Possibly the best falling from the sky story comes from World War Two
One freezing night in 1943 a British pilot, who did not see much of a future in staying with his plane, which was being incinerated and torn apart by stratospheric winds 20,000 metres over Hamburg, choose to hurl himself out into the night. Unfortunately for him there had never been quite enough parachutes to go around in his part of the war, and that morning he had drawn the short straw.
Obviously a man able to find the positive side of things he made the decision that it would be quicker and less agonising to jump than to wait and be roasted.
For two minutes he fell through the night.
And afterwards, somehow, he was still alive.
He had his fall broken first by the top of a tall pine tree, then the roof of a convent (nicely padded by a deep drift of a snow) and finally, if you choose to believe this sort of thing, a bunk bed which had just been vacated by a nun.
I read this story in a book called the 'Children's Compendium of Amazing Tales and Bizarre but True Facts'. The text was in a little box which had apparently been included to fill the space at bottom of the page. The little box didn't say where the story had come from, nor did it mention what happened to the pilot afterwards, other than he survived the fall with no more serious injury than badly two broken legs. If you were making a movie out of it the nuns would hide him in a hayloft where Catholic shame, sexual tension and political intrigue which would build up to a final nail biting scene involving a band of SS storm troopers and a pitch-fork; though this being a World War Two story the truth is probably something a lot grimmer and less dramatic. Did the only man to free fall from the stratosphere and survive die of food poisoning acquired from a bowl of rancid cabbage soup a week before the Russians arrived? The answer is probably.
So we'll never know how it was for him then- those two amazing minutes that he hung there, doomed and magnificent, just another solid object, swirling around with the stars and vapour and howling streams of shimmering ice tinted purple by the strange reflection of the milky way. It would have been cold of course, and very dark. At first (assuming this is, that he stayed conscious at all) the rush of air would been a dizzying roar. I bet that if he could see the fiery junk of his plane falling away it would have seemed very small, and that somewhere out there in the endlessness of the sky at night there would have been the great looming presence of Earth below, and in spite of all his other problems it's hard to see how that could have been anything but wonderful.
Maybe, as he fell, he was high on freedom and hugeness. Maybe, for those few minutes, the war and airplanes and the miserable struggles of miserable people, the tumbling carrion of his dead friends and the reddish tint thrown up by the thousands of factories and homes and lives he'd been a part of destroying- the whole damn mess, dwindled to almost nothing.
All can say for sure is that he wouldn't have been calm, no one falling towards certain death could be, and that this isn't the case with cats.
The cat, as it jumped off the top of a very stylish and conveniently located apartment building in Beijing, did not show any signs of fear or indecision. Fifty metres above a traffic clogged expressway, plummeting head first through the mildly acidic fug which passes for air in that city towards an almost certainly very spectacular death amidst and all over the trapped commuters on the street below, it was at peace. It tucked its paws into its belly, flattened its ears and closed its eyes, the same sleepy expression that came over it on the rare occasions when anyone found time to scratch its belly.
The laundry woman was the only human wittiness to the cat jumping off the building. Later she would theorize that the creature had suffered from madness and had gone over the edge while leaping up in the air to catch an imaginary bird- but even to her, a lady who knew little about cats, it didn't seem like a very good theory. The animal hadn't looked as though it was trying to catch anything, imaginary or real, it had hopped over the railing as casually as if it had been getting up onto the sofa.
It happened on a windy afternoon. She had been up on the roof struggling to peg a sheet on the washing line when, from the corner of her eye, she saw the cat emerge from the stairwell, cross to the edge of the building in a few easy bounds and spring off the building out into the smoggy ether in a single graceful movement. She pegged on the sheet and ran to the railing just in time to see a small grey dot floating downwards with surprising slowness before it merged with the traffic.
The woman had watched enough TV in her life to expect at least a small explosion, but all she heard a the squeal of a taxi breaking hard and the shouts of some very surprised neighbourhood kids echoing up from below.
The apartments did have a care-taker whose job it usually was to look after things like dead cats, but it happened that the previous day he had fallen off a ladder and was confined to bed in his cramped basement room which he shared with the carpet cleaning machine and a few buckets of carpet cleaning liquid.
Almost everyone in Beijing lives in an apartment block, there are tens of thousands of them, and they almost all look exactly the same. Flaky white paint, ominous cracks in the ceiling, dank stairways and the type of concrete that begins visibly crumbling away into dust as soon as it is laid. Most of them have names like Beijing Outer Zone North Electric Goods Factory Accommodation Block Five, and don't have laundry ladies or caretakers who are supposed to look after dead cats, but this apartment block was different. It had a name, The Heavenly Peace Mansions, it had an elevator with spotless mirrors and the sort of upscale physical atmosphere that comes only from using the very classiest brand of disinfectant. As well as the laundry lady and a caretaker a suitably strapping young man was paid to dress up like a Buckingham palace guard and sit quietly at a desk in the lobby. In the corridors, which were tastefully coated with pink carpet, people came and went quietly and on time.
Although she knew that they made more in a day than she was likely to see in a month the laundry lady never did work out exactly what it was that the people whose laundry she washed did. Certainly it was nothing that involved any more danger to their clothing than the occasional spillage of soup. They were picked up every morning in cars driven by men with white gloves and generally had dinner delivered in the evenings. They were not, she felt quite sure, the type who would be happy to rummage around in the basement for a shovel and go out into the rain to scrape a dead cat off the road, so it was left to her.
