoiled. Lovable and pitiable at the same time. He rubbed the back of her hand and said with genuine feeling: `Girl, you can call me uncle.'
`You liar,' she said. `You told me you worked at a vehicle control station.'
`What's the difference?' He laughed.
`You're a spy!'
`You might say so.'
`If I'd known that, I wouldn't have given you a ride.'
Ding Gou'er took out a pack of cigarettes and tossed it into her lap. `Temper, temper.'
She flung his liquor flask into the roadside ditch. `Nobody drinks out of something that tiny,' she remarked.
Ding Gou'er jumped out of the cab, slammed the door shut, and walked off down the road. He heard the lady trucker yell after him:
`Hey, spy! Know why this road's in such terrible shape?'
Ding Gou'er turned to see her hanging out the driver's window; he smiled but didn't answer.
The image of the lady trucker's face stuck in the investigator's head for a moment like dried hops, frothing briefly before vanishing like the foam on a glass of beer. The narrow road twisted and turned like an intestinal tract. Trucks, tractors, horse carts, ox carts ... vehicles of every shape and hue, like a column of bizarre beasts, each linked by the tail of the one in front and all jammed up together. The engines had been turned off in some, others were still idling. Pale blue smoke puffed skyward from the tractors' tin exhaust stacks; the smell of unburned gasoline and diesel oil merged with the stink of ox and horse and donkey breath to form a foul, free-floating miasma. At times he brushed against the vehicles as he shouldered his way past; at other times he had to lean against the squat, misshapen roadside trees. Just about all the drivers were in their cabs drinking. Isn't there a law against drinking and driving? But these drivers were obviously drinking, so the law must not exist, at least not here. The next time he looked up, he could see two-thirds of the towering iron frame of the windlass at the mouth of the coal mine.
A silver gray steel cable turned noisily on the windlass. In the sunlight, the iron frame was a deep, dark red, either because it was painted or maybe just rusty. A dirty color, a mother-fucking dirty dark red. The huge revolving drum was black, the steel cable turning on it gave off a muted yet terrifying glint. As his eyes took in the colors and radiant light, his ears were assailed by the creaking of the windlass, the moans of the cable, and the dull thuds of underground explosions.
An oval clearing bordered by pagoda-shaped pine trees fronted the mine. It was crowded with vehicles waiting to haul away the coal. A mud-spattered donkey had thrust its mouth up into the needles of a pine tree, either for a snack or to work on an itch. A gang of grubby, soot-covered men in tattered clothes, scarves tied around their heads and hemp ropes cinching up their waists, had squeezed into one of the horse carts, and as the horse ate from its feedbag, they drank from a large purple bottle, passing it around with great enjoyment. Ding Gou'er was not much of a drinker, but he liked to drink, and he could tell the good stuff from the bad. The pungent smell in the air made it obvious that the purple bottle was filled with poor-quality liquor, and from the appearance of the men drinking it, he guessed that they were farmers from the Liquorland countryside.
As he passed in front of the horse, one of the farmers shouted hoarsely, `Hey, comrade, what time does that watch of yours say?'
Ding raised his arm, glanced down, and told the fellow what he wanted to know. The farmer, his eyes bloodshot, looked mean and pretty scary. Ding's heart skipped a beat, he quickened his pace.
From behind him, the farmer cursed, `Tell that bunch of freeloading pigs to open up.'
Something in the young farmer's unhappy, ill-intentioned shout made Ding Gou'er squirm, even though there was no denying it was a reasonable demand. Already a quarter past ten, and the iron gate was still secured with a big, black, tortoise shell of a cast-iron padlock. The faded red letters of five words Safety First Celebrate May Day on round steel plates had been welded to the fence. Early autumn sunlight, beautiful and brilliant, baked the area and made everything shine as if new. A gray-brick wall, which stood head high, followed the rises and hollows of the ground, lending it the curves of an elongated dragon. A small secondary gate was latched but unlocked; a wolfish brown dog sprawled lazily, a dragonfly circling round its head.
