The July sun had been beating on the small black iron door all morning. By afternoon the solitary cell, in which Ja Feng had been locked for nine months and three days, was as hot as a firing pot. He was naked, and his skin felt as if something were burning underneath it, so that he wished he could flay layers of flesh off his body. He had removed his clothes two weeks ago, and stored them in a space behind his back. Ja Feng had been awake since midnight, when everything was quiet after the last batch of mosquitoes – their bellies bulged with his blood – had flown out of the door hole through which he was able to see a little patch of sky where a few bright stars hung. He had been used to keeping his eyes open through the night. He even dreamed with his eyes open, though it made no difference whether or not he opened them in such a dark cell. It was merely his habit. When morning came and the temperature rose, he closed his eyes and stopped thinking of anything. He forced himself to sleep through the morning. He was locked in one of the twenty solitary cells built into the natural concave of a hillside. The interior space of the cell was three feet wide, four and a half feet long, and four and a half feet high. The walls were so solid that he couldn’t imagine escaping. There were two holes in the cell: one in the iron door, through which an elderly warden delivered his two meals each day, and another in the right corner of the cement floor, for excrement. So in the cell he would eat, sleep, and relieve
himself. While doing all these things, he would crouch, coil like a worm. He could stand up for a while, but he had to hunch himself forward to almost 90 degrees, with both his hands touching the ground. Although he was unable to stretch himself in any direction, as if he were one of those caged animals he had seen in cargo trains when he was little, and although he had never stopped hoping that they would come to open the door, he gradually became accustomed to the tightness and darkness of the solitary cell. All he could see during the day was the small iron door in front of his legs and the back wall, which was lit by a beam of light coming through the food hole. The joints of the door were rusty and looked as if they could easily be broken, but they were as solid as the stone walls around him. He remembered only the first month of his solitary confinement, which was much clearer and more impressive than the rest. In the first month, he kept track of time and reminded himself of things he had done outside the cell, though later he grew to feel time meant nothing and space had disappeared. On the back cretaceous wall there were two hundred and seventy-six lines, which he had marked with his aluminum spoon in order to keep track of the days. He would count these lines once a day, when the light came in through the door hole. When there was no room for lines on the back wall he began to use one of the side walls for that purpose, and realized that he would have spent two and a half years in the cell by the time the walls would be filled with lines. He knew he wouldnâ€™t live that long, though he kept scratching lines on the wall. On rainy days, when the cement floor and the stone walls were moist and water would drop from the cement ceiling onto his face and legs, the whole cell would become saturated with the filthy smell of shit. He would pray every morning and night that the dry season would come, but, after having been
heated by the scorching sun for a few days, he decided he’d rather go back to the rainy days that hadn’t made him imagine as if he were a piece of pork placed on top of a steady fire. Had the cell been separated from the world – say, somewhere underground or on top of a hill where there were no people passing by – he would have gotten used to his seclusion much more easily, but between his solitary cell and a plot of grass overgrown with weeds, ran a dirt footpath. What tortured him most was that through the food hole he could watch people walking freely on that path. What an awful sight! If the cell itself was a physical punishment, the mental torment that the path provided was even worse. He would quiver and shudder all over whenever he watched people walking on that path; he clenched his teeth when he saw those who exaggerated the movement of their legs and arms. He realized that he would eventually hate all human beings, which was why he tried to keep his eyes shut during the day. There were different passers-by: civilians, prison officers and their families, as well as prisoners. He could see them clearly through the food hole. One day he saw two people, a man and a woman, stop in front