CHAPTER 48

Old Cat found himself examining in mechanical terms the method of his execution: who, what, where, when, and how, at the end, they’d dispose of his remains.

Left on the roadside as an example for others?

Maybe separated into reusable and unusable body parts. Liver, kidney, bladder, and leg bones in one pile. Head and skin and intestines in another.

Runway lights came into view in the distance and he had his answer: dropped from the sky like a propaganda leaflet.

When he was young, he’d heard about the CIA doing that in Vietnam and the military doing it in Chile. The tales had been passed around by little boys like himself who thrilled to scary and violent stories. Later, in school, he’d watched a film about the Vietnamese War of Liberation that showed a body falling from an American Chinook helicopter, but by that time he’d learned not to believe anything he was taught. Once they’d tried to teach him that in the nineteenth century one of every three people in the American South had been a slave. He realized that the number would be equivalent to four hundred million slaves in China. An impossibility. He knew it couldn’t be true and wondered which of its own crimes the government had been concealing under the lie.

As the Brave Warrior drove past the barracks, armories, and hangars of the Chengdu Military Air Base, Old Cat felt the connection snap apart that had linked him and the farmers and workers in the fields around the Meinhard plant. He could see them in his mind’s eye, but couldn’t feel them. He knew there was a phrase for the thing his brain was doing to him. He thought of jing shen fen lie zheng, the mind-split disease, but he knew he wasn’t crazy. He felt an internal shrug and wondered if that was also something the anthropologist might understand.

The officer in the passenger seat pointed toward an unmarked airplane parked on the tarmac between two facing rows of fighters. The SUV made a hard right and pulled to a stop. A hand reached over and pulled at the edge of the tape covering Old Cat’s mouth, then stripped it away. Old Cat thought that it had been duct tape and had imagined the awful pain of its being ripped off, tearing at his face and his five days’ beard. He was surprised to see that it was just the thin paper type used for painting.

The soldiers guided Old Cat out of the backseat and onto his feet, then removed the handcuffs. He felt like rubbing the feeling back into his wrists and hands like he’d seen criminals do on the television shows, but decided not to. Let them think he wasn’t afraid of pain, then maybe they’d pass on any thoughts of torture and just get it over with.

As he was escorted toward the tail of the plane, Old Cat looked up at the side door. He’d seen that on television, too. How skydivers jumped out. He imagined himself one of them, in freefall. Arms and legs spread, falconlike. Not flailing. After all, what would be the point? But then his body tensed as he saw himself hitting the ground-except it seemed like someone else’s body, for imagining the impact was like imagining himself dead.

Old Cat glanced over his shoulder, trying to look past the floodlights to find an escape between the buildings, or even out onto the runway, but it was like trying to look through fire. The soldiers on either side of him spotted the motion and tightened their grips.

A jet swooped down onto the runway sounding like a giant vacuum. Its tires chirped as they struck the concrete. Old Cat felt air getting sucked by and then dust swirled around him and pecked at his eyes.

They were now steering him like his body was a wheelchair. Now turning left and stopping at the bottom step and looking up into the dark interior of the plane. The soldiers slid in behind him. A slight pull upward on his arms and he took the first step. Then another and another. Ten more and he was standing in a kitchen. Narrow. Tiny. They’d always seemed bigger in the movies. It smelled of black beans and chili paste and chow fun.

Whoever it is that wants to watch me freefall, Old Cat thought, has simple tastes, like a farmer.

A door opened in front of him. He felt the brief pressure of a hand against his back and then he walked on his own into the cabin. A lone man in an officer’s uniform sat in a leather chair fifteen feet away. His pressed green jacket bore no insignias. He could be any rank from a lie bin, private, to a yi ji shang jiang, first-class senior general, except his age-seventy or seventy-five-meant he had to be high up, very high up.

Old Cat was certain that it couldn’t be a yi ji shang jiang; few had claimed to have seen one in person. Some farmers thought they were mythological figures like the ancient warlords in the Three Kingdoms legend since they’d only seen images of them in the news, but never in real life.

The officer rose, then stepped around the desk and approached Old Cat. He reached out an arthritic knotted hand and said, “I’m Shi Rong-bang.”

Old Cat extended his hand in return, but only as he’d test the handle of an iron teapot to see how hot it was.

“I apologize for the means I used to bring you here,” Shi said, then gestured toward the chair across the table from where he’d been sitting.

Only then did Old Cat recognize the soldier from a generation ago within the uniform that seemed to sheath, rather than clothe, his thinned body, and beneath the corroded patina of old age: the liver spots and wisped hair and sagging skin and drooping eyelids.

