The red van smelled like gasoline and had a faulty suspension system that made it jolt and shudder even on the smooth avenues of the city. Wang didn’t speak. He held the steering wheel like his hands were soldered to it. Zhou stared out the window at the passing buildings, at the street lights illuminating the empty street. A hot wind blew through the cracked window. The cardboard box was in the back, in the flat bed of the van where the seats had been taken out, with a length of thick rope, a gasoline canister, and a heavy pair of pruning shears set at the sides to keep it from sliding around.
Wang took a corner too fast and Zhou gripped the handle above the window to keep himself upright. He and Wang had been best friends since they played on the dusty village streets together as bare-bottomed toddlers. Zhou’s family home was right beside Wang’s and they were only two months apart in age. Both of them were the only boys of their family – they each had one sister – which made them brothers of sorts. So when Wang had knocked on Zhou’s gate in the middle of the night, Zhou had pulled on his trousers and gone with him. There was never any question.
Wang pulled up to the curb and the van shuddered to a stop.
“Here?” Zhou asked. He could make out the characters on the sign over the gate. It was a government office, a place where city officials sat at glass-covered desks and drank loose leaf tea from cups with screw-on lids. The light in the guard house was off. A tiled wall rose up around the imposing white-washed structure inside, a building with a wide glass entrance flanked with red banners. Outside the gate, cast in a pale glow from the streetlights above, hung an enclosed bulletin board for public announcements. “Where?”
“At the gate,” Wang said. “Make it quick.”
Wang jumped out of the van and pulled open the rickety rolling door. He didn’t look inside the box. He picked it up and ran, glancing up and down the street to make sure no one was watching. The road was empty. He set the box down under the bulletin board and stumbled back to the van. It lurched forward as soon as he slammed the door. Wang changed gears and they sped down the dimly lit road, leaving the box and its contents alone in the sweltering August night.
Wang cut the engine and the men sat in silence a moment before Zhou got out. He walked home, a patch of sweat on the back of his grimy white tank top. Dawn was just slipping over the hills in the east. Wang sat a few moments longer, his eyes lingering alternately on the dusty road, on the unripe apples of his orchard, at the entry way to his family home. A faded good luck character still over the doorway from Chinese New Year fluttered in the warm breeze ruffling the orchard leaves.
The wooden door creaked as Wang stepped into the courtyard of his home. In the kitchen his mother was already clattering around, but she stepped out when she heard footsteps, her mouth set in a hard line, her normally smooth forehead wrinkled.
He nodded at her and walked past, toward his wife’s room.
“She refuses to eat,” his mother called after him. “She won’t stop crying.”
Wang shrugged and kept walking. Moments later he stood in the doorway of his wife’s room, peering into the shadows. She lay on her stomach with her face turned away from the door. The room was sultry, but a heavy quilt lay across the bottom of the kang. All evidence of her night’s struggle had been cleaned away.
His mother stood at his shoulder. “She needs to stay covered,” she muttered, pushing past him to draw close to the bed. She lifted the quilt and threw it over his wife’s body. “Her bones are still open. She’ll catch cold.”
As soon as his mother drew back, his wife threw off the quilt. She pounded it with her feet until it lay in a lump at the foot of the kang.
“Aiya!” his mother exclaimed, balling up her fists as if she would punch something. “She’s so stubborn! Do you want to get sick? Do you want to die?”
His wife turned her head, sweat drenched hair plastered to her forehead. Wang started back at the whiteness of her face, the color of beauty, ashes and ghosts. Her eyes were black fires, unnaturally bright. “You ask me that?” she shouted.
“Mother,” Wang said, holding up his hands in front of him, taking small steps toward the kang as if he were in the presence of two wild tigers. “Wait outside.”
His mother’s breath was ragged, but she obeyed him, muttering as the plastic heals of her cloth shoes clicked across the concrete courtyard.
His wife turned her face away. She stared at the dingy wall next to the bed, papered in sheets of newspaper. “Where did you take her?”
“Outside the administrative office gate,” he said. “The guard there is kind. He helped me once a long time ago.”
“He’ll make sure she’s safe. You’re sure?”
He saw her hands clutching the opening of her flannel pajamas. “Your mother refuses to understand.”
Wang hesitated. His wife’s attitude was rebellious. No wonder his mother was furious with her.
“She is stronger than you are,” he said stiffly. “She knows what you want is impossible.”
“She’s heartless!” she cried. “She wouldn’t even let me hold her!”
“It’s better this way,” Wang said. “You won’t grieve so long.” His mother wanted him to kill the baby. There were traditional means of doing it. Still, he wouldn’t tell his wife that. She was more modern and educated, having finished ten years of school before her father made her return home. She had dreamed once of going to university; her marks were good.
“I would have found a way,” she said. “You could have driven me to the hospital to ask them what to do.”
“There’s no money for a hospital,” Wang said, “or for powdered milk. You can’t feed a baby like that with your own breast—” He shuddered when he remembered the child’s tiny face. “Besides, what have we to offer a child like that? A life of ridicule among our neighbors! Children like that come to an end begging on the streets! I’ve seen them in the city myself!”
He had not intended to be harsh with her, but her shoulders shook as she sobbed. “I would have found a way.”
She was a stubborn woman. Wang shook his head as he turned his back on her.
The guard was old with a face like worn leather. Still, his ears were sharp. He was boiling the water for his morning noodles when he heard the sound of a baby crying. He hobbled out onto the pavement and spotted the box under the announcement board.
His old heart staggered when he peeked inside. The baby had a glossy head of black hair and a cleft extending from her upper lip to her nostril. When she cried her mouth opened wider than other babies. He pushed aside the coarse blanket that wrapped her and saw that she was very new, chord still dangling with a bloody stump from her rounded belly.