NAOMI LANE BABSON
Children at play become men at war — A poignantly moving story of three who paid the price
SIK-LING, by all that’s wonderful!” Roger Trask exclaimed.
"A wise man never shows surprise,” T’o Sik-ling
said. But the warmth of his smile belied the coldness of his words, and he permitted the young American to shake his hand in the foreign fashion.
They had met in the crowded street of a Yangtze valley town, whose population, swollen and diversified by the war, swirled past them in an endless stream. A few faces turned to watch the meeting between the foreign devil and the slim Chinese officer, but people did not stop to stare and listen and comment as they might once have done, for in these days men had learned that curiosity could be dangerous. A man who didn’t know enough to tend strictly to his own affairs might find his head and shoulders parting company.
“I didn’t expect to see you here,” Roger went on. “And in uniform too. I thought you were still down south, studying, and writing poetry.”
Sik-ling opened empty hands in an expressive gesture. “The schools are closed. And how can a man spend his time composing verses when his house is overrun with— with rats? Oh, no. As you Americans would say, I’m in the army now. But you, my friend? Why are you not over there in college, playing football?”
“I’ve finished, graduated last June. Matter of fact, I’ve got a sort of newspaper job,” Roger announced with pride. “Going to try my hand at reporting. Grand material out here.”
“Ah. You have come to write some stories of our little
Roger passed over the ironical implication. He was too
full of enthusiasm to be quickly aware of subtleties. The war was offering him a series of thrilling adventures, and he reached for them eagerly. “It’s a marvellous break for me. I’d never have had the chance if I hadn’t been born out here. Nor even then, I guess,” he added honestly, “without a newspaper-owning uncle-in-law. The joke’s on him really, because I'm supposed to know the language, and 1 don’t know the dialect up here—but this is where most of the excitement seems to be.”
“Plenty of excitement,” his friend agreed. “What would you like to write about? A little mud village blown to ruin? Babies without any hands or eyes? An Honorable Grandmother who has starved to death?”
“Say, listen, Sik-ling, why not be realistic?” Roger asked uncomfortably. “It doesn’t make things any worse for me to write about them, does it? It’s news, that’s all. It’s my job.”
“Of course it is,” the soldier answered. “Forgive me, friend.
I am sure you remember my unruly tongue from the old days.
Now I have been both discourteous and disreason—I mean, unreasonable. For who can tell?
Perhaps when you others take your turn at war, I also shall be there, writing stories. Come now, to make amend for my rudeness,
I will let you go with me today.
I have an errand that may be a little—what you call—exciting?”
"Oh, say, will you really? Can I tell Tom Giles? He takes pictures—”
"I am sorry. You only are invited. And even now I am on my way.”
"Well—” Roger hesitated briefly, conscious of youth and inexperience. Then he shrugged the doubt away; of course it would be swell to go.
AS THEY went together deep into the heart of the Chinese city, Sik-ling explained his business. "This town has—what you call —strategic position. Two branches of the river come together, and that part of our forces to which I am attached, are westward, perhaps one hundred li.”'
“Right,” Roger said. "That’s where we’re trying to go. Four of us. We have military permits. But the boat ha* been held up here.”
"And over there,” Sik-ling continued, “we don’t know just how far from day to day. the Japanese. And from this town,” he finished softly, “someone has been supplying information to the enemy.”
“Gosh, do you mean we’re after a spy?”
“A spy—a traitor—who can tell? I don’t know what we’re after,” Sik-ling said slowly. “It is what you would call a hunch, I think. A shop down here which seems to prosper without apparent customers —as we have been told. So we are going to buy some peanut oil. But no—since you are with me, we will make a different errand. Let us say biscuits.”
“But is it safe?”
Sik-ling’s fingers rested on the gun at his belt, but he said lightly: "Does it sound dangerous to buy a box of crackers? That is all we do. Except that I shall use my eyes. You see, there was one who told us certain things, but unfortunately he — ah—expired before we could learn
all he knew. Therefore, I make this little experiment.”
