So no one can count the bodies

an excerpt from the novel Green Island

They walked by the freshly executed men who lay facedown in the dirt road, their hands bound behind their backs. Heat still rose off the blood seeping from them. Out of the corner of his eye, Baba saw women moving quietly between houses. Only women.

The group turned off the road and traipsed past a tidy garden and then along a narrow dirt path. Soon, a temple came into full view—somehow, in this remote, godforsaken little place—painted red and green with touches of gold leaf. The thick round columns, lacquered red, gleamed. However, boot prints dulled the carefully varnished wood floor.

Their guard ordered the four to sit in a line at the center of the room. Baba stared up at Matsu’s incense-blackened face. She, like them, had been silent; her muteness had been the first sign of her immortality. The final sign—legend claimed—was the day that she, at the age of twenty- eight, walked up a mountain where she’d seen the light lancing the earth and disappeared into the clouds. Her wordless arrival and departure sealed her legend. Fishermen adopted her as their patron saint. Men carved her face into wood and stone and carted her on palanquins down village roads, arraying her in firework and incense smoke. Her best like- ness was set into a special temple and worshipped for so many centuries that her face blackened from the smoke. And now Baba prayed that the goddess of compassion would open her eyes to them.

A soldier stood before them and beckoned their attention with a spool of wire. “We need to make sure that you all stay together. Hands clasped behind your backs.”

Why not handcuffs? Baba thought. The soldier began with Professor Wu, and when he screamed, Baba understood why not handcuffs. They were being strung together like fish for market. Professor Wu sobbed as the soldier moved on to Professor Hsiao, who had already begun to pant with worry.

“I can’t. I can’t,” he cried.

“Shock will set in and you won’t feel it.” My father tried to comfort him, but the professor squealed through his gritted teeth, and the tendons in his neck swelled. Matsu continued to gaze placidly upon them, not a flinch in her expression. The demon guards on either side of her, stern faced, betrayed nothing.

“Endure it for a minute,” Baba told Kai Hsiang, who was next. “And then you will feel nothing.”

Kai Hsiang took deep, heavy breaths as the soldier pierced his palms. The wire now had the blood of three men. Despite his own assurances, my father’s heart was pounding. Even though Kai Hsiang resisted crying out, tears streamed down his clenched face.

Just endure, Baba reminded himself, advice difficult to follow now that he sat beside three weeping men. When the wire broke through his skin and slid through his flesh, worming past the metacarpal of his index finger, his heart began beating so quickly that he could not swallow his spit. His brain flooded and his ears throbbed and went deaf with pain.

He gasped and cried despite himself.

The soldier stabbed his right hand. He gnashed his teeth. Sweat rolled down his face. He waited for the nothing that he had promised. No, he had been wrong. The pain pulsed in a searing heat that made him twist his back. The others protested every time he twitched—each shiver echoed down the line.

Three higher-ranking men—Baba did not know what ranks the various colored bars and plum flowers signified, only that these men had a well- fed luster, like the infamous concubine Yang Kuei-fei, creamy as sculpted lard—took seats at a table set up between the prisoners and the Matsu idol. They sat like triplets of varying plumpness. Other soldiers began to fill the room: surrounding the men, sitting cross-legged on the floor, slouching against the lacquered columns, fiddling with bits of wood or string or detritus from their pockets.

The man on the left, whose shirt held the fewest flowers, said languorously, “You are on trial for sedition and challenging the status quo.” He rolled his eyes as a soldier translated into Taiwanese.

“Sir.” The plea broke between Kai Hsiang’s pained breaths.

“What?” The word echoed from the soldier’s mouth in Taiwanese.

“I’m just a fisherman. Please use plain language.”

The words traveled back to the men behind the table, and their mouths curled into sneers. The man on the left smacked the table. “You’re spies!”

The accusation fell without any reaction from the audience, whose purpose Baba did not understand. This was clearly not a court but a farce, perhaps played out every day at this time. Guilty shot in the morning, newly accused sentenced after that, and then repeat, day after day between breakfast and lunch. All of it done in the secrecy of little villages. So no one can count the bodies, Baba thought.

The man in the middle, swollen, with jowls like heaps of white dough, clearly suffered from decadence. Too much rich food. Baba knew that if the man stripped off his shoes, his feet would be fat with gout. Indeed, beneath the table, the doctor could see the man’s laces were very loosely tied. He also was the highest-ranking man at the table.

He grunted in impatience. “Read the charges.”

The pain in my father’s hands subsided for a moment, then howled back. Without it, he might have thought more about how his knees ached on the hard floor. As the soldier-secretary began to recite their crimes, Baba felt the trembling of the others through the wire.

Professor Hsiao was accused of reading Marx and sympathizing with Mao. Professor Wu was named a collaborator with Professor Hsiao. They were both enemy agents because they had spent time at a Chinese university during the war.

“I was there because I didn’t support the Japanese!” Professor Wu cried.

“Your colleague on the mainland is a known communist. He has rebuked his position and forsaken academia. He now works for the communists. He is a hero.”