Ding Gou'er pushed on the small gate, bringing the dog quickly to its feet. Its damp, sweaty nose was but a fraction of an inch from the back of his hand. In fact, it probably touched his hand, since he felt a coolness that reminded him of a purple cuttlefish or a lychee nut. Barking nervously, the dog bounded off, seeking refuge in the shade of the gate house, among some indigo bushes. There the barking grew frenzied.
He raised the latch, pushed open the gate, and stood there for a moment, leaning against the cold metal as he cast a puzzled look at the dog. Then he looked down at his thin, bony hand, with its dark jutting veins, which carried blood that was slightly diluted with the alcohol he had consumed. There were no sparks, no tricks, so what made you run off when I touched you?
A basinful of scalding bath water fanned out in the air above him. A multi-hued waterfall like a rainbow with a dying arc. Soapsuds and sunlight. Hope. A minute after the water ran down his neck, he felt cool all over. A moment later his eyes began to burn and a salty yet sweet taste filled his mouth like a faceful of grime, the non-corporeal essence of wrinkles. For the moment, the special investigator forgot all about the girl in the cab. Forgot the lips like cotton waste. Some time later, he would tense visibly at the sight of a woman holding his business card, sort of like gazing at mountain scenery through a heavy mist. Son of a bitch!
`Lived long enough, you son of a bitch?' The gatekeeper, basin in hand, stood there cursing and kicking the ground. Ding Gou'er quickly realized that he was the target of the curses. After shaking some of the water out of his hair and mopping off his neck, he spit out a gob of saliva, blinked several times, and tried to focus on the gatekeeper's face. He saw a pair of coal-black, shady-looking, dull eyes of different sizes, plus a bulbous nose, bright red like a hawthorn, and a set of obstinate teeth behind dark, discolored lips. Hot flashes wove in and out of his brain, slithering through its runnels. Flames of anger rose in him, as if an internal match had been struck. White-hot embers singed his brain, like cinders in an oven, like lightning bolts. His skull was transparent; waves of courage crashed onto the beach of his chest.
The gatekeeper's black hair, coarse as a dog's bristly fur, stood up straight. No doubt about it, the sight of Ding Gou'er had scared the living hell out of him. Ding Gou'er could see the man's nose hairs, arching upward like swallowtails. An evil, black swallow must be hiding in his head, where it has built a nest, laid its eggs, and raised its hatchlings. Taking aim at the swallow, he pulled the trigger. Pulled the trigger. The trigger.
Pow pow pow !
Three crisp gunshots shattered the stillness at the gate to the Mount Luo Coal Mine, silenced the big brown dog, and snagged the attention of the farmers. Drivers jumped out of their cabs, needles pricked the donkey's lips; a moment of frozen indecision, then everyone swarmed to the spot. At ten thirty-five in the morning, the Mount Luo Coal Mine gatekeeper crumpled to the ground before the sounds had even died out. He lay there twitching, holding his head in his hands.
Ding Gou'er, chalky white pistol in his hand, a smile on his lips, stood ramrod stiff, sort of like a pagoda pine. Wisps of green smoke from the muzzle of his pistol dissipated after rising above his head.
People crowded round the metal fence, dumbstruck. Time stood still, until someone shouted shrilly:
`Help, murder! Old Lü the gatekeeper's been shot dead!'
Ding Gou'er. Pagoda pine. Dark green, nearly black.
`The old dog was an evil bastard.'
`See if you can sell him to the Gourmet Section of the Culinary Academy.'
`The old dog's too tough.'
`The Gourmet Section only wants tender little boys, not stale goods like him.'
`Then take him to the zoo to feed to the wolves.'
Ding Gou'er flipped the pistol in the air, where it spun in the sunlight like a silvery mirror. He caught it in his hand and showed it to the people crowding round the gate. It was a splendid little weapon, with the exquisite lines of a fine revolver. He laughed.
`Friends,' he said, `don't be alarmed. It's a toy gun, it isn't real.'
He pushed the release button and the barrel flipped open; he took out a dark red plastic disk and showed it around. A little paper exploding cap lay between each hole in the disk. `When you pull the trigger,' he said, `the disk rotates, the hammer hits the cap, and pow! It's a toy, good enough to be used as a stage prop, but something you can buy at any department store.' He reinserted the disk, snapped the barrel back into place, and pulled the trigger.
