Peter Cannon is the author of Pulptime (1984), a Sherlock Holmes pastiche in which H. P. Lovecraft plays Dr. Watson to the great detective; Scream for Jeeves: A Parody (1994), a blend of Wodehousian humor and Lovecraftian horror with a dash of Conan Doyle; Forever Azathoth (1999), a story collection that was reissued in somewhat different form in 2011; and The Lovecraft Chronicles (2004), a novel that imagines a happier and longer life for Lovecraft.
Sign here,” said the young woman, pointing to a piece of paper that hadn’t been on her desk a moment before.
“What?” I replied. My wife and I were sitting in the San Francisco offices of Yangtze Travel, where we’d been winding up arrangements for our trip to China with the agency’s pleasant, smiling representative, and now her tone had turned distinctly menacing.
“Sign this statement saying that you will not publish anything critical of the Chinese government,” she said in her slightly accented English. She was no longer smiling.
“Phil,” said Jan, avoiding my eyes, “I told Kim you were an editor who sometimes wrote freelance articles.”
“Yes, but…” I was an editor at Food Industry Service and Supply, a monthly business-to-business magazine, which had nothing to do with politics. Likewise, my rare restaurant review for a Bay Area alternative weekly was utterly devoid of controversial content. I looked in turn at each female and decided it was no use protesting.
“All right,” I said, and signed.
On the street outside Yangtze Travel, Jan said, “I hope you don’t mind, honey, but when Kim asked me on the phone about your background, I had to tell her what you did.”
“Don’t worry about it.”
Later I felt some regret that I, a citizen of a free country, had so cravenly bowed to this demeaning demand from a petty representative of a totalitarian regime. What I should have done, had I been prepared, was refuse, threatening to write all sorts of nasty things about the P.R.C. if they forced me to sign. Not signing would have been the price of my silence. But defiance no doubt would have meant no visas, and that would have disappointed Jan.
Jan was eager to see China, where her maternal grandparents had been Christian missionaries during the 1930s. I, on the other hand, was too fond of First World amenities, like hot water and flush toilets, to go abroad except to the more prosperous parts of Europe. Furthermore, I was an insomniac who didn’t adjust well to time changes. After some back and forth, I had agreed with some trepidation to her proposal that we go to the world’s last important Communist bastion.
There was, though, another consideration. Wed in ‘93, Jan and I were still childless after six years of increasingly aggressive fertility treatment. (Jan suspected her hypothyroidism was the biggest obstacle to conception.) China was a major destination for Americans seeking babies—girl babies, that is, since chauvinistic Chinese parents preferred males—and a vacation in the planet’s most populous nation might help us decide whether we wanted to adopt there. I still wasn’t too keen on the idea, but with Jan’s biological clock running out, our chances of producing a child of our own were fast approaching zero.
Another attraction was that China was cheap—only about $100 a day, which included English-speaking guides at every stop, hotels, meals, and air transport within the country. We could set our own itinerary and were in effect a group tour of two. Jan decided we should spend three days in Beijing, two days in Xi’an, site of the terracotta warriors, then go to Chongqing, where her missionary grandparents had been stationed, to catch a boat down the Yangtze through the Three River Gorges, slated to disappear with the construction of the huge dam that was still years away from completion.
In the weeks leading up to our June 1999 departure, Jan in her conscientious way checked out guidebooks from the library on China. Meanwhile, I fretted about getting sick from eating strange foods and catching exotic diseases. What did I know about China, its people or culture? What I remembered, as a boy, was a vertical wall chart in my bedroom of world civilizations from the start of recorded history to the present. Only China, varying somewhat in width over the centuries, ran as one continuous red band from top to bottom.
I took jet-lag pills for the long flight to Beijing, but I slept only an hour or so. At the airport we were met by a woman we guessed to be about thirty, “Patricia,” who escorted us through the terminal to a reserved parking lot. Our car was a black, air-conditioned sedan, up to American-limousine standard. Patricia explained that we should pay the male driver, who spoke no English, twenty-five dollars a day for his services. We had come equipped with plenty of cash, as we knew U.S. dollars would be more welcome than the local soft-currency yuan.
