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the firemaker - extract


Prologue

The laughter of the children peals through the early morning quiet like bells ringing for the dead. Hair straight, dark and club-cut, bobs above the frilled white and pink of the girls' blouses as they run along Ritan Park's dusty paths in the gloomy green Beijing dawn. Their dark oriental eyes burn with the fire of youth. So much life and innocence a breath away from that first encounter with death, and the taint of immortality that will stain their lives forever.

Their mother had asked the baby-sitter, a dull country girl, to take the twins to the park early, before kindergarten. A treat in the cool of the morning, before the sun would rise and bleach all colour and substance from the day.

An old man in Mao pyjamas and white gloves practises tai chi among the trees, slow-motion graceful, arms outstretched, one leg so slowly lifting, exerting a control of his body that he has never had of his life. The girls barely see him, drawn by the strange sounds coming from around the next corner. They run ahead in breathless anticipation, ignoring the calls of the baby-sitter asking them to wait. Past a group of people who stand reading sheets of poetry strung between the trees; past a bench with two grey-haired old ladies in carpet slippers and grey cardigans who shake their heads at such a wanton display of free spirits. Even had they been allowed, in their day bound and bleeding feet would have put a stop to it.

The sounds that draw them, like strange music, grow louder as the children turn into a large paved circle bound by a high wall. They stop and stare in open-mouthed amazement. Dozens of couples - young, middle-aged, elderly; civil servants, office workers, army officers - shuffle in bizarre embrace. All heads are turned for guidance to the steps of an ancient sacrificial altar in the centre of the circle. At the top of the steps, where once blood was spilled as an offering to the sun, a young couple all in black confidently demonstrate the steps of the Cha Cha in time to music scratching out from an old gramophone.

There is such joy in all their expressions, that the children stand for a moment entranced, listening to the alien melody and rhythms of the music. Their baby-sitter catches them up at last, flushed and breathless. She stops, too, and gawps bewildered at the dancers. The city is such a strange, unfathomable place. She knows she could never settle here. From the far side of the circle she sees men wielding long, silver-bladed swords in slow, deliberate acts of contained aggression, slicing the air in grotesque parody of some mediaeval battle. The dancers ignore them, but the baby-sitter is afraid, and she shoos the reluctant children down a path, away from the people and the noise.

But now another distraction. Smoke filtering through the leaves, descending like a mist, thick and blue. A strange smell, the baby-sitter thinks, like meat on an open fire. And then she sees the flicker of flames through the green gloom and is gripped by a sudden desperate foreboding. The children have run ahead again, scrambling up a dusty path among the trees, and ignore her calls to wait. She runs after them, a shady pavilion that overhangs the lake dropping away to her left. The wailing call of a single-stringed violin reaches her as she crests the rise through the trees and follows the children into a clearing where the flames lick upwards from a huddled central mass. The girls stand staring curiously. The baby-sitter stops. She feels the heat on her face and shades her eyes from the glare, trying to see what it is that burns so fiercely. At its heart something moves. Something strangely human. The scream that comes from the nearest girl somehow sharpens the baby-sitter's focus, and she realises that what moved was a charred black hand reaching out towards her.

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© Peter May 2004