Writing Prompt “Irreconcilable Differences”
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8 thoughts on “Writing Prompt “Irreconcilable Differences””
“Why are you still asking me these questions? We have been over it and over it more times than I care to remember.”
Eric shook his head with frustration.
“Because your views are dangerous, not just to you but to everyone you know and love. Don’t you care about them at all?”
“Like you care? Like you cared when your own people came and dragged Father away without warning, without a reason, without so much as a single word?”
“But he came back!”
“Sure he did, but he hasn’t said a word or left the house since. He’s scared almost totally out of his wits and never sleeps. Mother has been crying ever moment.”
“It was necessary. He’d said some things, did some things that were, frankly, just short of treason. We had to know where he stood.”
Evan spat on the ground at Eric’s feet.
“All he did was say that people should be free to do what they wish with their lives, their property, and their families. He said so many rules were ridiculous and their only purpose was to keep the people perpetually in fear. And he was right. And you and yours tormented him until he signed that damned letter of denial and pledged everything to them. He has nothing left.”
Eric’s eyes couldn’t raise from the stones of the floor. He had been the one to report his father’s transgressions and, at the time, had been proud of himself. Now that pride was only ashes in his mouth. That didn’t change what he had to do.
“One last chance, brother. I ask you one more time. Will you recant?”
“And one last time, no. Do what you must.”
Eric whispered, “As you wish.”
Eric turned and stepped forward on the stone platform to address the assembled people of the town.
“He has refused to recant. We therefore find him guilty of treason, blasphemy, and atheism. The judgment of the Council is final.”
Eric turned, picked up a blazing torch and tossed it into the pile of oil-soaked wood at the feet of his brother, bound to a wooden post in the center of the pile.
“This is your faith, brother. It kills like a vicious beast. It took your fathers spirit, ripped your mother’s heart, and now murders your brother. Such a devoted follower you are to ignore all that.”
Eric said nothing as the wood quickly blazed up, the flames engulfing Evan. Though it must have been excruciating, Evan made no sound as the flames consumed him. He just stared at his brother until life left his body.
“I’m sorry,” Eric said softly to himself. “I’m so sorry.”
© 2016 By Ken Cartisano
Agent Stratton stepped into the living room. The crime scene looked more like a house ravaged by a tornado. His young partner, Agent Myers, tiptoed into the room behind him. “What happened here, Fish?” Fish was head of the forensics team, a tall rangy fellow with thinning gray hair. They’d been friends for years. Fish was his nickname.
“At this point? Your guess is as good as mine, Stratton.”
Pictures hung askew, blood was smeared on the walls. The flat screen TV was shattered. An iron fireplace implement protruded from a velvet picture of dogs playing poker around a card table. A broken window had prompted a neighbor to call the police. “You get any background on the victims?” Stratton asked.
“Yeah,” Fish said. “Married five years. No priors, no history of domestic violence.”
“Haven’t found any indication of any.”
“What d’you think, Myers?”
Myers frowned. Stratton was just setting him up for more of his incessant sarcasm. Something he did with predictable regularity. “I don’t know. Looks like they had an argument.”
Stratton smiled. “You think so? I think you’re jumping to conclusions. Maybe the wife was trying to kill a spider—and things got out of hand.”
One of the forensics guys snickered and Fish turned on him. “You think this is funny, Jones?”
“Then shut up.”
Another member of his team rushed in through the back door. “She’s alive. One of the victims is still alive.”
“Pretty sloppy work by the paramedics, eh Fish?” Stratton said.
But Fish refused to criticize. “They’re young, often inexperienced. It happens.”
Fish, Stratton and Myers filed out the back door to have a look at the survivor of this violent attack.
It was easy to see how the paramedics were mistaken. She was barely breathing, covered in blood, eyes swollen shut, cuts and lacerations everywhere. It appeared as though she’d been thrown through the sliding glass door. Fish kneeled beside her. “Can you hear me ma’am?”
“You’ll be all right, ma’am. Hang in there. We’ll get you to the hospital right away.” Two paramedics appeared, ducked down beside her and began tending to her wounds. Two more came around the side of the house with a stretcher. The three investigators moved back into the house.
“Where’s the husband?”
“In the kitchen,” Fish replied.