“Gosh !” Roger said again. He knew that he was scared, but it didn’t matter. Fright was unimportant, compared with the deep delicious thrill of being on a job alone. He’d get a scoop perhaps; at the very least he would have something to set against the other men’s tall tales. They were all experts in his eyes, self-confident, sophisticated, and they’d poked a lot of fun at him the past few weeks, calling him Boy Scout and baby, and laughing because he didn’t smoke and drank nothing stronger than lemon squash. But now, if he could beat them to a story gosh, but he had been lucky, meeting up with Sik-ling.
“I suppose my impulsive tongue has tripped me into troubles again," his friend said gloomily at that moment. “Surely I am a fool to let you come. Remember, you will say nothing, do nothing, without permission.”
He turned from the narrow street down an alley even narrower, and entered a little shop that looked like any of the dozen humble sho|>s along the way. Its door, closed when they came, swung shut again as they stepped inside, and Roger saw a small provision store stocked with mixed merchandise. A queer array of stuff, mostly imperishable, easily cared for, or easily left to care for itself. Canned goods and bars of soap, dried laic hees, salt fish, bunches of garlic, jugs of oil and soy sauce, big lohs of rice and dried beans. All these he must have noted, for he remembered them long afterward, but at the moment he was aware only of a man in a shabby blue shaam who turned to look at them. I Ie had been busy at some shelves behind the narrow board that served as counter, and when he moved, a single bar of sunshine through the small high window fell on his head and shoulders. His eyes, alert, suspicious and very faintly amused, tared from a face disfigured by a livid scar that ran from chin to eyebrow. After you saw that scar, thought Roger, you saw nothing else. But they had not seen it first. They had seen the round back of his head, and his undamaged profile, set like a cameo against the light.
“Remember anything can happen here and usually does,” Tom Giles had said the night before, oratorical over his whisky and soda. Anything can happen, Roger’s mind repeated, and his stomach turned right over. He heard Sik-ling’s sucked-in breath, a slow soft whistle, and he saw in the dark eyes watching them an unmistakable flash of recognition.
“Nagano,” Sik-ling said.
And time stood still. There was no dark greasy shop, no soldier and greenhorn reporter and recently discovered spy. Only three schoolboys together, very long ago.
HPHE winter of 1929 had been unusually hot and dry. No
New Year rains had come, and when the first rice planting was long past due, the fields were still baked hard and brown, and the sun rode day after day across a cloudless sky. Processions went out from village temples with flutes and drums and chanting priests to pray for rain, and in the red brick church the native Christians gathered, asking the same Ixxm from a different God. But all the deities were equally deaf, and the drought continued.
On the whole island there was only one fertile oasis, within the barbed-wire fences of the big Chinese American school. Here the electric pump worked day and night, pulling up water from the river, and cixilies carried it by bucketfuls to the flowerbeds and green lawns of the campus. In the Trasks’ garden, pink cabbage roses bloomed, and heliotrope, carnations and sweet peas ixrfumed the air. The dry, burned countryside beyond the gates seemed far removed from the j>eace and quiet of this 8]>ot. and the worried peasants and farmers had no apparent connection with the three boys who lay sprawled in the grass, putting tlie finishing touches to three big kites.
Boys twelve or thirteen years old, all black-haired, all tanned to the same rich cooky color. But Roger Trask’s square-jawed face, the saltwater blue of his eyes, and the twang in his voice all proclaimed his Yankee origin, and one of his two companions was T'o Sik-ling. son of a Chinese official; the other was the Japanese boy called Nagano. That year the anti-foreign agitation of the mid-twenties had died down, and the Japanese troubles were quiescent. Nagano, if not exactly welcomed at the school, was tolerated there. His father was in business in the city across the river; he said that he wanted the boy to grow up with a real knowledge of China and the Chinese.
“So sorry that we must lx> always disunderstanding each other," he declared. “Japan at her heart wishes only to be best friends with China.”
These sentiments were expressed to Roger’s mother during a tea party at the American Consulate, and she ajx proved of them with all her heart. She liked the elder Nagano, with his childlike, confiding face, and his habit of graceful bows; she admired his wife, a gentle jierson in clogs and kimona, with her hair elaborately dressed. So much more picturesque, thought Mrs. Trask, than the new Chinese style of bobbed hair and one-piece shaams with tight slit skirts. So she did her sweet enthusiastic best for Nagano. She asked him to supper with Roger and Sik-ling. and gave him chocolate ice cream, which he disliked intensely. He ate it nevertheless and said, “Delissus ” while Sik-ling let his dishful melt untasted.