Given another set of circumstances it is possible that the disappearance of the cat would have forever remained a mystery. The cat had ploughed into the road head first, at high speed and the driver of the taxi only hit the breaks after he had gone over the top of it- there wasn't much left in the way of distinguishing features. This cat though, had priors. Through its amazing but nearly inexplicable ability to manipulate the latch on the bathroom window it had managed several times to escape its owner's apartment and wander the hallways of Heavenly Peace on week long mouse hunting sprees that usually ended when it was found curled up asleep in the basement beneath the care-takers bed. The building's staff had got used to being told to keep their eyes open for the thing every couple of weeks.
The laundry lady knew that any stray cats that were found were be to returned to the young couple who lived behind the unassuming door of apartment 75B.
As she went on into the rain with her shovel in one hand and the bucket she usually used for washing the floor of the employee bath room in the other, it had struck the laundry lady that the owners of the cat, clearly being people of discriminating tastes, would want something a little more refined for the now decidedly amorphous remains of their pet- though she couldn't think of what. She'd ran back into the lobby the asked the faux palace guard who kindly rummaged around in a broom closet and produced for her a plastic bag.
The truth was, she had to admit, that this wasn't an ideal end to the day for anyone, least of all the cat, but what else could she do?
A few days later there was controversy. The guard told her that the woman who owned the cat had been very upset at how its remains had been delivered to her. Unsure of exactly what to do the laundry lady had placed the bag inside the bucket and neatly tied the top of it to spare them the sight of what was inside. The ungrateful bitch, she thought when she heard about their reaction. She'd been chilled to the bone out in the rain scraping up the remains of their rotten moggy, and she felt the least they could have done was pass on a thank you. Apparently the bag had had some letters on it, KFC, which had caused the woman who owned the animal to be much more upset then she already was.
The guard, who when he wasn't being a guard was studying to be a doctor, had tried to explain why this was but the laundry lady hadn't been able to follow. It had something to do, he assured her, with an American chicken. Ridiculous.
The cat was owned by a couple who displayed some of the outward signs of glamour. Though not quite distinguished enough yet to properly call themselves new rich, they would have been very upset to think they weren't on their way.
Kang Shi Tsai, the male half, worked in an office and did something related to computers and tax law. He made lots of money and very little satisfaction, but most of his memories were of being urged to study harder for everyone's sake, and so this was something he had grown used to.
He was married to a woman called Jiao Mei Ming, Mei Mei for short, a high priced receptionist who spent her days high in a glass tower providing outstanding customer service as part of British Airway's Beijing corporate office.
Jiao Mei Ming was a modern woman with a modern income, and in this relationship there was no doubt that she was the boss. She was certainly the one who called the shots when it came to home decorating. On the wall above their bed there was a picture of the Eiffel tower and their book shelf was crammed with timeless literary classics in French, which neither of them could read or would ever be able to. Some of their furniture was designed in Sweden.
Whether these things made Mei Mei happy was not known, though the theory behind their purchase was that having them might indeed make this possible one day.
Kang did want her to be happy, but although they often seemed to get to the point where this happiness was technically within reach the problem seemed to be that the objectives kept on getting pushed back. First, before they were married even, the aim had simply been an apartment, then she needed an apartment in the Heavenly Peace Mansions, and then things (he thought quietly through fear of somehow being overheard) had started getting really crazy. Furniture wasn't just good enough, no, it had to be Swedish designed furniture, and then a cat, but not just any cat, but a cat purchased from Super Happy Cute Little Animal Barn- the recently opened branch of the Japanese pet care hyper market chain that had taken the world by storm and finally come to Beijing.
By the stage Mei Mei dragged Kang along to Super Happy Cute Little Animal Barn to buy their cat he had become cynical enough not to be surprised that this was a far from simple task. While the salesman did his thing Kang just tried to look neutral. Yes, the salesmen told them as they stood inside the cavernous former aircraft hanger underneath a towering pile of specially imported Danish dog food which the promotional material assured them was the same stuff the Vikings feed their dogs, they could just buy a cat- Super Happy Cute Little Animal Barn had hundreds of cats of the very highest quality, but why just buy a cat when for the same price they could have so much more?
"Why just buy a cat when you could buy", and here the salesman paused and looked meaningfully at Kang, "the feline experience".
The feline experience, the salesman explained, was tailored for top end customers who demanded the most from their feline. Apart from the actual animal itself the feline experience included a deluxe sheep skin coated bag to carry the kitten home in, a booklet of vouchers which gave half price on life-time care from a Western trained vet (who conveniently doubled as an animal psychic), and most thoughtfully of all, for when it was finally time to say goodbye to their furry little friend, a junior size tomb stone carved with a name of their choice and a pre-paid plot at Super Happy Cute Little Animal Barn's recently opened exclusive pet cemetery, located minutes from downtown on the Shanghai expressway, just by the executive golf club.
The cat salesman said that they would have been insane to even consider any other option. Mei Mei, nodding in considered understanding, had agreed with him completely
And this was how there came be a cat living in apartment 75B.
There was a McDonalds over the road from the government office where Kang went to register the death of his cat, and it was rumoured that the dusty pile of rubble that stood next door was soon to be transformed into something shiny and modern, but the building itself was a relic built for a simpler more brutal time. It had been designed by Soviet architects, schooled during an epoch when it was possible to be shot for wasting too much air. Understandably, throughout those years overcrowding had not been a problem in most government buildings outside of the gulags, and under such a system the place must have been suitably intimidating. Footsteps would have echoed in the cavernous foyer while an lonely figure who might or might not have been from the secret police would have looked ominously down from the second floor walkway- the sheer height of the ceiling would have been enough to make anyone feel small and helpless.
