[the following is a rough draft of a story I am writing and evaluating, part of a book length manuscript of around 350 pp.]
After the First Death
I find little solace in sleep. Men, women and children from all the bygone days and nights of my life materialize nightly in my dreams, gather around me and ask, “Why?” They demand to be told why am I still here in this world. Why am I not with them?
Some sigh a series of pitiful “I wants” just as they did when we were together and I was a young man. I am young no longer. They plead, “I want food. I want water. I want to sit down and rest. I want my son. I want my daughter. I want my wife. I want my mother and my father. I want to go home. I want to leave, please let me go. I want to know what crime I have committed. I want to know why I am being punished. I want to know why I am here. I want to live. I want to die.”
Seven faces in my dreams are those of the men standing beside me on the night of my execution. I listen again in my sleep to their sobbing and pleas and I hear the explosion of the guns of the firing squad. I feel the bullet and I taste the blood. And yet each morning I open my eyes to the world of the living.
By the time I was sentenced to stand before a firing squad with these seven men, I had witnessed many public executions. I stood in the crowds that watched the processions of open-bed trucks move slowly through the city streets carrying condemned men and women to the fields of execution. People jeered and shook their fists at the prisoners or waved their little Red Books above their heads and passionately condemned the already condemned. School children were prominent among those denouncing the prisoners standing or kneeling in the back of the trucks. For the young this was considered a teachable moment. Executions make obedient citizens of those not yet executed, especially the impressionable youth.
No mercy was shown. Relatives and loved ones of those about to be shot either remained silent or stayed away from the hideous processions. I happened to be watching as my father was trucked from our home to field outside our town where he was shot. I was standing along the street with my comrades from the Communist Youth League as a truck carrying him passed. He was staring at his feet until a guard pulled his head up so the crowd could see his face. Our eyes met for a moment. I know he recognized me but he betrayed no emotion. Neither did I. I was ashamed and frightened. I struggled to hold back my tears. The truck moved on and turned a corner and my father was gone forever. He has never returned to me in my dreams.
I was condemned to be shot the 13th year of my imprisonment in October, 1971. This was just before the Autumn Moon Festival when prisoners were in the midst of harvesting the rice crop. Those were unusually difficult days in the large labor camp where I had been sentenced to reeducation through labor. The men and women of the camp worked from sunrise to sunset. Exhaustive labor had been prescribed to cleanse our minds of incorrect or dangerous thoughts and to remake us as more perfect citizens of the workers’ state. And yet some of us were judged to be so steadfast in our counter-revolutionary thoughts that we could never be reformed. After our labor was extracted we were marked for liquidation rather than release.
One cold autumn night someone somewhere in the bureaucracy of the labor camps made the decision to kill a number of prisoners immediately. Why that particular night? I don’t know. Maybe the camp commander had a disagreement with his wife or was denied promotion. Perhaps he was angered by the misbehavior of his children. He could have had difficulty falling asleep because of a story he read that day in the People’s Daily. Maybe he had a fight with his girl friend or his hemorrhoids were acting up again. Or perhaps his dinner didn’t sit right in his stomach that night. He may have been drinking or maybe there was no particular reason. Reasons really are not required. When reasons were provided for executions I witnessed they made little sense. Simple people were said to have committed impossibly complex crimes or have participated in international conspiracies to bring down the government. Many were accused of working for the Nationalist during the civil war and never to have changed their loyalties. There were also many who had a suspicious background – they were related to someone who fled to Taiwan or who served in the Nationalist government or lived in the West or had been educated in the West.
There was also a quota. The party luminaries in Beijing followed the policies of Lenin and Stalin and decreed that a particular percentage of every organization, every factory, every community and every school were counter-revolutionaries and enemies of the people. Even a certain percentage of party members were traitors and spies they announced. Traps were set for them and they were quickly exposed. Yet despite the arrests and imprisonments and executions, despite the public confessions, the number of enemies of the people did not diminish. The hunt for them continued. A concealed portable radio meant someone was listening to Voice of America or BBC and communicating with agents bent on overthrowing the government. Inappropriate or untimely laughter following a speech by an important political luminary or sarcastic remarks about a policy a speech or a publication were considered indelible indicators of disloyalty. Defacing the face of a party leader on a poster or burning a newspaper with the picture of a party leader in it brought imprisonment or death. The official inquisition was never ending and the recruitment of patriotic snitches, informants and tattlers turned students against teachers, workers against employers, brothers against brothers, husbands against wives and children against parents.