of his cell. They were having a conversation and he could hear them clearly: The woman asked the man if he dared bend forward to look into the cell in which Ja Feng was locked, through the food hole in the iron door. The man said that he would do so if she gave him a kiss as a reward. She agreed. A long kiss was sounded. No doubt, he thought, they were close to his door, perhaps only an arm length from where he was sitting. “Take a look now,” she ordered. “Yes,” the man’s voice said. Ja Feng was furious. He shouted abruptly as the shadow of the man’s head appeared in the hole. The man jumped back and ran away with the woman. After that people seldom stopped by his cell, except for a gang of children whose fathers worked as prison cadres in the labor reform center. The children began to taunt him every day when
they came back from school. They stood at a certain distance and threw stones at the iron door of his cell. To the children, it was funny. To him, it was an extra torture: The sound itself was unbearable, let alone the stones that happened to fly into the food hole and hit his skinny body. The kids treated him as if he were a monster, and they loved to hear him crying, shouting, groaning. All he could do was to bear them. He learned to be silent, to make them believe that he had become used to their stones. Sure enough, the children hit him less and less. Perhaps they were disappointed when he no longer screamed as they had expected, or perhaps they were simply tired of playing such a game. Why should I be punished this way? Ja Feng asked himself everyday in the darkness of the solitary cell. It seemed so ridiculous to live in this dark space that when he woke in the morning he had to check whether or not he was already mad. Sometimes he even wished he would lose his senses, because he was sure that sooner or later he would either die or go mad if they kept him in the cell. If the madness was inevitable, let it come now. He wanted to become a madman who didn’t care about torment, but knew how to seek revenge against those who tortured him. If they unlock the iron door one day and let me out, he thought, I’ll set fire to their headquarters. I’ll watch them burning to ashes. And yet, he still wished he could survive the solitary confinement as a normal man, because he was young and wanted to enjoy his life like everyone else. So at one moment he encouraged himself to bear the punishment as calmly as he could, convincing himself that the possibility of the iron door opening existed. It’ll be as simple as that, he would say to himself, a cadre comes by and takes a key from his uniform pants pocket and unlocks the iron door. At another he decided he would rather become a madman, regretting that he had already suffered too much without losing his senses. But if only they could let him out now and give him nothing but a
few days to live like a man, he would have nothing to complain of and would die happy after enjoying the short freedom they bestowed on him. This was what he thought when he woke in the morning. The chief command officer of the labor reform center and other government officers always gave lectures and declared that one became a criminal because one didnâ€™t know who he was. Ja Feng, having been by himself and having faced the hard stone walls for nine months, doubted if he was still himself. Generally, he thought himself no longer a human being, and he had to admit, that as a result of the deprivation of his right to the basic movements of a man, the significance of his physical being had ceased to exist. His ability to meditate, however, had become sharper than ever, and he was able to remember the remotest and most trivial things of his childhood that until he was put into the solitary cell, he had forgotten completely. He remembered that he was a quiet child, that he was always in peace when he watched the white ceiling of his room and listened to his sister, Ja Lin, who would stand beside his baby bed singing songs that she had learned from her kindergarten. He remembered one rainy morning in spring when there were two swallows making their nests on the beam of their house, a friend of his motherâ€™s came to visit; his mother was sick and lay on her bed. He started to answer the door but when he turned to look at his mother, he saw a watermelon seed stuck to her chin. So he shut the door and ran to his mother and picked the watermelon seed from her chin before he went back to open the door again. Ja Lin, three years older than he, always took him to the playground of a middle school near their home, where they jumped in the sand and played with other children. When he was seven his mother divorced his father because he was found to have an affair with a girl his mother had hired
