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Authors: Stephen Becker

The season of the stranger

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The Season of the Stranger

A Novel

Stephen Becker

PART ONE

1

The failing whirlwind skipped toward him, brushing leaves from its path, spinning first a long thin column and then with the dying wind squatting, showering its dust to both sides of the road, finally becoming nothing, leaving only the running dust on the yellow road. In the bare cold fields westward three of them gyrated among spotty green stains. With the wind that morning had come the light sand, the dust, and with the dust the yellow sky, screening the blue and the sun; now across the fields checkered by the green and by the whirling columns the ebbing light crawled dimly, and now the peaked and thrusting range of the west lay in hiding, curtained by the particular yellow screen.

His black cotton shoes were streaked yellow. When he looked up dust flicked painfully across his face and into his eyes. The wind freshened and the pounding of the light grit mounted. He left the road and walked among the clumped straining trees at the right. The wind sighed lower, cut and dissipated by the still thickly clotted leaves and the wall of thin trunks. After the trees there would be the low serpentine town wall and inside it the shops and stalls. He would stop at a teahouse.

He crossed a gully muddy with the last of the autumn rains. The walls of the ravine were still green, the short grass clinging to them; bushes leaned to drink, tips naked where the rush of the now slow stream had stripped them. Girard used their roots, pulling himself up the far bank, and when his eyes topped the higher level he saw again the dust running smoothly across the worn path. He stepped to the path and slapped his light gown and scraped from his layered cotton shoesoles the mud of the stream.

When Girard looked up there was a soldier standing where nothing had been before. The soldier's uniform and skin were tan and the flat tan path stretched behind him; there was no silhouette, only the eyes and mouth and rifle darker in relief. He brought the rifle from his shoulder and stood holding it loosely and waving. Girard walked toward him with his hands out in front of him and held low, palms up and open. When he was close enough to be heard he said, “What do you want?” The wind was bad again.

The soldier stood with his feet apart, balanced, and the end of one dirty puttee trailed in the dust at his side.The dustGirard thought.I wish I could understand this. And the yellowing darkness.

“You are not Chinese,” the soldier said. “A foreigner. Your clothes deceived me.”

“You see.”

The soldier slung his rifle and brought his feet together. “Ah. Then I want nothing. Do you smoke cigarettes?”

“I do.”

“Good. Give me one.”

Girard gave him a cigarette. The soldier lit it, turning to break the wind with his thin back. He had removed the wiring from his cap and it flopped rapidly when he moved. He smiled twistedly under it. “Good. Go.”

“Yes,” Girard said. “What is this weather?”

The soldier looked at Girard's clothes, his eyes moving slowly down, like those of a man watching from a cliff the drop of a distant wounded bird; or abstractedly, like those, moving and unseeing, of a blind man; then his eyes came up and he examined the high collar under Girard's gown. “You speak our language and wear our clothes, and you do not know what this weather means.” He looked north into the wind, expressionless. “I do not like it,” he said. “Not any longer. Once it was exciting, but not any longer.”

“What does it mean?”

The soldier looked down again. “You wear our shoes and yet you ask me what it means.” His smooth cheeks swelled easily as he blew smoke.

“You wear a uniform,” Girard said. “Do you know what war means?”

“I was five when the Japanese came. I know what war means to those who are defeated.” He looked coldly at Girard. “Soon I will know what war means to those who are victorious.”

“You may not be wrong. Then you are sixteen now?”

“Yes.”

“That is fourteen by foreign count.”

“Fourteen is enough,” the soldier said.

“It is. And how many times have you seen a day like this day?”

The soldier laughed and when he had stopped laughing he spat. “Not many. But enough.”

“Thank you for the information,” Girard said. “I return now.”

“Return where?”

“To my home.” Girard bowed shortly and started around him. The soldier put a foot in his way. Girard stopped before he reached it. “What now?”

“This path leads to the post.”

“I must pass the post,” Girard said. “I have passed the post many times.”

“Today you will not pass the post,” the soldier smiled. “It is ordered.”

“Why is it ordered?”

“An interview is taking place. We have arrested a troublemaker. A student.” He paused. “You are American?”

“Yes.”

“Then you are a friend of the government.”

“Which government?”

