外島書/ Offshore Island Bible
(Excerpt. Translated and published by Darryl Sterk.)
Earth was brown and sky was blue
when space was young and time was true.
On his breast a yellow sewn on word,
and in her heart a dream of love deferred
1. The Sixth Black Card (or The Lottery)
The squad leader’s attitude had changed completely, and all of a sudden. Menacing and merciless, he’d worn a nasty expression on his face for a month, but now he was playing Mr. Nice Guy. After I drew that lot from the box, he called me into the company office, cracked a pack of military-issue Long Life cigarettes, and offered me one, dangling another from his lips. We faced each other across the desk, nothing much to say. I’d finished the whole cigarette and he was still halfway through his, so I helped myself to another without asking and he gave me a light without comment. I’d smoked another half a cigarette and still no conversation. I was still thinking about the military lottery in the mess hall just now.
There weren’t many lots this time for the offshore islands, just less than half. There were sixty-four guys in my lot-drawing set, and a total of thirty lots for the offshore islands. I was eighth last in line. The guys ahead of me seemed to have particularly terrible streak of luck. Two out of three were bound for the offshore islands. Like the others, I was craning my neck to check the poster on the podium that showed how many lots there were for each unit. Instead of clapping or cheering when someone called out a lot for the offshore islands, we would only mentally subtract one lot of bad luck from the total. When No. 42 was called, I looked away from the poster towards the fellow standing in front of the box. His name was Kuo Cheng-hsien. He lived in my neighborhood, and was one of my five best buddies in junior high school. We used to play basketball in the park. He got into the best high school in the country, while I went to a school near the city limits. But we still often went together to the roller rink in Hsimenting to try to pick up chicks. When we got our results for the college entrance examination, he got a very respectable score of 384. Next we chose departments based on our scores and filled in our academic department preference lists. I discovered there were only eight departments on his list when we went to turn our forms in, and the final one was the Department of Nuclear Engineering at National Tsing Hua University. “Even eight is too many. For the last one I’m choosing the university not the department,” he said, with absolute confidence. I lowered my head and looked at my own list. I’d filled in four densely written sheets with a 2B pencil with the codes for 162 departments. Having barely made the qualifying standard, I had no other choice. I now had a strange feeling that Kuo Cheng-hsien wasn’t my familiar junior high school classmate anymore. He was a scholastic mutant whom God had created to do nothing but study. “That won’t do!” I said. “Only eight is too risky. You’d better fill in at least twenty.” We got into a fight over it. I don’t know what he was trying to prove, or what I was trying to prove. In the end, he penciled in two more. “I’m only adding these two to save face,” he said.
When the names of the successful applicants were published in the newspaper, he got his tenth preference: the Department of Transportation Management. From then on his fate would be tied to transportation.
I often think that maybe I’m the one who changed the course of his life. If I hadn’t made him fill in two extra preferences, he might have ironically gotten rejected despite having such a high entrance mark and ended up on Nanyang Street close to Grand Central, where all the students who don’t make the grade go for a year of remedial. And he wouldn’t be here with me now serving his military service a year late because he’d delayed graduation like me. We wouldn’t have been assigned by coincidence to the same company and then put into the same lot-drawing set.
In lot drawing area in the base mess hall, I was all eyes as Kuo reported his serviceman’s ID, turned around and faced away from the personnel officer presiding over the lot drawing, sticking his right hand behind him into the box. “Fourteen,” he called out the number on the lot. I didn’t have to check the chart on the poster to know that fourteen meant the Guandu Division, which of all the bases in Taiwan was the closest to our neighborhood. He smiled. I hadn’t noticed if he had been smiling like that before drawing the lot. He looked over, but before he had the chance to show me the victory signal a non-com assisting with the lottery pushed him out of the hall. I watched as he joined a group of guys who were all from the same batch of conscripts horsing around outside. I had the same strange feeling I’d had five years before when we were filling out our university department preference lists.
While in university, we’d both met steady girlfriends, in northern and southern Taiwan respectively, and our girlfriends became good friends, too. The day before we were enlisted the four of us had held a farewell dinner for ourselves at a seafood restaurant in the night market. After we’d downed a six-pack, he’d proposed a bet: if either of our girlfriends took off during our two years in the service, the jilted lover would have to treat the other guy to dinner when we were discharged.