But times had changed. A mob of border-line hysterical taxi drivers of the type that Kang encountered when he tried to enter the building had not been one of the scenarios the place was designed to cope with. As far as Kang could tell the mess had something to do with license renewal forms being due later that day. It made the hall into an humid jungle of desperation- steamy with panic sweat and deafening with the rustle of soiled yellow forms. There was the babble of a frantic crowd, perspiring men in singlets were vainly trying to fill out paper work against the grimy fake marble pillars that held up the roof. On the mezzanine level a bored looking man with a loud speaker droned repetitively, "make orderly lines and move towards the front".
Kang wasn't sure how he made his way to the front, but it wasn't by getting into any kind of orderly line. He thought that it might have been love that guided him through. He did know for sure that if he didn't make it would mean another night sleeping on the couch.
As he shoved his way into place in front of the official on duty Kang managed to open his mouth but was cut off before he got a chance to make a sound.
"You", the official said, it was more of an accusation than a greeting- his voice as it filtered through the intercom system was metallic and grating. "You came here yesterday! What did I say then?"
In China officials not only act but must, by law, look like guards from a Stalinist prison camp. Ill-fitting military uniforms and peaked hats with red stars are the order of the day.
Kang tried to speak but was stopped short again...
The rules are clear" the official continued. Apart from a head cold he seemed comfortable enough behind his grubby barrier of reinforced glass. "Like I told you already you can't bury the cat. Not legally, certainly not on Super Happy Cute Little Animal Barn property".
"But"... Kang was not having a good day.
"What are you doing here anyway? Have you come back to ask me nicely or something? Did you think that might change my mind?" The official sighed and reached over to take a sip from his jar of tea. "You know what I told you. It just can't be. It has nothing to do with me".
"But I came here yesterday, I gave you the cat's death certificate, what more could you possibly want?"
"I don't want anything. Like I said, it has nothing to do with me. All I know is that the death certificate you got your vet to write and then gave me stated very clearly that at the time of its death your cat was suffering from an incurable infectious disease. That's why we're denying you permission to bury it".
"Come on, don't do this to me". Kang waited for a reaction to this plea for mercy but didn't get one. He was aware of the taxi drivers on both sides of him digging their elbows into his ribs. Someone had managed to jam their hand beneath the glass screen and was a convulsively rustling a sheaf of papers up against the official's stomach. "Please", he went on, begging now which wasn't easy for a man like Kang who was almost always very calm. "Find the certificate, have another look at it, you must be reading it wrong or something. I'm telling you the cat is dead, it's not sick and it never was. It fell fifty metres from the roof onto the road and then got run over by a taxi. Afterwards it was scrapped up, put in a plastic bag from KFC, dumped in a bucket and left on our door step. I'm telling you its troubles are over. If we have to wait for another day we'll have to leave it in the trash which will be very traumatic for everyone".
The man behind the glass looked disgustedly at the stray hand and snatched the papers from it.
"Unless you go to the vet" he said, leafing through the sheaf with an intense frown, "and get him to write a report contradicting himself- saying that he's professionally incompetent and that there was nothing wrong with the cat, then there's nothing I can do" he said.
The Kang stared longingly at the stamp through the smudged glass. "Please" he repeated, "just stamp the certificate. If you stamp the certificate my wife and I can go down to the graveyard and get this thing done today".
"We could make it worth your while".
"The official glanced up with interest and loathing. His distaste for corruption came strictly from the fact that the only people who were ever prosecuted for graft were people like him who really could have used the money.
"He sighed wearily. “Look” he said, “I’ll point this out once and only once. Have you got your copy of the certificate”?
"Yes, of course. I've got it with me now.
"Did you actually read what was on it?"
"Of course I looked at it, briefly, my wife was the one who went and picked up it. But the cat fell off a building, what could it possibly say that I don't already know? I just can't understand how why you won’t give us permission to bury the thing".
The official rolled his eyes. "Next" he said- then louder. "Next".
Kang had been knocked out of place. He was being buffeted away by a swirling river of sharp elbows, inches from his face a man with wet eyes and bad breath said "they're not going to let me drive, I've got to drive".
“Have a look at certificate” Kang heard the voice from the intercom saying distantly. Through the crowd he got a last glimpse through to the window. Was it possible the rotten little man was smiling? “I think you might be a bit surprised".
Beijing's only qualified pet psychic was a surprisingly frail looking little man with a slight wispy beard that gave him the appearance of a Confucian sage.
He was seeing a patient out of his office when Kang arrived, a shrivelled old woman who had an enormous red parrot perched on her shoulder. Bird and owner both cackled appreciatively as the vet tickled the bird's stomach with the tip of a bony finger.
"You're a very lucky bird aren't you" he cooed in the type of voice people use when they speak to birds, "no more nightmares for you".
Kang was still sticky with stress scented grime from his struggles through the crowd at the government office. Though the vet's surgery was just around the corner it was on the ground floor of a gleaming new shopping mall that seemed to be built mostly from mirrors- it could have been in another century. Kang was angry enough not to register exactly what the receptionist was saying to him from behind her plasma screen. He stood in the middle of the waiting room glowering at the psychic, acutely conscious of the droplet of sweat that was inching down the side of his head.
The cat psychic hurried woman and bird away and turned to look suspiciously at Kang.
"Can I help you?"
Kang took his slightly tattered copy of the cat's death certificate from his pocket and waved it in the vet's face.
"Is this your idea of a joke? Have you no idea of the trouble you've caused me with this thing?"
The vet was taken aback. "Wow, I sense great hostility here" he said smiling in a way he thought was reassuring and taking a step back. "But unless you can be calm I don't see how we can discuss whatever the problem is".