In Beijing, we stayed at the Rainbow, a first-class hotel with all the conveniences, including cable TV that got CNN. From our twentieth-floor room, we had a superb view of the vast city, diminished somewhat by the gray haze that hung in the sky, like Los Angeles at its most smoggy. The weather was humid and hot, daily temperatures rising to the 90s, comparable to what I understand New York City can be like in summer. Patricia said that northern China was experiencing an unusual heat wave.
The highlight of our stay in Beijing was an excursion to a section of the Great Wall, where Patricia left us for the afternoon. Under a blazing sun, Jan and I hiked up the great, irregular stone steps of the wall. Few other tourists, I noticed, were foolhardy enough to do the same. We had the wall to ourselves by the time several helpings of sweet-and-sour pork I’d consumed for lunch began to churn in my stomach. Fortunately, the next tower we came to contained a W.C.—an open pit that was as deep as the wall itself and, to my relief, almost as odorless.
Each morning we read the English-language newspaper left outside our door, China Daily. One article had the curious headline “Over Supply of Ceramics,” that is, “sanitary ceramics” or chamber pots. Evidently, while the supply of flush toilets was barely keeping up with demand, customers for the traditional chamber pot were increasingly scarce.
One night we had dinner at one of Beijing’s fancier restaurants, which featured Peking duck. We heeded Patricia’s warning not to use the bathroom facilities, as even many upscale places lacked Western-style plumbing. The antiquated Beijing sewer system could handle only so much.
On the flight to Xi’an, the next stop on our itinerary, I was struck by a little incident as we boarded the plane. The female flight attendant standing by the gate suddenly shoved some obstreperous passenger trying to get ahead back in line. It seemed an oddly rude gesture in a society that prided itself on decorum. Over in a second, it nonetheless served to reinforce my uneasy feeling that the Chinese were careful to present a façade to foreigners, no less artificial than the stylized masks worn by the performers at the Chinese opera we had seen in Beijing.
The Bell Tower, the clean, modern hotel where we stayed in the sprawling, haze-covered city of Xi’an, was, if anything, even spiffier than the Rainbow. Our guide, Cindy, reminded us a lot of Patricia—pleasant, polite, but distant, not someone you could expect to reveal what she really felt about her government or the rapid social and economic changes in China. As an educated, English-speaking Chinese, she was no doubt well paid and had no reason to complain.
Cindy took us, with car and driver, to the site of the famous terracotta warriors. To get to the underground museum housing “the eighth wonder of the world,” one had to navigate a swarm of street vendors hawking everything from cold drinks to terracotta-warrior tee-shirts. At the curtained entrance sat an old man, one of the original farmers who in 1974 had happened upon broken artifacts on the site that suggested the existence of a vast archeological trove. Inside it was cool and dark. We first came to a large round room, where we watched a movie in “circle vision” that reconstructed the bloody events leading up to the construction and later destruction of the army. According to the English subtitles, Qin Shi Huang, the founder of the Qin Dynasty and first emperor of all China, had ordered the figures made for his mausoleum. Over eleven years starting in 246 B.C., his artisans produced more than 7,000 pottery soldiers.
Then it was on to Pit No. 1, an enormous oblong area only partially excavated. A railed walkway ran in shadow around all four sides. Spotlights in the beams of the modern curved roof illuminated hundreds of gray clad figures (originally brightly painted, as depicted in the film) arrayed in battle-line formation below. Each had an individual face, except for a few wearing bulky helmets that hid the entire head. The army, even in this fragmentary state, was indeed an impressive sight.
Pit No. 2 showed the figures in ruins, as they would have been unearthed. Pit No. 3, much the smallest of the three, contained the officers or “command center.”
The final makeshift, possibly temporary display we viewed inadvertently, through a gap in a curtain at floor level. An ornate human figure, like all the rest larger than life size, stood slightly slumped in a horse-drawn chariot. Was this a high-ranking officer or even Emperor Qin himself? Through the light was dim, we could see that his face was veiled. Abruptly, a guard grabbed me by the arm and escorted us silently to the exit. I couldn’t be sure, but it seemed as if the irregular bulges of the rigid folds of the veil hid some facial deformity. Outside the museum, when I asked Cindy about this mysterious warrior, she paused and looked almost embarrassed before saying that only scholars with the proper credentials had access to certain exhibits. She wouldn’t confirm that the figure represented Emperor Qin.