He was lying face up, eyes open, a small pool of blood oozed from the back of his cracked skull. His mouth was stuffed with a thick blue material. The man had a huge belly and reeked of alcohol.
“What the fuck is that?” Stratton wondered, pointing at the man’s mouth.
Fish called in one of his assistants and pointed at the victim. “Extract that material, Jones.”
Jones retrieved a pair of forceps and began tugging at the material. It wasn’t coming out easily. “Jesus!” Jones said, while tugging at the cloth.
Stratton noticed a plunger a few feet away and picked it up with two fingers. “I think I’ve found the insertion tool.” There were bloody fingerprints on the handle. He set it on the kitchen table. Then he strolled over to the kitchen sink and opened the cabinet underneath to reveal a recycling bin overflowing with beer cans.
He said nothing as the technician, Jones, began to make progress removing the cloth from the man’s mouth. “It looks like a pennant,” he said with a note of amazement. As more of it became visible, his observation proved accurate. He pulled it out, held it up and allowed the cloth to gradually reveal itself: yellow letters on a blue background.
“Hmm,” Fish noted. “University of Michigan.”
A few moments of silence ensued until Stratton said, “You think that’s significant?”
Fish didn’t look up. “I don’t believe in coincidences—and neither do you.”
That was true. Stratton looked around. “You think that’s what killed him Fish?”
“It’s hard to say. There’re no obvious signs of asphyxiation. I think he was already dead when his assailant decided to demonstrate his fan loyalty.”
“Do you think that’s relevant though?”
Fish, noncommittal as ever, just shrugged.
Stratton was staring at the victim, frowning, when one of the paramedics burst into the kitchen from a side door. “Sir?” He was addressing Fish but they all looked his way. “I think the victim is trying to confess.”
Stratton interrupted Fish’s response. “What’d she say?”
The paramedic abruptly shifted his attention to Agent Stratton. “She said she couldn’t take it any more.”
The three men exchanged looks. Stratton sniffed with condescension. “She’d had enough of his drinking, no doubt.”
“No sir, she keeps moaning something about the Irish, or Irishmen.” The paramedic said.
Stratton scratched his head without comprehension, but Fish seemed to see some significance in the woman’s garbled utterance. “Where’s your partner, Stratton?”
“What?” Stratton said.
Fish shook his head. As good an investigator as his friend Stratton was, he was unable to see the inference of the woman’s mumblings.
“What?” Stratton repeated. His impatience rising rapidly.
Agent Myers reappeared from one of the bedrooms. He had something in his latex gloved hands and held it up when he entered the kitchen. Stratton stared at it without comprehension, but Fish and Myers saw the significance in the item and both smiled with mutual recognition.
Thoroughly annoyed at being the odd man out, Stratton snapped at his young partner. “What is that?”
“It’s a Notre Dame pennant, Stratton.”
“I can see that,” he said. “So what? Her husband’s Irish? Surely she knew that before they got married.”
Fish clapped his friend Stratton on the shoulder. “I knew your quaint indifference to sports would bite you in the ass someday.”
This did nothing to enlighten Stratton, and Fish could not keep his buddy in suspense any longer. “The Michigan Wolverines and the Fighting Irish, it’s a rivalry that goes back a hundred years. These two were fighting over a football game.”
“My … “
Catherine interrupted herself by slamming her knife and fork down on the table,
“… Let’s not do this again. It’s the same every year.”
“And every year you get your own way.”
William tossed his knife and fork onto the plate in front of him, scattering little bits of untouched beef bourgignon across the table.
“Now look what you’ve done. I’ll get a cloth.”
Catherine had half-risen from her seat but sat back down at the vehemence of her husband’s order. She paused, took a breath and adopted what she thought to be a reasonable tone.
“I get my own way because it’s the right way.”
William scoffed loudly.
“And how do you figure that?”
“Well, let us count the ways. First, your parents live at the other end of the country. With the Christmas traffic it would take us the best part of a day to get there.”
“Not true, but go on.”
“Then there’s the fact of my mother being on her own. If we didn’t go, well …”
“She’s on her own for most of the year. She actually likes it – she said so.”
“That’s what she says. And you believe her?”
“You don’t make much of an effort to be with her except at Christmas, though. Got any more?”
“Your family. And your Uncle Henry. My God. What a boring old bastard!”
