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Till Death Do Us Part chapter 22
This year, Shen Liangsheng spent a good half of the spring and summertime in the South. Since he decided to leave the country, he had to do what had to be done, and fast. He wanted to sell the factory, and there was no other buyer available except the Japanese. He could not object to the low price since the industrial sector in the North had been monopolized by the Japanese, leaving no room for English or American investors. However, there was no reason to liquidate the remaining securities and real estate at distressed prices, so Shen Liangsheng visited Peip’ing in April and Shanghai in May. After wrapping up business matters, he did not rush to return to Tientsin and instead stayed in Shanghai for a month or so. He thought of it as a long break for himself, and it seemed that the farther he was from Tientsin, the sooner he would forget the man.
Several storms hit the North in July raising the water levels of all the rivers and streams in the region at an alarming rate. Eventually by the end of the month flooding occurred, and the farms to the north and south of Tientsin suffered the worst. The Shen factory was located on the outskirts of the city but was not endangered as it was on the west side. Erring on the side of caution, Chou rang the hotel where Shen Liangsheng was staying. He told him about the flooded farms and asked the boss to return and personally attend to matters.
Hearing this, Shen Liangsheng did not hesitate and placed an order for a return ticket to Tientsin, but he did not take the news very seriously. Indeed, Tientsin was one of the most important strategic points for the Japanese in northern China, and thus the dummy government would not let the flood get to the city, no matter how useless they were. Should worst come to worst, they would destroy the dams and redirect the water, securing the city even if that meant flooding all the land around it.
Not only was Shen Liangsheng, who was out of town, not worried, the residents of Tientsin themselves were not particularly apprehensive about an impending disaster. Tientsin was situated at low elevation to begin with and had flooding problems every now and then. Once it became a frequent spectre, the people dropped their guard. The worst case scenario was some inconvenience for several days caused by clogged streets.
Just as the civilians had no sense of urgency, the dummy government did not take any action other than releasing a notice for households to build small dams in front of their doors or at the mouths of the hut’ong so that their homes would not be flooded.
It was early August when Shen Liangsheng embarked on his return trip. Halfway through the journey, news came that the flooding had become serious. Then a little farther down the road, the announcement came that the rails entering Tientsin had been flooded making it impossible to enter the city, so the train had to go around to Peip’ing.
The transportation system was in utter chaos, and the train kept making stops. The passengers could do nothing but pray for the government in Tientsin to blow the dams so the water did not actually enter the city.
This time around, the Japanese did not sit idly by and ended up sending the army to blow the Yungting River Dam. However, not only was the location wrong, the timing of the explosion was wrong, too – they had chosen the day of the highest tide according to the lunar calendar. The Hai Ho could not redirect any water out to sea, so when the waves came tumbling down from upstream, they crashed into the city inundating it in the blink of an eye.
It was a disaster like none had ever seen. The scene when the monstrous waves hit was surreal – pedestrians were still strolling along the streets when a thunderous roar from afar mixed with shrieks saying, “It’s here! Run for your lives!”
But legs could not possibly outrun the water. People could only watch as the flood gushed forth pushing up waves higher than a grown man as it turned the street corners in pursuit. With nowhere left to run and the water at their heels, some climbed on top of nearby vehicles while others climbed up trees. In the end, even the electricity poles were full of clinging people.
Ch’in Ching was on summer holidays at home reading a book on the bed when he heard a noise he had never heard in his life. Before he could react, the water had already entered the house instantly reaching the top of the bed. The house he rented was located in a depression by the Hai Ho, one of the areas most affected by the flood. Thankfully, it was daytime and he was awake. If it had been during the night, he probably would have been washed away in his dreams.
Luckily, the house was made of bricks unlike the clay houses in the farming villages, so it did not collapse even after being hit by such a strong wave. Ch’in Ching could not swim and only managed by holding onto the table. Amidst the struggle, with water in his nose and ears, he somehow caught the door frame and hauled himself up to the roof. He wasn’t sure how he even made it up there. Although he did not have anything with him, he felt fortunate that he had not been swept away by the water.
Shen Liangsheng arrived in Peip’ing in the evening whereupon he learned that the entire city of Tientsin had been flooded earlier in the afternoon. Telephone calls to the office did not go through, so he had no idea what was going on over there. All he knew was that transportation by land was completely cut off; the only way to enter Tientsin now was either by boat or by swimming.
Shen Liangsheng contacted his friend during the night for boats. His friend thought he was worried about the properties and factory, so he admonished while searching for available boats, “What’s the use going back now? It’s all sitting under water and there’s nothing you can do about it. You know, I heard it’s a big mess in Tientsin now, a lot of people dying from the water or from being trampled. Life is worth more than money. Why don’t you stay here, safe and dry, while you wait?”
