The Peacock Mosaic

The Arrest


 

One chilly morning in autumn, 1955, a clattering of footsteps and the slamming open of the gate violated the pre-dawn peace and calm. Torches flashed. Commanding voices charged the atmosphere. Terror, chaos and horror exploded like a bomb on our home. Some unknown aliens invaded us, impacting awe. The men and women of the People’s Militia appeared from everywhere, both inside and outside our house, before we even realised what the commotion was. Dressed in their well-worn and patched army uniforms and armed with their shiny long rifles, they promptly secured the whole surrounding area.

They arrested my father.

‘What have I done wrong?’ asked my father. His voice was barely audible, feeble and pleading, submitting himself to the power of the people.

‘What you done wrong? Fuck your mother! You fucking counter-revolutionary to New China,’ growled the one in charge, ‘Your father was a fucking capitalist!’

‘You fucking Nationalist Party member. You black element in hiding. Your whole family are fucked,’ he continued to yell and swear at my father. We shook and trembled. He roared on with wrath. We buried our face into Mother as she shook and trembled with us. We huddled together in great fear and could not stop crying. I had never heard anyone so rude and intimidating to my parents. If only my little legs were not like jelly, I could have jumped at those nasty intruders.

‘Fuck your mother. We here to bring you to the justice of the people,’ the one in charge snarled, cursing my parents, their parents, our ancestors and our whole family, the dead and the alive, past and present, dishing out the worst insults on earth. We shook and trembled more. He was very cross. His voice was loud, firm and regimental, full of that ferocious revolutionary tone so familiar from district heads and senior party members in denouncing and sentencing meetings. So bad that it threatened to bring the roof down.

There was no mercy as he continued to swear at my father and the family, making me feel all of us were scum, criminals and enemies to the sacred revolution that we were so proud of. Even the peasants were not able to swear as viciously as he did. My father shivered at the insults directed at his family and his departed parents. His face turned deadly white, then red, and finally purple as the veins in his neck bulged and swelled, ready to burst. He stared at his captors with the kind of anger and rage that I had never witnessed before. If he had not been already tied down I was sure he would have leaped at the guards and been done with there and then. The honour of his whole family was pillaged. Family honour was something worth dying for.

‘Wang Ting,’ said my father with his gaze fixed on one of the ruthless faces of revolution, ‘Honouring your teacher is a virtue, as much as it’s honouring your own parents. I am here at your mercy but there’s no need to insult and dishonour the rest of my family.’ His words, unwavering and unswerving, quietened the commotion like in a classroom.

The militia guards were silent for that instant when my father spoke. They were surprised that their former teacher dared speaking back at them, now that they ruled the whole town and its people. We stopped crying and listened.

‘Have you not got parents, brothers and sisters and families? Should you not treat them with honour and respect? What would you do if their honour was despoiled, reviled and despised?’ My father exploded with such quiet fury that even the one in charge of the arrest party was taken aback, though only for a brief interval. He was proud of himself that he had provoked the last of the suspects in town to finish his mission for the revolution. He put on a sarcastic grin to show that my father’s words meant nothing to him.

‘Repent and you may get a lesser punishment,’ he howled at my father again as he promulgated the well-rehearsed words, picking his pimples on his chin. Peeking from behind my mother’s apron, I saw my father shake his head and lower his gaze back onto the terracotta tiles. The veins subsided and he returned to his previous ashen look as he resigned himself to the mercy of the revolutionary mob. He realised how frightened we all were. How futile it would be to argue with the pubertal gang and deny the accusations. There was no room for explanation. He was a prisoner, a captive, and a declared scum of the revolution. He now belonged to the most detested and hated class of people who were dispensable according to government directives. Now that the land reform and nationalisation of all industries and businesses were accomplished, and the resistive nationalists, landlords and capitalists were exterminated, rightists and hidden dissidents eradicated, new suspects and targets were needed to keep the wheel of the revolution turning.

My father had long suspected his turn to be thoroughly purged, and even imprisonment, was coming. The authorities in town had summoned him on several occasions to explain what he did before 1949. They wanted to know everything about his past. He counted his blessings each time they let him off. He had written many times about his past on their demand. They told him to repeat the same several times more, as consistency would reveal a person’s honesty. They detained him on a few occasions, but never longer than a week, as they tried to incriminate him. My father would always feel lucky when they released him for lack of evidence, though they ordered him to attend political re-education meetings in the evenings almost daily, to ensure that he would indeed be safe for the new society. Deep in his heart, he knew his time was approaching.