Behind them his secretary said "I tried to stop him".
"It's OK" he answered, the psychic was already opening the door to this office. He looked at Kang curiously, "come through".
Kang followed the vet into his consulting room. "Are you even a vet?" he asked, standing awkwardly in front of the closed door. The vet was right about the hostility.
"Yes, I am. And who, might I ask, are you"?
"You know who I am. You know who my wife is. And you're certainly acquainted with my cat. Two days ago my wife came in here and you gave her this death certificate". Kang waved the strip of paper at him again.
"OK", said the vet. "And what seems to be the problem?"
"Our cat fell off a building. The local council rule is that to have it buried here we need a death certificate from a vet. It's a stupid rule, but that's how it is. Apparently my wife took it here a few times, she was worried there might be something wrong with it because it kept on escaping from our apartment. So now we have a dead cat, and because you’re the only vet it had ever been to and we need this stupid documentation for the council we come along to you, give you a voucher and a large sum of money, and ask you to write the painfully obvious on a piece of paper so we can put this whole awful mess behind us. But on this piece of paper, instead of writing that our cat fell off a building, which it did, you wrote that our cat was a risk to state security and died during a suicidal political protest. You wrote that even squashed flat as a pancake it is far too dangerous too be buried in the Super Happy Cute Little Animal Barn pet grave yard and crematorium".
For a moment the vet just stared at him.
"We had a pre-payed plot"! Kang yelled, bursting with impatience.
"Oh" said the vet, a small upward sound that seemed to indicate he'd suddenly understood. He moved behind his desk and took a seat looking much more at ease, "oh it's you. The one with the crazy cat".
"Well not crazy" he went on "no I suppose I shouldn't use such a vulgar word, politically deviant would be better. The poor creature, it's a disease you know, political deviance, nothing to be ashamed of".
"What are you talking about? My cat fell off the roof while hunting for mice".
"Did it fall, Mr. Kang? Did it fall or was it pushed?
But the vet wasn't stopped that easily. "Or was it pushed by a need to lash out violently at society, pushed relentlessly by the sickness of its twisted feline mind, until, being unable to destroy what it hated with such unhealthy passion, it was left with no choice but to destroy itself in a last horrible act of subversion?"
The pet psychic had obviously not been short of business lately. The office was plush- his desk a shiny barricade of polished wood which protected a leather swivel chair that Kang thought would have better suited a Shanghai mobster. The wall behind him was cluttered with degrees, some of which presumably came from the place where he had learnt to read the minds of animals.
The psychic settled into his chair and breathed out wearily like a man who had never got used to breaking bad news.
"Mr. Kang" he said "let me be blunt. Your cat's death was not in fact an accident but a suicidal protest against the Little Yellow River Power Station Extension Project. Far from having been the innocent house-hold pet you thought it to be, your cat was, in short, sympathetic to, if not directly in league with, anti-social elements".
There was a second or two of silence while Kang waited for a punch line, but none arrived. He briefly considered the possibility the whole thing might be part of a elaborate psychological experiment or TV game show.
"It was a cat" Kang said, "it didn't have any political opinions, and my wife is very upset, first by the fact it's dead, but especially because we can't give it the burial it..." Kang was going to say deserves, but realised it wouldn't sound quite right. "We've al-already bought a tombstone" he spat, stuttering with embarrassment and something unexpected that felt a bit like shame.
The vet lowered his head and looked at Kang meaningfully over the top of his glasses.
"Don't look at me like that", Kang stammered, "it was a package! Part of the feline experience".
But the vet didn't look away.
"OK, maybe it sounds insane, but we're modern people, we're organised about this sort of thing, and my wife had heard it was all the rage in France. It is small and pink and had a picture of a small pink cat with wings on it".
"I am aware" the vet said gravely, resettling his glasses on his nose, "of the feline experience".
"Then did you write this"? Kang was waving the thing about again, his sweat had caused to ink the to smudge and he realised there were grubby finger marks all over the paper. "Even if you truly believe that our cat was a dangerous political subversive why couldn't you have just pretended it was an ordinary cat and let us bury it the way we wanted?"
The vet seemed to choke on something, but quickly recovered. "What! And have Super Happy Cute Little Animal Barn pet graveyard and crematorium became a site of unholy pilgrimage for every no good, China hating scumbag, who wants to stir things up. I say no. As a vet, as a Communist, as a citizen of China and as an accredited pet physic I cannot in good conscience take that risk". His voice switched down a gear to a tone that was confidential, perhaps even sympathetic. "Look", he said, "I'm sorry, I understand that your cat's political beliefs weren't necessarily your fault. I don't blame you, but I just can't sign it".
Kang was surprised to hear himself shouting, "is this your idea of a joke? he yelled. "Why the power plant of all things?... For a moment he had lost his temper, but he quickly realised that not only was he on dangerous territory but he could probably be heard in the next room. He lowered his voice to something that was closer to a hiss than a whisper. "People have gone to prison over this, people have disappeared. You know that".
The vet raised his eyebrows. "If you're referring to the four or five dead subversives down at Little Yellow River, the ones who were trying to stop the power plant from being built, then I think that's quite a reasonable cost for social order".
"Subversives", Kang murmured, dark and inaudible, "they were nothing but farmers who wanted to keep their land".
"What?" The vet asked sharply.
Kang stood, silently smouldering, for reasons that were accumulative and unspoken. Here, as always, there were a lot of things he couldn't say out loud.