Most charges might have been laughable had they not also have been lethal for the accused. Reasons were only for show I concluded and evidence was customarily only a forced confession. Many times I heard party leaders say of a man or woman condemned without evidence, “The charges are so serious they require no evidence.” But to express my doubts publicly privately – assuming of course that anything was private in those days -- was just another way to attract suspicion and accusation. I kept my beliefs to myself in order, I thought, to be safe. I did not know yet that in such a society no one is ever completely safe.
In the camps no evidence was needed to execute a prisoner. The commander customarily dreamed up extravagant charges in order to justify executions. Or someone above him dreamed them up and sent him orders for executions. The men and women in the labor camps were nobodies and we were of no consequence to anyone in power. We were labor alone and could easily be replaced by others. We were, as the government described us, the “discarded shit” of society. We were no longer considered to be human beings. We were temporary people.
An execution now and then in the camps served as a deterrent to any prisoner who might contemplate the commission of a thought crime or an actual criminal act such as escape or laziness Executions were also held to give soldiers target practice. Sometimes an execution provided entertainment and excitement for a few prisoners. A few of the colder souls among us wagered with each other over which victims might more than one bullet to dispatch them or which prisoner might crawl the furthest before dying.
I abhorred public executions. After I watched my father being trucked away I could not look at the parades of prisoners anymore. While adults and children cheered I stood silently with my comrades and turned my eyes to the ground as the trucks passed carrying the soon-to-be-dead. Of course I could not turn away because I might attract the attention of some obsequious party agent or snitch and be fingered as a suspicious character. If I looked up at the procession I feared I might again find that final forlorn farewell look of my father in the eyes of another man or woman on the bed of the truck. When public attendance at an execution was required, I stood silently in the crowd and tried to show no emotion. With spectators pushed to within a few meters from the victims, I watched what unfolded. In the crowd with many informants, policemen, sycophants, sadists and soldiers watching for suspicious signs, I dare not be seen covering my eyes or ears. I jumped at the explosion of the guns. My eyes filled with tears and my heart raced at these events. My knees weakened. I became light headed and had difficulty standing. I was among the first to leave the scene – but never the first because that brought suspicion and accusation -- and I dreaded having to wait for the officer in charge to inflict the customary coup de grace on the condemned.
That happened at executions whenever the primary executioners were inexperienced or unnerved a bit by participating in the spectacle. Several times “executioners in training” made up a firing squad. These were young soldiers who were still learning how to kill up close and on command. In the words of the officers and commissars, they needed to be “bloodied.”
The first shot fired into a victim may not be fatal. In such cases the victims writhed on the ground in pain or screamed (in the case of both women and men) or cried out for help. The pathetic please of those who had been shot and survived clawed at the souls of many witnesses. It was a not unlike the squeal of a cow or a pig as it feels the point of the butcher’s blade at its throat. It reminds me sometimes of the sound a dog makes as it is being beaten to death. The crowd was often unsettled by this, no matter what their mood before the shots were fired. Some victims tried to crawl away after they fell. They could only squirm on the ground like a worm impaled on a fish hook because their arms and hands were tightly tied behind their back. Now and then victims attempted to get to their knees or to stand and struggled to find their footing and their balance and run away. No one I watched ever made it back to a standing position.
These frantic miserable moments were brief. Customarily there was a senior officer or supervisor on hand to finish the job. Sometimes the officer drew his pistol as he approached the still-living victims. He bent down to examine each one who had just been shot. He searched for the entry hole of the bullet to see if the shot had passed through the shoulder or ribs or perhaps the side of the neck. When there was a sign of life, any movement or sound, he stood up straight and held his pistol at arm’s length and shot the man or women in the back of the head. If the head was turned to the side he fired into the temple. He wielded a high caliber pistol and so before firing he stepped back slightly to avoid becoming soiled with the blood or brains of the victim. In one case I remember an officer doing the post-firing squad inspection while carrying a ping pong paddle in his left hand. When he detected a living victim, he placed the paddle tightly against the man’s head and stuck the barrel of his pistol against the paddle and fired.
In order to compensate the state, families of those executed are often charged the cost of a single bullet after an execution. In cases where more than one bullet was required the cost rises, so a victim who dies from a single shot, it is said, saves his family the extra expense. This is the “bullet fee.”