The next day we arrived late in the afternoon at the airport outside Chongqing, formerly Chungking, the Nationalist capital. After meeting our guide, Larry, I visited the airport men’s room, which had one Western-style toilet besides the usual holes in the ground. Because of the hour, we would be going straight to dinner. I still felt queasy on the ride into the city, but fortunately the discomfort had passed by the time we arrived at our restaurant, where I was able to consume some tofu soup. The peaches served for dessert looked gorgeous, but, as elsewhere in China, they were rock hard and inedible.
After our meal, Larry proposed that we drive up to the highest point in the city, where Chiang Kai-shek used to live. Like San Francisco, Chongqing is built on hills, and consequently we saw fewer people on bicycles than in flat Xi’an or Beijing. As we proceeded along the steep, winding road, we could peer inside modest Chinese houses without doors or windows. Many people were eating, and we spotted the odd dog or two, presumably pets and not tomorrow’s supper.
At sunset we reached the top, where we entered a park that once was part of Chiang’s estate. The view was spectacular, Larry asserted, when it was clear—which was practically never. Our ultimate destination was a building on the park grounds that had on display a scale-model of the Three River Gorges Dam.
The model proved of less interest than a mural charting the course of the Yangtze from Chongqing to the dam site. By a single artist, it ran more than a hundred feet across three walls. The cities and towns that would be submerged were shown, as well as where they would be rebuilt above high water. Painted in a fanciful traditional style, it depicted rather odd-looking anthropomorphic fishes and frogs frolicking along the fringes of the river.
Since it was nearly 10:00 by the time we checked into our hotel, the Chungking, all we did was go to bed. Before we turned in, I asked Jan if she regretted not having scheduled more time in Chongqing, in order to explore the city where her grandparents had spent several years. Jan, however, had no idea where they might have lived. Family records from this period were nonexistent. Sad to say, their mission had ended tragically, with the death of her grandfather shortly after the Japanese invasion. Her grandmother barely got out of China alive. Pregnant with Jan’s mother, she resettled in New England and would never speak of her China experiences. She died when Jan’s mother was small. I met Jan’s mother only once, shortly before her early illness and death.
We were up at dawn in order to board our cruise ship by 8:00. The Richard M. Nixon was the flagship of the China-American line that plied the Yangtze. The brochures proclaimed it the equivalent of a four-star hotel. All passenger cabins were above the waterline. While we waited for our baggage to be delivered to our cabin, we inspected the framed photos on the walls of the main deck. These mostly depicted the president of the China-America line, a Mr. Ty, shaking hands with other executives and greeting dignitaries. Once settled in our little cabin, where we stayed until the boat pulled away from the shore around 9:00. Then we descended to the dining deck for an orientation meeting.
Our American tour director, Tim, who looked to be in his early thirties, and his Chinese counterpart, Carl, whose age could have been anything from thirty to fifty, introduced themselves, each in his respective language. Like most of the crew, they wore neatly pressed white uniforms. They alternated speaking, though Tim did so in a halting, nervous manner that seemed odd for someone who presumably had a lot of experience addressing people. He said he was originally from Massachusetts, had majored in Chinese studies in college, and had lived for the past seven years in China. On the four-day cruise, the boat would stop at several places along the river, including the dam construction site. Our final destination would be the city of Wuhan.
Jan and I soon figured out that all the other Americans passengers were part of a tour group, predominantly female teachers from the Midwest, except for one other couple, Jean and Fred, with whom we shared a table at lunch. Jean, a vivacious type like Jan, and Fred, who didn’t say much but looked as if he lifted weights a lot, were New Yorkers. About the same age as us, they were taking a little vacation before adopting a Chinese baby. Jan was full of questions for them about the process of adopting in China.
I managed to take a nap after lunch, getting up in time for our first shore expedition—to the so-called “ghost city” of Fengdu. On disembarking at what was a modest-sized town, we ran a gauntlet of limbless beggars before getting on a bus that drove us a short distance to a chair lift. One could walk up the mountain on a steep stairway, but no one took that option. At the top was a series of temples, along with the usual hawkers of souvenirs and artwork. A guide pointed out the site high on the opposite river bank where the new town would be built to replace the old.
We took photos of the main attraction, mythical monsters carved in wood and painted in gaudy colors, scattered in seeming disorder in the last temple we visited. Among these were smaller human figures, all suffering the tortures of the damned.