“What if both of them betray us?” I asked.
“Then we’ll both pay. We’ll be able to afford a feast.
Kuo Cheng-hsien looked at me with a slightly glazed eyes.
When he chose the lot for the Guandu Division, he’d already taken a step towards winning that absurd bet. Now there were only twelve guys left. The twelve of us went together to line up in front of the podium. According to the chart, there were only four lots left for the offshore islands, so I had a good chance of going somewhere on Taiwan. But when the four guys ahead of me reported their lots, they turned out to all be on Taiwan. I shuddered, but I had noticed that when these four guys had stuck their hands into the box that the personnel officer was tilting up, they just picked a lot right from the bottom left corner instead of mixing the lots. Now it was my turn. There were four lots for bases on the offshore islands and four on Taiwan. I had a 50-50 chance, about the same as at the start. I forgot to decide in advance whether I should use my left hand or my right to draw lots. On instinct, I pulled out the first lot I felt at the bottom left corner, just like the guy ahead of me. The number on this lot didn’t look right. “What are you waiting for! Report the number!” the personnel officer howled behind me. “…th…irty…number thirty-six…,” I stammered. The personnel officer pointed at an item on the chart with his baton. “No. 36: 90674! Next!” I got pushed out of the hall by the non-com beneath the podium. Kuo Cheng-hsien was smiling as he approached, but by the time he walked up to me his smile had vanished.
My squad leader took me into the company office and offered me a cigarette. According to regulations new conscripts like me in the training center were not allowed to smoke. The reason he made an exception was because out of the twelve people in our squad, I was the only one who had drawn the number thirty-six, and because I’d just started crying outside the mess hall. This was the first time in my life I’d bawled in front of so many people. I wasn’t meaning to cry, and it wasn’t till I saw Kuo Cheng-hsien waiting for me outside that I did, like a child that trips and holds his tears until he sees his mother come over. But I wasn’t thinking of acting like a big baby in front of him. I was thinking about the bet we’d made at the seafood stand in the night market, and about my paramour: she’d have to spend the next two years alone on Taiwan.
“What were you crying for?” The squad leader only spoke after he put out his cigarette. “You want to stay on Taiwan? Why didn’t you join the cadet corps last time like I told you to? Afraid it’d be too hard? Wanted to test your luck? So what now? If you don’t want to go then you can sign for a transfer.” In the training center we have three ways of wriggle out of the offshore islands. One is a service transfer: you sign on for four and a half years of voluntary, and after a short training course at the officer academy you can choose a base close to home. Two is to join the cadet corps here at the training center. After you finish three months of training you can stay on as an instructional squad leader. Three is to get chosen by one of the units that come to select personnel. That way you don’t have to take part in the lot drawing. What the squad leader had said was perfectly correct, except that I didn’t want to sign on for a service transfer that would more than double my two years of military duty, I was afraid of the three months of inhuman training for the cadet corps, and I hadn’t been chosen in either of two big personnel selection assemblies. Hence my present predicament.
“Forget it then. Accept it. You think your chick won’t take off if you stay on Taiwan? Stop dreaming,” the squad leader said. “Take a look at this.”
He lifted up the transparent plastic desk cover, took out a photograph pressed underneath and handed it to me. It was a shot of a man and a woman by a stream. The man was stripped to the waist, and his jeans were rolled up past his knees. He had long tightly curled hair. The woman was wearing a white blouse and slim gray capris, with a pair of sunglasses lifted up on her hair and serving as a hair band. The sunglasses reflected a brilliant sun. The man was squatting on a big rock behind the woman, holding the woman’s waist from behind. His fair, bashful, smiling face rested on the girl’s shoulder, and the girl was beaming. She was holding her slender arms straight out and had her delicate fingers extended, like a pose a soprano might adopt when accepting a standing ovation.
“Every week she failed to write me a letter I ripped a picture up, and before winter came all I had left was this photo. Her smile in this photo was the happiest of them all. I couldn’t bring myself to rip it up. You do it for me.
The squad leader’s story left me a bit taken aback. I’d lived with him night and day for a month and had never heard anything about any girlfriend. He had five months until he would be discharged. If what he’d just said was true then the girl in the photograph might have run off less than half a year into his service.