from the countryside to look after Ja Feng and his sister. After that they moved into a two-bedroom apartment on the second floor of an old building located on a narrow street. Next door there was a drug store whose name was painted in gold on a black wooden board hanging in the shade of a dark timber beam, which made him have horrible dreams at night. But whenever he passed by the store he couldn’t help raising his head to look at the board. Ja Feng enjoyed remembering his early childhood because it made him feel as if he were still a little boy, and this inspired him with so much hope that in the darkness of the cell he would talk to himself as though one person was talking to another. And he couldn’t help imagining, If only I were home, lying on my bed and thinking about my childhood. He had enough time to think about everything until he felt too dismal to continue. It would take him at least half a day, if not a whole day, to recover. Then the circle would start again. Although it is obvious that the purpose of solitary confinement is, as Ja Feng had experienced, to make a person feel that he is no longer a human being, it also provided him with an extraordinary opportunity to pay attention to something deep in his mind which he couldn’t have done under any other circumstance. In the history of civilization there were great thinkers who had also experienced various kinds of isolation from their societies as he did from his. He felt proud when he thought people who lived in normal conditions wouldn’t be able to think of things the way he did in his cell. He thought about his past and was always carried away by his dreams until the elderly, hunch-backed warden came with his food. The warden would say something to Ja Feng each time he came. But, always muttering grievances and swearing strangely, he had never seemed to expect an answer, as though Ja Feng were a beast that he fed. He always emphasized that the relationship between them was that between a prisoner and a
cadre and not between a caged beast and its zoo keeper, which sounded to Ja Feng like the warden loved to show his authority in order to overcome his sense of inferiority. “Nobody, except for those locked in the caves, would understand the importance of my work. It would be too late to think of a man’s merit when he’s dead. I demand nothing other than being called ‘Comrade Liu.’ Is it too much?” He would say these words repeatedly until he lost his temper and vented his anger wrongly against the man in the dark cave. He refused to give Ja Feng more food or water no matter how often Ja Feng begged him. But since he had delivered food to Ja Feng for nine months, Ja Feng had gotten used to him, too, and was able to tell his steps from the others’. Looking back at the first month of his solitary confinement, Ja Feng felt it incredible. In fact, he didn’t know how he had survived. Often at night he made the decision to kill himself in the morning, but he would give up when the morning came, changing his mind as the daylight broke into the cell, realizing that there was nothing with which he could do it. He had heard people committing suicide by crashing their heads against walls. He could not even do that because the walls were too close. So he shouted and punched the iron door desperately every day of that first month, using his head and shoulders as a battering ram. He could not sleep at night, and grew nervous during the daytime, watching through the food hole to see if soldiers or prison officers passed by. When they did, he would beg them to let him out, and shouted curses at them when they ignored him. Finally he got tired, and grew too weak to shout. It was then that he began to get used to sleeping with his body coiled. His dreams always lasted a long time, sometimes two days, sometimes three or four. They would continue even in the daytime when he was awake, so the old warden poked fun at him and said he looked like a madman.
* * *