Getting a second bullet, however, is sometimes considered an unnecessary luxury. The police and the army are concerned with conserving ammunition. Wasting good bullets on bad elements among the people is often deemed unwise and wastefully humane.
When a second bullet is denied the wounded man or woman, the soldier or policeman uses a bayonet. Sometimes he thrusts it into the back of the heart of the victim, sometimes into the throat. The result is the same. He waits for a short time to see if this works. He watches the flow of blood to determine when the heart has stopped pumping. When this occurs it is unnecessary to feel the pulse again. He moves on to the next victim.
After an execution the soldiers or police march away and spectators and witnesses are sent back to their quarters or homes. A medical attendant and his team dispose of the bodies. Victims are sometimes buried in unmarked graves. More commonly, however, the bodies are simply dumped into ditch or field outside the city or labor camp for the wolves or wild dogs or wild pigs to eat.
I find solace in the belief that the victims need no longer live in misery and fear in this world. They are, I tell myself, at peace. They have been dispatched to a better place. It is the survivors who suffer with tormented memories and dreams. This was, of course, merely a personal conceit. No one returns from the grave to tell me what it was like on the other side. I simply assume the other side could never be worse than what I witness on this side.
And so the commander of the labor camp where I am held decides in the middle of the night that immediate executions might be a good thing.
At the end of a long day’s each prisoner is provided with a bowl of thin rice soup. Those accused of being a slacker at work are deprived of food in the evening. This only means the rest of us go with a bit less because those who are fed always provide a bit from their bowl for those who are not fed, despite the danger of an informant telling the guards or the administrators that we have undermined an assigned punishment.
The men in the barracks lie on a beds of rough wooden planks with straw scattered on them. Each of us has been given a thin cotton blanket as a cover. When finish eating and after a guard retrieves the empty soup kettle we whisper softly to each other and one-by-one we fall asleep and except for the soft snoring the barracks becomes silent.
It is a great irony that in the camp I have no difficulty falling asleep. My sleep is deep and not yet burdened with dreams. My strength is drained away each day in the fields and my exhausted body, I fear, has no energy to conjure up even a single lingering image in the night.
Shortly after midnight there is a loud crashing and banging as half dozen guards fling open the door and burst into the barracks. The hold flashlights and shine them into the faces of each of the sleeping prisoners. They overturn a few beds nearest the door and order everyone outside. As we leap from our beds the guards kick us and push us out the door. “Everybody out! Everybody out! They shout.
We are kicked or struck with flashlights as we scurry past the guards. We run into each other in the dark as we stumble out the door and into the night. Outside the barracks the guards form a gauntlet to beat us as we hurry past them. Some prisoners wear their slippers and others run with only one slipper or barefoot, unable to find their slippers in the dark barracks. I am bare footed. As I crouch barefooted past the guards, I catch the scent of liquor on the guards. They have begun to celebrate the Moon Festival early, I think. Now they want their fun.
We are herded to a large compacted-dirt parade ground in the center of the camp. Prisoners from other barracks are also whipped to the area. Guards waiting there shout orders for us to form several long lines. These guards wield whips woven from several strands of rope, thick enough to fall heavily on the arms and back and leave large cuts, welts and bruises on prisoners. They whip and beat each of us as we form 10 lines of about 50 prisoners each. Those who fall are whipped until they rise and scramble to take their places in a long line.
The assembly area is illuminated by an almost-full moon and by the flashlights of the guards. As we form our lines there are sudden explosions and bright flashes of blinding light as soldiers had fire their pistols into the air very close behind us. Some of the men upon hearing this think the prisoners were being shot and they are momentarily paralyzed with fear. A few begin crying or whining denials of any wrongdoing.
I watch how in a single minute we are transformed from sleeping men into a mass of stampeding animals herded together in the night, eyes wide, nostrils flared, terrified and confused and totally intimidated by our keepers.
In the pale moonlight filtered through filaments of passing clouds the commander of the camp suddenly makes his entrance, staggering back and forth in front of us. He holds a flashlight and as he steps up and down the lines he pauses now and then to aim the blinding beam directly into the face of a terrified and disoriented prisoner.
“You miserable sons of bitches,” he begins his lecture. I notice the slurring of his words. He, too, has gotten an early start on celebrating the Moon Festival. He is full of himself again. “Look at you! I know what you are planning! I know what you are dreaming! I know what you are scheming, damn you. You think I do not know? I know. I know everything about you. I know when you eat. I know when you shit. I know when you talk. I know what you plan. You are conspiring with agents of Taiwan and America to invade and take back China, aren’t you? You are planning to enslave all of us again, aren’t you? Well, you rascals that will not happen. Now you will pay for your crimes.”