In his circle, especially when Mei Mei was around, it didn't do to mention the past, nor the present in so far as politics was concerned. In many ways the two things were interchangeable. As Kang had pointed out, they were modern people, and the past with it's inexplicable fanaticism and inconceivable hunger was not just irrelevant, but slightly embarrassing.
So Kang's memory of his grandparents and their mud brick house by the cornfield on the edge of Beijing was a private one.
The public Kang had begun as boy who worried about his grades in school, became an awkward adolescent who worried about his grades in university and finally developed into a man of sorts who fretted about keeping up with the rent at Heavenly Peace Apartments and got dragged into things he could have done without, like French classes and arguments with the ex-psychic of his wife's suicidal pet. As far as Kang could tell, his grandparents, with their mud brick hut by the cornfield, had been just about the only people to have ever had sat him down and offered him a cup of tea with no obvious ulterior motive.
It wasn't that he and his wife were afraid to talk about what had happened at the power plant at Little Yellow River, a village on the edge of the sprawling city, or even that it hadn't been in the news - the incident had been reported in the watered down way that was permitted by the state, it was just that hip young people such as themselves had other priorities. If asked how he knew about what had happened he wouldn't have been able to explain where he had heard about it.
But he had.
If asked what he thought about the incident he probably would have shrugged his shoulders, maybe said something about being too busy to think much about that sort of thing, that it was none of his business.
But he did think about it. The thought kept him awake at night.
They really were farmers, these subversives that the vet had mentioned. They lived on the opposite side of the city from Kang's grandparents, but they were the same type of people. Kang knew their kind. They grew corn and a few vegetables, they ate meat once a week, in the winter they sat around a stove and played cards and the rest of the year they were up at dawn and in bed when the sun went down, eager to save money on fuel if nothing else. They were the people who had shown Kang what little kindness he had seen in his competitive, stilted stub of a life- not simple but unlearned, no fools but trusting enough to believe, when half their fields had been acquired from them for a new power plant, that they were doing the right thing for China and that the promise that they would never be moved off the rest really meant something.
Months after they had given up their land, when the water that came from their wells had turned a sickly yellow and they found themselves living in the midst of a strange mist that never seemed to lift, they still found it hard to believe that the power plant could be the blame. Surely, they thought, it wasn't possible that the same people to whom they'd given the soil that was their life to would be careless enough to pollute their water supply and leak poisons into air.
It was only when they were told that the rest of their fields were going to be taken after all that they did anything. Even then they were optimistic. They reasoned that it was a simple matter of a few rotten rotten eggs in the local government spoiling the whole basket. If they could just get the word out about what was happening to them then surely the situation wouldn't be allowed to continue the way it was going.
They patched together two ragged banners. One said, 'Clean Water Now! and the other, 'No More Towers'. Then, one Thursday morning, instead of going to the fields the whole village marched out in front of the construction site, strung their banners across the road, and squatted there, a little astonished at how quickly the traffic began to back up. Slightly confused but sticking with their habit of the past few thousands years the village goats followed them and skittered goatishly about among the trapped cars, giving the whole affair a feeling that was closer to a farm picnic than a real demonstration. The farmers ate boiled eggs. Some enterprising person with a bicycle and a deep fryer turned up and started selling sugared bread sticks. Everyone fretted about the weeding that wasn't being done, and all day no one moved from that road. There must have been a thousand of them, not including farm animals, and it's almost certain that they didn't realise how much they frightened the police simply by being who they were and the scale of disruption they had managed to cause without really trying at all.
The mood had turned quickly at about nine that evening, a bus load of armed police from another town were brought in and the farmers were given a final warning to move off, but they had been getting final warnings all day. No one really believed the police were going to open fire.
But they did.
Four was the official body count. Editorials in the official newspapers praised the police for acting with professionalism and restraint. The deep thankfulness of the villagers who, it was editorialized, would always be grateful to the police for liberating them from the degenerate rabble rousers who had practically held them hostage and blinded them to the truth was put down in print. Rumours of survivors being taken from the hospital late at night, still believing that the violence had been nothing but a terrible mistake and not having the slightest doubt when told they were being transferred for free treatment in a top of the line hospital usually reserved for business tycoons and communist heavy weights, then never seen again, were officially discounted.
Kang glared at the pet psychic. "Nothing" he snapped, bitter and unhappy.
"You're not a stupid man, the feline experience is not for stupid people. Although your knowledge of cat psychology leaves something to be desired surely you're not ignorant of the dangers of counter revolution.
The room filled with a terrible silence.
"How could you possibly know?" Kang demanded, angrier than he remembered having been before, his voice cracking slightly with emotion. "How could you possibly know what my cat thought?".
"I have a gift" the cat psychic said simply. "Cats are surprisingly complex creatures, and I just happen to be more tuned into that than most people. Your cat knew about goats, it knew that's where most of its food came from them. It dreamt about them, sometimes, always the same dream- a small goat racing up the stairs at Heavenly Peace Mansions, terrified bleating, the sound of its hoofs slipping on the cement".
Kang listened, completely lost for anything to say.
"You also may not know that cats have an extremely acute sense of taste. Your cat thought it could taste something strange in it's food. From the top of the tower it could also see the construction of the power plant extension, not to mention the rest of the construction happening in Beijing and somehow, we may never know exactly how it happened, it decided, we might even say became fixated on the idea that this development, this progress- the new roads, the factories, the power plant, was poisoning the goats that were it's food. It came to believe", here the vet propped himself up against the table and leaned in towards Kang- full of meaning and psychic wisdom, "that it's own weak animal needs were more important than those of the state as a whole. That was the beginning of its deviancy. Hard as it may be to believe Mr. Kang, your cat would have set the clock back 20 years simply because of an unfamiliar metallic tang in its bowl of minced goat".