"Nagano is a diplomat,” Mrs. Trask declared, remembering too late the common Oriental distaste for chocolate. “Really they are a wonderful little people.”
Nagano’s English was as surprisingly good as his Chinese, and he overheard her, and never forgot the word “little,” but she did not know. Nor did she guess at the depths of go<xl breeding shown by Sik-ling, when he first accepted the companionship she pushed so eagerly. Other supper parties followed the first one, there were picnics and river trips, tennis in good weather, dominoes and ping-pong on winter evenings. And because Nagano was good company and full of fun. and Sik-ling was sweet-tempered and unassertive, and because many things that happened later had not yet happened in 1929, the friendship flourished after its own fashion and was genuine enough. Presently Mrs. Trask could boast of her little internationalists; who knew what wonders of sympathy and tolerance might grow from this small seed?
She came through the garden now with her arms full of iris and stopped to watch the boys —her own sturdy son, the slender, dreamy-eyed Chinese, and Nagano, with his round head and flashing smile that showed white, even teeth. “What are you three musketeers up to?” she asked. “Have a good time, and behave yourselves. There’ll be popo vers for tea.”
Roger’s kite was finished first. He had made it in the shape of an airplane, and it was very splendid to see, but he knew it would not fly like either of the others. He rolled over on his back and lay with his hands clasped under his head, looking up at the deep blue vault of sky. W'ind in the eucalyptus trees made their thin leaves talk together, and he saw one fat white cloud drift over. Rain tomorrow, he thought. It was lucky that their kite flying came today. And with that, he sat up briskly.
“Hey, fellows. We ought to get a move on.”
“One minute. Please wait just one minute,” Sik-ling said, his eyes intent on the elaborate dragon he was fashioning of bamboo and paper.
"DUT Nagano rose at once, a hawk kite in his hand. Oldest of the three boys, he was nevertheless the smallest. He wore khaki shorts and a sport shirt like Roger’s, and had added to the costume a pink silk tie and socks. Sik-ling, following a step or two behind the other boys, looked better in his loose Chinese coat and trousers. They would have been permitted to leave the campus openly, but Roger thought it was more fun to get outside the gates unseen. So they dodged through a banana plantation, and into a field of mulberry trees just high enough to hide their heads. Here coolie women in dark clothes and mushroom straw hats were working, and as the boys slipped past them, Roger made a gun of his thumb and forefinger. “Pop-pop. The enemy is dead.”
Nagano broke off a ruffly leaf spray and twirled it in his fingers. “Japanese silk is better than Chinese,” he announced. “And we have most markets now.”
“Quantity is not proof of quality,” Sik-ling replied smoothly.
The mulberry trees grew close against the fence. Roger gave the other boys a back, then shinnied up a post and dropped down outside the barbed wire.
"Of what use is a wall that may be climbed so easily?” Nagano asked.
“Dunno. But nobody wants to climb it, except for fun.”
Single file they crossed a dike between dry rice fields, and followed an age-old road of flagstones for half a mile or so, then climbed a low hill past some ornate crescent graves. There was no higher land on the whole island; here they could catch any breeze that moved from either stretch of the encircling river. They could see a few farmers hopefully at work, and in the distance water buffaloes were grazing, but there was no one close at hand to bother them as they set earnestly to work giving their kites to the wind.
As Roger had expected, he was quickly out of it. His kite was less well made than his friends’ and his skill inferior to theirs. Soon the big paper airplane trailed barely treetop high, while the two others still continued their spiral upward flight. Then high in the air a mimic battle began, the dragon against the darting hawk. The game was for one kite to capture the other by entangling its strings. Roger’s sympathy swung between the two; he was always inclined to side with the underdog, but in this case it was hard to know who held the balance of skill. Sik-ling seemed interested in the delicate accuracy of his manoeuvres rather than in the outcome; Nagano fought the play war as intensely as if it had been real.
