We came down the hills, a crowd of beggars and bandits, or so the comrades said. Old Hu shuffled beside me, his feet barely leaving the dusty road. Since his last goodbyes to his wife, his love for fifty years, his eyes never left the horizon. Head poked forward, he tottered ever onwards to who knows where. And always clutching the book.
In his younger days Hu had passed the civil service exams, but returned home after a year and became a secondary school teacher. They say he returned for love. The younger son of a landlord, he seemed to have no desire for wealth. Only for poetry and learning. I had been his student before joining the army. A week ago I had met him and his wife on the road as I was returning home. They were so thin they seemed like walking skeletons.
As we had approached the town, we’d heard the sounds and smelled the smoke of a thousand kilns forging our future, our ‘Great Leap Forward’. At an outlying village, empty except for a few ancient souls too infirm to work, an old woman squatted outside the remains of her house. She squinted up at us under her deeply creased brow.
“Do you have any food?” I asked.
She gave a throaty chuckle, and spat on the ground.
Beyond the village we heard the sound of many people breaking the earth with their tools. Then we saw them. Maybe two hundred people in lines, digging the earth. And in the corner, a cauldron tended by some women.
But we were not wanted. Soon we were surrounded by a dozen militia. They forced us off the road towards the hills, shouting, cursing and prodding all the way.
By morning Old Hu’s wife was no more. There was no more to do. We had her bowl, blanket and shoes that we could exchange for food. Back on the road, I managed to barter the shoes for no more than a handful of sunflower seeds, wrapped in a page of the People’s Daily.
We were approaching Tongwei. I carried our scant possessions apart from the book that Old Hu clutched to his side.
Now our road was blocked by soldiers, led by Comrade Xi Daolong. Xi was leading the crackdown on Rightists and saboteurs. He seemed satisfied with my military papers. They turned their attention to the other refugees, before setting about Old Hu. He gazed into the distance as they shouted their questions at him.
Finally Xi prised the book from his grasp. “Tang dynasty poetry! Look, look at this book. So exquisite, so expensive. And this inscription! You know who he is? What more do we need. He is a Rightist, a teacher, son of a tyrant landowner, servant of the Kuomintang devils. And this is what he reads!”
Someone knocked Old Hu to the ground with the butt of his rifle.
“We can’t take him with us. He is too old and slow,” said Xi. “But he will not set his eyes on this again.” And with a laugh he threw the book to another comrade. “We can use this in the shithouse!”
As the soldiers laughed he drew out a knife and plunged it quickly into each of Old Hu’s eyes. Then he took a deep breath, and summoned his soldiers away, dragging with them two ‘Rightists’ from our ragtag band.
As our nerve returned, we took Old Hu to the stream where we washed his eyes, and made crude bandages from his wife’s blanket. After his first screams of pain, Old Hu said no more. We settled down for the night.
Old Hu sat with his back against a rock, and I remembered the sunflower seeds. Squatting down next to him, I tipped some from the newspaper into my hand, then took one and pressed it to his lips. He took it and crunched slowly. I fed them to him one by one until suddenly he gripped my wrist, and began to recite:
“The woods have stored the rain, and slow comes the smoke
As rice is cooked over sticks and carried to the fields;
Over the quiet marsh-land flies a white egret,
And mango-birds are singing in the full summer trees….
I have learned to watch in peace the mountain morning-glories,
To eat split dewy sunflower-seeds under a bough of pine,
To yield the post of honour to any boor at all….
Why should I frighten sea gulls, even with a thought?”