Back in the lower town, we encountered a swarm of curious children. The toddlers wore the Chinese equivalent of a diaper—loose-fitting clothes with a slit at the bottom. One article Jan had read before the trip, she remarked, stated that sales of Pampers had been doubling every year since 1995 in China, though this growth was largely confined to the cities.
At the buffet dinner that evening on the Nixon, we again sat with Fred and Jean. The two wives spoke endlessly about adoption, while I did my best to chat with Fred, an investment banker and golf enthusiast with whom I could find little in common. He did, though, crack a smile when I recounted how the Chinese travel agent in San Francisco forced me to surrender my rights to free speech.
It was a relief when the meal finally ended and we made our way to the lounge deck, where about a dozen of us Americans gathered in a corner to hear Tim tell us about the big dam project.
“Good evening, ladies and gentlemen,” he said from his over-stuffed chair in a slurred voice that made me wonder if he’d imbibed too much Chinese champagne. “So what can I tell you about the Three River Gorges Dam? First, it will be by far the largest ever built, three times larger than Hoover Dam. Along with the Great Wall, it will be the only manmade structure visible from space.”
The pros and cons boiled down to this: The benefits started with flood control. Thousands drowned each year in the spring torrents. Navigation was next on the list. Utilizing a series of enormous locks, ocean-going ships would be able to pass upriver as far as Chongqing. The hinterlands would be opened to trade. Finally, the dam would produce enough power to significantly reduce dependence on coal. Chinese cities would at last be smoke free—or close enough to it.
And the price? Some 1.3 million people would have to be resettled. The building of new cities to house them all could scarcely keep pace with the timetable for the dam’s completion. Invaluable archeological sites would be lost. The ecological consequences could be catastrophic. No one had ever attempted to alter Nature on such a vast scale before.
“Believe me, this is no Communist boondoggle,” Tim concluded. “The idea goes back at least to Sun Yat-Sen and the founding of the Chinese Republic.”
After throwing the meeting open to discussion, Tim answered a few predictable questions. Then someone asked whether he thought the project was a good or a bad idea.
“I…I just hope it works,” he replied, then he stumbled to his feet, muttered good night, and made a hasty exit.
Later, while Jan snored away in her narrow bunk, I got up for a walk. I feared it would be hours before sleep came. Outside, on the top deck where we’d watched the bustle of the Chongqing waterfront that morning, all was blackness. Long stretches of the shore of the mighty Yangtze were empty, devoid of any sign of humanity. The only noise was the steady thrum of the Nixon‘s diesel engines.
As my eyes adjusted to the faint glow cast by the running light on the bridge, I could see the silhouette of another person standing at the starboard rail. I couldn’t be certain, but for a moment it appeared as if this person was attempting to lift a leg over the rail.
“Hello there!” I called above the engines. The figure paused. The white of his starched uniform was faintly luminous. As I moved closer, I realized it was Tim, our tour director. I joined him at the rail.
“What are you doing here? You should be sleeping,” he said, his voice sounding even more slurred than earlier. Maybe he’d had a nightcap or two after leaving the group.
“I can’t sleep. I have insomnia, which gets much worse when I travel,” I said.
“I don’t sleep much these days either.”
The wind came up at this point, and I had to repeat the question. Tim didn’t say anything at first, and it was too dark to make out his features. Finally, he said:
“Ever hear of Innsmouth? Innsmouth, Massachusetts?”
“No, I’m from California. I’ve never been to New England.”
“I’m from the Boston area. I grew up on the North Shore, in a town not far from Innsmouth.” He made it sound like an unpleasant place.
“What’s wrong with Innsmouth?”
“Not much now, not since the renovation of the waterfront and the dredging of the harbor during World War II. But before then…”
“Before then, in the 1920s, it was a place hardly anybody would want to set foot in. It was all rundown, practically deserted. Then they started moving in…”
“You might say they were…undesirable aliens. Real nasty folk. My mom’s dad was a federal marshal based in Boston. When he was in his cups, he used to hint of a hush-hush government operation to get rid of these…people. He was sworn never to tell. But occasionally he’d let something slip. It made an impression on me as a kid.