Ja Feng had violated Prison Regulation 13 and 14: contacting civilians and sending secret letters. This was clearly not the real reason why they had locked him in the dark cell for so long, however. According to Regulation 13, those who contact civilians will be punished by up to three days of solitary confinement. Regulation 14 said that those who elude censorship would be punished by up to five days solitary confinement. The real reason behind his extended punishment was that he wrote to the District Court, accusing Chief Yang of the murder of a newcomer whose request for a sick day off was rejected; he was forced to work in the quarry, and died in his bed the next morning with his eyes wide open. Unfortunately, that letter fell into the chief ’s hands, and Ja Feng was punished with solitary confinement. He had coiled in this dark cave like a fetus in its mother’s womb. He was shocked that nobody came out to stop what the chief did to him. He was shocked even more that the District Court had sent his letter directly to the accused as though acting in collaboration. He heard buzzing sounds and found himself surrounded by mosquitoes in the dark cave. Had he been able to choose, he’d rather face the firing squad. An execution is much better than the endless torture of solitary confinement. One is able to face the firing squad with dignity and courage. With a blink of one’s eyes it would be over. Day by day, he felt his nerve fading away, and he had no idea when his final moment would actually come. But wasn’t he once a free man as he remembered? How amazing were those beautiful days and nights he had spent with his fiancée! Had they not arrested him, he’d probably have been walking in the street with her at that moment. The Sunday morning that he met his fiancée he was walking in the street desperately because Yi Zen, his girlfriend, had told him the night before that she’d decided to leave him. The whole city of Shanghai, with the deafening sound of gongs
and drums, was overwhelmed in an atmosphere of celebration. He ran into a friend whom he had gotten to know earlier that year and had since played music with a number of times. He went with him to visit his friend who dwelled in an old twostory building in the north edge of the city. There were four people sitting in the living room when they arrived, three men and a woman all about his age, around twenty years old, all wearing the Mao-style jacket, like the rest of the city. The host was a tall, handsome man, named Yang Janmin, who worked in a plastic manufacturer and was popular among his friends because he had a gift for talking. The second man’s name was Wang Yong, an elementary school teacher who liked to think and ask questions. Hu Huijing, the third, was a mailman in the post office, and the fourth was a pretty young woman, Li Xiani, a nurse in the No.5 People’s Hospital, whose oval eyes magnetized Ja Feng so much that he would have liked to sit beside her forever if he could. Yang Janmin, hospitable as he was, told him that they met every Sunday afternoon and wanted him to join them. He also found Li Xiani lived not far from where he lived, so he joined the group and always took the same bus with her home when they left Yang Janmin’s house. Thus his heart recovered quickly from the pain that the failure of his first love had left behind. Ja Feng and Li Xiani soon found they loved each other and it was on one of those Sunday afternoons when they were on the way home that Ja Feng invited her to his home, and after they talked briefly about what they had discussed in Yang Janmin’s place, he held her hand in his and pulled her toward him. She asked if he had fun joining them. “Yes,” he said. “Why?” she asked. “Because I learned something there, and most of all I got to know you.” As he spoke, he caressed the fine skin of her arms, and when he felt that her tension had given way he made his first attempt to raise her clothes, but she stopped him and said, “Are you serious?” “I am,” he said. She said that she’d undress herself. She was so vigorous that Ja Feng couldn’t help thinking that she was
about to jump on the bed. But at that moment they heard steps in the next room, and his mother asked Ja Lin, “Is he there?” No answer. But he could imagine that Ja Lin nodded her head because she had seen them come in earlier that evening. “How long?” his mother’s voice asked. Still no answer. They held their breath and covered themselves with a blanket in case his mother broke in. It was hot and their bodies were soaked in sweat. But his mother didn’t even knock at his door, and finally he heard them leaving the apartment. That night they made love in his room. He confessed to Li Xiani he had had a girlfriend before but they hadn’t had sex as he did with her. She said, however, her former boyfriend had taken her virginity. But it was the first time for Ja Feng and he felt really good. Later Ja Feng also learned that Li Xiani’s previous boyfriend was Yang Janmin. This discovery made him feel awkward about going to Yang Janmin’s house again, so he told Li Xiani that he would rather she come to his place every Sunday afternoon than go to Yang Janmin’s. One Sunday afternoon, Li Xiani came with the news that she was pregnant and that they had to make a decision right away, either