“Hey! Call your own family bastards, not mine.”
“Okay, but the ‘boring’ bit I think you’ll agree with.”
“And boring as f– … but then I suppose it does run in the family.”
“What’s that supposed to mean?”
“Your dad …”
“What about him?”
“Boring as …”
“You’ve never mentioned that before.”
“All that talk of trains. Jesus! Does he think anyone’s interested?”
“As I said, it runs in the family.”
“What do you mean now?”
Catherine looked her husband in the eye and measured her response.
“That you’re not exactly the most interesting book in the library, Will.”
William sat back in his chair, his mouth agape. Catherine began to pick up the scattered pieces of beef bourgignon with a napkin.
“Sorry, but that’s just what I– “
She didn’t finish. William pushed his chair back, got briskly to his feet and stormed out of the room. When the front door slammed and she heard the car start and drive off, Catherine dropped the napkin and a look of concern edged onto her face.
Perhaps she’d gone too far this time.
You can listen to the 6 minute audio version here: http://acm.wwocz.net/true-colors/. Or just click on the words “Carrie Zylka” above.
I infused the song that inspired this story into the episode and I think it came out pretty cool.
“True Colors” by Carrie Zylka
Keelia stood, calloused hands resting against the balcony rail and surveyed her new kingdom. She took in the fine buildings, with their flags (now her flag), the cobblestone streets and the storefronts. She knew there were poorer parts far from the castle but for now she wanted to drink in the beauty of her spoils of war.
“So much more to do.” She muttered as her hands tightened on the stone railing, smile disappearing from her face.
Vericus stood staring at her back; despite the heavy wool dress she wore, she stayed cool as a cucumber under the late summer sun. He wanted to step forward and wrap his arms around her, but he knew she would never allow such a display of affection. The scars on her body and on her soul from men long dead prevented it.
She spied him out of the corner of her eye. “We’ll need to replenish the ranks. Send the recruiters out today. Any male over the age of ten should be considered.”
“The troops need to be rested Keelia.” Vericus said. “We all do, the last campaign was too long, too hard.”
“I care not for weak and sniveling cowards. We will head east in two days’ time.” She snapped.
“Keelia…my queen… We follow you because we believe in you, because you are the fearless beacon leading us to victory. We follow you because we’ve seen how the Gods have blessed you and we all watched how the stars fell at your feet during the Battle of Segonax. But, my Queen, we are not blessed by the gods. We are mere mortals and our bodies are exhausted.”
She turned to glare at him. “I can’t stop. Not now. I can’t. I don’t care how many men fall behind, the rest of Europa is there – waiting for me. And what I can’t have…I’ll burn down.”
Vericus blanched at the madness he saw in her eyes. The fire that raged unquenched by power and satiated only by the blood of her enemies. The problem was Keelia thought every man in power was her enemy. It was this hatred that caused her to begin her journey upwards. As a lowly kitchen maid she’d been abused on more than one occasion by high ranking men, some betraying her naïve heart, some simply taking. Until one day she’d reached her breaking point and had stabbed a man many stations above hers. And when they’d come to arrest her, she’d somehow killed them too. Escaping into the barrios the poor saw her as a symbol of hope, they hid her away, and an old soldier fallen into his cups took her under his wing, he taught her the art of fighting and of war. Before the Lord of the realm knew what had happened, Keelia had stormed his keep, venting her fury on him and his family she killed them all. Leaving no one alive.
Stunned by her ferocity, some members of her rag tag army had fled, but the majority was fueled by her blood lust. Many had been subject to abuse themselves; they had been beaten and demoralized and were attracted to her vengeful darkness. They too wanted their small slice of revenge. So they adopted her mentality, training day and night, working towards the same goal: to become the most effective killers they could be.
That first group had become her elite squad. They were the most dedicated and the most ferocious. Within a few short months her regiment spread like hot oil, scorching the Earth as they when. Burning manors and keeps and castles to the ground.
Her journey had begun six years ago and in that time she’d amassed one of the largest armies on the continent. And using that army she had conquered almost half of the Europe.
Vericus’s heart was heavy in his chest. They’d met during the Indutulli campaign, one of the bloodiest yet. He’d watched her on the battle field. Absolutely zero fear as she swung sword and axe, cutting through the oncoming army like they were butter. And at the end, covered in blood, long blond hair wet with human gore, chest heaving in triumph, she’d stolen his heart.