I looked up and took a good look at the squad leader in front of me. His face was swarthy, and with a fresh brush cut, I could see his shiny scalp. He didn’t look at all like the fellow in the picture. I noticed that the rectangle where the photograph had been pressed under the cover was greener than the surrounding area. It was a conspicuous and abrupt rectangular mark on the big plastic cover, which had faded from green to grayish. It was like the mark left behind when you tear off a bandage. I could imagine him over a year before. Having just finished three months of torment in non-com training, he’d returned to the base with a buzz cut and skin tanned dark as coal. At the same time as he enjoyed strutting around with the corporal’s insignia, he’d also had to face the awful news of his girlfriend’s betrayal. At this thought I suddenly felt I was being ridiculous. Unlike him, what I faced was future tense, only a kind of hypothesis, something that might not come to pass even by the time my military duty ended. He had had to face every soldier’s greatest fear soon after being conscripted. Now I’d been crying over something that might happen or might not happen. It all seemed silly of me.
I returned the picture to him without saying anything. He took it and tossed it right on the desk, then lit a cigarette. He said nothing more about his girlfriend, and started telling me about the offshore islands. The training center had a rule that when you draw your lot you only get to know the P.O. Box number of the unit you’ve drawn. The name and location of the unit was supposed to be strictly confidential, but the leader told me anyway: I’d been assigned to a unit called ACNSC located on Tongyin.
“It’s the Anti-Communist National Salvation Command,” the leader said. “Don’t get it mixed up with the Anti-Communist National Salvation Corps for do gooder college students.”
“It’s north of Matsu Island. It’s the northernmost point of our national territory, about a hundred nautical miles from Keelung. It’s not that far, only about the distance from Taipei to Changhua.”
That was the first time I had any idea about the place I would be living for the next twenty-one months. Before going into the army I had never heard of Tongyin. Our geography textbooks had never even mentioned it. The squad leader had never been there, but he’d heard from people who’d returned from Tongyin, and apparently it was really small, had no trees or fresh water, and got hot enough in summer to make you want to tear your skin off and cold enough in winter to make the water freeze in the tower. It was hard to imagine what kind of place it might be, and I had no idea why the Ministry of National Defense would want to send me there. The squad leader said guys who’d drawn the offshore islands would be sent to Weichang Ridge tomorrow. Weichang Ridge was another military base, a halfway house for conscripts bound for the Matsus. It was situated on a hillside in Keelung, a port in northeast Taiwan. Maybe there would be a couple of chances for relatives or friends to visit. He did not know when I’d get be getting on the boat for Tongyin. Some guys wait a week there, others leave the same day. It all depends on the boat schedule.
“Anyway, when you get to the offshore islands, there’s nothing to do and you lead a simple and peaceful life, got it?” said the squad leader. That was all he had to say. He handed me the rest of the pack.
I walked out of the company office and saw the squad-mates I was closest to waiting outside. There was still an hour until dinner, and there were still some guys in the company who hadn’t gotten back from the lottery yet. The guys who had already drawn their lots now had some rare R&R. I waved the pack of smokes, and the six of us went up to the roof over the second story of the barracks where we hung our clothes out to dry. We sat up there and smoked by the water tower. We were 6th Squadron, 2nd Platoon. There were twelve guys in the squad, but the six of us lined up side by side in formation, and we all bunkmates, so it was natural for us to hang out together. No. 62, who lined up right beside me, was my best buddy. He graduated from veterinary medicine. On visiting days when other guys looked forward to seeing family and girlfriends, he would just be waiting for that yellow golden retriever bitch he’d raised. He even told his folks they didn’t have to mobilize the whole family to come see him every weekend. Just get someone to bring the dog. “You know what? A dog is man’s best friend.” He didn’t just tell me once, and that was only the beginning of a book of canine lore he could have written. One time we ducked into the canteen for a rest after completing a public mission and he tried to use it again to start a conversation. I’d had enough. “Enough!” I said. “It’s a cliché, this pet phrase of yours. A veterinarian like you shouldn’t have to keep saying that, should he?” For a moment he was stunned. He scratched the pimples his golden retriever had given him by licking his face, then said, “At least, I can guarantee that my dog would never leave me while I’m doing my military service.” “How insightful! It clearly follows that dogs are more honorable than humans and, ergo, that female dogs are more honorable than female humans,” said No. 64, a philosophy major, shaking his head. “Bullshit! If this bitch of yours had gotten screwed by a couple of male dogs while you were away you’d never know,” retorted No. 65, who had studied dentistry. “Why don’t you wash your mouth out with soap, dentist? Your mouth really stinks,” said No. 62 angrily, baring his teeth. Both members of the medical profession, 62 and 65 often fought over trivial matters like this. No. 61, who was in law, said that the relevant principle was, “Different are the ways of man and beast, and never the twain shall meet,” but he was immediately corrected by No. 67, the Chinese major in our midst, who said, “Don’t abuse the apothegms of the ancients. The dictionary says, ‘Different are the ways of man and ghost.’” “Exactly. I’m the man, and he’s the ghost,” said No. 65, clapping his hands.