He pauses for a moment and nearly loses his balance. Guards step forward to help him stabilize himself. There is no sound from the prisoners.
“Tonight,” he continues, “I am going to call the roll…with a machine gun.”
Many of us are, at the moment, in disbelief of what was happening. Does he intend to shoot us all? I am skeptical. But then again, I have been surprised by official cruelty often in the past. I think on the one hand, that all of this is merely for the amusement of the intoxicated guards and the commander. On the other hand, I begin to fear it might get out of hand and be much more than that.
A cloud passes overhead and blots out the moonlight for several seconds. As the darkness covers us the commander stops speaking. We stand in the dark except for the lances of light from the flashlights of the guards. We can no longer see the commander’s face clearly. Indeed, in the darkness we cannot even see each other with clarity. The cloud passes and the commander reappears in front of us. He fumbles with his shirt pocket for a moment before pulling a sheet of paper from it. He clumsily unfolds it and drops it on the ground. A guard hurries forward to retrieve it and hand it back to him. The commander holds it up in his left hand while shining his flashlight on it.
“When I read your name,” he shouts, “identify yourself and step forward.”
The first name he calls is that of a prisoner known to most of us. I worked near the man day after day but I never exchanged words with him. He is in his mid-fifties and has been a prisoner of the state for nearly twenty years. He was a brigade commander in the Nationalist Army during the civil war. I learned from others that he led his men in changing sides at a critical point in the war and joined the Communists. He and his brigade were immediately integrated into the Communist Army and were publicly proclaimed patriotic heroes for what they did. But he made a serious mistake if he thought the leaders of the Communist party might forget that he fought for the other side. A man – especially an officer – who might change sides one time, they believe, might change sides two or three times. He is never to be trusted. Once the new regime was firmly in place it turned against its enemies within the country. Former Nationalist soldiers and officers are rounded up. Many disappeared. Many are executed and many are sent to labor camps.
The man steps out of line and shouts, “Report!” Four guards rush him and take turns whipping him. He tries to defend himself from their blows by covering his head with his arms and bending over. One of the guards orders the whipping to stop. Two guards standing behind him squat and each grabs one of his ankles. The jerk his feet back and he falls heavily onto his chest in the dirt. The guards, wearing military boots, set upon the prone figure kicking and stomping on him while he squeals and tries to crawl away. When they step back and the camp commander orders the man to stand. Slowly, he struggles to his feet and regains his balance. His head is still bowed. Once again the guards pull his feet from under him and kick and stomp on him mercilessly and again they stop and again the commander orders him to stand. With more difficulty than before he rises to his feet, groaning and in pain. Four times the guards pull his feet from under him and kick him. When they were finished his face in the illumination of the flashlights is covered with blood. He’s lost several teeth and his eyes are swollen. He is whimpering as he stands bent over and broken before the commander
It becomes quiet again and the only sound I hear is that of the man gasping heavily through his bloody mouth and nose. The commander glares at him a few moments, steps closer to see the damage that has been inflicted. I see that the commander has difficulties himself standing up straight. Yet, I think he’ll dismiss than man now. Instead, he shouts, “Strangle this son of a bitch!”
Guards seize the man. One of them holds a long rope. The bind his arms and hands behind his back, yanking with such force that they nearly pull his arms from their sockets. They kick him to the ground and tie his ankles with the rope and pull his legs and feet tightly up behind his back and looped the rope around his neck several times and pull his head back so far his chin is extended outward at a painful angle and the soles of his bare feet are only inches from the back of his head. He lies on the ground gasping for air. If he struggles or moves one way or the other the rope tightens and he strangles himself. The pain in his joints is excruciating, but as he squirms to find a position less painful he tightens the rope around his neck. We have all seen other prisoners tied like this and left on the ground until they strangled themselves to death by fighting against the excruciating pain of the taut ropes. The term for such torture is to be “tied to death.”
The commander shines his flashlight on the man writhing on the ground and watches for a moment with an amused smile. Tiring of this he turns his flashlight back to the paper in his hand. He proclaims to the assembly of prisoners and guards that it was the judgment of a people that the man – although he uses the word “living clump of shit” rather than “man” -- be executed this night.”