“After college, soon after the Commies decided capitalism wasn’t evil, I moved to China. A budding Sinologist I was. It took years, but once I could really understand the spoken language, I started to hear rumors. Rumors that sounded a lot like my granddad’s queer tales. Of outsiders that wanted to expand their presence in the world’s fastest growing economy.”
“Where do these outsiders come from?” I asked.
“The South Seas in the Pacific, apparently. And when I say the South Seas I don’t mean the islands as such.”
The wind came up, and I felt a definite chill. It was so much cooler on the river than in the hot, dusty cities.
“Have you ever met one of these outsiders, as you call them?”
Tim’s delayed answer was lost in the wind. I had to ask again, and must have missed the first part of it.
“…they’ve been in China a long, long time, on a small scale. Those of mixed blood live on land for extended periods, though they have to keep close to where it’s wet. God forbid that a foreigner like you or me should meet one. Of course, Westerners, until recently, have never come to China in big numbers, certainly not to the more remote regions. I’ve heard stories, though, of missionaries and other do-gooders who strayed too far off the beaten path. China has been in such violent turmoil for most of the century, people didn’t remark much on such disappearances.”
Now I was definitely feeling uncomfortable, and it wasn’t from the wind either.
“They were thwarted in New England seventy years ago, but they’re trying again, closer to home, now that times are more stable and prosperous. I didn’t mention another benefit of the Three River Gorges Dam. Its vast lake will serve as a breeding ground…”
Tim stopped, as if listening for something out on the water. But there was only the wind and the dull rumbling of the ship’s engine. Again, I lost what he was saying.
“…must think I’m crazy. Why should you believe a word of what I’m telling you? I didn’t believe any of it myself, until the day before the cruise, when I happened to pass by Mr. Ty’s office a lot earlier than usual. The door was ajar and some instinctive sense made me stop. He was talking to someone wearing a hood, who spoke in a guttural language that wasn’t any Chinese dialect I’d ever heard. Then I saw one of the hands, more like a scaly claw….The worst thing was, from the thing’s tone, it seemed to be the boss, telling Mr. Ty what to do.”
Tim may have babbled on some more, but I was no longer paying attention. I was too busy trying to rationalize to myself what I was hearing, assuming the guy was at least half sane and not totally deluded. Maybe Mr. Ty’s visitor suffered from some terrible skin disease endemic to the Far East.
“… I need to talk to you some more,” Tim was saying when I tuned in again. “Can we meet at the same place and time tomorrow night? It’s risky, but I’ve learned something else lately, about a specific threat. I have to tell someone I can trust—”
Tim paused, as if listening again to something out on the river, then he was gone. I may have heard the thud of a door above the wind. I stayed alone in the dark only a minute or so before hustling inside and hastening back to my cabin.
I woke up in the late morning feeling far from refreshed. Jan was sitting on her bed, watching me.
“Are you okay, honey?” she asked.
“Yeah, just my insomnia acting up again. Sorry, sweetie.”
“You were yelling in your sleep, Phil.”
“Were you having nightmares?”
“Not that I remember.” In truth, I had only a dim memory of having dreamed, but I could well imagine the effect Tim’s wild story might have had. Yet I hesitated to tell Jan of our conversation. Maybe later, when I’d had a chance to absorb the implications myself, I’d clue in my mate.
“Since you had such a bad night, I decided to let you sleep late and miss the Qutang Gorge.”
“These gorges are all alike anyway.”
“You also missed breakfast. Here, I brought you a peach. You have to hurry and dress if we’re going to make today’s excursion.”
“I think I’ll skip today’s excursion.”
I found a chair in a shady spot on one of the lower outer decks. Too tired to read, I watched the monotonous scenery slip by. On occasion, the boat would glide past a humble stone house, typically abandoned and in ruins. Few of the ordinary buildings in China seemed built to last, and I couldn’t help thinking that their submersion would be no great architectural loss. I napped fitfully.
Over dinner, folks at our table talked about how abnormally high the river was running this summer. If you wanted to see them in their full glory, you didn’t have a lot of time left to plan a return trip. The gorges would be covered by the new reservoir, due to be filled to its interim level of 443 feet above sea level in 2003, one well-informed teacher asserted.