The six of us sat side to side in a row and watched the sun setting over the flagpoles on the podium by the drill field. They had all just found out where they’d be serving. The lawyer and the philosopher would be staying on the east coast. The vet would be at Guandu in Taipei. The dentist had been chosen by a military hospital at the personnel selection, so he didn’t have to participate in the lottery. The Chinese major hadn’t been able to find out what unit he’d been assigned to. Someone said he was going to be a paratrooper. He said he’d rather be assigned to the offshore is…, but the lawyer elbowed him before he could finish his sentence. I knew they were all trying hard to think of things to say to cheer me up, but actually I wasn’t as sad now as I had been when I’d just drawn the lot. Or I’d reallocated my sorrow, directing part of it at the squad leader, and another part of it at my departing comrades. I was going to tell them about the leader’s girlfriend, but on second thought I resisted the urge and didn’t say anything. The leader had never mentioned it to the others, and tomorrow we’d all go our separate ways. Saying it wouldn’t do anyone any good. Smoking my cigarette, I watched the sun setting like everyone else. We’d been in the conscript training center at Jinliu Grange a month, and only on the last day did we have the chance to get a good look at the sunset over the Lanyang Plain. But we college boys had actually lived the easy life in our month there. Before our service started we’d all heard the verse that had scared many about the nature of conscript life:
There’ll be blood at Guandong Bridge
Your back will break at Chelong Plain
Grown men cry at Jinkung Grange
Only after we got there did we discover to our great surprise it was even easier than boot camp at Victory Ridge five years earlier. Actually, we’d still been worked pretty hard at Jinliu Grange, but only for the first three days. It was all thanks to a new soldier who started in the service at the same time as us. He was in 2nd Platoon, 7th Company, and he died of heatstroke on the third day after we were enlisted. The next day his mother came to the base and made a big scene, but the results of the prosecutor’s investigation and the coroner’s autopsy showed that the guy had a physical problem, a combination of hyperhidrosis and body odor. His mother worried that his peculiar smell would hurt his popularity, so before he’d been enlisted she’d given him special antiperspirant pills. As it happened, we were drilled for three consecutive days under a blistering sun, but he did not sweat a single drop. The third evening he went into shock and died. Though there was no question of excessive or improper discipline, the division commander still broke into a cold sweat when a trainee dropped dead after only three days. Then there was a new order from division command: if the outdoor temperature went above 32∘C, all training activities would take place indoors. In the first few days after the order was issued, every time when we’d put on the metal helmets and gun belts and lined up on the field in formation with M16s in our hands, ready for battle training, we would watch a squad leader with a thermometer in his hand run a loop around the company assembly grounds and then report how high the mercury had climbed. After that the whole company would get led into the Sun Yat-sen Hall and shown videos with the fans on full blast. We’d gone in on August 1, in the middle of high summer, when the temperature rarely stays below 32 degrees after ten in the morning. We spent almost every day that month in the Sun Yat-sen Hall with the electric fans blowing, watching training videos we’d seen over and over and surreptitiously writing letters to our girlfriends. Whenever he got the chance, the squad leader would call us college pigs. According to No. 61, who came from Guanxi in Hsinchu on the west coast, the sacrificial pigs his family raised had really had to spend time every day cooling off under the electric fans or they wouldn’t fatten up.
“Fuck! Lots schmlots! They’re splitting us up just when we’re getting to know one another,” the dentist said.
“You didn’t even participate in the lottery. What exactly are you complaining about?” the vet asked.