to have an abortion or to marry before her parents and colleagues learned anything. At first his mother was against his marrying a woman whom he didn’t know very well when Ja Feng told her about Li Xiani’s pregnancy, but finally she agreed and prepared for the wedding. “Soon, I’ll become a grandma,” she would say to Ja Lin. Although he was unemployed then, he knew he could get a job in a building company as an assistant architect. He was excited when he made a list of guests for his wedding banquet, and for the first time he thought that he would become a man of responsibility. They went out to buy furniture and had it delivered into their room, which was the room next to his mother’s. His sister knitted a big Double Happiness character in red silk and had it framed and hung on the wall over the bed. He was arrested one afternoon when he had just finished
boiling a kettle of water and filling the two thermoses and putting in four spoons of tea, as his mother had told him there would be visitors in the evening. He had run into his former girlfriend, Yi Zen, that morning on his way to Li Xiani’s home. He felt sorry for Yi Zen as though he had done a disservice to her, and didn’t even dare tell her that he was going to marry soon when she asked what was going on with him. He seemed in a dream state for the rest of the day, recalling those days and nights he had walked with Yi Zen in the streets, on the campus of the university, and their conversation about the future and so forth. Consequently he grew rather sentimental and wasn’t frightened at all when he saw two plainclothes break into his room to claim his arrest because they said he had gotten involved in a counterrevolutionary organization. “A counterrevolutionary organization,” he repeated dreamingly. “You must be kidding, mustn’t you?” Ja Lin protected him with her body as she had done so many times when he was bullied by his up-graders in the primary school, and told the officers that Ja Feng was going to marry soon. “Look at the new furniture and the decoration of the wedding room; he’ll marry next week and his fiancée is pregnant,” she cried, grabbing his hands tightly in hers. It was then Ja Feng seemed to understand what was going on and he said, “But I don’t understand what kind of counterrevolutionary organization I have joined, can you tell me about it?” The two plainclothes said they didn’t know what it was either, better ask their superior when they took him to the detention house. At that moment his mother came home with a basketful of fruits which she planned to put on the dining table before the guests arrived. “What’s going on here?” her voice reached them from the kitchen. “They want to arrest him,” Ja Lin cried.
“Comrades,” his mother said to them calmly when she came in. “I think it must be a mistake. My son would never take part in any organization.” The two men exchanged a glance, but said they had to take Ja Feng with them. Seeing that they wouldn’t go empty-handed, Ja Feng said to his mother and sister that since he didn’t do anything wrong he believed they would set him free in an hour or two and he might be able to come home to have supper with them and meet their relatives and friends in the evening. So off he went with them without knowing that the next time they would meet would be in the prison labor reform center. He didn’t know what kind of counterrevolutionary organization he had attended until they brought him to a room where he saw Yang Janmin and other people he had met in Yang’s place. Later he learned that Li Xiani was also arrested. He was soon brought to a soldier-agent who was in charge of interrogating the captured counterrevolutionaries. He was then brought to the court and before his face a judge read the verdict with such a strange accent that Ja Feng failed to catch a single word except for his name. Only when he received the sheet did he become aware that they placed him as the third person in the counterrevolutionary organization. Yang Janmin, the No.1, got a life sentence; Wang Yong, the No.2, a fifteenyear prison term; and he, as the No.3, was sentenced to an eight-year prison term. Though they placed her as No.5, they set Li Xiani free after considering her three-month pregnancy. Ja Feng’s mother and sister visited a friend of theirs who worked in the court, and asked him to help set him free. “As soon as he was sentenced,” that friend said to them, “nothing can be done, or it’ll go against the solemnity of the law.” His mother and Ja Lin visited him frequently during the first two years of his imprisonment. But his mother died of stomach cancer when he was doing his third year in the labor reform camp.