`Like so,' he said, a salesman making his pitch. `If you still don't believe me, look here.' He aimed the pistol at his own sleeve and pulled the trigger.
`It's the traitor Wang Lianju!' shouted a driver who'd seen the revolutionary opera The Red Lantern.
`It's not a real gun.' Ding Gou'er lifted his arm to show them. `You see, if it had been real, my arm would have a hole in it, wouldn't it?' His sleeve had a round charred spot, from which the redolent odor of gunpowder rose into the sunlight.
Ding Gou'er stuffed the pistol back into his pocket, walked up, and kicked the gatekeeper who lay on the ground.
`Get up, you old fake,' he said. `You can stop acting now.'
The gatekeeper climbed to his feet, still holding his head in his hands. His complexion was sallow, the color of a fine year-end cake.
`I just wanted to scare you,' he said, `not waste a real bulleton you. You can stop hiding behind that dog of yours. It's after ten o'clock, long past the time you should have opened the gate.'
The gatekeeper lowered his hands and examined them. Then, not sure what to believe, rubbed his head all over and looked at his hands again. No blood. Like a man snatched from the jaws of death, he sighed audibly and, still badly shaken, asked:
`What, what do you want?'
With a treacherous little laugh, Ding Gou'er said:
`I'm the new Mine Director, sent here by municipal authorities.'
The gatekeeper ran over to the gate house and returned with a glistening yellow key, with which he quickly, and noisily, opened the gate. The mob broke for their vehicles, and in no time the clearing rocked with the sound of engines turning over.
A tidal wave of trucks and carts moved slowly, inexorably toward the now open gate, bumping and clanging into each other as they squeezed through. The investigator jumped out of the way, and as he stood there observing the passage of this hideous insect, with its countless twisting, shifting sections, he experienced a strange and powerful rage. The birth of that rage was followed by spasms down around his anus, where irritated blood vessels began to leap painfully, and he knew he was in for a hemorrhoid attack. This time the investigation would go forward, hemorrhoids or no, just like the old days. That thought took the edge off his rage, lessened it considerably, in fact. There's no avoiding the inevitable. Not mass confusion, and not hemorrhoids. Only' the sacred key to a riddle is eternal. But what was the key this time?
The gatekeeper's face was scrunched up into a ludicrous, unnatural smile. He bowed and lie scraped. `Won't our new leader follow me into the reception room?' Prepared to go with the flow that was how he lived his life he followed the man inside.
It was a large, spacious room with a bed under a black quilt. Plus a couple of vacuum bottles. And a great big stove. A pile of coal, each piece as big as a dog's head. On the wall hung a laughing, pink-skinned, naked toddler with a longevity peach in his hands -- a new year's scroll his darling little pecker poking up like a pink, wriggly silkworm chrysalis. The whole thing was incredibly lifelike. Ding Gou'er's heart skipped a beat, his hemorrhoids twitched painfully.
The room was unbearably hot and stuffy from a fire roaring in the stove. The bottom half of the chimney and the surface of the stove had turned bright red from the furious heat. Hot air swirled around the room, making dusty cobwebs in the corners dance. Suddenly he itched all over, his nose ached dreadfully.
The gatekeeper watched his face with smarmy attentiveness.
`Freezing!' he replied indignantly.
`No problem, no problem, I'll just add some coal ...' Muttering anxiously, the gatekeeper reached under the bed and took out a sharp hatchet with a date-red handle. The investigator's hand flew instinctively to his hip as he watched the man shamble over to the coal bin, hunker down, and pick up a chunk of shiny black coal the size and shape of a pillow; steadying it with one hand, he raised the hatchet over his head and crack the coal broke into two pieces of roughly equal size, shining like quicksilver. Crack crack crack crack crack the pieces kept getting smaller, forming a little pile. He opened the grate and released white-hot flames at least a foot into the air whoosh. The investigator was sweating from head to toe, but the gatekeeper kept feeding coal into the stove. And kept apologizing: `It'll warm up any minute. The coal here is too soft, burns too fast, got to keep putting in more.'