None of them saw the procession for rain till it was right beneath the hill, though their pulses must have stirred unconsciously to the sober rhythm of the drums. So it came on them all at once, gay with color and music, then without warning, firecrackers sputtered. Roger sUxxl staring, and Sik-ling’s eyes for a moment turned away from his kite to watch.
“Thus have our jieasants done for many cycles of years.” he said. “You think it is just superstition, but afterward it will rain. And besides, it is beautiful.
“ ‘A thousand flowers, a thousand dreams, Bright pageants in confusion pass—’ ”
“Ho, poet and dreamer!” Nagano cried triumphantly. He had been standing about six feet away, but now he jumped forward, swinging a pocket knife. Though he stumbled and fell in his haste, the blade flashed once against Sik-ling’s taut string. “Thus I have won the game!”
UT, Nagano, that’s not fair,” Roger protested.
Sik-ling was silent, looking from the severed string in his hand to the paper dragon drifting rapidly away. Roger w-atched it too. “Jiminey cricks, I don’t want mine either,” he said, winding the string over his foot and stamping on it to free the kite. “The whole game’s spoiled.”
“The object was to win,” Nagano said.
“Not that way.”
“And I have won.” His bright, baffled eyes filled with rage and disappointment. He had been quick-witted and resourceful and he was the victor, but they would not acclaim him. Angrily he threw his reel away. “There goes my kite also. It is only a toy—only children’s play—but I won.”
Sik-ling shrugged his shoulders. “He is right, no doubt. The game is over, and we will go back.”
“I’d bust him one,” Roger murmured, but no one replied. They were halfway home before he noticed that Nagano was walking oddly, with one hand deep in his pocket, and a dark wet stain spreading on his khaki shorts. “Good gosh ! That’s blood !” he cried.
“It is nothing,” Nagano answered. “A result of my own clumsiness. My hand was beneath the knife when I fell down.”
“Let’s look,” commanded Roger. When he saw two halfsevered fingers he felt sick at his stomach. It must have hurt like the dickens, and Nagano hadn’t even said “ouch.” but had only tried to hide the hurt. Roger’s emotions somersaulted and he regarded his friend with startled admiration.
“Pain is so unimportant,” Nagano said.
“And winning the game, important,” Sik-ling added with a small unfriendly smile. Physical courage did not touch his heart as it did Roger’s. “You won, but perhaps you lost a little; perhaps I have the last word. If I speak to my father, you will leave our school.”
“But, Sik-ling, you can’t do that!” Roger was once more conscious of tottering traditions. “It’s no fair, telling tales.”
“Just my kind of—pocketknife,” Sik-ling replied.
A cloudless sunset reddened the sky behind them, and the rising wind was damp with the promise of rain. Roger found himself shivering. What had happened? Why couldn’t they all be friends again? He knew instinctively that the circle was broken forever, and he felt lonely, young and alien. He wanted his mother and the popovers she had promised him; the warmth and comfort and homeliness of familiar things.
That night Nagano was sent to the city to have his injured hand cared for, and he did not return to school. Roger and Sik-ling never spoke of him. and in the summer the Trasks had gone back to America to stay. Roger’s postcards to Nagano were not answered, and his correspondence with Sik-ling dwindled swiftly. New friends, new interests filled his mind, and memories of the past lacked emphasis.
XTOW PAST and present were flowing together, fantastic as a nightmare and as inescapable. Roger’s fingers closed on his own wrist; he pinched hard, but he could not lose this dream. The unreality was real. There was the dark untidy shop, there was Sik-ling beside him, holding a businesslike gun. Time slipped back into focus; it was less than a minute since they had entered.
recognized you.” Nagano said reflectively. "But now—” “Now the game is up,” said Sik-ling. “No use for either of us to try any pretense. I am Chinese soldier, you are Japanese spy. Believe me. I knew your ears and the back of your head before I saw your face. The make-up is wasted.”
“Make-up? You mean this?” Nagano lifted a hand to his scarred cheek. “It is real. You see, for several years it has been my duty to live as one of you. And people would have said, ‘He looks like . . . ’ what I am. But since this, they say only, ‘How funny he looks.’ ”
“You mean you did that to yourself?” asked Roger.
“Oh yes. It did not hurt very much.”
