She reasoned Mai Dong out of the idea of an immediate marriage and assured him that she would become his wife sooner or later. As graduation approached, they both grew restless, hoping she would remain in Muji City. He was depressed, and his despondency made her love him more.
At the graduation she was assigned to stay in the hospital and work in its Medical Department as a nurse -- a junior officer of the twenty-fourth rank. The good news, however, didn't please Mai Dong and Manna for long, because a week later he was informed that his radio station was going to be transferred to a newly formed regiment in Fuyuan County, almost eighty miles northeast of Muji and very close to the Russian border.
"Don't panic," she told him. "Work and study hard on the front. I'll wait for you."
Though also heartbroken, she felt he was a rather pathetic man. She wished he were stronger, a man she could rely on in times of adversity, because life always had unexpected misfortunes.
"When will we get married?" he asked.
"Soon, I promise."
Despite saying that, she was unsure whether he would be able to come back to Muji. She preferred to wait a while.
The nearer the time for departure drew, the more embittered Mai Dong became. A few times he mentioned he would rather be demobilized and return to Shanghai, but she dissuaded him from considering that. A discharge might send him to a place far away, such as an oil field or a construction corps building railroads in the interior of China. It was better for them to stay as close as possible.
When she saw him off at the front entrance of the Sub-Command headquarters, she had to keep blowing on her fingers, having forgotten to bring along her mittens. She wouldn't take the fur gloves he offered her; she said he would need them more. He stood at the back door of the radio van, whose green body had turned gray with encrusted ice and snow. The radio antenna atop the van was tilting in the wind, which, with a shrill whistle, again and again tried to snatch it up and bear it off. More snow was falling, and the air was piercingly cold. Mai Dong's breath hung around his face as he shouted orders to his soldiers in the van, who gathered at the window, eager to see what Manna looked like. Outside the van, a man loaded into a side trunk some large wooden blocks needed for climbing the slippery mountain roads. The driver kicked the rear wheels to see whether the tire chains were securely fastened. His fur hat was completely white, a nest of snowflakes.
As the van drew away, Mai Dong waved good-bye to Manna, his hand stretching through the back window, as though struggling to pull her along. He wanted to cry, "Wait for me, Manna!" but he dared not get that out in the presence of his men. Seeing his face contort with pain, Manna's eyes blurred with tears. She bit her lips so as not to cry.
Winter in Muji was long. Snow wouldn't disappear until early May. In mid-April when the Songhua River began to break up, people would gather at the bank watching the large blocks of ice cracking and drifting in the blackish-green water. Teenage boys, baskets in hand, would tread and hop on the floating ice, picking up pike, whitefish, carp, baby sturgeon, and catfish killed by the ice blocks that had been washed down by spring torrents. Steamboats, still in the docks, blew their horns time and again. When the main channel was finally clear of ice, they crept out, sailing slowly up and down the river and saluting the spectators with long blasts. Children would hail and wave at them.
Then spring descended all of a sudden. Aspen catkins flew in the air, so thick that when walking on the streets you could breathe them in and you would flick your hand to keep them away from your face. The scent of lilac blooms was pungent and intoxicating. Yet old people still wrapped themselves in fur or cotton-padded clothes. The dark earth, vast and loamy, marked by tufts of yellow grass here and there, began emitting a warm vapor that flickered like purple smoke in the sunshine. All at once apricot and peach trees broke into blossoms, which grew puffy as bees kept touching them. Within two weeks the summer started. Spring was so short here that people would say Muji had only three seasons.
Excerpted from Waiting by Ha Jin. Copyright© 1999 by Ha Jin. Excerpted by permission of Pantheon, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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No Man's Land
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Inspired by the experiences of his grandfather, J. R. R. Tolkien, during World War I.
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