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One gloomy day this past winter I had a Proustian moment.
After breakfast, I’d locked my door behind me and headed for the bus stop. It was an ordinary wintry day: overcast, bone-chillingly cold, and greyish-brown. It began to snow. I looked up and a snowflake landed silently on my cheek. The gentle touch of the melted snow ran down on my face, unleashing a flood of memory I had buried since childhood.
I used to play with a steady cast of boys in my neighbourhood. Every day, we’d dash in and out of a web of corridors and courtyards in our residential complex, modelled after the Forbidden City in Beijing, though only a quarter of its size.
My great-great-grandfather had built the complex to house his growing family after he made a fortune selling rice. By the time I was born, the glory days of my family had been over for decades. Many of my relatives had sold their shares of the property and outsiders had moved in. My grandfather’s branch of the family managed to cling on to their share and we ended up living in the rooms that had been used to store cooking wood.
Not far from our apartment was a gatekeeper’s room. A boy I played with, who was not my relative, lived in the room. It was small, probably three metres by three meters. His family had decorated it with old newspapers from floor to ceiling and ceiling to floor. Whenever I stepped into the room I felt like a mouse trapped in a box, and all the words would come down, smothering me. The boy lived with his mother and two older brothers. His father had died some time ago, I think, because I knew they were living off a small widow’s pension.
We were always running here and running there. Sometimes, we’d end up in one of the boys’ apartments to take a break. We’d drink a bit of water and have some snacks, then off we’d run again. We normally did not go to this boy’s place because his family was too poor to have snacks. Besides, his mom didn’t want us to crowd the small space. She would say: “Once you boys came in, all airs got sucked out and I could not breathe.”
But one day, for some reason, we ended up in that place. As we waited for the boy’s mom to pour water from the Thermos, one of us leaned against the wall and the paper started to crack apart. The crack snaked up to the ceiling, and when I looked up, instead of words falling from the old newspapers, I saw money in one- , five- and 10-yuan denominations snowing down in silence. The bills floated, twirled and bounced. Not sure what to make of the sight, we just stood there, eyes wide, jaws dropped.
The boy’s mother panicked: She ran here and there as if trying to save something in a house fire. But then she made a dead stop. After composing herself, she picked up a 10-yuan bill and handed it to one of us. “Here,” she said. “Take this and buy each of you a nice candy.”
We were overjoyed by this generous offer. “But don’t tell any adult about this,” she added in a stern voice.
“Okay!” we said in unison as we rushed out, heading straight to the candy store.
As we sat on the steps of the store savouring the sweets, the boy asked us to reaffirm the promise we’d made to his mom. We all agreed to keep our mouths shut.
A few days later, the police came. They tore down the newspapers and opened up the floorboards. They hauled away sack after sack of cash, and my friend’s eldest brother. After a few months, the brother was sentenced to death with two years’ reprieve. He’d been stealing copper cables that the army had wired up between electricity poles for communications and selling them on the black market.
I remember the day the sentence came down. Police put the brother on an open truck and paraded him in the city. When the truck came by our complex, everybody came out to watch. It was like a festival. Our complex had its share of hooligans and misfits, but never had we had a criminal who would be executed! His head was shaven. Around his neck hung a wooden board with his name in black, crossed out in red ink. When he saw his mother at the window of their room, he first struggled with the soldiers who were holding him, then smiled widely. He mumbled something to his mother, but the jeers of the crowd were so loud I could not discern what he was saying.
Time went by, then came the news: While the brother was waiting for execution he’d caught hepatitis A and died in jail.
His mother wailed for days. Then came silence, also for days. Then one night, at about 10 p.m., she started to use a hammer to bang on the wooden wall between her room and the next room, where one of our gang’s family lived. She’d decided he was the one who talked to his parents, who reported to the police. She was determined to share her pain and sorrow with that family every night when they were about to go to sleep.
Each night, at the same time, she cried, cursed and banged. This lasted for many days, months – perhaps years. How long did she keep it up? I don’t remember.
I had also forgotten the boy, his brothers, his mother, the newspaper walls, and the money floating down from the ceiling – until that day a flake of snow gently touched my cheek.
Kang Lee lives in Toronto.