It is my hope that your understanding will win out against any mistrust or anger you may harbour against me when you finally read this. It is so easy to feel anger, and Lord knows I deserve a good dose of it. But I am trying, and you will see I have been trying for quite some time. I also hope that you will read this many years from now, when you are grown, at a time when this story will be long past. With an adult’s eyes it is more likely that you will see this letter for what it is, and know the regret and tenderness I feel as I compose this history for you. Of course, I know I have no control over any of this, yet still I hope. The dead must relinquish so much.Heaven forbid these pages return to you without me, but allowing for such a possibility I give you my word absolutely that I will recount my life as faithfully as I recall it, nothing added, nothing lost.Will I be dead? That is certainly the way things seem to go around here, but it is not my intention to go off and die any time soon. You may also take some consolation in knowing that we Bethunes are fighters, first and foremost, and never go down without a mighty struggle. For a man nearing fifty I have got a good bit of life left in me.The reality is that you have missed every word of the story I will tell, and I cannot change that fact. When such a small miracle as you awaited, I chose to look elsewhere for purpose. I chose to leave you behind, and that is the sadness in my life. I feel there is no adequate apology a father can offer his child for something like that, but it is my hope to tell you a little about the world as it was before you came into it, and about the terrible forces that pulled me away from you once you finally did. And to tell you why I came to this faraway country. One’s journey through life is fraught with contradictions and compromises. I see that now, and perhaps one day you will see it too.There is a boy here in north China with me named Ho. You would like him. The plain truth is that nothing would get done around here without him. He is my vigilant sentry, my water boy, my trusted valet, my cook, my barber. He is the one who provides me with everything I need. When he saw the state of this typewriter ribbon (I had been using the old Remington portable to write up a number of medical reports) he dipped it in some oil he found dripping from the belly of a wounded generator hidden behind the hospital (which was, not so long ago, a Buddhist temple), and lo, by nightfall, it was set for another ten or fifteen pages. It has since become part of his morning ritual.The reason I mention this so early on is that whatever it is that he puts into this customized ink of his reminds me of a perfume I once purchased for your mother in Madrid, before the war in China came to take me away. A whiff of lavender and mint that is my own Proustian delight. As I work, these keys release small shock waves of that perfume into the air, making this letter—for brief periods at least—an almost pleasant walk down memory lane. I imagine these additives, whatever they are, are meant only to suppress the oil’s natural foul composition, and perhaps to deepen the colour of the imprint of these letters. It works surprisingly well, I must say. Every morning I find the Remington stripped of its ribbon, and every morning Ho comes to me with my breakfast of millet or steamed rice and tea, his hands stained the same colour as these pages.I do not have much idle time here, but what little there is I spend trying to make some sense of the fates that have shaped me into the man I am. I’ll admit to finding this quite a task. I often think about your mother and see now that she was not so unlike my own mother, how they shared a common desire to improve the world they lived in. I also think about who you will be when you finally read this. I like to imagine the glow of understanding that will light up your face as you move deeper into the history of your father’s people and your own miraculous beginning. And I like to imagine that I will soon be home to see you, that peace will descend upon us, that there will be no need for these writings other than to help recall the vicious events that took place before this war made things right.My first memory is of my mother stepping out of a baker’s shop, me in one arm, a bag of cinnamon buns in the other. I was four years old. It was looking to be a fine day, as I had earned one of those buns for my good behaviour that morning. I was stuffing it into my mouth, nestled there in the cradle of my mother’s arm, when she suddenly turned on her heel and swung her shopping bag at a man who was entering the shop just as we were leaving. The man fell—he must have been old, certainly caught unawares—and as my mother stood over him I munched away happily, thinking this was some sort of pantomime enacted for my amusement. The baker came out from behind his counter and stepped into the game. His apron was white. He was a large man and wore a pleated hat. I remember thinking that it looked like a mushroom. More, I said, and the baker with the mushroom hat raised the man by the collar and threw him out the door.This early memory, though I include it here, is not typical of your grandmother, for she was, in faith and in deed, a woman devoted to the Lord and to the improvement of His world. She was a warm and loving mother, gentle as a lamb, but a fighter, too, who wouldn’t turn the other cheek when confronted by the ugliness of disrespectful men. It was your grandmother who taught me and my brother and sister that things could be made better by virtue of regular Bible study and a calm spiritual persistence, and that our highest calling was to commit ourselves to the betterment of our small corner of the world. This was a first lesson in life and one I carry with me to this day, greying sinner that I am. She instilled within me the impulse to make the most of what I had been given. We are all given talents, she would say. Each of us to our own abilities.Every Sunday in the parlour, she told us one of Jesus’s parables. I remember my mother’s soft hand on my head as she read through Matthew. The Parable of the Talents has stayed with me. You might know it. One man hoards his gifts while others bring them out into the world to gain strength and knowledge. Her hand lifted from my head and gently touched the open Bible.