Pain is so unimportant, the boy Nagano had said. Looking at his distorted face, forever set in a thin snarl, Roger grappled with the concept of a life devoted to one specific purpose, undivided, uncomplicated. There drifted across his mind an image never very far from the level of conscious thoughtthe face of a girl at home. He could almost hear her saying, “We’re too young now, but next year, when you come back from China ...” But so was Nagano young. Had he no one like Dorothy to remember, no special dream to cherish, nothing to make him regret his scarred face, his life lived in such shabby hidden ways? Apparently even from childhood his career had been cut to a single pattern.
“I suppose that also at school in the old days you were spying."
Nagano’s hand dropped from his cheek and rested on a shelf behind him. His smile was a wry caricature of the old merry grin. “So sorry. Merely studying, I assure you. Perhaps, not all my lessons were in books. Customs and languagethat is important too. I can speak fourteen of your Chinese dialects. More than you know yourself, it is possible.”
“About ten more.” Sik-ling agreed. “Well, I am not surprised. Everyone used to say you were a spy.”
“Good lord !” cried Roger. “They thought that, and still let him stay?”
“Why not?” asked Sik-ling reasonably. “If not our pleasant friend Nagano, it might have been someone we did not like so much. Liesides. what could he learn? We had no secrets. Really, everybody thought it was a joke.”
He spoke with bland courtesy, as if he did not know his words were barbed, and in the same spirit Nagano answered. "No secrets, truly. I used to overhear your patriotic discussions—very funny. I did not expect that many of you would make good soldiers.”
“In those days we held to a higher ideal,” Sik-ling said suavely. “But all is destiny. And in this case, you may say that it is the activities of you—little people—who have changed our minds for us.”
Roger saw Nagano blink, and it came into his mind that certain pages of history might have been written differently if the average Japanese had been four inches taller. Then by an association he did not follow (“a wonderful little people,” Mrs. Trask used to say) Nagano turned to him.
“Another thing I wondered about was why so many Americans were at that school. Even after I convinced myself. I could not make others believe that it was simply through abundance of misdirected zeal. A sentimental nation. But your mother was very kind to me,” he added. “I admired her with affection.”
“She died two years ago,” said Roger.
“Oh. So sorry.”
His voice was flat. No one could have told if he was moved or not, but Sik-ling turned to Roger with an expression of real concern. “That very gracious lady ! You have not had time to tell me. And to think that I forgot to ask for her in our first moment of meeting. It only shows how war coarsens the sensibilities and robs life of its finer meanings. A beautiful spirit, your mother.”
For a moment she might have been there with them, saying “My internationalists ...” Roger remembered the vibrant, husky voice; he smelled the unforgotten scent of orris rtjot and cologne, and saw her slim figure in a longbloused, short-skirted dress of the twenties, with a windblown bob above blue shining eyes.
"Ah,” said Sik-ling. "in spite of all. she made us friends. We had some jolly times." His voice was dreamy and his eves looked far away. "She used to say, three little mosquitoes
For such a moment Nagano had been waiting. The knife was in his hand as swiftly as on that other day, and he flung it with deft precision. Sik-ling’s gun spoke just too late. The blade went through his tunic, straight to its mark, and he gave one gasping cough as he slumped sideways to the floor.
“So sorry,” Nagano muttered. "But war is not a game for idealists and dreamers.”
"DOGER caught the suddenly sagging body and eased ^ it down to the floor of the shop. “He’s dead,” he whispered. “Dead, you assassin!”
“Sorry.” repeated Nagano. "But what fate did he plan for me? Should I just stand and wait for it? Do you think we are still like little boys at play?”
Roger did not reply. He was struggling with recurrent waves of nausea, for he was young, and unused to violent death, and this had been his friend. My fault, he thought. If I hadn’t butted in this afternoon, everything would have gone differently. He didn’t know how—but different. A moment longer he knelt there, looking down. Sik-ling had grown very young again, very quiet; the soldier had vanished in the schoolboy poet of long ago. The boy Mrs. Trask had loved. Roger came quickly to his feet. He was holding the gun that had clattered from Sik-ling's fingers.
