The Dark Road A Novel - By Ma Jian

The Dark Road

Ma Jian

Translated from the Chinese by Flora Drew

KEYWORDS: sterilised, dugout, breast milk, family planning squad, date tree, longevity locket, Nuwa Cave.

THE INFANT SPIRIT sees Mother sitting on the edge of her bed, her hands clutching her swollen belly, her legs trembling with fear . . .

Meili rests her hands on her pregnant belly and feels the fetus’s heartbeat thud like a watch beneath a pillow. The heavy banging on the compound gate grows louder, the dim light bulb hanging from the ceiling sways. The family planning officers have come to get me, she says to herself. She raises her feet from the basin of warm water in which they’ve been soaking, hides under her quilt and waits for the gate to be forced open.

This afternoon, as warm sunlight was melting the last patches of snow on the maize bundles in the yard, their neighbour Fang was laying out sesame seeds to dry, her three-week-old baby suckling at her breast, when suddenly four family planning officers stormed in and dragged her off to be sterilised. Fang kicked and howled like a sow being towed to the slaughterhouse. The glutinous rice she’d left soaking in a basin on the ground in preparation for dumplings was overturned, and two mongrel ducks scuttled over to peck at the grains. Eventually they managed to tie her hands together and force her into the open back of their truck. Her white vest was ripped by then, and her shoulders smeared with blood that had fallen from the shaven-headed officer’s nose when she’d kicked him in the face. He was crouching at her feet now, binding her flailing legs with rope and firmly securing her to the metal bars. Trapped from the waist down, Fang leaned over the side and shouted: ‘I damn the eight generations of your ancestors! Have you forgotten that every one of you was nursed by your mother as a child? And now you dare tear a baby from its mother’s breast? May your families produce no sons for nine generations! . . .’ Meili climbed over the wall and scooped Fang’s baby into her arms, and pleaded with a uniformed officer to let Fang go. ‘If she’s sterilised, her milk will run dry. At least wait until her baby’s three months old.’

‘Keep out of this!’ he replied, rubbing his cold red hands together. ‘Haven’t you read the public notice? If a woman is found to be pregnant without authorisation, every household within one hundred metres of her home will be punished. You should have reported her to the authorities before the child was born. As her next-door neighbour, you’ll be fined at least a thousand yuan.’

Meili didn’t recognise the officers, and presumed they’d been drafted in from neighbouring counties. Had she not been afraid that they’d notice her pregnant bulge, she would have run to Fang with a blanket and wrapped it over her shoulders. Instead, she stood rooted to the spot and watched the truck trundle away, Fang jolting up and down at the back, breast milk dripping from her exposed red nipples.

The banging at the gate pauses then starts again. ‘It’s me – Kongzi!’ she hears her husband cry out. ‘Open up!’ Remembering at last that a couple of hours ago she wedged a spade firmly against the gate so that it couldn’t be opened from the outside, she runs out into the yard and lets him in.

Kongzi staggers into the house, his hair wild and his gaze distracted, and paces restlessly about the room. He’s just returned from a Party meeting. ‘The squad of family planning officers that arrived yesterday has been sent from Hexi Town. The village Party office isn’t large enough for their purposes, so they’ve commandeered a classroom in the school and are doing the abortions and sterilisations there. This crackdown will be merciless.’

‘What are we going to do?’ Meili says with fear in her eyes.

‘I don’t know. The officers were clear: any pregnant woman who doesn’t have a birth permit will be given an immediate abortion and a 10,000-yuan fine.’

‘Ten thousand yuan? We couldn’t raise that even if we sold our house. Thank goodness we bought that fake birth permit last month.’

‘It won’t fool them,’ Kongzi says, taking off his glasses and rubbing his face. ‘They’re examining the permits closely this time, checking for fakes.’

‘How many women did they round up today?’ Meili asks, feeling a wave of nausea.

‘Well, there were ten tied up outside the Party office. The school caretaker saw his wife