The first light filtered into the house. It did not make the bleak day any better. The normally happy sparrows disappeared with fright and stopped chirping. Neighbours gathered outside the front yard trying to find out who was arrested, even though arrests were common in town. This was happening in their street. They had long been suspecting my father’s fate and worried about their own, just as he had about his and theirs. Every adult who had lived under the pre-communist rule was a suspect until they were thoroughly investigated. A new society was being born through the protracted hard labour of the revolution that many thought finished with the Nationalists being banished to Taiwan and the PRC’s proclamation. At that moment, I understood exactly the meaning of revolution. It definitely meant more than what the teachers told us at school: cleansing, purging, re-educating the people and making sacrifices. It meant pain and awe. It meant insults and dishonour if you were on the wrong side of the wheel. Making sacrifices meant bloodletting and exterminating certain unwanted people in the society, as determined by the authorities in charge. It was the townspeople’s turn to go through the wheel of fire.

The men and women of the People’s Militia lined the front entry. All were looking solemn, tough-faced and important with their shiny weapons proudly displayed to the people. The red armband stood out on their much-valued second hand army tunics. The patched uniforms had a story of their own to tell about the struggle and sacrifices of the people and their final triumph. It was a sign of revolution in motion and in its continuity. As a child, I often dreamed about owning an old and patched army tunic to feel that I belonged and was part of the revolution, until the morning they arrested my father. I felt hurt, disgraced, and unwanted. Definitely not belonging.

Some of the guards left briefly and returned with shovels and hoes. They began to dig up the house looking for weapons they believed my father had hidden. Systematically, they dug up the terra cotta tiles. Sand was turned and spread in small hills all over the house. They searched high and low, sparing not a single square inch of area in the vast house, as my father resigned himself to his fate.

We sat next to Father, holding onto him hoping that they would not be able to take him away from us. We wept and wailed. Ah-dong’s mother came over from next door and could not stop her tears pouring. Father was unable to move and still looked pale. His dark, strong eyebrows linked more closely together than ever, now a knot appeared in the middle of his forehead. In a shaky voice parched by the event, he reassured us that he had done nothing wrong, nothing counter-revolutionary against New China, against Chairman Mao and communism; and that the authorities would soon realise this. He raised his voice with reverence when mentioning Chairman Mao for the guards to hear, to impress on them that he was indeed not a spiteful counter-revolutionary.

‘You have nothing to fear. Just be good children and study hard, very hard,’ he said to us, impressing on us the importance of academic pursuit, if we were fortunate enough to have the opportunity. He was helpless and impotent except for his determined look that imprinted his message on us forever. His effort to swallow saliva was useless. A large crop of long black hair hung over his handsome face. The rifle-waving militiamen and women were involved in his arrest this time. He looked worried. It was clearly a bad sign.

My mother lit up a cigarette and helped him smoke it. Her eyes were red and puffy. Tears had all but drained from them, together with their usual lustre and shine. She struggled to be calm. The tight rope mercilessly congested the veins in his neck. They became distended with each inhalation of his cigarette. My parents did not talk. They had nothing to say to each other for the moment, just like there was so little to say to the frightened children. The mind is blank as threat engulfs the whole body. The accusation of being a counter-revolutionary in the young republic meant the prospect of the most severe punishment by the People’s Court. The one in charge paced up and down in the living room, drawing hard on his Red Flag cigarette, impatient and annoyed. More militiamen and women came in and out of our house. All our belongings were turned upside down and thoroughly searched. They took away family photographs and old letters. The entire living quarters were in a mess. My mother cried a bit more and tried to attend to our breakfast. We did not want to eat. We sat looking at each other with inflamed eyes. We feared the worst for our father and continued to cry.

Father wanted us to go to school. He promised that he would still be at home when we returned. My mother fed him with watery rice congee. Still with his arms and neck tied to the heavy rosewood chair, he appeared to be a little calmer.

We went to school reluctantly in order not to upset our parents. People whispered behind us and stood outside their doors to stare at us from a distance, as if something contagious had emerged from the first house in this quiet street just outside town. We could hear them talk and inquire among themselves. Some people sighed to express their sympathy to the family they had known for generations. A few bolder ones shook their heads in rebellion against the incidence, with their heads bowed, not daring to meet the stares of those proud soldiers of the revolution. No one was brave enough to speak up.

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