“He’s right,” said the lawyer, attempting to arbitrate: “This is hard on everybody.”
“Who can’t get a hard on?” the philosopher asked.
“Anyone who didn’t have to participate in the lottery can’t,” the vet said.
“What’s that supposed to mean?” the dentist asked angrily.
“What the hell are you guys talking about?” the lawyer said, displeased. “Such dirty minds!”
Intending to comfort me, the five of them had ended up quarreling again, and they were still at it when the squad leader blew the whistle for the 6pm assembly. Not saying anything, I followed everyone down to the assembly. Walking down the stairs my steps were light as air, as if something massive inside my body had escaped. I always got a bit spaced out when I was feeling blue, like now. It was like the whole of you getting split in two. Standing in formation, I was just a hunk of flesh, an empty husk. The true me was standing off to the side, coldly observing the man I had become, a slack-faced fellow with a blank look in his eyes. Then I distantly regarded my buddies standing beside me. One glance and I felt ten times sadder. After tomorrow we wouldn’t see one another again or even keep in touch. Nobody beside me knew what unit he’d been assigned to, so even if we wanted to write to each other we wouldn’t know where to send the letters. You’d think we’d note down one another’s home addresses and telephone numbers, but two years from now when we were finally discharged, the rapport of a month together at Jinliu Grange would have faded. All the names and contact information in the address book might just become a string of signs you couldn’t hook a memory to. Yet the friendship we’d cultivated during this month had been real, so real that I kept thinking about the perks I could enjoy if we maintained the friendship until after our two years in the service. If my teeth went rotten I could go see No. 65 for treatment. If someone sued me I could get No. 61 to defend me. If I had psychological problems I could go get therapy from No. 64. If I kept pets it’d be awesome, because No. 62 was a vet and knowing him would be like applying for health insurance for my pets. No. 62 was such a swell guy. He had more fellow feeling than No. 65, who had people open their mouths so he could yank their bloody teeth out. Before the lottery we’d had three days’ vacation, and No. 62 had come to Mt. Yangming in Taipei to visit me. He, my girlfriend and I got out a pack of cards, and played a round of deuces. Then he had a whim to see what our luck would be like when it came time to draw lots. He shuffled and cut the deck and spread the cards out and had me choose a card. He said if I chose a black card it meant I would draw a lot for the offshore islands, and if I drew a red card it meant I would stay on Taiwan. And to make it objective and accurate, he wanted me to choose ten cards in succession to see if there were more red cards or black. I did as he said. The first card was a queen of spades, the second a ten of clubs, then a three of clubs, and a seven of clubs, and when I drew the fifth card, an ace of clubs, he swiped the cards away saying we weren’t playing anymore. He wouldn’t let me keep drawing cards. A sidelong glance told him that a layer of frost had formed on my face, and on my girlfriend’s. He said, “This is an inverse sign, so don’t worry about it. I’m telling you, you’ve used up all your bad luck, and the day after tomorrow when you draw lots it’s going to be very auspicious. It’s a sure thing.”
He should have let me draw all ten cards. I couldn’t help thinking that if fate wanted me to draw ten black cards in a row, then the sixth card was the lot I drew for Tongyin. And that meant that I still had four more black cards of bad luck to go.
2. At Weichang Ridge
The base was strangely quiet the morning after the lottery. No squad leader rushing or yelling at us. No soldiers from other companies singing military cadences as they marched in formation. Taking care of “internal affairs” in the living quarters, the boys weren’t as boisterous as usual. Only when everyone had gathered in the Sun Yat-sen Hall did we realize that a few guys had already left. A couple of us stole a glance out the window when the squad leader wasn’t looking and discovered that there were a few black sedans parked outside, which meant there were high ranking officers on base. Turned out two things had happened the night before. The first was that someone had shot himself to death around two in the morning in the sentry post near the barracks. The other thing was that the guys who’d drawn either of the army corps in south-central Taiwan in the lottery had already been called out of bed at four in the morning to assemble and leave Jinliu Grange. I didn’t hear the gunshot in the middle of the night, nor did I notice when those guys in our company left. Someone said that guy killed himself because he drew a lot for the offshore islands, but this rumor scotched itself, because we new conscripts didn’t have to do sentry duty, and even if we did, we’d only get issued a wooden gun used for bayonet drill, not a real gun with live ammunition.