“I want to be in Vienna within the month, and we won’t get there coddling the army.” She said, snapping him out of his reverie.
“Vienna?” He was confused. “I thought we were heading south to Italy.”
“I changed my mind. I’ve received word that Vienna is where most European noblemen send their children. To the boarding schools there. So we go to Vienna.”
Silence loomed. When she saw he wasn’t going to speak, she turned away from him and focused on the city below.
After several moments, heartbreak in his voice Vericus spoke. “We are marching on Vienna? To kill children?”
“Yes.” He flinched at the coldness in her voice.
He ran a hand over his face. “We can’t kill children, grown men and women yes but children?”
“Children grow up to be adults. And these will have vengeance hot in their breast when they realize I’ve killed their parents and seized their birthright. They must be dealt with.”
She let the silence stretch before turning around. She strode towards him, confidence in every step. Stopping mere inches from him her eyes blazed. “I won’t apologize for the fire I’m about to light. I have more blood on my hands than any one person in the history of this world. And I don’t care. I will seal the doors and board the windows to those schools, and then I will burn them down.”
Vericus nearly wept as her true colors shone through, she wasn’t just power hungry or hell bent on vengeance. She’d become the Angel of Death in the most senseless of manners and was enjoying every minute of it.
He reached up to cup her face. “I love you.” He whispered.
Keelia jerked her head away as she felt the sting in her cheek. She reached up; eyes wide as she saw the poisoned ring Vericus wore.
“BASTARD!!!!!!” She screamed and lunged at him, but the poison was quick acting and she fell to the ground before him, writhing in pain.
Vericus watched, his heart breaking as the woman he loved died, not in glorious battle, but once again having been betrayed by a man she trusted.
Vericus fell to his knees and wept.
The Fight on Highway 19
By Alice Nelson ©2016
“You should’ve seen what she had on, I mean my goodness, all she needed was a stripper pole and her outfit would’ve been complete.”
Aaron, wasn’t listening to his wife Sarah go on and on about Jane something or other from work. He was silently cursing the driver ahead of him, who was going a nice leisurely 25 in a 50 mile an hour zone. He began tapping the steering wheel impatiently, “We’re going to be late.”
“We’ll be fine Aaron.” Sarah said callously, then continued on with her story. “Anyway, Jane’s boobs were practically falling out of her blouse, and she kept laughing at Bill’s awful jokes. She even had the nerve to flirt with old Bergman, can you believe that? He’s like a hundred. She’ll do anything to get that promotion. I told you about that, didn’t I? Sarah didn’t wait for an answer. “I’m sure I did. Anyway, you’d have to be blind not to see what she was doing.”
“Damn!” Aaron yelled, staring at the traffic that had now slowed to a crawl.
Sarah clicked her teeth. “Aaron calm down. Anyway, it’s not that driver’s fault you’re running late, so just relax, or you’ll kill us both.” It was settled, at least in Sarah’s mind, and she went back to her story about Jane from work. “So then she—“
But Aaron interrupted, “No Sarah, I won’t calm down. And you know you’re right, that guy ahead of us isn’t at fault for us being late —you are.” Aaron was surprised at the anger in his voice.
“My fault?!” She yelled, “How is it my fault?!”
“Oh, I don’t know let me think. Could it have been the time on the phone with your sister? Or maybe it was the last few minutes of Ellen that you just had to watch. Not to mention, taking a bath instead of a shower. Then the coup de grace,” he laughed bitterly, “Changing FOUR times before you had the ‘perfect’ outfit, might have something to do with why we’re running late.” The anger was beginning to feel good to him.
‘Now would come the emotional terrorism,’ Aaron thought. He’d seen it a million times before. Sarah would become the victim, she would get all weepy, and turn herself into some kind of martyr. He would feel bad, apologize, then she would magnanimously forgive him. But Aaron wasn’t falling into that trap this time.
“I don’t know why you’re being so cruel Aaron. I was trying very hard to get ready in time, but I had some last minute things to do at work. I rushed home as soon as I could, but my sister was upset, how could I hang up on her? And you know baths relax me. And I tried on so many outfits because I wanted to look perfect for you, when I met your new boss.” Aaaand, cue the tears.