Another name is called. The man is one of my friends in the camp. He is 60 years old and he is serving a 20 year sentence as a “contradiction” and “a historical counter revolutionary.” His first crime involved his family–his father was a landlord before the revolution. His second crime is mumbling sarcastic statements about the party leaders in his district. His sarcasm is overheard and written down by several neighbors and informants and he was seized by local police and charged and sentenced to 20 years of reform through labor. He has served 19 years and 7 months of his sentence.
He is extremely near sighted. Years ago the guards confiscated and smashed his glasses so he goes through life in the camp seeing everything in an unfocused haze. He does not talk much to others anymore and he is clearly looking forward to his release and reunion with his wife and children.
The familiar ritual of abuse by the guards follows. Four times the old man’s feet are pulled from under him. Four times he falls and the wind is knocked out of him. He gasps for air. When his normal breathing returns the guards kick and stomp on him. When they are finished he is tied beside the other man on the ground. Again the commander shines a light on the men and watches with amusement as the two struggle against both pain and strangulation.
Five more names are called and five more men are humiliated, beaten and tied. I am feeling safer. I am thinking that tonight I will live. I will see my loved ones again.
The commander reads the last name -- the eighth – from his list. I shudder and stand quietly. I tell myself that I am not actually hearing what I think I am hearing. The commander repeats the name. It is my name. I am the last name on his list of men to be executed this night. The man on each side of me glances over at me and quickly looks away, frightened or shamed. For a moment I am frozen in place. My legs are paralyzed. With a great effort I move one and then the other and step out of line. “Report!” I shout and my voice breaks. The guards see me and rush to seize me. They whip me mercilessly and I cover my head and face with my arms. They beat my hands and arms and sides. When they are satisfied that I am in enough pain they drag me before the commander. A dozen flashlights shine on me. The other prisoners, no doubt relieved that they have not been called out to die, stand silently watching. Four times my feet are pulled from under me and I fall heavily to the ground while the commander smiles and the guards kick and stomp. I close my eyes and try to protect my face from the blows.
I am not tied up, however. I escape that torture. When the beating stops the commander orders the guards to untie the prisoners so we can all stand. Our hands and arms are then tightly bound behind us in preparation for execution. We stand in a single forlorn line in front of the terrified silent assembly of prisoners. The commander reads a brief speech from the paper he holds. He says that the fate of these eight “enemies of the people” should serve as a warning to all other prisoners. “You must abandon evil and do good,” he warns. “Or you will share their fate. He reads several more party platitudes “You must follow the leadership of the party. You must work hard each day to reform your thinking through labor. You must be steadfast revolutionaries. You must report enemies of the people now hiding among you.” He loses his place in the speech and repeats several of the lines twice. When he is finished reading he orders all other prisoners back to their barracks. The eight of us remain behind to die.
We were shoved by the guards to the far side of the assembly ground just beyond the walls of the roofless camp latrine. Clouds have blocked out the moonlight again. The only light is that from flashlights. The condemned men with me become dark silhouettes. I hear the other prisoners moaning or crying as they were pushed along. One man falls several times and is lifted to his feet by impatient guards. He seems to be talking to someone but I can make no sense of his words. I think he is talking to his wife who is hundreds of miles away. I start thinking that this was the end of my life. I realize I am no longer afraid to die.
I taste blood in my mouth and my head is throbbing from the beating. My toes hurt from the guards stomping on them. But I know I can bear the pain now, because it is temporary. Death will bring an end to my suffering.
We are lined up, each man a meter or less from the men beside to him. We are ordered to face away from the firing squad into the yawning blackness beyond the camp. I listen to the shuffling of the boots of the guards as they arrange themselves into a firing squad, each man assigned one prisoner to kill. I hear and recognize the sound of the loading of each rifle. My heart pounding and my entire body starts to tremble. I am losing control. I struggle not to wet myself. “My last night on earth,” I think. “This is my last taste of air. This is the final beat of my heart. This is the end of my pain and suffering. This is the end of everything.”
The men on either side of me are breathing rapidly and loudly. Somewhere in the line one of the men is still talking to his wife.