Kang felt weak. A sudden dizziness had come over him, and although he could think of at least five obvious reasons why what the vet was saying made no sense at all he couldn't find the will to say any of them.
"Do you understand?" Kang heard the vet asking in a tone of he assumed was supposed to convey concern. "Do you see how that's sick?"
"I understand this", Kang said, moving across the room with an effort and standing unsteadily in front the desk, "I understand that you're insane". He took the certificate out of his pocket and placed it on the polished wood.
"What are you doing?" the vet asked. Kang was bent over the front of the desk. He'd swiped the vet's pen and was scrawling something in the blank space at the bottom.
"Why, I'm making sure we don't leave anything out he said brightly, manically scribbling all the time. "My cat was anti-social you say, an enemy of the state? Well, while we're at it why don't we make it a member of Falung Gong, a cultist cat. And everyone knows that cats are just crazy about democracy, especially cats who are already living a promiscuous gay lifestyle, and somehow combining all of that being an active member of an underground church, for cats, and while we're here lets also say it's an anti-patriotic, pro-Taiwan and a drug pushing kitty. Eh? How does that sound, Mr. Cat Psychic?"
The vet looked on his horror... He lunged forward and tried to snatch the form but Kang had finished writing and yanked it triumphantly out of his reach.
"There, that has your signature on it. It should be good enough for them”. Kang's hands trembled slightly as held the form out for the vet to read.
"No” the vet said, sounding genuinely frightened, “please, you don't know what you're doing”.
"I think I do."
“This is serious business- science, law, politics... you'll get us both in trouble."
But Kang didn’t hear him, he was already through the door. If he hurried, he thought, he might still be able get the certificate handed in before the end of the day.
For the first time since he'd hit middle school Kang Shi Tsai broke into a run.
It was the morning, or the afternoon, or the evening- Kang, who was curled up on the slimly floor of what seemed to be a small underground pen, had no way of telling.
It had not been the most comfortable sleep he had ever had.
Kang found himself waking. From somewhere above he could hear what seemed to an be angry voice yelling at him, but his first bleary thought was that he didn't remember his alarm clock having sounded like that before.
Nothing had been as he expected when they came for him. Four of them had crammed into the bedroom and there were another two outside in the kitchen, but they were orderly and nimble, there was no pushing, no beatings- they were seamless and efficient. Kang like everyone had heard stories about the disappeared, but never given it much thought. Vaguely he'd always imagined a door being kicked in and some terrified but thoroughly deserving criminal being dragged by his hair off into the night the whole time screaming "long live the emperor of Japan" or some other deeply heretical slogan.
They had let themselves in quietly and had been standing round his bed when he woke. One was shining a torch in his face. For some reason another had scooped up his alarm clock and put in a black bag he was carrying. Mei Mei wasn't there. He didn't know where she had gone.
"Kang Shi Tsai"? one of them had said.
"Yes" he replied mildly, it was surreal.
"We'd like you to come with us".
The bag they placed over his head seemed to be made of velvet (very easy on the skin) and they were firm but fair with the handcuffs.
And now he was here.
The cell was less of a cell than a claustrophobic fissure in what seemed to be a wall of rock. Kang's nostrils were filled with something dank and earthy, there was a far off sound which could have only been dripping water.
Kang could tell he was fully awake because this time he heard the voice clearly, it seemed to be coming from above. "On your feet Kang, get up". Reaching out he braced himself on a damp rock wall and staggered to his feet.
The place where Kang was had never been known for its fresh air or bright lights.
Hundreds of years earlier, before the emperor realised what an excellent place it would be to throw people he never wanted to hear from again, the western corridor of the prison complex that officially didn't exit fifty metres beneath the main Public Security Bureau branch in downtown Beijing had been a cave.
Unlike today, where it officially doesn't exist, back then the cave had been very well known, famous even. It was, according the legend, where the pious young Xu Xi, Buddhist monk and half brother of the emperor had arranged for himself to be entombed. A religious fanatic who found himself unable to deal with the temptations proffered by the imperial pleasure dome, Xu Xi's great solution had been to crawl away into the nearest available underground labyrinth, where there would be no chance of being tempted by anything except for rocks, and he would be able to gain great merit by spending the next 60 years arguing Buddhist theology with the resident troll.
Just to make absolutely sure there would be no going back Xu Xi arranged for a band of the ever obliging and adaptable palace eunuchs to arrange a rock slide that would leave him trapped in there without any hope of recovery.
Whether Xu Xi even survived the rockslide is doubtful, and at any rate, a young aristocrat, no matter how pious, can only survive on blind cockroaches and rock fungus for a limited time.
Although a touchingly insane act of religious piety, when you're the head of a hereditary line having it known that your mad saffron robed half brother had arranged for himself to be entombed deep in the rocks beneath your pleasure dome is bad publicity at the very least, and it was probably in the hope that his poor cousin, now buried, would stay very much forgotten, that the emperor decreed that absolutely no one was ever go down that cave again, ever.
It was the making of a great pilgrimage, the other monks got a covert thrill from sneaking down there after dark that they never would have if they had have been able to do it openly during the day. The torches they carried had a way of flickering off the cave walls as they crept through the narrow passage in single file, and in the unsteady light it was possible to imagine that the little balls of rice they were dropping through a obligingly bottomless crack in the floor were somehow making their way through 60 metres of solid granite and into Xu Xi's perfectly balanced Buddhist physiology. The monks listened to the echo of their own voices and distant noise of trickling water and heard Xu Xi and the troll (who, they said, at first tried to kill the Holy Prince but had eventually been so won over by the overwhelming goodness and truth of his arguments that he had taken vows and become a monk himself) chanting mantras.