“Our government.” The soldier looked astonished. “The national government of republican China.”

“Make no bets,” Girard said.

They stood with their faces a few inches apart. Neither moved in the wind. The soldier rested his weight on one leg; one hand was on the balance of his rifle and the other on his hip. Girard stepped back, watching his eyes. In their silence then they heard on the wind not the scream but the thin aftersound, floating slowly toward them, unidentifiable until it was complete, then floating slowly between them as the soldier slipped from his shoulder the dry and cracking strap of his rifle.

He looked toward the post. “You will not move,” he said. Girard stepped around his leg and moved running toward the post, the aftersound of the scream still fading in his ears. The soldier shouted after him but there were no shots. Running into the clearing Girard saw the post, small, almost a cube, of black brick with paper in the windows where the glass had been years before. The sentry at the door was eating melon seeds from a paper bag and when he saw Girard he dropped the bag and brought the rifle up as though he were protecting the thin stream of white and brown seeds between his feet. He saw Girard's face and forgot then that he had the rifle and stood bewildered while Girard opened the wooden door and ran over the sill into the concrete chamber.

A lieutenant was standing, almost crouching, his pistol on a small table and a thin firelog in his hand. He snapped toward Girard, forgetting as he turned and saw the face what he had been about to say. He looked at Girard's shoes and again at his face and hair. He straightened and wiped his wet mouth and chin with the back of his hand and then, when the hand was wet, with his sleeve. He wore no hat and had no hair; the lantern flaming irregularly and smelling of kerosene was suspended from the ceiling behind him and the top of his head was yellow and gleaming. Under the light, on the floor, was a line of dust which had sifted through the paper panes. The lieutenant breathed heavily and said, “Who allowed you to come in?”

“No one allowed me. I came in.”

The lieutenant panted and then closed his mouth and breathed in whistles through his nose, his enormous nostrils expanding and giving to his face an appearance of absolute frightening flatness. “Why did you come in?”

“To take him from you.” Girard pointed to the naked moving body on the floor.

“Do you know him?”

“Yes. I know him. Do you wish to stop me?”

“You are Girard?”

“Yes.”

“Aaaah,” he sighed. A short hard light came into his eyes and disappeared as he sat dully on the one stool. “They told us you might be trouble.”

The man on the floor moved again, twisting his head. Girard saw a line of blood from the forehead over the ear to the shoulder. The lieutenant looked at the line and the momentary light came into his eyes and died. “Pig,” he said heavily.

The man's face came toward them, rising into vision and seeming to move without the body, coming too close, the smell and feel of it in the sweaty decaying mid November air, the lieutenant sucking breath and standing now, the top of his head gleaming, while the wind pushed the paper of the window softly, the sound like the rustle of skin on dry living skin, dust falling lightly and soundlessly, dust clean and unbloody and the man's face again, rising from the floor and slipping back. They watched without breathing and the face moved again up from the wet floor, loose skin hanging below and dragging slowly, leaving an indentation in the warm red pool on the floor, an indentation which became a path between clean lines of separating blood as the skin pushed through the pool. The jawbone was laid open and white and above it were a bloodfilled eye and the cut flap of a nostril. The man lurched twice, rising and slipping, the legs in long shivering motion, the genitals withdrawn and tight, bound in fear, and the whole moving, pursuing, purposefully rising to the limit of blood and beaten flesh; and dropping then with a rushing sigh, lying as inert as before.

The lieutenant sat again, eyes empty, one hand rubbing his thigh methodically (smoothly and gently, the flesh of the leg pushing in small even undulations the cloth of the trousers), sweat like heavy drops of mercury moving from the inner line of his cheeks to the swell of his upper lip. Girard knelt, his hands and stomach objecting; he heard the wind still rustling against the papered window; and touched the body and said, “I can take him now.” He lifted him (like lifting a child: thin, light; but unconscious and the weight pulled at Girard's shoulders) and carried him cradled to the door, and when he turned the lieutenant was staring at the spread liquid patch on the floor. Girard heard a sound come from deep within the lieutenant's throat and saw him hunch forward, his head yellow-green in the lamplight, and wipe his mouth again with his sleeve; and when he saw him begin to shiver Girard crossed the sill.

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