That night, as Jan and I prepared for bed, I still hesitated to tell her about my unsettling conversation with Tim, perhaps because I had yet to decide whether I was going to meet him as planned. But Jan was soon fast asleep, and I knew that morbid curiosity would ensure my making our clandestine rendezvous.
Around midnight, I slipped into some clothes and made my way as stealthily as I could to the top deck. There I stood at the forward rail, listening to the low thrum of the boat’s engines, my face turned to the breeze blowing across the bow. After a couple of minutes, a figure emerged from the shadows, in his faintly luminous starched white uniform.
“I don’t have much time,” Tim announced, sounding no more sober than the night before. “They know I know. At the very least they’re not going to let me out of the country. When you get back to the States, you have to warn people.”
“Warn people about what?”
“Of course, this is based on a secondhand report—what I heard from a Chinese doctor in Chongqing, an acquaintance of mine, who’d come back recently from one of the rural orphanages. Do you realize that Americans who come to China to adopt don’t get to choose their own baby? The state simply hands you a child. They tell you nothing about the child’s origins. From what the doctor said, though, you can expect to see a lot more boy babies in the years ahead.”
“What’s this got to do with the, er, aliens you were telling me about last night?”
“Isn’t it obvious? They tried the same trick in Innsmouth. It was part of the bargain the Yankee traders made with them on those Pacific Islands before the Civil War. According to my granddad—”
Suddenly, I realized we weren’t alone. Somebody else had joined us on the deck, the engine noise having masked the sound of any approaching footsteps. I could dimly discern another white uniform, but not identify the wearer. “Carl,” groaned Tim. The Chinese guide said nothing, but even in the dark it was clear who was master and who was servant in their relationship. Without a word, Tim followed Carl down below. A minute later, on the verge of panic from some instinctive fear, I raced back to the safety of my cabin.
The next morning I work up from terrible dreams—of things swimming in the river or the ocean whose features I dreaded to look at close up. Jan was holding me in her arms and doing her best to console me.
“What’s wrong, Phil?” she pleaded.
“More nightmares. My insomnia’s only getting worse.” Again, perhaps out of some perverse subconscious impulse, I resisted confiding in the one person who might have been able to put my worries to rest.
I pulled myself sufficiently together to appear at breakfast, though I touched little on my plate. I did my best not to think about Tim’s absurd and incoherent claims. Jan and I skipped the morning excursion to a local temple and played Ping Pong instead. The game did much to calm me down, and I was able to eat a full lunch, including pineapple Jell-O with coconut for dessert.
Meanwhile, the boat had passed through the first part of the Xiling Gorge and docked at the town of Maoping. We crossed a pontoon bridge to shore and boarded a bus for the hour-long ride to the dam construction site.
We stopped at the Three Gorges visitors’ center on a hilltop more than a mile away from the site, a vast hole in the earth. Because of the brown haze that hung in the air, the view wasn’t all that exciting. Besides, there didn’t seem to be anything going on. Our Chinese guide explained that work was at a temporary halt while foreign engineers checked the progress to date. Those in charge wanted to make sure they got it right. Some of us spent more time studying the model of the finished dam at the visitors’ center than gazing at the scooped-out shell of the real thing.
After returning to the ship, Jan and I wondered why we remained moored. Normally, the boat resumed cruising down the river soon after a land excursion. We would have to wait until dinner for an answer.
During the coffee course, Carl stood up and said, in his fluent English, that he had an important announcement. Due to the extraordinary flooding on the river, the boat was unable to pass under the bridge that spanned the Yangtze near the dam site. A chartered bus would take us to Wuhan the next morning instead. The trip would last about five hours. He was terribly sorry. Almost as an afterthought, he added that Tim was indisposed and wouldn’t be joining the farewell festivities after dinner.
The prospect of a long bus ride the next day wasn’t a happy one, but what choice did we have? I tried not to think of Tim, who for all I knew had been bundled off to a Chinese loony bin while we were all at the dam site.
We were up at 5:30 for a 7:00 o’clock departure. It was the Fourth of July, and several of the bouncier members of our party initiated some singing of patriotic songs, starting with “The Star-Spangled Banner,” as our bus drove out of Maoping on what promised to be a blistering hot day. Suffering from too little sleep, I was in no mood to join the chorus.