Ding Gou'er undid his collar button and mopped his sweaty brow with his cap. `Why do you have a fire in the stove in September?'
`It's cold, Director, cold ...' The gatekeeper was shivering. `Cold ... plenty of coal, a whole mountain of the stuff ...'
The gatekeeper had a dried-out face, like an overcooked bun. Deciding he'd frightened the man enough, Ding Gou'er confessed that he was not the new Director, and that the man was free to heat the place up as much as he liked, since Ding Gou'er had work to do. The toddler on the wall was laughing, incredibly lifelike. He squinted to get a better look at the darling little boy. Gripping the hatchet firmly in his hand, the gatekeeper said, `You impersonated the Mine Director and assaulted me with your pistol. Come along, I'm taking you to the Security Section.' Ding Gou'er smiled and asked, `What would you have done if I had been the new Director?' The gatekeeper slid the hatchet back under the bed and took out a liquor bottle. After removing the cork with his teeth, he took a hefty swig and handed the bottle to Ding Gou'er. A yellow slice of ginseng hung suspended in the liquid, along with seven black scorpions, fangs bared, claws poised. He shook the bottle, and the scorpions swam in the ginseng-enhanced liquid. A strange odor emanated from the bottle. Ding Gou'er brushed the mouth of the bottle with his lips then handed it back to the gatekeeper.
The man eyed Ding Gou'er suspiciously.
`You don't want any?' he asked.
`I'm not much of a drinker,' Ding Gou'er replied.
`You're not from around here, I take it?' the gatekeeper asked.
`Old-timer, that is one plump, fair-skinned toddler,' Ding Gou'er said.
He studied the gatekeeper's face. It was a look of dejection. The man took another hefty swig and muttered softly, `What difference does it make if I burn a little coal? A whole ton of the stuff doesn't cost more than ...'
By now Ding Gou'er was, so hot he could no longer stand it. Though he found it hard to take his eyes off the toddler, he opened the door and walked out into the sunshine, which was cool and comforting.
Ding Gou'er was born in 1941 and married in 1965. It was a garden variety marriage, with husband and wife getting along well enough, and producing one child, a darling little boy. He had a mistress, who was sometimes adorable and sometimes downright spooky. Sometimes she was like the sun, at other times the moon. Sometimes she was a seductive feline, at other times a mad dog. The idea of divorcing his wife appealed to him, but not enough to actually go through with it. Staying with his mistress was tempting, but not enough to actually do it. Anytime he took sick, he fantasized the onset of cancer, yet was terrified by the thought of the disease; he loved life dearly, and was tired to death of it. He had trouble being decisive. He often stuck the muzzle of his pistol against his temple, then brought it back down; another frequent site for this game was his chest, specifically the area over his heart. One thing and one thing only pleased him without exception or diminution: investigating and solving a criminal case. He was a senior investigator, one of the very best, and well known to high-ranking cadres. He stood about five feet eight, was gaunt, swarthy, and slightly cross-eyed. A heavy smoker, he enjoyed drinking, but got drunk too easily. He had uneven teeth, and wasn't bad at hand-to-hand combat. His marksmanship was erratic: in a good mood he was a crack shot; otherwise he couldn't hit the broad side of anything. Somewhat superstitious, he believed in blind luck, and fortune seemed to follow him everywhere.
The Procurator General of the Higher Procuratorate handed him a China-brand cigarette and kept one for himself. Taking out his lighter, Ding lit the Procurator General's cigarette, then his own. The smoke filling his mouth tasted like buttery candy, sweet and delicious. Ding Gou'er noticed how ineptly the Procurator General smoked. He opened a drawer and took out a letter, glanced at it, then handed it over.
Ding Gou'er quickly read the scrawled letter from a whistleblower. It was signed by someone calling himself Voice of the People. Phony, obviously. The contents shocked him at first; but then came the doubts. He skimmed the letter again, focusing on the marginal notations in the florid script of a senior official who knew him well.
He studied the eyes of the Procurator General, which were fixed on a potted jasmine on the window sill. The dainty white flowers exuded a subtle perfume. `Do you think it's credible?' he asked. `Could they really have the guts to braise and eat infants?'
