Get down! my mother shouted, her eyes red with fury. My brother burst into tears. I fell silent.
A second later, my father sank into the cage of medical equipment surrounding him and entered my memory. Life and death had converged inside his body. It had all seemed so simple.
Hes gone, the nurse said, without taking off her face mask. With the tip of her shoe, she flicked aside the discarded chopsticks and cotton wool shed used to clear his phlegm, then told my mother to go to reception and complete the required formalities. If his body wasnt taken to the mortuary before midnight, my mother would be charged another night for the hospital room. Director Guo, the personnel officer of the opera company my parents belonged to, advised my mother to apply for my fathers posthumous political rehabilitation, pointing out that the compensation money could help cover the hospital fees.
My father stopped breathing and became a corpse. His body lay on the bed, as large as before. I stood beside him, with his watch on my wrist.
After the cremation, my mother stood at the bus stop cradling the box of ashes in her arms and said, Your fathers last words were that he wanted his ashes buried in America. That rightist! Even at the point of death he refused to repent. As our bus approached, she cried out, At least from now on we wont have to live in a constant state of fear!
She placed the box of ashes under her iron bed. Before I went to sleep, Id often pull it out and take a peek inside. The more afraid I grew of the ashes, the more I wanted to gaze at them. My mother said that if a friend of hers were to leave China, shed give them the box and ask them to bury it abroad so that my fathers spirit could rise into a foreign heaven.
You must go and study abroad, my son, my father often repeated tome when he was in hospital.
So, Im still alive . . . I may be lying in hospital, but at least Im not dead. Ive just been buried alive inside my body . . . I remember the day I caught that frog. Our teacher had told us to catch one so that we could later study their skeletons. After I caught my frog, I put it in a glass jar, pierced a hole in the metal cap, then buried it in the earth. Our teacher told us that worms and ants would crawl inside and eat away all the flesh within a month, leaving a clean skeleton behind. I bought some alcohol solution, ready to wipe off any scraps of flesh still remaining on the bones. But before the month was out, a family living on the ground floor of our building built a kitchen over the hole where Id buried it.
The frog must have become a skeleton years ago. While its bones lie trapped in the jar, I lie buried inside my body, waiting to die.
Excerpted from Beijing Coma by Ma Jian. Copyright © 2008 by Ma Jian. Translation copyright © 2008 by Flora Drew. Published in May 2008 by Farrar, Straus and Giroux, LLC. All rights reserved.
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