One hundred and fifty years later there were monks able to tell you about the psychic visions they had of Xu Xi who, through a century of constant meditation, had developed the ability to materialize through the cave walls and discourse with them on the best way to reach Nirvana. For someone who had spent the past 150 years entombed in a cave he had also developed some fairly controversial political views. Xu Xi knew all about the thousands of peasants conscripted to work and die hauling huge slabs of granite up to the site where the emperors fabulous new palace was being built, and, the monks said, was quite unequivocal that the poor people had been enslaved by a tyrant bent on nothing but his own early glory and the basest animal pleasures. It was the monks being a bit to open about this sort of thing that was what eventually caused the emperor to loose his patience altogether and have them executed and the cave turned into a prison for anyone not bright enough to learn from their example.
The cell door swung open. Outside the corridor was lit only to a dull yellow, but after the total darkness it was enough to blind Kang. Against the dazzling haze he thought he could make out a cluster of man sized shadows. He felt himself bend forward as he gasped at the air rushing into the room, he hadn't realised how badly the lack of oxygen in his cell had been affecting him.
From above the same voice as before barked "straighten up"
Kang peeked up and found that his vision had slightly recovered. It was the way that the three men were looking at him that he noticed first, their looks of combined horror and surprise, their total lack of fear- the same expression of people looking at a rare species of monkey in a zoo.
There were three of them, all different sizes, all dressed in the same immaculate black suits. The tallest one seemed to be the most junior of them. He nervously stepped into the cell, darted back out again and, confused and flustered, looked pleadingly at a stout middle aged man who stood in the doorway glaring at him sternly.
"The ledge, Zhu, the handkerchief" he said. His voice was gruff, authoritative.
The tall young man, a bespectacled beanstalk, put the briefcase he was carrying on the ground and flicked it open. He plucked out a silk handkerchief and laid it over the slight ledge in the front wall of the cell that formed a type of seat. It was anything but warm here but, Kang noticed, as he watched him smooth the flower patterned silk over the rock, his forehead was glistening with a thin layer of sweat. He glanced anxiously at Kang, then at the handkerchief then looked around at the stern man and nodded quickly. His boss turned around and whispered to a third shadowy figure who had kept in the background.
An old man moved into the room, he walked slowly and with a slight limp. The tall one edged back into the damp wall as he entered and watched him lowering himself onto the ledge with ill-concealed fear- his mouth jutting open, and behind his glasses his eyes seeming to bulge slightly from their sockets.
Kang, standing on the line with his head bowed, snuck a glance at the old man now sitting opposite him. His white hair was crew cut closely enough for the liver spots on his scalp to be clearly visible. He looked at Kang with cloudy unconcerned eyes, he smiled the oblivious, slightly senile smile of an elderly stranger on a bus.
"Let's be very clear from the start" began the stern man, who was still standing in the doorway, Kang was startled by the loudness of his voice. "This is a very serious matter, so the first thing you can do right now, Kang, is wipe that smile off your face."
Kang hadn't been aware that was he smiling.
"We understand, you're a sick man, and you should know that we're not here to punish you. At the same time don't have any illusions that we're going to be easy on you either. Frankly you're a danger- dangerous to yourself dangerous to those around you, dangerous to the state, and ultimately a danger to the world. We're not going to let you out of here until we're satisfied that that danger has been eliminated.
The stern man stopped talking for a moment and let a silence fall over the cell. Kang thought he could hear the faint wheezing of the old man's breath. He noticed the way his teeth gleamed behind his delighted grin. The stern man and his helper looked at each other. The younger one produced a familiar piece of yellow paper from his briefcase.
"It has come to our attention, and your vet, one of the foremost feline psychology experts in the country has confirmed for us, that this form that was submitted to your local council does belong to you. He snatched the piece of paper from his assistant, pinching it by a corner and holding it away from his body. His eyes, shining with something that looked like real hate, bore into Kang.
"Do you recognise it?"
"Please" Kang said, he could hear how feeble his voice sounded here deep underground in front of this strange panel, "you've got to believe me, I filled that in as joke".
"Do you expect me to believe" the stern one snapped, "that that one of the most distinguished practitioners of Veterinary medicine that China has ever produced, a graduate of the University of Melbourne in Australia, would allow himself his good name to be sullied by being party to your puerile adolescent so called humour."
"No... I took"....
Kang's accuser raised his voice to a harsh shout.
"Do you expect me to believe the words of an utterly depraved, if unfortunate, deviant such as yourself over the testimony of such a man? He paused pointedly. Kang? Do you think that we're stupid?"
Kang could hear his own heart beating and faintly, almost drowned out by the thumping, the old man chuckling to himself. "Joke", he was chuckling under his breath, "joke"
The stern man nodded grimly towards the certificate. "Falun Gong cultists, he said "Christians, homosexuals and the nefarious Little Yellow River Eco Terrorist posse, you trained your cat to be poison to everything that decent people value. And finally, when you couldn't use this poor animal to inflict any more damage in its life you compelled, coerced or drove through blunt psychic pressure the creature to take its own life in a disgusting act of what you obviously hoped would be some kind of twisted martyrdom. You, Kang, are a bastard. Not only do you lack the most basic sort of compassion that should stop you from being cruel to animals but you are the most malicious and brazen type of counter revolutionary there is. If this was ten years ago you'd have been shot already, and I think you would have richly deserved it".
He sighed with what sounded like disappointment and went on in a quieter tone.
"But times have changed... or, at the very least, they're changing".