"Your mistake. Nagano. You ought to have killed us both. Get away from that counter. Get your hands up.” With an almost imperceptible flicker of eyelids. Nagano disobeyed the order, and remained as he was, clutching the shelf in front of him. His face had grown more sallow, so that the scar looked dark against his cheek instead of pale. “If I had wished,” he said. “I could have killed you easily while you were stooping there. But your death would not be logical; it would serve no purpose. Also, you are my friend.”
“Your friend!” Roger’s lips closed on a sob.
“My friend. And so was he. T’o Sik-ling. You will not believe when I say that all my life long I have had no happy companionship like that. Never so much good times. But duty—that comes in front of all. Ahhh,” he said, so
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painfully it sounded like a moan. “I don’t want war. My country does not want it. We want only peace for China. Peace and their own best good, which is also ours. Why will they always be fighting us, since we are sure to win?”
There was a little silence. Roger realized that outside the shop it was still afternoon. The time he had been here could be measured in minutes, though it seemed like hours. He could hear voices and the occasional shuffle of footsteps in the alley ; off in the distance a policeman’s rattle sounded its rhythmic beat. He was not afraid of interruption. Even the shot had brought no one to investigate, and he knew no one would come, nothing would happen till the thing worked out to some hidden, inevitable end. Cold bubbles of sweat were forming on the hand that held the gun.
“Do you remember the kite-flying?” Nagano asked unsteadily. “How easily I won that day. And this time—the same. This time too I was quick-witted—”
“That time you got away with it. This time you won’t.”
“You speak lines from a book. From cinema,” the other answered. “But you do not shoot. You do not belong here—you are a spectator only. And to kill me—it would be murder. Not from your code. Not playing the game.”
It was quite true. For several moments Roger had known that the gun was only a gesture. He could not use it, and he had no plan at all. But he was not yet ready to say so. “You’re working for time,” he suggested coldly.
“No,” Nagano whispered. “In contrary,
I am done with time. It is like the day— the day—the kites in sky. I was more quick, but Sik-ling—the last word—the last ...”
“You’re hurt, Nagano!” Roger saw all at once the significance of the clutching fingers, the thick breath and thready voice. He had thought them signs of fear, touched with remorse perhaps, but they were the symbols of pain. He should have known that it must be pain. “You’re shot !” he cried. “I didn’t know—I didn’t realize. Why didn’t you say ...”
Words were futile now. He spoke to emptiness. Nagano’s grip on the counter slackened, he swayed for a moment, then crumpled to the floor, and one hand, slid ing out beneath the shelf, rested on Sibling's boot.
BETTER get out of here,” Roger heard himself murmuring. “Funny place to be found. Kind of hard to explain. Better get back to the boat. Nothing to do here —nothing I can do.”
His voice was thick and uncertain, and he moved as if he might be drunk. He was numb with shock, and knew it and was glad, for numbness held of! pain. Something had happened, something that was going to hurt when he came to.
“Well so what!” said Roger Trask. Two men were dead, two kids he used to know. What difference did it make? Men died every day by the hundred, not only in China but in Spain and Palestine—he couldn’t tell where, he couldn’t tell how many. That was war, that was part of the game. Too bad, of course, but nothing to do with him. He was a reporter. He was hard-boiled. Nobody seemed to notice him as he left the little shop, walked down the alley, and turned again into the crowded street that led back to the river. His clothes were somewhat soiled with blood, but blood was commonplace, and curiosity was dangerous. No one asked questions. He was going safely back to write his stories.
But war would never again be fine adventure. The strife of nations was as senseless
and stupid as children’s quarrels. Men on both sides fought passionately for the right, and never understood each other, and died in mean and furtive ways. And to the faces of dead soldiers came again the transient wistful grace of innocence and youth. This he had seen, and he would learn to write of it with humility, bitterness and sombre beauty. He did not know it yet. He only knew that he felt old and tired.
Tom Giles found him in the small dining saloon on the boat, drinking whisky and water, “Well, for Pete’s sake!” he yelled. “Come and see. Baby’s being bad.”
“Shut up,” said Roger. “Cut it out. I’m not a boy any longer. I’m a man grown now—grown-up—a man ...”
And he put his head down on his arms and wept.