I still hadn’t called her. The squad leader had given me a few chances but I didn’t take action. How was I supposed to tell her? Even if I could keep my voice steady, the tears would come as soon as she heard the news, and as soon as she started crying there was no guarantee that I wouldn’t start crying along with her. I’d already humiliated myself the night before. I didn’t want to do that again.
At noon before lunch was served, some other guys assembled to leave, among them No. 62 and my junior high classmate Kuo Cheng-hsien. I waved at them from the railing on the roof of the barracks, but they didn’t seem to be able to see me. At two pm it was my turn to leave. Wearing the Whampoa rucksack I had packed, I stood in the company assembly, then set off for the review stand at the drill field to meet the conscripts in other companies who had drawn lots for the offshore islands. There were still guys in my company who had not left yet. They were all crowded in front of the railing on the roof, waving and calling goodbye. We passed the sentry post where the accident had supposedly happened the night before. The black sedans were already gone, leaving only two military policemen holding M16s. They weren’t letting anyone near. We couldn’t help glancing over, but aside from the yellow cordon fluttering around the sentry post, you couldn’t see any human remains or blood or anything like that.
We finally left Jinliu Grange. It was already dark out when we reached Weichang Ridge in Keelung. We all lined up in formation, all the guys who’d drawn the Matsus in the lottery. A middle aged officer we’d never seen before stood up on the platform, asked us to take off our bags and sit at ease on the ground, and gave us a pep talk, but nobody paid very much attention. We’d left the new conscript training center and joined this temporary unit. And what with the rotten moods we were in after drawing the offshore islands in the lottery, everyone looked pretty grim. Some guys were talking among themselves in twos and threes, having left all military discipline behind at the training center. The middle aged officer was pissed at us and yelled a few expletives, exhorting everyone to stand at attention. Only a few guys were startled into standing straight, heels together, shoulders squared. Most guys got up lazily and grudgingly and stood at ease, looking at the fat middle aged guy up on the podium out of the corners of their eyes. The officer couldn’t go on. He swore at us another couple of time, saying he’d never seen such undisciplined and uncivilized troops. Then he turned us over to a Sergeant Major and walked off in a huff. The Sergeant Major did not have the duty officer’s Sam Browne belt on. He wasn’t wearing a hat or an undershirt, either, and the top three buttons of his green army uniform were unbuttoned, exposing his skinny white chest. He looked like he’d just been dragged out of bed to act as a body double for the duty officer. He didn’t excoriate us, just assigned each unit sleeping quarters for the evening and told the cooks to make carry out a few pots of fried rice noodles. That was dinner, I guess. Then he announced that we had free time until evening roll call. “One more thing, and this is very important, tomorrow at eight in the morning the base will be open to visitors.” He spoke Mandarin with a heavy Taiwanese accent. “Right, and there’s something else, tomorrow there’ll be a blood donation station set up in the camp. Please give generously.” He dismissed us amid a chorus of boos.
Sixty-two guys in my batch of new conscripts drew a lot for Tongyin. Besides me, there were five other guys from my company, but in different platoons. I’d never talked to them but we had seen each other a million times. Naturally, we stayed together as a matter of course after the troops dispersed. There was one guy with big ears, a square face, and a wry smile. His name was Shen-chuan, and he was from 1st Platoon. He’d graduated from the Department of Meteorology at National Taiwan University. The reason why I knew that was because he’d told us when we were all squatting down in a circle smoking and complaining about our rotten luck. He was in a different lottery set, the “specialty lots” set. In the whole company there were only four guys who drew specialty lots. “I assumed that maybe there was some unit somewhere that would need a meteorology major. Christ, when we got to the lottery I discovered that there were three other guys in my set, two teachers and a guy who’d taken psychology.” He was grumbling, but with a tone of self-mockery. “Never thought that two of those four lots would be for the offshore islands. Ain’t it yo mama’s stinky snatch!” He’d learned this charming curse from his father, and given the clarity of his enunciation there was no doubt about his background. Everyone knew his old man must be a mainlander, from Shandong Province. Hearing about his experience suddenly made my bad mood even worse, because it appeared my luck was even more rotten than his. He hit the jackpot with fifty-fifty odds, while I’d won it with the odds in my favor. Though we all drew the offshore islands in the lottery and were apparently all equally unlucky, some of us were more equal than others. Like the fellow crouching to my right sighing and whining, for instance. I didn’t know his name, but I did know he was in 3rd Platoon and could play the French horn. I remembered the happy expression he’d had the whole day after getting chosen for the National Military Marching Band on personnel selection day. Strange that he should appear among the conscripts assigned to the offshore islands. I couldn’t help feeling sorry for this kid who’d fallen from heaven down into hell, and tried to be nice to him. This is my bad habit. I like hanging out with people who are even worse off than me. Misery loves company, I guess. I’m afraid to get close to personages who are more exceptional, brilliant, or better off than me.