* * *
One evening when Ja Feng stretched his arms, one at a time, through the food hole in the iron door so that they could feel the cool, fresh air, he happened to touch a hand that was also stretching out of the cell to his right. And two days later, he touched another hand from the cell to his left. Thus he made two friends. The man on his right was Weiguo, a former middle school music teacher from Division 6. The man on his left was Maison, a former local opera director from Division 14. Weiguo, who was put into solitary confinement two months before, had brought with him half a pencil, so the three of them were able to write to each other on the coarse toilet paper they received every month. Weiguo was sent to his cell for the violation of Prison Regulation 7 and 10: he had appealed his original charge as a counterrevolutionary more times than was allowed. He had attempted to escape when first sent to the labor reform center and after his right of appeal was denied he tried again. In addition, he refused to attend thought-reform class because he thought he was innocent. Maison had been put in his cell for only one month due to violation of Regulation 3: committing a homosexual crime and spreading counterrevolutionary rumors among prisoners. When Ja Feng got to know them, both men were having their hardest times, just like he in his first month of solitary confinement. Surprised at his sense of humor, they eagerly asked him how he was able to stay in the cell for so long. Communication among them was mainly in written form. They didnâ€™t like to speak to each other, because when they spoke, in order for the other two to hear clearly, one had to stick his mouth out of the food hole and shout. Having been in solitary cells for so long and having so little to eat â€“ their two meals a day were half a bowl of porridge in the morning
and another half in the evening – none of them was able to shout. So they passed notes to each other in the later afternoon when they finished their daydreams and wanted to talk and there was still light left in the sky. They spoke about their lives outside prison and their dreams of the future. Weiguo always compared himself with King Yue, a king in ancient China who tortured himself by living in a cave for a year after being defeated by his enemy, King Wu. Every day he tasted a pig’s gallbladder hung over his head so as to remind himself of the humiliation of loss. Weiguo said that the three of them would be much tougher than ordinary people because they had experienced solitary confinement much like the Monkey King, an ancient mythical spirit who, after being locked into the heavenly emperor’s alchemical oven and baked for fortynine days, broke the oven and became invincible. Weiguo also passed around a picture of his wife and six-year-old daughter. He loved to talk about his wife, and said he would masturbate every night when he saw a star rising in the sky because that was the time he used to make love with her. Not a day went by when Weiguo didn’t talk about her. He described every detail of their lovemaking, which defied Ja Feng’s imagination. He told Weiguo that he was no longer able to masturbate himself because it didn’t make him feel anything. Maison’s description about his love affairs was also remarkable. In a note he wrote: “In a large, old compound of connecting courtyards, each surrounded by dwelling quarters with high walls, near the theater where I worked, lived a woman nicknamed The Third Sister. She was a thirty-eight-year-old mother living with her nineteen-year-old twin daughters, Sun Lan and Sun Jun, in a room in the corner of a courtyard. The Third Sister was considered the number one beauty in the town. She had married twice and twice her husbands died by accident so people thought she was a man killer and nobody dared marry her again. And yet she slept with all kinds of
men, from local high school students to their principal, and all the bachelors of my unit, including myself. It is said women who do business like that would ruin faster than those who don’t. The Third Sister looked in her twenties, however, so that people had always mistaken her as the big sister of her daughters.” “How did you start with her?” Ja Feng asked him. “I got to know her through a friend of mine, and then I always went to stay with her on Thursday night, which was my night. She would cook the food, usually fish, pork, and some vegetables I brought with me, and we drank wine together and talked and then had sex. Her room was separated into two spaces by a maroon velvet curtain hanging from the central beam of the room like that on a stage, so we slept on a bed on one side of the curtain and her two daughters slept on the other. Soon, however, I also found myself attracted to Sun Lan, one of her twin daughters. One summer night Sun Lan and I made love in my room. What a girl! I told her that I would marry her and I gave her money. She told me how to tell the difference between her and her sister because, although they looked extremely alike in every aspect, Sun Jun was a totally different type. ‘She’ll slap your face if you hug her,’ Sun Lan said. ‘So you should look carefully and see if there’s a tiny birth mark above the left corner of her lips. She has that, I don’t, and that’s the only difference between us.’ I kept dating the mother and daughter at the same time. I knew I would go to hell someday for this irredeemable sin of mine…” “Don’t be silly,” Weiguo responded. “It’s not a big deal. It was a trend in the Tang Dynasty that a poet would marry two or even three sisters. And there are many stories about men sleeping with mothers and daughters in history.” “Are you a historian?” “I’m not,” Weiguo wrote. “But I will write an article about the cell life someday.”
