After leaving the village, the troops marched down a narrow dirt path, the tramping of their feet merging with the rustling of weeds. The heavy mist was strangely animated, kaleidoscopic. Tiny droplets of water pooled into large drops on Father’s face, clumps of hair stuck to his forehead. He was used to the delicate peppermint aroma and the slightly sweet yet pungent odour of ripe sorghum wafting over from the sides of the path – nothing new there. But as they marched through the heavy mist, his nose detected a new, sickly- sweet odour, neither yellow nor red, blending with the smells of peppermint and sorghum to call up memories hidden deep in his soul. Six days later, the fifteenth day of the eighth month, the night of the Mid-Autumn Festival. A bright round moon climbed slowly in the sky above the solemn, silent sorghum fields, bathing the tassels in its light until they shimmered like mercury. Among the chiselled flecks of moonlight Father caught a whiff of the same sickly odour, far stronger than anything you might smell today. Commander Yu was leading him by the hand through the sorghum, where three hundred fellow villagers, heads pillowed on their arms, were strewn across the ground, their fresh blood turning the black earth into a sticky muck that made walking slow and difficult. The smell took their breath away. A pack of corpse-eating dogs sat in the field staring at Father and Commander Yu with glinting eyes. Commander Yu drew his pistol and fired – a pair of eyes was extinguished. Another shot, another pair of eyes gone. The howling dogs scattered, then sat on their haunches once they were out of range, setting up a deafening chorus of angry barks as they gazed greedily, longingly at the corpses. The odour grew stronger. ‘Jap dogs!’ Commander Yu screamed. ‘Jap sons of bitches!’ He emptied his pistol, scattering the dogs without a trace. ‘Let’s go, son,’ he said. The two of them, one old and one young, threaded their way through the sorghum field, guided by the moon’s rays. The odour saturating the field drenched Father’s soul and would be his constant companion during the cruel months and years ahead. Sorghum stems and leaves sizzled fiercely in the mist. The Black Water River, which flowed slowly through the swampy lowland, sang in the spreading mist, now loud, now soft, now far, now near. As they caught up with the troops, Father heard the tramping of feet and some coarse breathing fore and aft. The butt of a rifle noisily bumped someone else’s. A foot crushed what sounded like a human bone. The man in front of Father coughed loudly. It was a familiar cough, calling to mind large ears that turned red with excitement. Large transparent ears covered with tiny blood vessels were the trademark of Wang Wenyi, a small man whose enlarged head was tucked down between his shoulders. Father strained and squinted until
his gaze bored through the mist: there was Wang Wenyi’s head, jerking with each cough. Father thought back to when Wang was whipped on the parade ground, and how pitiful he had looked. He had just joined up with Commander Yu. Adjutant Ren ordered the recruits: Right face! Wang Wenyi stomped down joyfully, but where he intended to ‘face’ was anyone’s guess. Adjutant Ren smacked him across the backside with his whip, forcing a yelp from between his parted lips. Ouch, mother of my children! The expression on his face could have been a cry, or could have been a laugh. Some kids sprawled atop the wall hooted gleefully. Now Commander Yu kicked Wang Wenyi in the backside. ‘Who said you could cough?’ ‘Commander Yu . . .’ Wang Wenyi stifled a cough. ‘My throat itches. . . .’ ‘So what? If you give away our position, it’s your head!’ ‘Yes, sir,’ Wang replied, as another coughing spell erupted. Father sensed Commander Yu lurching forward to grab Wang Wenyi around the neck with both hands. Wang wheezed and gasped, but the coughing stopped. Father also sensed Commander Yu’s hands release Wang’s neck; he even sensed...
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