The Procurator General smiled ambiguously. `Secretary Wang wants you to find out.'
Excitement swelled in his chest, yet all he said was, `This shouldn't be the business of the Procuratorate. What about the public security bureaus, are they napping?'
`It's not my fault I've got the famous Ding Gou'er on my payroll, is it?'
Slightly embarrassed, Ding Gou'er asked, `When should I leave?'
`Whenever you like,' the Procurator General replied. `You divorced yet? Either way it's just a formality. Needless to say, we all hope there isn't a word of truth in this accusation. But you are to say nothing about this to anyone. Use any means necessary to carry out your mission, so long as it's legal.'
`I can go, then?' Ding Gou'er stood up to leave.
The Procurator General also stood up and slid an unopened carton of China-brand cigarettes across the table.
After picking up the cigarettes and leaving the Procurator General's office, Ding rode the elevator to the ground floor and left the building, deciding to go first to his son's school. The renowned Victory Boulevard, with its unending stream of automobiles, blocked his way. So he waited. Across the street to his left a cluster of kindergartners was lined up at the crossing. With the sun in their faces, they looked like a bed of sunflowers. He was drawn to them. Bicycles brushed past, like schooling eels. The riders' faces were little more than white blurs. The children, dressed in their colorful best, had tender, round faces and smiling eyes. They were tied together by a thick red cord, like a string of fish, or fruit on a spit. Puffy clouds of automobile exhaust settling around them glinted like charcoal in the sunlight and filled the air with their aroma; the children were just like a skewer of roast lamb, basted and seasoned. Children are the nation's future, her flowers, her treasure. Who would dare run them over? Cars stopped. What else could they do? Engines revved and sputtered as the children crossed the street, a white-uniformed woman at each end of the line. Faces like full moons, encasing cinnabar lips and sharp white teeth, they might as well have been twins. Stretching the cord taut, they brusquely maintained order:
`Hold on to the cord! Don't let go!'
As Ding Gou'er stood beneath a roadside tree with yellowed leaves, the children crossed to his side, and waves of cars were already whizzing past. The column began to curve and bend; the children chirped and twittered like a flock of sparrows. Red ribbons around their wrists were fastened to the red cord. No longer standing in a straight line, they were still attached to the cord, and the women only had to draw it taut to straighten them out. Thoughts of the earlier shouts of `Hold on to the cord! Don't let go!' enraged him. What bullshit! How, he wondered, could they let go, when they're tied to it?
He leaned against the tree and asked one of the women coldly:
`Why do you tie them like that?'
She gave him an icy glare.
`Lunatic? she said.
The children looked over at him.
`Lu-na-tic-!' they echoed in unison.
The way they drew out the syllables, he couldn't tell if it was spontaneous or coached. Their lilting, falsetto voices rose like birds on the wing. Smiling idiotically, he nodded an apology to the woman on the far end, who dismissed him by looking away. He followed the column of children with his eyes until they disappeared down a lane bordered by a pair of high red walls.
It was a struggle, but he finally made it to the other side of the street, where a Xinjiang vendor roasting skewers of lamb hailed him in a heavy accent. He wasn't tempted. But a long-necked girl walked up and bought ten. Reddened lips like chili peppers. Dipping the skewers of sizzling, greasy meat into the pepper jar, she bared her teeth as she ate, to protect her lipstick. His throat burning, he turned and walked off.
A while later he was in front of the elementary school smoking a cigarette and waiting for his son, who didn't see him as he ran out the gate with his backpack. He had blue ink smudges on his face, the marks of a student. He called his son's name. When the boy reluctantly fell in behind him, he told him he was being sent to Liquorland on business. `So what?' Ding Gou'er asked his son what he meant by So What? `So what? means So what? What do you expect me to say?'
`So what? That's right. So what?' he said, echoing his son's comment.
Ding Gou'er walked into the mine's Party Committee Security Section, where he was greeted by a crewcut young man who opened a floor-to-ceiling cabinet, poured a glass of liquor, and handed it to him. This room too was furnished with a large stove, which kept the temperature way up there, if not as stifling as the gate house. Ding Gou'er asked for some ice; the young fellow urged him to try the liquor:
`Drink some, it'll warm you up.'