“You should first survive the cell before you think about anything else,” Maison wrote. “No doubt about that. I have my spiritual expectation, an imagination inspired by the memory of the heavenly joys I have shared with my wife. When I recall those days and nights with her I feel myself full of such inspiration that if I had a piano with me I’d compose songs like a great composer,” Weiguo wrote. “I’m wondering how could your wife give you so much spiritual power that you can even make fun in the solitary cell?” Maison wrote. “Many of my friends whose wives were very attractive had mistresses. As the old saying goes: ‘The flower in the pot is not as fragrant as the flower in the field.’ ” “I know,” Weiguo wrote. “I had five or six girlfriends before I got to know my wife. As soon as I knew her I found I didn’t have the interest to look at other women because she fit me perfectly in every aspect.” They had written to each other until one afternoon, when the guards came to take Weiguo out. They sent him back to his cell that night, and early the next morning he passed, together with the picture of his wife and daughter, a note to Ja Feng that read: “I will see you in another world.” Ja Feng held Weiguo’s trembling hand, but was unable to find a word to comfort him. He shook the hand until it withdrew. He searched for it for a long time. It never came out again. It was worse to live in such a cell than to die, and as they had talked about it so many times none of them was afraid of death, yet when it came, it was still awful. “God!” Ja Feng yelled against the stone wall. He heard his voice reverberate in the cell along with the buzzing of mosquitoes. The wife’s and the daughter’s eyes were fixed on him as he looked at the picture; their eyes looked sad, though they wore smiles on their faces. On the back of the picture were written two lines. One in the center, written in blue ink, read: “We are waiting to reunite
with you.” The other, in the lower left-hand corner, was an address written in pencil: “5 East Palace Lane, Shanghai.” He determined then that, if he were ever to leave prison, he would return the photograph to Weiguo’s wife. Time passed slowly. The cell grew hotter. He could still hear some noise which sounded as though it was coming from far away; he wasn’t sure if it was Weiguo’s sobbing or just the wind. He kept listening until he fell asleep. When he awoke, he thought about death. And he imagined how he would respond if they came to announce his execution. He would tell them that he had lived long enough and grown impatient. I don’t want to live any longer, because my body has already died, he thought. Let them shoot me instead of Weiguo who has a wife and a daughter waiting for him. He had a daughter, too, but what would she think if she saw him, a naked monster whom nobody would like. He was so moved by the thought of replacing himself for Weiguo’s death sentence that he felt his body shaking. Through the daylight, he studied the picture. But then he began to hallucinate: Weiguo’s wife was set in motion, and drifted into his half-open, staring eyes and formed into a dream. As he always dreamed with his eyes open he didn’t know whether or not his thoughts awoke in the control of his consciousness: He was walking to an old apartment building and stopped at a door. A small but quick woman whom he recognized as his friend’s wife opened the door and let him in. The room was rather dark without a window, so he could hardly see anything except for some gray cubic objects. Then he dreamed that she and he sat at a small square table and ate supper together. There were three dishes and the rice was so hot that he had to eat slowly… As always, he woke up when he dreamed about eating. He was so curious to see Weiguo’s wife though, that he went back to the dream. He skipped the eating scene and prepared himself to go on. And it went on…
But at that point he heard someone shout his name repeatedly and then the gunfire. He woke up to find that the warden, who had come with his supper, was banging at the iron door with some hard substance and looking into the cell through the food hole. Ja Feng coughed to let him know he was awake. Instead of delivering his food, the warden said, “How are you doing today?” “Not too good,” Ja Feng replied simply. “It’s hot, ah? Want more water?” the warden said. “Do you really mean that?” he said. For more than nine months the old man had never treated him this way. “Of course I do,” the old man said, and ordered him to put his mouth to the food hole. “What are you going to do?” “Come on, if you want a drink,” the warden said. Ja Feng obeyed. He felt a rubber hose poked into his mouth and heard the warden shout from outside, “Are you ready?” “Oh – oh.” He couldn’t say anything else because the cold water had been running down through the hose and his throat. His whole body trembled violently. “You know you’ve been there for nine months,” the old warden said as he pulled the hose out of Ja Feng’s mouth. “Yes… ye-s,” Ja Feng said, breathing quickly like a drowning man. “Well, your punishment will be over soon,” the old man said and left. The iron door was opened the next morning. It was very early. The sun had not yet appeared on the horizon, and the sky was dark with red clouds. Ja Feng knew that something was going to take place, otherwise they wouldn’t be letting him out. He fell to the ground as though he had completely lost his balance when they pulled him out of the cell. He felt his heart beating madly. His legs and arms remained curled the way they had in the cell, and he couldn’t keep his eyes open because