The recognition immobilized Old Cat, gripped by a Confucian tradition that he recognized and despised, but couldn’t resist. No one sat in the presence of men like First-Class Senior General Shi. He lowered his gaze.

Shi took Old Cat’s arm. And like a lever, it moved his feet and walked him forward until he reached the chair and sat down.

Old Cat’s body felt like it was floating on the soft leather. He pulled his hands off the armrests for fear of soiling them or scratching them with his calluses. Imprints of palm sweat gleamed under the fluorescent light. He felt his face flush as he wiped them off with his sleeves.

The plane shuddered as a jet fighter powered up off the runway next to them, then stilled as the engine scream faded into the distance.

“They tell me you’re a farmer,” Shi said. “Alone in the world. No wife. No children. No parents still alive. And a very exceptional man.”

Old Cat swallowed. “What do you intend to do with me?”

“I didn’t bring you here to harm you.”

“Then…”

“I thought I’d better meet the most important man in Central China.”

Old Cat squinted at General Shi and asked, “What are you talking about?”

“Don’t you understand that the whole world is watching you?” Shi opened the laptop on the table and turned it toward Old Cat. The screen displayed the front page of Taiwan’s China Times. On the left was a photograph of Old Cat standing before a throng outside the Meinhard plant, and above it were printed the characters:

Old Cat Paralyzes Beijing.

Old Cat felt his stomach turn. The headline was a death sentence, if not at the hands of the man sitting across from him, at the hands of those in the capital.

“How-“

“We thought it was important that the outside know what was happening in Chengdu,” Shi said.

Old Cat stared at the screen, his mind trying to link the words on the page with Shi’s statement and with where he’d just come from.

“What is happening in Chengdu?” Old Cat finally said, looking up. “Maybe you can explain it to me.”

Shi smiled. “They were right about you. You are an insightful man. I should’ve said that we wanted the outside world to know that something was happening in Chengdu.”

Old Cat didn’t smile back. “I’m not an educated man-“

Shi cut him off with a wave of his hand. “We’ve had too many educated men in China.” His voice rose. “The educated class in China has become a criminal organization, a cancer that replicates itself and spreads until”-Shi pointed high and away-“until even the high streams of Mount Emei Shan are polluted.”

They fixed their eyes on each other. Old Cat’s home village sat on a flank of the Buddhist holy mountain, just below its snow and fog, but within its sacred forests.

Old Cat didn’t trust Shi enough to dismiss from his mind the fear that beneath the general’s observation was a threat: Cooperate with us, for we know where your friends live and where your ancestors are buried.

Shi’s softening eyes suggested that he realized that his gesture of common cause had backfired.

“I, too,” Shi said, “have climbed to the Golden Summit. It was years ago, to visit my son.” He smiled again. “Now I take the tram.”

The air around Old Cat thickened with meaning. Shi’s son must be a monk who lived on the mountain.

“What do you want from me?” Old Cat asked.

“Only what China needs from you.”

“China? There is no China in the way you mean,” Old Cat said, his voice strengthening. “There are only people pursuing money. China is merely the land on which they do it.”

Shi shook his head. “The Chengdu rebellion is evidence that you’re wrong.”

Old Cat wasn’t so sure.

“How do you know that the people aren’t motivated by greed,” Old Cat finally said. “To take from the rich and distribute it among themselves?”

“Is that your aim?”

“I don’t know what my aim is. I can’t imagine a future that’s any different from the past.” Old Cat looked hard at General Shi. “Can you?”

Shi shrugged. “We Chinese have never been good at political theory. We replicate. We pirate. Sometimes well. Sometimes badly. We are masters, not of invention, but of improvisation, of living without a past or a future, with neither a history nor a script to guide us.”

Old Cat felt rage blossom in his chest. He now understood Shi’s intentions.

“For you Chengdu is merely an experiment, like grafting a shoot onto a persimmon tree or a new heart into a dying man. If it takes, fine. If not, you’ll rip it out.”

Shi shook his head again. “It’s more than that.” He leaned forward and rested his forearms on the table. “Look what you’ve done with your courts. Look at how you’ve controlled the violence. You’ve created fair institutions in the place of corrupt ones. And did it in just days. We want to see what grows in the time it has.”

“And then?”

“We’ll find out together.”

Shi paused and gazed into Old Cat’s eyes and realized that he owed the farmer not just part of the truth, but all of it.

“But don’t think that you’ll come out of this alive,” Shi said. “I don’t see how that can happen.”

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