Hearing this, the young man snapped open the brief case again and took out something that was wrapped in a black sheet. Gingerly holding it in both hands passed it to the stern man.
"Technology", the old one chortled horribly, "technology".
"You probably don't remember the self criticisms", the stern man waved his free hand in a dismissive gesture, "probably just as well you don't. They were a waste of time anyway. The idea was that by sitting down twice a year and writing an essay spelling out exactly how you were a less than perfect young revolutionary that your mistakes could be detected and you could be set on the right track.
"I remember them". Kang answered softly. "We had to do them at school".
"And going on what I've seen of your record you were probably no better than most of the young folks today and got yours off the internet. The new technology has made self-criticism lose whatever point it originally had. Although the idea was good its practice had become completely untenable in this day and age. What we've done", he explained, "is to take this same modern technology and used the skills of our best scientists to build a machine that just might be able to help. You, Kang, are going to be the first to try it out".
He removed the cloth from the bundle he held.
Kang took an involuntary step back and dashed his head on the bare rock of the wall, the tall man looked even more frightened than he had been before, the old man clucked delightedly and nodded his head with approval.
"This, the stern one said, "will make you well again".
Kang could very quickly tell that it wasn't alive. Its head was tilted back at an unnatural angle, it's eyes were wide and glassy, it's teeth were barred in what looked like pain. The stern man smiled and looked at Kang with what could have only been satisfaction.
Kang opened his mouth to speak, but before he got a chance to make say anything another noise filled the room. It was the sound of an angry cat. High and sharp and piercing, the sort of sound that had terrified Kang as a child and still made his hair stand on edge when it heard it outside on summer nights. Kang wanted to hit the thing or yell at it to be quiet but instead he felt himself being crunched into the damp rock behind him as surely as if he were being physically pushed.
"That right Kang", the stern one said "it's your cat, but not as you know it".
The cat, or whatever it was, started yowling again. Kang, put both hands over his ears and tried to press himself into the wall in the unrealistic hope that he could merge into the rock, but if anything the sound just got louder.
"You can't fight it" he heard the lanky one saying when it was over. He was looking down at Kang with interest. Despite his height he had the voice of a fifteen year old boy, "we made that sound bite transpecteral".
"You won't be able to sleep through it Kang" his boss translated, "you won't be able to ignore it. If you somehow manage to puncture your own ear drums that sound it makes is produced in such a way as you'll still feel it through the tissues of your nose and your ears".
The tall one you broke in, "and the exo-structure is class five proof".
"It can't be broken. You will try throwing against the wall, but keep in mind this will only make the cat louder. It was built using the a lot of the same technology as the manned obiter that just went into space. It could fall right through the atmosphere and into the ocean without being so much as dinted."
"Why?" Kang whispered, for the first time since he had been taken he really was terrified. For some reason he thought now of what Mei Mei might be doing at this moment but found himself unable to even picture her face.
"Partially it's punitive" his tormenter answered, "I'll grant you that, it can't be denied. But everyone's main concern here, Kang, is you. After months, or years perhaps, we believe this will be therapeutic.
"Redemption" the old man muttered. The grin on his face was broader than ever.
"We want you to talk to it", the stern one said. "It has microphones inside it, so we will be able to hear what you're saying".
"Why"? Kang repeated, no longer so much asking a question as simply making a noise.
"Well, in the real world, when you had the freedom which you've now forfeited, you made the decision to fill your cat with vicious counter revolutionary sentiments, with a desire to kill and destroy that was obviously a reflection of your own disease, political deviancy. We recognise that you might not be able to help this. And so we've devised this method to help you learn to control your deviant thoughts. When we can hear, in the tone of your voice and your words that you have sincerely changed your attitudes, that you've recognised the error of your ways and your counter revolutionary tendencies are on the wane, then the frequency with which the cat makes this noise will decrease. Even if your warped mind had lost the ability to do this through conscious effort, we believe that in this way we may be able to manipulate your natural animal need for peace and quiet to steer you away from the sad state you are in. One day it may be possible to let you go free, or at least into a normal prison".
The old man got up from his seat as unsteadily as he had settled into it. For a moment he stood facing Kang, the gentle look of uncomprehending senile amusement still on his face. If we was going to say anything it would have been now but he turned away and shuffled out of the room as inexplicably as he had entered it. The tall man plucked up the handkerchief and scurried out after him.
Only Kang's inquisitor remained. He stood, a dark shadow in the centre of the doorway blocking what little light came through from the hall.
"Goodbye Kang" he said, his voice was firm, without emotion. It didn't offer the slightest trace of hope.
The door was closed. No light got through underneath. The darkness and the silence came over him again.
"I don't understand" Kang said to the void.
The cat screeched. It was louder than he remembered it before. Louder than anything noise he could recall having experienced. In the darkness it seemed to fill not only the whole room but also his mind...
"Good Kitty" he croaked, forcing the words out of his throat clinging to a desperate hope it might be a step in the right direction.
For a second there was a tiny glimmer of hope. Then the cat started up again.
Kang screwed his eyes shut. He made his hands into fists and tried to shove them into his ears. He curled up in a ball on the floor. To him the noise had become almost a physical thing, a hot liquid, its colour was orange. More than anything else he felt like he was drowning in it. It might have gone on for seconds or minutes or hours. It might have been days. When it was had stopped again Kang had no way of telling.
For a long time he lay still in the darkness. Days might have gone before he spoke again, certainly he slept.
"I don't understand", was what he whispered so quietly that he was barely whispering at all. There was the echo of dripping water and the perfect darkness.
"I just don't understand".