they were not used to the outdoor light. Six guards, automatic guns in their arms, were standing in front of the cell in which Weiguo was locked. One guard was unlocking the iron door. Ja Feng turned to the left and noticed that all the cell doors were open. Ten prisoners were crouching at their doors. Two guards had already dragged Weiguo out of his cell as Ja Feng turned back. The guard who had unlocked the cell doors ordered them to stand up, while the other two guards came up to Weiguo. They grabbed him by his armpits. Ja Feng tried to rise up on his own, but failed, tried again, failed again while all the rest had stood up. He felt so dizzy, and his legs were so thin and weak, that as he tried to rise he found himself trembling as if there were a heavy burden on his back. The guard who had unlocked the cell doors watched him struggling to rise from the ground fearfully, and rather than approaching him, he turned around and told the other two guards to lift him up. They came toward him reluctantly, and neither of the two reached out his hands; instead they shouted, “Get up! Don’t play games.” With both hands Ja Feng held onto his cell door, which he let sustain his weight, and rose successfully. He found himself taller than the guards around him. But he dared not loosen his grasp of the iron door because his legs were still trembling. He couldn’t move, and he felt as if the ground were not real. The prisoner to his left was Maison, the former local opera director. Maison had been in his cell for only one month, so, though thin, he still looked like an ordinary prisoner. They exchanged a look when two guards dragged Weiguo to the footpath in front of the solitary cells. Ja Feng watched them lifting Weiguo by his armpits. As the guards moved, the former middle school music teacher swung back and forth, looking as though he was already gone. Such a horrible scene was not strange at all. Almost everyone who was going to be executed looked like dead men when
pulled out of their cells to be displayed on the Open Trial Platform. If there was still hope, a prisoner might kneel down to plead for his life. If not, why not die like a man? Ja Feng used to ask himself this whenever he saw a condemned man being pulled out to the execution ground. He would have never understood why those victims looked so cowardly at their last moment, had he not been himself locked in the solitary cell for so long. The authorities designed matters deliberately to make a condemned prisoner look that way: They would lock one in a solitary cell for a month or two before pulling him out to the execution ground, and they would tell him in advance that he would be executed. In this sense the solitary confinement functioned as a weigh station between life and death – by the time they dragged one out, one could hardly walk like a human being because he had already been destroyed both physically and mentally. And the execution ground was but an exhibition. All the prisoners would be brought to the Open Trial Square located in front of the headquarters of the labor reform center. Everyone’s heart jumped up in their throat when watching a victim dragged onto the platform, feeling as if he himself was going to be shot. Weiguo had accepted his death, and that was a wise decision. As an ancient philosopher said, “When you have no choice, accept what you are offered peacefully.” When one accepted one’s death, better to let it happen right away than to wait for it any longer in a dark solitary cell. To him death had the same meaning as freedom had to an ordinary prisoner. Since Ja Feng was too weak to walk on his own, he was dragged to the square by two guards who finally placed him beside Weiguo on the platform. The difference between the two was that the former music teacher had been bound with a thick rope and he hadn’t.
Ja Feng raised his head and saw thousands of prisoners seated and facing the platform. They all had the same panicked look. He saw two machine guns, one on top of the left wall, one on the right, aiming at the prisonersâ€™ backs. Lowering his head, he saw a pool of yellow water on the white wooden floor of the platform beneath Weiguoâ€™s feet, and realized that was the only sign that his friend was still conscious. But soon Ja Feng passed out. He never even heard the gunfire.
Published on Sep 1, 2009