The kid who’d fallen down from heaven proposed going to line up to make phone calls. I said I didn’t want to. Actually I was scared to hear her voice. But sympathy forced me to go with him. There were four pay phones in the kiosk, and a dozen guys lined up in front of each phone. I wanted to go back to the field to have a cigarette, but I couldn’t bear his imploring look. After waiting over ten minutes, we made it near the front of the line and started to be able to hear what people were saying. Most of them were telling family members to come visit tomorrow and what things to bring. There was only this one guy from some other company who couldn’t get his mother to figure out what he was saying in a three minute call. “Mom, it’s Ah Lung. I drew a lot for Tongyin… No, not Tokyo. It’s Tongyin… Yes, I’ve got to take a boat… What? No, I’m not going abroad. It’s Tongyin the island not Tokyo. I’ll still be in Taiwan… What do you mean no big deal? What do you mean you can take the bus there? I told you I’m taking a boat. Don’t you get it? No, I’m not going to Japan… Hello? Hello!” His three minutes was up. He was left holding the receiver, looking round blankly at the people lined up behind him. He hung up, walked to the back and waited for another turn.
I looked at him understandingly, then started worrying whether her reaction when she took my call would be the same as this guy’s mother. The kid from heaven was right in front of me, covering the mouthpiece to muffle the sound. He was speaking in a low voice, but I could still hear what he was saying. “… That’s right, I’m going to Matsu now…. Mom, quick, call Uncle Sam and tell him to check for me…. Right, it was the National Military Marching Band… Yes, that was the arrangement… I don’t know what happened… Call Uncle Sam right now, or it’ll be too late…” His tone became more and more urgent, until he started whimpering towards the end of the call. He pulled down on the cradle to end the call, turned round and held out the receiver to me. I hesitated. His nose was all red, and there were tears in his eyes. Now it was my turn. I took a deep breath and pressed the telephone keys lightning quick, as if I was afraid they’d give me a shock.
The phone was ringing.
How would she react when I told her I’d been stationed on Tongyin?
Would she burst out crying?
The phone kept ringing.
What should I say to reassure her?
It wasn’t her voice. It was her dormmate, the girl next door. She wasn’t in, might be at work. “Would you like to leave a message?”
“No,” I said. “No, wait. Yes, I’d like to leave a message.”
“I’ll get a pen.” A moment later, “What’s the message?”
“Visit tomorrow 8am. Changwei Ridge. Bring seasickness pills. Two packs of cigarettes.”
I hung up and returned to the field to rejoin my brothers. We wandered around the field like a pack of lonely ghosts.
3. There’ll Be Blood
In the morning she got there right when the gates opened. She took the train with my mother to Keelung, then took a taxi up to Weichang Ridge. She didn’t actually understand what Weichang Ridge meant. It was only when she saw “seasickness pills” on the note that she realized our biggest fear had come true. Crying, she told my mother the news over the phone, and they arranged to take the first train in the morning. When they got to the Keelung, they asked the taxi driver in front of the station where the conscripts bound for the offshore islands waited until their boats arrived. Without the slightest hesitation, the driver took them to Weichang Ridge.
The day I was enlisted, she and my mom came to Sungshan Train Station in Taipei to send me off. I got on the train and watched them waving at me through the open window. “Go hold his hand,” my mom said, nudging her elbow. The train started moving. She hesitated, then walked two steps forward, but it was already too late: she could never catch up to a moving train. One time when mom came to Jinliu Grange to visit me, she described the scene that day. “Tears rolled down her face the moment the train departed, and she was still crying when we left the station.”