Aaron was unmoved by it all. “So you changed four times just for me —I doubt it.”
“What’s that supposed to mean?”
“That’s not a nothing statement Aaron, that is very much something.”
Aaron remained silent.
Sarah was glaring at him, he could feel it, but he wasn’t about to return her gaze. Traffic had practically come to a halt, and Aaron nervously glanced at his watch. They had fifteen minutes to get to Mark’s house on time, and were still at least twenty five minutes away.
Since the glaring didn’t work, Sarah began sighing and wiping away imaginary tears —this was all a part of her victim repertoire, and for some reason, the whole scene made Aaron laugh.
“What is so funny, Aaron?”
Aaron had to catch his breath, he was laughing so hard. “You are.”
“Shut up Aaron, you sound like a fool.”
“Why should I stop, this is the first time I’ve laughed in weeks. That ‘poor old me’ routine is hilarious.” Sarah didn’t like his mocking tone —not one bit.
“I’m not feeling sorry for myself Aaron, I just think you’re blaming me unfairly.”
“Of course you do, because nothing is ever your fault. I needed you to be ready on time, just one night. But no, not you Sarah, you do what you want, when you want, and you don’t give a shit who pays the price.”
“Don’t you dare put all of this on me. You’ve been nothing but an asshole since Mark took over. Why would I want to do anything for you after the way you’ve treated me these last few weeks?”
Aaron was speechless —almost. “You are such a narcissist Sarah. It’s always about you. Did you ever think to ask how I was feeling? Did you ever consider that this might be a rough time for me? No, of course not, because if the world doesn’t revolve around you, if I’m not giving the appropriate amount of attention to your endless gossiping, than I’m being a jerk! You are too much.”
Now it was Sarah’s turn to laugh. “Look who’s talking about being self-involved? The man who’s done nothing but complain about Mark ever since he took over for Greg. You can’t stand that you aren’t the golden boy anymore. Now, you’re just one of the unwashed masses, so you mope around like a child who didn’t get his way on the playground.”
Aaron’s grip tightened on the wheel, as traffic began moving at a quicker pace. “Says the woman who gossips like a teenage girl, judging people as if you know what’s best for everyone else. Miss perfect, who has no idea that you are a complete and utter mess. Must be nice living in your delusion.”
“You son of a bitch! Well maybe if— Aaron look out!”
“Mark, should we go ahead and start dinner?”
“Let’s give them a few more minutes honey, Aaron and Sarah should be here soon.”
The tapping on his arm was just as incessant as the gurgling stemming forth from the pipe.
“What the hell are you doing?” There was an edge to the soft voice that floated over his shoulder.
She didn’t need to say anything; he could sense her presence. He could always predict the time she would appear. She would always come into the project at this point and give him her worldly knowledge.
He craned his neck around to look at her while maintaining adequate pressure on the pipe and stared at her with dull eyes.
“What the fuck does it look like I’m doing?”
She stood there with hands on hips, relentlessly tapping her foot. He took in her long blond hair that draped her shoulders and bordering those fiery green eyes. Sometimes he didn’t know whether to make love to her or kill her.
“Well, I can see what you’re trying to do,” she retorted, not making any effort to hide her sarcasm. “But why are you holding your hands like that? Surely if you move your hands -.”
“Hey,” He yelled cutting her off. He spun around and pointed a wet finger in her direction. The burbling sound increased followed by a hiss and he squeezed harder with one hand to make for the lack of pressure.
“You asked me to do this, remember? I’ve done this shit a hundred times before, I don’t need your input into it. I know what the hell I’m doing. Your interruptions are really beginning to fuck up my chi.” His words cut through her like a samurai blade.
“If you were so damn good,” she countered, “Then why is it making that god-awful noise? Christ, it sounds like it’s about to rupture.”
He swore and returned his attention to the pipe, focusing his anger through his tattooed arms. In that moment, he hated her. He tried to remember that moment when his feelings changed. He was sure it was somewhere between the first time they had sex and the first time she stood behind him giving directions.
He grit his teeth trying to ignore her, but her advice was as unyielding as the sirens call.
“I’m just saying, using this would be quicker.” She extracted the tool from her belt and held it in front of his murderous eyes.