Professor Wu’s eyes widened. “I had no idea,” he said.

“Is ignorance an excuse?” the man on the right, a deflated version of the other two, asked the one in the middle.

“The professor knows too much to be ignorant.”

“I am an admirer of Chiang Kai-shek,” Professor Wu protested.

The central man dragged his finger down a sheet of paper. “Did you not write a newspaper editorial claiming that the decadence of Governor- General Chen Yi’s regime is draining the island of much-needed resources? You say, ‘This is not the time for more war. This is the time for recovery. We must first heal the island before healing the mainland.’”

Professor Wu hung his head.

“I believe this is a criticism of Chiang’s plan. What did you expect people to feel when they read this?”

“This clearly incites discontent.” The man on the left nodded. “Obviously.”

“Also, while buying soy milk from the street vendor, two neighbors report they heard you express doubts about the ability of our republic to control the mainland. You have been extremely careless. What do you say to the charges?” asked the man on the right.

“I’m not guilty.” Desperation made his voice shrill.

“Unfortunately that’s not an option. I will note that you admit you are the author of these statements.” The only sound in the temple was the scratching of his pen. “And you, Professor Hsiao?”

“I tossed out the Marx. I never opened it.” He was firm, assured.

“Hand him the book,” snapped the man on the left.

A soldier placed the book on the floor before Professor Hsiao.

“I’m sorry.” The man on the left laughed. “Hold it for him.” The soldier lifted the book before Professor Hsiao’s face. “Is this your copy?”

“I never looked closely at it. I can’t say. These are mass-produced. How can I say if it’s my copy?” Baba was shocked at the insouciance in Professor Hsiao’s voice. Did he not yet comprehend their situation?

“And has the binding been broken?”

The soldier opened the book and everyone heard the binding snap, fresh pages cracking like eggshells. “The binding is broken,” the soldier said.

“So it has been read,” the man on the left proclaimed.

“It hasn’t!” shouted Professor Hsiao. He strained and the wire tugged at Baba’s hands. All four men cried out.

“I will take this as evidence of guilt.” Again, the loathsome scratch of the pen.

“Next, Fisherman Liou Kai Hsiang. Despite your innocent face, you are the most insidious of them all. We have a copy of a handbill that you printed at your cousin’s shop. You quote Marx: ‘Therefore, we should not say that one man’s hour is worth another man’s hour, but rather that one man during an hour is worth just as much as another man during an hour.’ What do you say?”

“It’s true,” Kai Hsiang replied simply. A murmur of surprise disrupted the temple.

“The words are true or the accusation?”

“Both. I believe democracy is part of the journey to communism. I am not a spy, but I believe in revolution. We have nothing to lose but our chains. You!” He nodded toward the soldier who had been jogging back and forth, delivering evidence. “You!” He looked at the one who had strung together the men, who’d had to bite back his humanity in order to not flinch. “Why do you clean their boots and pick stones from your rice while these men eat fresh meat? Don’t you work harder? Suffer more? And when it’s all done, what will be left for you? A pathetic pension and a tin medal?”

“Stop him!” roared the man in the middle. His hands shook and his pale face turned red. “Shut up!” But his lackeys were frozen. How to stop a man already bound and bleeding?

“I admit all charges! I am proudly guilty!” Kai Hsiang settled onto his heels and his linked compatriots had no choice but to follow suit.

Kai Hsiang was both stupid and brilliant. “Please, stop,” my father pleaded. Could it be true? Did Kai Hsiang really believe what he said? The communists were abominable; Baba felt it. Yet Kai Hsiang was not.

The man in the middle sneered. “You’re a poison to the Republic of China, an admitted traitor. I’ll shoot you myself. Did you think that honesty would buy leniency?” His pen slashed across a piece of paper. “Now, the doctor.”

Baba closed his eyes. As the charges against him rang out through the temple, he relived the moment of his alleged crime. He recalled winding his way through the anxious crowd to the spot in front of the auditorium stage that was set aside for public comment. Another time, he might have been nervous about talking in front of a large group, but the memory of the man who had died in his clinic superseded any fear. This abysmal government’s policies were personal now.

“Traitor,” the man in the middle proclaimed. Other words followed, but this one dangled in the air like a noose. Baba clenched his teeth. It had required genuine loyalty—real faith, not treachery—to have said what he did in front of the community meeting that day: considering the political maturity of the island, they deserved a locally led civilian government. He had spoken for—not against—the interest of the people.

Why bother defending himself? What he said did not matter. They were already dead. He could admit or refute and it would not matter. He could say he was a spy. He could say that he had already telegraphed his mainland compatriots and ships were due to land at any minute. None of the four accused men would make it to the next week. They would all bleed red before April.

Excerpted from  GREEN ISLAND by Shawna Yang Ryan. Copyright © 2016 by Random House. Excerpted by permission of Alfred A. Knopf, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.


“'It won’t heal covered up.' She knew scars. She took off her shirt and placed his hand on the question mark circling her breast. 'Nothing between us. '”