I stare straight ahead into the void. Suddenly, I hear the man beside start to cry and to call out for his mother. I turn my face to him and I can just make out his features in the dark – he is just a boy, probably in his late teens. I’ve seen him many times in the fields. I cannot remember his crime or why he was sentenced to the camp. I feel a sudden impulse to comfort him. I cannot, of course, move my arms or hands to touch him. So I raise my head, look at his swollen face and begin to say, “Don’t be afraid.” But all that comes out is, “Don’t b…” before my words were interrupted by a tremendous deafening explosion and a flash of light.
My strength gives out. My knees buckle and I tumble forward, my face is turned to the boy. The side of my head smashes against the ground. I hear my bones crack. I feel several teeth come loose inside my mouth. I choke on my own blood as it surges into my nose and mouth.
So this is what it is like to die,” I think to myself. “This at last is death.”
I lie quietly. I continue breathing. Gradually I realize I can hear what is happening. The commander of the firing squad shouts, “Comrade’s we have captured the heights! Forward to victory!” I listen to the footsteps of the guards as they march away.
I wait for death. I wait and I wait. The blood pools around my face. I am in great pain. I slowly open my eyes. Only inches from my face is the face of the boy who was crying. His eyes are open wide and he is looking directly into my eyes. His mouth is open too, as if in surprise. He is close enough so I can see that his head above his eyebrows had been blown away. I stare at what remains of his young dead face. I blink.
“Where is death?” I wonder. “Where is death? “ I try to lift my head but find I cannot. To my right I hear the moaning of another man.
I know what to expect now. I wait for an officer to come forward and to put a bullet into the head of each of the fallen, or to stick them with a bayonet and cut the remaining life from us.
But he never arrives. The officer has marched away with his firing squad.
“Where is death?” I ask myself again. “Surely, this is not it. Lying on the ground in a puddle of my own blood with a dead boy beside me. This is not death.”
Minutes later I hear the camp medic. It is his duty following an execution to X out the name of each dead prisoner from the camp rolls. Sometimes, if finds prisoner was not yet dead, he passes him by and waits several minutes for the man to expire before marking him dead.
He moves down the line from body to body until he was standing over me. I struggle to turn my face up to him.
He jumps. “Shit!” he exclaims when he sees me blink my eye. “Shit!”
“Help me,” I whisper. My words are slurred by the blood and teeth inside my mouth.
“Oh, shit,” he says again. He kneels and runs his hand around my head feeling for the wound. He keeps repeating, “Oh, shit. Oh, shit.”
“Please,” I whisper, “Don’t kill me. Cut me loose. I’m hurting.”
While I struggle to form words he appears to have gone into shock. The same profane exclamation keeps tumbling from his lips.
“Untie me, please,” I tell him.
He stands and moves on. He seems to be ignoring me or denying what he has seen and heard. He examines each body and feels the neck for a pulse. The moaning of the other prisoner has stopped. One by one he crosses their names from his list.
I watch his fingers as he touches the neck of the dead boy lying beside me. When he finishes with the boy he kneels next to me and places his fingers on my neck.”
I hear his nervous breathing. I think he does not know what to do.
“Help me,” I whisper. “Please help me.”
“You’re still alive,” he says. “You are alive,” as if trying to explain to himself how this can be. I suspect he is afraid I am a ghost and that might rise up and seize him at any moment.
“Help me. Untie me, please.”
Again, a long silence.
“Are you alive?” he asks.
“I think so,” I say softly.
“What is your name?” he asks, his lips a few inches from my face.
I tell him my name and he finds it on his list. “It says here that you are supposed to be dead,” he whispers with a trembling voice.
“I am not dead,” I assure him.
He calls out a man’s name. I fear it is a guard he is summoning to shoot me again. I hear another man stop up beside me. “Untie him,” the medic tells the man. I feel the man fumbling with the ropes. In a few seconds my hands were freed.
I open and close my fists and feel the life inside me. “Don’t move,” the medic tells me. He runs his hands around my head again while his assistant shines a light on me.
“They missed,” he says, telling me the obvious. “They were all drinking and in the dark they missed you.”
His flashlight blinds me and I close my eyes. “Someone missed,” he says again, as if to convince himself.
Yet the pain in my head is intense. And I jump when he touches the wound above my ear. I moan and spit out a mouthful of blood along with three teeth that have been knocked out by the gunshot or the fall.