Shen Liangsheng shook his head without answering. He only smoked one cigarette after another, his face pale and his fingers icy cold despite the summer temperature.
Tientsin was not a true port city, so the number of boats was more limited than one might have expected. Peip’ing would not and could not watch idly as Tientsin suffered and sent any watercraft they could manage to scrounge up, even pressing pleasure boats into service.
The next day, Shen Liangsheng entered Tientsin around noon with the first rescue team and found the situation worse than he had imagined. The water came higher than a man’s waist at the lowest point and could cover his head at the highest.
Due to his connections, Shen Liangsheng was escorted all the way to Cambridge Road. Possibly out of fear of plunder, two men were given this job, and they even left Shen Liangsheng with his own boat and a kind-hearted reminder.
“Please stay safe, Master Shen.”
Cambridge Road had become Cambridge River by then, but because the house was far from the water source and its foundations were quite high, only the basement was in bad condition. The first floor had gotten wet, but the servants blocked the doors and swept the water out, leaving it in satisfactory condition. Shen Liangsheng did not say a word when he returned. He went straight to the second floor and took out from a drawer in the bedroom a handgun he kept there for personal safety. He stuck it in his pants and hurried back down the stairs again, leaving just as swiftly as he had come and without telling the servants his destination.
Indeed, he wanted to search for Ch’in Ching, but not knowing where to start, he had not been able to ask the rescue team to go around looking with him. However, now he had a clear idea – first the man’s home, then the school, then high places and places where people had gathered. He was going to search through every single one until he found the man.
The boat Shen Liangsheng was rowing now was a recreational one from a park. There was a number painted at the tip with red paint. It likely had been redone recently because the colour was as pure as blood.
He felt that he was calm and that his arms were not shaking at all. He even recalled the time long ago when he went boating with Ch’in Ching – the man fibbed about there being fish in the water but stopped fighting after Shen Liangsheng grabbed his hand.
It was noontime. It had been raining continuously the past weeks, but now the sun came out. The glaring sun shone down on him and on the water. All sorts of floating debris littered the calm water including a few bodies of chickens and cats.
And one human one, too – but Shen Liangsheng calmly concluded that this was not fresh. It was most likely someone who drowned upstream and had been washed down by the flood, only floating to the surface after several days of soaking. It was bloated, and the gender could not be determined. It had drifted until it came across an uplifted tree toppled to the side. Trying to continue forward but failing to do so, it writhed desperately as though the ghost still possessing the body were trying to find a replacement for its cursed existence so that it could continue along the cycle of reincarnation.
Naturally, Shen Liangsheng did not want to consider whether the man had also been washed away by the flood.
Someone who could not swim would surely lose his footing when hit by the wave. If he were to get water in his nose or an injury to the head, then most likely he would never find his footing again. Afterwards, he would become a floating corpse and quietly drift along to who-knows-where only to rot under the sun….
Shen Liangsheng dared not have such notions.
Even so, his mind seemed to split into two. One side told him,
Don’t think about it. Don’t think about it.
While the other kept reminding him,
But you have to think. What if he’s dead? What if he….
But if he’s dead, then what?
Shen Liangsheng felt as though his brain were being baked by the sunlight. His consciousness was fading in and out. He could not for the life of him muster an answer.
His back was soaked with sweat from the heat, or perhaps it was cold sweat. The hands on the oars were still icy cold as they performed the mechanical actions of rowing.
The water had flooded the city the previous afternoon, but the bogus government could not organize the proper rescue missions. With nothing else to rely on, some of the braver civilians jumped into the water and swam. The more cowardly ones stayed put even if they could swim for fear of being sucked down a lidless sewer or something.
Someone like Ch’in Ching who could not swim could only stay on the roof. He stayed crouching from night to day and lay under the sun without food or water for the entire morning. His lips were peeling, and his head was spinning.
His surroundings had become a sea. The rooftops almost all housed people. The child of one family nearby most likely had been outside playing when the water hit and disappeared in an instant. The father had swum out looking for the child while the mother stayed on the roof crying. Ch’in Ching had spent the previous night listening to her sobs until she had nothing left in her to cry.
He looked at the murky water around him not knowing what to do, either. The next thing he knew, there was a rhythmic thumping sound like that when someone bangs their head against the wall.
After a night of anxiety and fear, his head was not on straight. He thought someone was trying to end their own life, so he pushed himself to his knees and looked down over the edge. What he saw was not a person but a coffin that had drifted here from somewhere – maybe from a cemetery upstream. Like a boat carrying death, it had drifted until stopped by the wall and then began to knock against it. Clunk-clunk-clunk – it rang like the death knell.