“And what does this mean?” she asked softly.“That it is God’s will for us to make the most of what we’re given,” I said.“Yes, and that what you’re given belongs not to you, Norman, but to the Lord, who has favoured us all with a special gift, each of us in our own way. You are now the keeper of these talents, Norman, and you have many of them. You must not bury your gifts but share them with others.”I told your mother about these Bible lessons, more than forty years after the fact. I told your mother that I had taken my Presbyterian upbringing very seriously. That I saw life as a series of lessons, of morally correct or incorrect choices. That the decision to lead a good life was yours. I still feel it in me, I told her, even now. She sat on a stool before me. We were in Madrid. The war there was on then, and still is.“Turn your shoulder toward me, please,” I said. I thought of myself as something of a weekend painter, if that’s the right expression. It was a quiet night at the Hotel Santander.Your mother said, “Yes, I know that about you, Norman. I can see how you are.” “Move the shoulder a little more, please.”She said, “There’s no other place I’d rather be than here, at this very moment, with you.”I was silent for a moment, then said, “I don’t know if I’ll ever get your skin right. You’re like a snowflake. You’re the whitest thing I’ve ever seen.”“I am your Swedish princess.” She shifted the blanket on her shoulder and tossed her hair. She spoke English very well. “Did you ever believe you’d find someone here? In the middle of this stupid war?”“No, I did not,” I said.And she said, “Does being happy diminish your sense of purpose, Norman?”And I said, “I’ve always had purpose. What I never had was peace.”I have thought about that conversation often, and I can still say with confidence that the look your mother gave me on that night told me she would never expect to hear another truth so full of sadness as that one, not as long as she lived.Today was a difficult day and it is late now. I need sleep very badly. We’ve had little water, and in this heat that’s something to worry about. Most mornings Ho replenishes my cistern. I hear him pass my door just after first light on his way down to the river. Sometimes he’s singing to himself. When he came back empty-handed this morning I knew something was wrong. Last night we heard the fighting up near Chin-kang K’u, a village in the clouds. Ho found the stream running a deep red. When I went out to see for myself, I watched the limpid pink water slipping over the felt-green rocks like a cool summer lemonade. An hour later, a second stain came, lighter still, from the executions that followed.Sepsis, starvation and tuberculosis are the three main killers here, after the Japanese. How desperate this place is, how wrenching its agonies. I wish you could understand, and somehow at the same time I hope you never will. But I am glad for the silence of writing. This is my one respite, though it is difficult to find the time. Today I operated on seven wounded, two of whom were no older than seventeen. Another 126 are yet to be seen to. The odds are overwhelming. I am alone here but for two under-trained assistants, both too recent to medicine to be of any real help. General conditions in Shansi Province are ghastly. We have few supplies. Without complaint the wounded lie dying in their ragged and filthy uniforms. In the heat of the day they are covered by flies and lice and dust, sweating away the last of their strength, and in the cold of these mountain nights, without blankets or fire, they live moment to moment in shivering agony for lack of morphine or nitrous oxide. The small houses of this village offer scant comfort. There are no windowpanes and there is not enough fuel for fires. This landscape is almost barren of trees but for a few willows at the bottom of a steep valley to the east, practically impassable from here. I am afraid for these men, perhaps more so than they are for themselves. I have never seen a breed of men as tough as these peasants of north China.It seems to me that religion figured out long ago that the central tenets of belief must be embodied within a single entity. Let one man bear the burden of perfection and suffering. Since arriving to China from Spain I have come to the conclusion that the absence of a leader in the Spanish War amounts to a grave danger that might possibly doom that struggle to failure. That is not the case here, I can say with some authority, and I will try to help you understand why. This is one thing these men do have, an embodiment of their ideals. Perhaps the new Spanish Christ has risen since I left Madrid, and with all my heart I hope that is the case.
Copyright © 2007 by Dennis Bock. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.