I begin to comprehend what happened. The soldiers had been celebrating the Moon Festival. They were full of liquor when they were summoned by the commander. Add to this that they could not see their victims clearly in the darkness. The flashlights had been turned off just before they fired. They aimed at shadows and at the moment the command to shoot was given, I turned my head to comfort the boy beside me. The soldiers fired and instead of striking me square in the back of the head the bullet struck my scalp. The bullet cut its way through the tissues and hair just above my right ear and exited from the flesh below my right eye
A burial detail made up of prisoners appears and picks up the seven bodies on the ground, and places them in a wooden cart and wheels them out the camp gate and dumps them into nearby field. The medic and his assistant carry me to the small room that serves as a clinic for the camp. They lay me out on a bare wooden table and light a kerosene lamp.
In the kerosene light inside the clinic I recognize the face of the camp medic. I’ve seen him often before. He was a school teacher sentenced to 20 years in the camp. In the camp he works beside us until he is needed in the clinic where he dispenses potions and medicines and generally watches over dying prisoners. All that he knows of medicine comes from a military manual he was provided by the commander. His most important duty is to pronounce prisoners officially dead and to fill out all the required forms. Sometimes he notifies relatives. Sometimes he does not. After executions he pronounces the victims dead and supervises the removal and disposal of the bodies.
“You are one lucky man!” he says to me as I lie on his table. I grimace and moan in pain after he shaves the side of my head above the ear and washes my wound with alcohol. He holds his hand softly over my mouth to stop me from making a noise that might be heard by a guard. He uses a large needle and a long black thread to stitch up my wound and to stop the bleeding. He takes ten stitches and tells me he’ll examine me in a week. If my scalp has healed properly and there is no infection by then, he says, he’ll remove them. When he is finished I sit upright on the table. The medic and his assistant continue to stare at me as if I have returned from the dead – which in a way I have.
They help me slide from the table and stand. As I find my balance the medic takes my hand in his, turns the palm up and places each of my three shot out teeth in my palm. “Lucky man,” he says again, still astonished by my survival. “Lucky man.”
“What will happen to me?” I ask him. “What about the records.”
“I will return your records to the camp files,” he promises. “It was dark. Don’t worry.”
“Won’t the commander find out what happened and kill me again?” I ask.
“The commander is a little drunk tonight,” he assures me. “I don’t think he’ll have a very clear memory in the morning. You can count on it.”
“What about the guards?” I ask.
“They were drinking, too. They’ll be far too embarrassed to believe what happened,” he says. “And besides,” botching an execution might be considered a counter-revolutionary act.” He smiles and pats my shoulder. “Take care of yourself,” he says, “and before you sleep tonight thank whatever god you pray to for giving you a new life.”
He helps me out the door and across the assembly grounds to my barracks. I slip into the dark room on my own strength. I hear snoring. No one sits up to see who is coming in so late. I find my bed. Someone has taken my cotton blanket. No doubt they concluded I would not need it. I lie down and carefully place my head on my folded arm. The wound is throbbing and I am still in a little light-headed. I can taste blood inside my mouth and with my tongue find the space on the right side of my jaw where my teeth had been knocked out. I smell the alcohol that was used to wash my wound. In a few minutes I am asleep.
In the early light of the morning I awaken to find half a dozen men gathered around my bunk staring at me. “You are alive?” they say one after the other. And each in his turn reaches out to touch me and to assure himself I am not a ghost.
They heard the gunshots, they say. And they heard the guards march away. There were no shots after the first volley and no coup de grace. They listened as other prisoners carted away the bodies.
“How cans this happen?” one of the younger prisoners asks.
“Bad shots, I suppose,” I tell him and force a weak smile. “And too much liquor.”
The men touch my stitches and my swollen face. My right eye has a black and blue bruise around it both of my eyes are bloodshot. I run my fingertips over the stitches in my head and assure the men, “I am still here.” Another prisoner brings my blanket to me and lays it over my legs. I nod to him in gratitude.
A large pot of thin soup is placed inside the door by two guards. They pay no attention to me. Each prisoner fills his bowl with the stuff and sits on his bunk eating. A prisoner asks, “What were you thinking during your execution.”
After a moment of silence I tell him that I was thinking about the boy standing beside me calling for his mother. He was sobbing. I felt so sorry for him. I was thinking of comforting him. And then we were all shot.
“Is that all?” another man asks.
“Before that,” I tell him, “I was thinking ‘I want to die.’”
“And when you didn’t die, what were you thinking then?” he asks.
“When the medic found me I was thinking, ‘I want to live,’” I said.
Several of the men nod at my answer and then return to eating their soup. There are no more questions as they prepare for another day of labor.