When Ch’in Ching looked up again, he saw Shen Liangsheng. Well, his glasses had fallen into the water long before, and his vision was a blur. However, he somehow knew when he saw a small boat coming towards him that it was Shen Liangsheng.
He shot up to his feet only to fall down before finding solid footing due to his legs being numb from crouching. Instinctively, he held onto the tiles nearby but did so too forcefully. The tile cut a long gash on his palm. Blood gushed out, but he didn’t feel any pain.
Shen Liangsheng had good eyesight and spotted Ch’in Ching from afar. His anxiety had barely settled down when he realized the man was wobbling on the rooftop. Worried once more despite having found the man, he sped up his paddling. Once he reached the house, he stuck out his hand and called out hoarsely, “Come, I’ll catch you.”
The water level here was much higher than a grown man, and the boat was not far from the rooftop. Without having to actually jump, Ch’in Ching more or less was dragged into Shen Liangsheng’s arms. He had barely caught his balance when the other man lurched and brought both of them down on their knees.
“Shen–” Kneeling face to face, Ch’in Ching was in Shen Liangsheng’s tight embrace. He had barely said the man’s name when he felt a warm wetness on his neck which stopped him from forming any words.
Shen Liangsheng cried in silence. He held the other man tightly, perhaps too tightly as he was trembling. Ch’in Ching hugged the man back, watching his own blood dirtying the man’s clothes. Only after his palm touched the wet shirt on the man’s back did he begin to feel pain. It was a pain that reached his heart and made him want to cry as well.
Face buried in Ch’in Ching’s neck, Shen Liangsheng soon regained control of himself but continued to embrace the man for a while before letting go. He grabbed the man by the wrist and spotted the gash on the palm. He wanted to touch it but dared not.
“Just a small cut. I’m fine,” Ch’in Ching quickly assured him, his voice just as hoarse.
“Are you hurt anywhere else?”
“No. I’m all right. You, on the other hand–”
There were no sign of tears on Shen Liangsheng’s face, but his eyes were still a bit red. It was an expression of vulnerability bordering on helplessness which Ch’in Ching had never seen on the man before.
He heard the man continue,
“Come with me, I’m begging you, to England, to America. We’ll go wherever you want to go. Please?”
The utterance left Ch’in Ching completely dumfounded. Shen Liangsheng had never told him about his plans to leave the country, but that was not what surprised him. It was the word “beg.”
Even after all his time with this man, he had never known the man to beg anyone for anything. Hearing the word “beg” now was like a knife stabbing into his heart. The handle was sticking out, sealing in the blood, the pain, and also the answer “yes” that almost sneaked past his lips.
Ch’in Ching stared dumbly at the man kneeling before him and then at the water around them that seemed to have no end.
War, disaster, one calamity after another – it was as though the world really were caving on itself and the land sinking into sea.
They said thinkers were the most useless, and indeed, as a teacher, the things he could do were limited. Yet, when he was confronted with the request, he knew he could not bear to leave this place behind.
“Shen Liangsheng…I can’t do it.”
Perhaps he could if there were peace. But sadly, there was not. He could not leave precisely because there was not. Even if he was of no use and there was not a thing he could do, there was one last thing he wanted to do.
It all came down to the saying, ‘My motherland gave me life and sustenance, and I shall in turn live and die with her.’
“But you should…just go…. I….”
For a moment, Ch’in Ching wanted to tell the man,
I love you. I can’t leave, but I will love you and you only for the rest of my life. No matter where you might be, no matter where I might be, I will remember you every day I am alive and miss you forever and always.
But he couldn’t say it. He couldn’t leave with the man, so saying those words would only be rubbing salt into his wounds.
He didn’t speak, but the knife began to move. From head to toe, it tore through him inch by inch until he became two bloody halves. Never before had he truly wished to be cut into two so that one half could stay behind and the other could leave with the man.
“You say I should go….”
Shen Liangsheng was on his knees like Ch’in Ching and was at a loss. Then after what seemed like minutes, he asked in a puzzled tone as though he really did not know the answer,
“But with you here…where else do you expect me to be?”
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Caption: Great Flood of 1939, near Furong Elementary (photo: Yoshiro Kawana)
Asahi Road in the Japanese concession (current Heping Road) during the flood
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On the corpse floating in the water:
It is believed that the spirit of someone who dies from drowning will turn into a water demon (or ghost) and cannot enter the cycle of reincarnation unless it drowns someone else and finds a replacement.
For more information:
Western news article on the flood at the time
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ayszhang: It's getting warm in Tokyo >A< me no like!
Till Death Do Us Part - English Translation by ayszhang is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.