The earnest look made it impossible for Ding Gou'er to refuse, so he accepted the glass and drank slowly.
The office was hermetically sealed by perfectly dovetailed doors and windows. Once again Ding Gou'er started to itch all over, and rivulets of sweat ran down his face. He heard Crewcut say consolingly:
`Don't worry, you'll cool off as you calm down.'
A buzzing filled Ding Gou'er's ears. Bees and honey, he was thinking, and honeyed infants. This mission was too important to be undone by carelessness. The glass in the windows seemed to vibrate. In the space, between heaven and earth outside the room, large rigs moved slowly and noiselessly. He felt as if he were in an aquarium, like a pet fish. The mining rigs were painted yellow, a numbing color, an intoxicating color. He strained to hear the noise they made, but no dice.
Ding Gou'er heard himself say:
`I want to see your Mine Director and Party Secretary.'
`Drink up, drink up.'
Touched by Crewcut's enthusiasm, Ding Gou'er leaned back and drained the glass.
He no sooner set down his glass than Crewcut filled it up again.
`No more for me,' he said. `Take me to see the Mine Director and Party Secretary.'
`What's your hurry, Boss? One more glass and we'll go. I'd be guilty of dereliction of duty if you didn't. Happy events call for double. Go on, drink up.'
The sight of the full glass nearly unnerved Ding Gou'er, but he had a job to do, so he picked it up and drank it down.
He put down the glass, and it was immediately refilled.
`It's mine policy,' Crewcut said. `If you don't drink three, how edgy you will be.'
`I'm not much of a drinker,' Ding Gou'er protested.
Crewcut picked up the glass with both hands and raised it to Ding Gou'er's lips.
`I beg you,' he said tearfully. `Drink it. You don't want me to be edgy, do you?'
Ding Gou'er saw such genuine feeling in Crewcut's face that his heart skipped a beat, then softened; he took the glass and poured the liquor down his throat.
`Thank you,' Crewcut said gratefully, `thank you. Now, how about three more?'
Ding Gou'er clamped his hand over the glass. `No more for me, that's it,' he said. `Now take me to your leaders.'
Crewcut looked at his wristwatch.
`It's a bit early to be going to see them now,' he said.
Ding Gou'er whipped out his ID card. `I'm here on important business,' he said truculently, `so don't try to stop me.'
Crewcut hesitated a moment, then said, `Let's go.'
Ding followed Crewcut out of the Security Section office and down a corridor lined with doors, beside which wooden name-plaques hung.
`The offices of the Party Secretary and Mine Director aren't in this building, I take it,' he said.
`Just come with me,' Crewcut said. `You drank three glasses for me, so you don't have to worry that I'll lead you astray. If you hadn't drunk those three glasses, I'd have taken you to the Party Secretary's office and simply handed you over to his appointments secretary.'
As they walked out of the building, he saw his face reflected dimly in the glass door and was shocked by the haggard, unfamiliar expression staring back at him. The hinges creaked when the door was opened, then sprang back and bumped him so hard on his backside that he stumbled forward. Crewcut reached out to steady him. The sunbeams were dizzyingly bright. His legs went wobbly, his hemorrhoids throbbed, his ears buzzed.
`Am I drunk?' he asked `Crewcut.
`You're not drunk, Boss,' Crewcut replied. `How could a superior individual like you be drunk? People around here who get drunk are the dregs of society, illiterates, uncouth people. Highbrow folks, those of the "spring snow," cannot get drunk. You're a highbrow, therefore, you cannot be drunk.'
This impeccable logic completely won over Ding Gou'er, who tagged along behind the man as they passed through a clearing strewn with wooden logs. A bit bewildering, given the range of sizes. The thick logs were a couple of meters in diameter, the thin ones no more than two inches. Pine, birch, three kinds of oak, and some he couldn't name. Possessed of scant botanical knowledge, he was happy to have recognized those few. The gouged, scarred logs reeked of alcohol. Weeds that were already beginning to wither had sprouted between and among the logs. A white moth fluttered lazily in the air. Black swallows soared overhead, looking slightly tipsy. He tried to wrap his arms around an old oak log, but it was too thick. When he thumped the dark red growth rings with his fist, liquid oozed out over his hand. He sighed.