That was over a month ago. Now she sat smiling in front of me. I couldn’t see any sign of her having spent the previous night crying. And this time I was leaving for a place much farther away than Ilan, a place you couldn’t take the train to on the weekend. Folks said that in the two years a soldier spends on the offshore islands there are only two holidays. If they were evenly spaced out, the earliest I’d get to see her was next year. That was at least half a year away.
“It’ll be better this way,” I told her. When we were in the training center, she would take the regular train to come see me every Sunday. She still had another year of university. Her allowance plus the money she made at her part-time job only added up to a couple of thousand dollars a month, so there was no way she could afford to take the Chu-kuang fast train, let alone the Tzu-chiang express. Every Sunday, she would take the bus from her house on Mt. Yangming down to Taipei and stay with my family the day before. The next morning, she’d ride the early train three hours from Taipei to Ilan, hang out with me until four pm, then face another three hour train ride back to Taipei. “From now on you won’t have to make such sacrifices to come visit me. You’ll save loads on transportation.”
“Can’t I go to Tongyin to see you?”
“I don’t think so.”
“Isn’t there a ferry service?”
“It’s a navy ship. They don’t take civilians.”
“There’s no other way to get there?”
“Sure there is, if you know how to swim.”
“When can you come back and see me?”
“Half a year from now I think.”
She looked down at the green paint on the wooden table and fell silent.
“Come on. Eat something,” said my mother, who was sitting to one side.
As usual, my mom’d brought a feast: marinated eggs, chicken legs, apples, fish snacks, Tasty brand biscuits, and lots of cans of soda pop. There was enough to cover an altar table with offerings to the gods. But I was in no mood to eat. We’d just had breakfast in the camp, and besides who feels like eating at a time like this? Mothers are all the same. I looked around at the other guys who were receiving guests, and every table was loaded with food and snacks to stuff down our throats, as if they were afraid we might get hungry at any time. Looking back at the provisions my mother had prepared overnight and the seasickness pills she’d bought from the pharmacy at six am by banging the iron shutter until she woke the owner up, all I felt was something seeping into my body and blowing me up like a balloon. People say you can hurt yourself by stifling a laugh. I don’t know what kind of damage holding in this emotion would do to me. It might make me explode. I really felt like standing up and yelling my head off.
“Aha, here you are,” someone patted me on the shoulder. “I’ve been looking all over for you.”
“I looked round and saw a short, dark-faced, freckled fellow standing behind me. He was beaming, squinting his eyes so much that the crow’s feet stretched almost all the way to his ears. I was confounded at first, until I realized that here was the kid who’d fallen down from heaven. Without that miserable expression on his face, I almost didn’t recognize him.
“Your family? Are they here yet?” I asked, but my eyes were on the rucksack he was wearing on his back.
“Yeah, they’re all here,” he said, grinning. “My Uncle Sam’s here, too. He said they made a mistake. I was supposed to be selected by the National Miliary Marching Band. No way I should’ve ended up at Weichang Ridge. My uncle brought some people from the Ministry of National Defense, and now I’m going with them.”
“Your girlfriend?” he said, giving her a sideways glance over my shoulder. I looked back, too, and saw her nod politely at him. “She’s a keeper. You better hold on tight. Don’t let her get away,” he said, smiling, and elbowed me in the chest.
“Right, almost forgot,” he said, turned and started unloading his rucksack. He got out the shrimp treats, then the cigarettes, the apples and the dried squid strips, and unloaded all of it onto my table. “My mom brought all this stuff for me but now I’ll never eat it. It’s all for you.” He fastened his rucksack and put it back on. “I’m off. Take good care of yourself.” He patted me on the shoulder again, turned and walked a couple of steps, then looked back and pointed. “Don’t let her get away.”
I watched him walk towards the main gate. The gun-toting guards called him to a halt, but two men immediately walked out of the trees to the side, one of them wearing in an officer’s uniform and a saucer cap. The officer produced a document and the guards let them go. They got into a black sedan waiting outside the gate. The gate slammed shut, and the car was gone in a puff of smoke. I looked left and right and the camp was still bustling with loads of conscripts and parents in every corner of the camp. Everyone was busy chatting and saying farewell, but no one had noticed what had just happened at the gate. I sat down dejectedly. I was looking at the food on the table, which had now doubled, but all I felt was a painful throbbing in the spot where the kid who had fallen down from heaven had elbowed me in the chest.