A Steam Engine Before Dawn
for a woman student who was at Tiananmen Square in 1989
No one can hear the sound as well as I.
While I lay on an elm-wood bed
in a village three kilometers from here, hidden away in the woods,
the noise of a train slipped through a crack between the door and a wall,
though a window kept out the December chill.
Its rhythm was as insistent as the decibels of hard rock music.
Loud, bold, lyrical, as well as touching, it made my blood flow faster.
I rubbed away the dark night that clung to my eyelashes.
Except for a constantly crowing cock and a barking dog, I was the first
to waken from the long night.
The train roared on south to north.
It was apparently passing through the tunnel I often take.
The tunnel resounded with Bam-Bam-Bam like a beaten drum.
The north-bound train reminded me of our early summer love.
We imitated it and ran along the rails northward,
which is closer to both winter and summer.
That day we passed the train by,
arriving at the station before it did. When we got there
the train still hadn’t brought us the next day’s dawn. When dawn did come
it darkened our eyes. The very heart of the sun
was before our dark eyes. We groped along
but could find nothing but damp shouting.
It offered us bread, cider and warm hands,
but we had long since forgotten our hunger. We ran about frantically
in the dark
and like the train before dawn
we shone a faint light into the deep, stubborn darkness,
and our heads smashed into the wall of the sun and bled.
we inhaled our homeland
and our homeland was gasping in our young bodies
like healthy bodies with asthma.
We are young doctors who know the causes of illness
and though our medicines cannot cure the germs in the homeland’s body
those germs, on the contrary, are killing us.
My lovely girl collapsed. In early summer before dawn
just at this time of day when the train passes through,
a sunflower seed that ripened and grew voluptuous under the sun struck her.
That sunflower was once an Apollo in our hearts
and we sang and danced around it as children.
Grown up, we looked up to it and praised it.
But she fell down in her own blood. Under that rootless sunflower
she said with her last faint breath, “O China, China!”
She passed away—quietly.
The sound of a heart collapsing is ten times louder than that of a train.
In spite of no one’s calling her a heroine
I live in order to authenticate her.
—I am her living monument.
As if I were a drop of blood spurting from her heart,
I clambered up onto the down-train helped by that one last drop of blood.
There were ghosts of death everywhere on the train.
They collided and cried out violently,
setting off sparks all around them.
I was standing up in the train while a fly stared at me with noble eyes.
Dancing frantically, the ghosts surrounded me.
In the dim lamplight
I felt the rhythm of death.
It ran over my heart roaring, just like the pre-dawn train.
Death’s voice, its white bandage wound round the earth,
wound and rewound me,
round and round.
I returned to the room we had set out from. A slight rain
dampening all sounds
gradually took on the color of blood in the depths of my memory.
The peace that followed the rain
thrust its devil-hand down my throat into my heart.
And so it was that a new grave
rose up in my heart, taller than any of the mountains in China.
The train before dawn was a sounding arrow
that dark night shot at the terminal.
It left its sound behind in a split second,
gradually lost speed and finally vanished.
But that momentary sound
reminded me of one person and many other persons,
of one accident and other accidents,
of one voice and other voices,
of one time and, also, of other times.
Lying in my futon, on one hand I recounted past events
and with the other I grasped the same life’s root
once grasped by my sweetheart in her small hand.
I was once again beside the Beijing-Guangzhou Line,
and saw the iron wheels roar down the track crushing time and sunlight.
They were speeding northward shouting frantically as if they were suffering
just because they were alive.
The pre-dawn train
scarred the earth as if with a sharp knife
and cut the sky’s bare skin.
The sky bled and endured its pain,
as engine smoke belched out and covered the sky’s wound like absorbent cotton.
I know that
the wounded sky and earth do not hate the train,
just as I, in bed,
don’t hate my country.
The train as it passed before dawn wakened me from the dark night.