A painting on the wall was torn down and the panels behind it pried free to uncover the secret passage.
Someone yelled to the naked girls, Get dressed, quick!
Ah Ding said, No, ifthey're naked, they won't run off on us. He wound his queue onto the top of his head.
The secret passage was only as wide as a square table for eight and six tables long, and everyone was pressing in, skin to skin. Ah Ding was the last to squeeze in. He said to the girls, who were so scared their teeth were chattering, Anyone makes a sound and I'll strangle her. The ceiling reverberated with the clomping of riding boots.
If the four men staging a mahjong game didn't fool the police, the search and ransack would begin. The police knew these auctions usually had a secret passage and they would knock across every inch of the floor and walls until they found it.
Fusang was cradling the bundle--someone had shoved it into her arms in the commotion. The whole building shook with the stomping of boots. The baby burst into wails.
Everyone stopped breathing, lest they add the slightest sound or motion to the place.
Cover its mouth, someone said.
A hand did so, and Fusang could feel the little thing squirming. The owner of the hand crooned, Little ancestor, little ancestor...
But the wailing kept escaping.
The boots came clomping down the stairs.
Ah Ding said, Give me the worthless little wench. His tone was gentle as he crowded his way toward the crying, stepping on the big feet of the men and the little feet of the women.
Don't be too rough, Ah Ding.
Who, me? No way.
Ah Ding, what the hell are you doing?
The group pressed inward, becoming a single slab of flesh.
Again Ah Ding said, Anyone who makes a sound I strangle. His tone remained as gentle as before.
His hand cupped the little head precisely, like palming a piece of fruit. Then he pulled it free from the swaddling, his other hand already on the baby's neck. The crying weakened and stopped. The group twitched, then became a slab of dead flesh again.
The boots had reached the basement.
Fusang's feet ached and she wanted to shift her step, but couldn't move, for the tiny corpse was piled still warm at her feet. Standing on the other side of it was Ah Ding.
He pulled a match from his pocket, struck it, and bent down to examine the life he'd just taken. He sighed with satisfaction, then lifted the flame to Fusang's bare leg and raised it all the way up to her face.
The image of Ah Ding flickered behind the flame. Fusang couldn't figure out what he was doing. No one ever knew what it meant when Ah Ding arched an eyebrow.
The match burned down to his fingers, then burned a moment longer before it went out.
you lower your head and watch
those ring-covered fingers pinching the flame shining on the dead little face.
The five-month-old eyes stare at him as if still alive. The little creature is memorizing the handsome face of the man who took her life. Two new baby teeth show between her tiny lips.
Your leg trembles and you want to pull your foot out from under the tiny sacrifice growing heavier and colder there. You realize that the little thing will remember not just Ah Ding but all of you, because when she started crying, every single one of you would have sacrificed her innocent life to preserve your own. Ah Ding was simply the one who acted on everyone's secret wish. In a sense, all of you borrowed Ah Ding's hands to stop it, to kill it, to put a halt to its unwitting betrayal of you.
Don't deny it: Every people must ensure its survival, and so there will always be sacrifices and offerings, times when they kill their own. Of course youcouldn't have been conscious of that secret desire. Ah Ding, however, understood the intimacy of killing one's own.
From The Lost Daughter of Happiness, copyright (c) 2001, Hyperion Press. Reproduced with permission of the publisher. All rights reserved.
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No Man's Land
by Simon Tolkien
Inspired by the experiences of his grandfather, J. R. R. Tolkien, during World War I.
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