Fortunately, the bus was equipped with comfortable seats and air-conditioning, and we had plenty of bottled water. We drove along an empty two-lane highway through a flat, dry landscape until we came to a small city, where we stopped at a modern hotel. Our Chinese guide, Molly, advised us that this would be our last chance to use a Western-style bathroom before reaching Wuhan.
We now entered a region of cultivated farmland, greener than the earlier terrain if just as dull. The trip seemed endless, and Molly confirmed that we were running nearly an hour behind schedule. With the uncertain state of my bowels, I doubted I could make it without another bathroom stop.
A couple of hours later, around noon, we made one. The bus pulled off the road into a parking lot, occupied on one side by an unprepossessing outdoor market. Jan and I first inspected a cluster of tent-covered stalls where a few peasants were buying and selling produce, then crossed the parking area to a one-story, windowless, white-brick building, the public toilet. Guided by the universal signs for female and male, we each entered the appropriate door.
Despite a gap for ventilation between roof and wall, the stench was overpowering. In the murky light, scarcely a single tiled surface appeared devoid of filth. With a handkerchief to my nose, I first secured some newsprint-like paper squares from the communal box near the entrance, then picked my way carefully across the slimy floor down the row to the last, gaping stall of a size to accommodate a large farm animal.
I precariously perched myself on the little pedestal platform above the stinking hole, then dropped my pants. As I squatted in relief, I heard a bubbling, slopping sound nearby, followed by some slobbery grunting.
Then, just as I was about to tug up my shorts, a vile, fishy odor cut through the pervasive cloacal smell. It was all I could do to repress my gag reflex. Then I felt something clammy on my calf—almost as if a hand had reached up from the noisome pit below and grabbed me. It squeezed, I shrieked, I struggled, and in the moment before I fainted, I got a glimpse, as it slipped back into the liquid muck, of a greenish-blue, iridescent, webbed paw.
When I came to, Jan was holding my hand. Out the bus’s front window, I could see the towering new buildings of Wuhan looming on the horizon. Jan murmured in my ear that I had Fred to thank for rescuing me. Apparently, he had just finished his business in another stall down the line when he heard my screams and ran to see what was wrong. He had hauled me unconscious away from the stall and carried me outside. I looked closely at Jan and realized that, however sympathetic, she could never understand. If I tried to tell her what had really happened in that ghastly roadside convenience, she too would dismiss my tale as a delusion or hallucination brought on by the heat, lack of sleep, and repellent but otherwise quite natural sights and smells.
In a state of numbness I got through the late lunch at our Wuhan hotel, our final group meal. I nearly fainted again, though, when Fred casually mentioned, as we said goodbye to him and Jean, that he had felt a bit of inexplicable resistance when he pulled me from the brink—as if my feet were stuck in quicksand or, he quipped, quick shit. After lunch, I took a bath in our room, fell into bed, and didn’t awake until the next morning, despite being assailed by hideous dreams.
Our final day in China, in the company of our Wuhan guide, Tony, I somehow sleepwalked through a series of tourist sites, notably Mao’s summer villa, with the indoor pool his minions built as a present but he never once used (besides hating everything Western, Mao preferred to swim in natural settings like the Yangtze River).
Tony was by far the most engaging of our guides, a personable fellow with a sense of humor, who teased us about not having the plane tickets he was supposed to supply for our flight home—which caused me in particular a moment of panic. We deeply regretted that we had almost run out of dollars and had to tip him mostly in soft-currency yuan before catching our connecting plane to Beijing.
In the months since returning to San Francisco, things have been tense between me and Jan. More and more often as we argue she gives me that staring, bug-eyed look of hers that so unnerves me. She’s certain that we should adopt from China. She hears such happy reports from Jean and Fred of their new baby girl. Just the other day an article in the Chronicle said that it was now easier to obtain Chinese boys. If being limited to a girl was my problem, I no longer had that excuse….But still I resist, feebly suggesting a Russian boy as an alternative. I dare not confide in Jan my worst fears, for us, for any baby we adopt, and for the Chinese people, who may soon be facing the worst crisis in the long and continuous history of their magnificent civilization.
Meanwhile, I am keeping my promise to Kim, the travel agent, not to publish anything ill of her government, but in the event of my sudden death or disappearance, I leave it to the discretion of my executors whether to go public with an account that some, who don’t know what I know, will surely dismiss as a work of uninspired, unconvincing fiction.