“Sure it is,” he said through his teeth, “But there’s no skill in using that.”
“Sure there is. See, you put it there, slide that, press this, pull that …”
“Christ Nicky, I know how to use the fucking thing. I’ve used one before, but there’s a reason I’m not using it now.” He shook his head. “You just don’t get it, and you’ll never get it.”
“Jesus, keep your shit together, I’m just trying to help.”
“Well, it’s not helping.” He hanged his head and chewed his lip. “In fact, do you know what, I’m done.” He stood and stretched his wet, tired arms. He stood in front of her and pointed at her face. “Every damn time I try to do something you’re there to give me your two cents and I’ve had enough. You’re always telling me where to go and what to do and I’ve enough. You turn everything into some stupid argument and I’m sick of it. I’m done here and I’m done with you.”
Silence consumed the void and for the first time they realised the job had been completed. He turned back to the bath and she joined him at his side. They looked down at the pale face just below the surface of the water, wisps of white hair floated freely above a face that was contorted into a scream. Pale, dead eyes stared at the ceiling.
She threw an arm around him and pushed herself into his side. “See! I knew you could do it, honey.”
He spun away from her grasp and grabbed her by the shoulders. His face was an inch from hers. “The next time you want someone to kill your husband,” he spat, “Get some other sucker to do it, or better still, do it your god damn self.”
They stared into each other’s eyes, their mutual connection sparking once more. She pushed off her toes and their lips met for an instant. He grabbed her head and fiercely mashed his lips to hers, pushing his tongue inside her mouth.
Her eyes snapped open. The stinging roar of the gunshot crushed the silence.
He stepped back, grabbing at the bloody gaping hole in his stomach. His eyes went wide trying to understand what had just happened. “You bitch,” he hissed between bloodied teeth.
“That was excellent advice,” she smirked as she pushed him.
He fell backwards into the bath, slamming the back of his head against the pristine white tiles. He sat there for a moment as life left him, and then he slowly slid sideways into the water, his crushed skull leaving a trail of blood. He ended up face down on top of his victim as red clouds grew in the water.
She jumped up and down as she looked at the massacre in the bathroom. “I love it when a plan comes together.”
Happy with her elevated heart rate, she pulled a phone from her pocket and dialled.
“What’s your emergency?”
“My husband’s dead,” she exclaimed between gasps, “And I think the man who did it is dead as well. Please hurry.”
She smiled as the overwhelming sense of freedom engulfed her.
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 People’s Liberation Army. Four days ago I had met him and his wife on the road as I was returning home from leave. They were so thin they seemed like walking skeletons.
Yesterday as we 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.
We carried on. 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, boiling noodles for lunch. Our pace quickened as we tottered across the field towards them.
But we were not wanted. The women shooed us away, cursing loudly. “No food without work!” Back on the road, we were surrounded by a dozen militia. They forced us off the road towards the hills, shouting, cursing and prodding all the way.
In the hills we set up camp. We huddled round a small fire as the temperature plummeted. By morning Old Hu’s wife was gone. We buried her there. Old Hu muttered an old Buddhist prayer, as some of the company looked on uneasily at the archaic ceremony and exchanged nervous glances.
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.
Those whose papers were not in order, or didn’t answer his questions satisfactorily, were taken to one side. The soldiers tied their elbows tightly behind their backs, showering them with insults. Then they tied them together in a line by the neck.
Finally Xi came to me and Hu. He seemed satisfied with my military papers, in particular a letter of authorisation signed and stamped by my commanding officer, a celebrated war hero.
Then he set about questioning Hu, who remained silent, perhaps overcome by hunger and grief. Hu gazed into the distance as they shouted their questions at him.
I tried to answer for him. “This is Lao Hu. There is no food in his district, so he and his wife took to the road. We buried her last night.”
“Be careful, Comrade,” said Xi. “You must purge bourgeois emotions like pity and respect for elders. I think this old fool is a landlord, turned off his land. Old man – give me that book!”
After a short struggle 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!”
Then he looked at me and said sharply, “This counter-revolutionary dog only has eyes for the past. We will erase the past, to build the New China.”
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 to drag away the ‘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 an ancient Tang poem:
“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 seat of honour to any boor at all –
Why should I frighten sea gulls, even with a thought?”
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