`What a magnificent tree this was at one time? he remarked.
`Last year a self-employed winemaker offered three thousand for it, but we wouldn't sell,' Crewcut volunteered.
`What did he want it for?'
`Wine casks,' Crewcut answered. `You must use oak for high quality wine.'
`You should have sold it to him. It isn't worth anywhere near three thousand.'
`We do not approve of self-employment. We'd let it rot before we'd support an entrepreneurial economy.'
While Ding Gou'er was secretly applauding the Mount Luo Coal Mine's keen awareness of the public ownership system, a couple of dogs were chasing each other around the logs, slipping and sliding as if slightly mad, or drunk. The larger one looked a little like the gate-house dog, but not too much. They scampered around one stack of logs, then another, as if trying to enter a primeval forest. Fresh mushrooms grew in profusion in the plentiful shade of the huge fallen oak, layers of oak leaves and peeled bark exuded the captivating smell of fermented acorn sap. On one of the logs, a mottled old giant, grew hundreds of fruits shaped like little babies: pink in color, facial features all in the right places, fair, gently wrinkled skin. And all of them boys, surprisingly, with darling little peckers all red and about the size of peanuts. Ding Gou'er shook his head to clear away the cobwebs; mysterious, spooky, devilish shadows flickered inside his head and spread outward. He reproached himself for wasting so much time at a place where he had no business spending any time at all. But then he had second thoughts. It's been less than twenty-four hours since I started this case, he was thinking, and I've already found a path through the maze that's damned efficient. His patience restored, he fell in behind the crewcut young man. Let's see where he plans to take me.
Passing by a stack of birchwood logs, he saw a forest of sunflowers. All those blossoms gazing up at the sun formed a patch of gold resting atop a dark-green, downy base. As he breathed in the unique, sweet, and intoxicating aroma of birch, his heart was filled with scenes of autumn hills. The snow-white birch bark clung to life, still moist, still fresh. Where the bark had split open, even fresher, even more tender flesh peeked through, as if to prove that the log was still growing. A lavender cricket crouched atop the birch bark, daring someone to come catch it. Unable to contain his excitement, the crewcut young man announced:
`See that row of red-tiled buildings there in the sunflower forest? That's where you'll find our Party Secretary and Mine Director.'
There looked to be about a dozen buildings with red roof tiles nestled amid the contrasting greens and golds in the forest of thick-stemmed, broad-leafed sunflowers, which were nourished by fertile, marshy soil. Under the bright rays of sunlight, the yellow was extraordinarily brilliant. And as Ding Gou'er took in the exquisite scenery, a giddy feeling bordering on intoxication spread throughout his body gentle, sluggish, heavy. He shook off the giddiness, but by then Crewcut had vanished into thin air. Ding jumped up onto a stack of birchwood logs for a better vantage point, and had the immediate sensation of riding the waves for the birchwood stack was a ship sailing on a restless ocean. Off in the distance, the mountain of waste rock still smoldered, although the smoke had given up much of the moisture it had carried at dawn. Undulating black men swarmed over the exposed mounds of coal, beneath which vehicles jostled for position. Human shouts and animal noises were so feeble that he thought something had gone wrong with his hearing; he was cut off from the material world by a transparent barrier. The apricot-colored rigs stretched their long limbs into the opening of the coal pit, their movements excruciatingly slow yet unerringly precise. Suddenly dizzy, he bent over and lay face-down on one of the birchwood logs. It was still being tossed by the waves. Crewcut had indeed vanished into thin air. Ding slid down off the birchwood log and walked toward the sunflower forest.
He could not help thinking about his recent behavior. A special investigator, highly regarded by the country's senior leaders, crouching on a pile of birchwood logs like a puppy too scared of the water to appreciate its surroundings; this behavior had already become a factor in his investigation of a case that would become an international scandal if the accusations proved to be true. So spectacular that if it were made into a movie, people would scoff. He supposed he was a bit drunk, but that didn't alter the fact that Crewcut was a sneak, and not altogether normal, no, decidedly not normal. The investigator's imagination began to soar, wings and feathers carried on gusts of wind. The crewcut young man is probably a member of the gang of people who eat infants, and was already planning his escape while he was leading me through the maze of logs. The path he chose was full of traps and dangers. But he had underestimated the intelligence of Ding Gou'er.
Ding clasped his briefcase to his chest, for in it, heavy and steely hard, was a Chinese six-nine repeater. Pistol in hand, he was bold, he was brave. Reluctantly he took a last look at the birchwood and oak logs, his colorful comrade logs. The cross-sectioned patterns turned them into targets, and as he fantasized hitting a bull's-eye, his legs carried him to the edge of the sunflower forest.
That a quiet, secluded place like this could exist in the midst of seething coal mines reminded him of the power of human endeavor. The sunflowers turned their smiling faces to greet him. He saw hypocrisy and treachery in those emerald green and pale yellow smiles. He heard cold laughter, very soft, as the wind set the broad leaves dancing and rustling. Reaching into his briefcase to feel his cold, hard companion, he strode purposefully toward the red buildings, head held high. With his eyes fixed on the red buildings, he felt a palpable threat from the surrounding sunflowers. It was in their coldness and the white burrs.
Ding Gou'er opened the door and walked in. It had been quite a journey, filled with a range of experiences, but finally he was in the presence of the Party Secretary and the Mine Director. The two dignitaries were about fifty, and had round, puffy faces like wheels of baked bread; their skin was ruddy, about the color of thousand-year eggs; and each had a bit of a general's paunch. They wore gray tunics with razor-sharp seams. Their smiles were kindly, magnanimous, like most men of high rank. And they could have been twins. Grasping Ding Gou'er's hand, they shook it with gusto. They were practiced hand-shakers: not too loose, not too tight; not too soft, not too hard. Ding Gou'er felt a warm current surge through his body with each handshake, as if his hands had closed around nice pulpy yams straight from the oven. His briefcase fell to the floor. A gunshot tore from within.
The briefcase was smoking; a brick in the wall crumbled. Ding Gou'er's shock manifested itself in hemorrhoidal spasms. He actually saw the bullet shatter a glass mosaic painting on the wall; the theme was Natha Raises Havoc at Sea. The artist had fashioned the heavenly Natha as a plump, tender little baby boy, and the investigator's accidental firing had mangled Natha's little pecker.
`A crack shot if I ever saw one!'
`The bird that sticks out its head gets shot!'
Ding Gou'er was mortified. Scooping up his briefcase, he took out the pistol, and flipped on the safety.
`I could have sworn the safety was on,' he said.
`Even a thoroughbred stumbles sometimes.'
`Guns go off all the time.'
The magnanimity and consoling words from the Mine Director and Party Secretary only increased his embarrassment; the high spirits with which he had stormed through the door vanished like misty clouds. Cringing and bowing low, he fumbled with his ID card and letter of introduction.
`You must be Comrade Ding Gou'er!'
`We're delighted you've come to assess our work!'
Too embarrassed to ask how they knew he was coming, Ding Gou'er merely rubbed his nose.
`Comrade Director,' he said, `and Comrade Party Secretary, I've come on the orders of a certain high-ranking comrade to investigate reports that infants are being braised and eaten at your esteemed mine. This case has far-reaching implications, and strictest secrecy must be maintained.'
The Mine Director and Party Secretary exchanged a long look -- ten seconds at least before clapping their hands and laughing uproariously.
Ding Gou'er frowned and said reproachfully:
`I must ask you to take this seriously. Liquorland's Deputy Head of Propaganda, Diamond Jin, who is a prime suspect, comes from your esteemed mine.'
One of them, either the Mine Director or the Party Secretary, said:
`That's right, Deputy Head Jin was a teacher at the elementary school attached to the mine. But he's a talented and principled comrade, one in a million.'
`I'd like you to fill me in.'
`We can talk while we enjoy some food and drink.'
Before he could open his mouth to protest, he was bundled into the dining room.
Copyright © 2000 Howard Goldblatt.
All rights reserved.