Read time: 25 mins

Cherry-Red Ivory

by Hai Fan
19 May 2021

Translated from Chinese to English by Jeremy Tiang

Translator’s note

As many readers will not be familiar with the Malayan Communist Party, my priority was to make sure the translation provided a sense of context—not just in terms of historical background, but also in evoking the material reality of life as a guerilla. While this is not something I have experienced myself, I am fortunate enough to have met the author, Hai Fan, in person, as well as to have spent time with other former guerillas in the friendship villages of Southern Thailand, where there is also a small museum dedicated to their activities during the insurrection. Drawing on this research, I tried to imbue the translation with the sights and sounds of the jungle and the hardships and joys of the Communist fighters. Fully inhabiting this world, which was very much its own milieu and mostly cut off from wider society, meant finding a distinctive voice and viewpoint. In addition, as the story shifts back and forth in time at several junctures, I had to make sure to always situate the reader within the narrative, a particular challenge as Chinese has no tenses and so lends itself to this fluidity a little better than English. Again, I sought to follow the author’s lead and let the story unfold according to his non-chronological logic.  


 

Cherry-Red Ivory

 

From a dark corner beneath the bamboo bed, Zhizai pulls out a small section of elephant tusk. Unexpectedly, along with a complicated sense of anticipation, he also feels frustration. 

This isn’t how it was meant to turn out. 

He wasn’t supposed to end up here. 

* 

Back in the commando unit, he was naturally drawn to the border zone, to the red base camp, central command, and he looked towards it as he did the big dipper. Alas, guerrilla warfare took you where the trouble was. Soon, the wandering, hunger and sacrifices of the commando team no longer seemed like trials, but just part of everyday life. Unless he was redeployed by the Party, nothing would have induced him to leave his comrades-in-arms. 

It was during a regular drop-off, heading towards the delivery point, that he stepped on a bundle of explosives left by the enemy. With a boom, his right foot was ripped to shreds. 

Like a wounded animal, he had to be carried back to camp. In the space of a single day, he’d been completely laid to waste. How could he have imagined this would happen? Day after day, he’d forged his way through hundreds of metres of wild jungle. And now he’d lost a foot? During the countless days when he was fighting a high fever brought about by his injury, his mind dwelt on the burden he would now be to his comrades. This was exactly the enemy’s vicious plan, calibrating the amount of explosives to maim, not kill, so the injured fighters would slow down the rest of their troop, making it easier to swoop down on them all at once! At his lowest ebb, the shadow of death seemed to enshroud him like the darkness of the jungle around a trembling leaf on the brink of falling. At one point, he thought of ending his narrow life with a single bullet. They didn’t have antibiotics, so each day he applied a poultice of boiled water plantains to his leg, until these medicinal herbs brought the inflammation down. The medic spent several hours a day carefully cleaning his wound, removing the decaying skin and flesh. As his condition stabilized, Zhizai’s mood calmed too. Watching the new skin grow millimetre by millimetre, pink as an infant’s, he felt his will to survive harden with each passing day.

Then one morning, he slipped the stump of his leg into a tube made from a sweet bamboo stem that a comrade had brought back from the distant high hills and endured the heart-clenching pain as he put his weight onto it. With a klik, he took his first step. Limping slowly, he made his way around the camp, stopping to help the others as they cooked foraged vegetables and wild yams, dealt with the hunters’ bounty, sawed firewood and mended clothes. All day long, the bamboo leg chafed against the skin of his calf, turning his wound scabby and callused. 

Now, he knew, he would finally be sent back to the border zone. 

At the border camp, the bamboo tube was exchanged for a proper prosthetic, made by the comrades themselves. He had become, as the saying goes, an iron-legged general. 

Of course, there was no way he could go out on patrol. He was redeployed to the munitions workshop. In the years since then, he has learned a whole new set of skills: cutting off lengths of white-hot iron and beating them into tubs for food storage, quenching steel to temper it for combat knives, repurposing clear plastic tubes into ammunition pouches, and of course the regular work of turning aluminium monks’ alms bowls into meal containers for the comrades, as well as making scabbards, folding bed frames, lanterns and so forth. More recently, he’s been spending entire mornings and afternoons rooted to the spot, absorbed in a particular task. 

For a whole week now, he’s ignored the lunch whistle—unlike previously, when he’d clank his way up the dirt steps on his metal leg to stand in line for a portion of white chicken’ (actually boiled cassava) and sweet black coffee, then settle under a tree with the others to eat and chat. Now he grabs his lunch first thing in the morning and brings it to the workshop. When he gets hungry, he shovels down a couple of mouthfuls before returning to his work. 

Why is this job so important? It all began with something the brigade leader said. 

One day, the deputy commander came to the workshop and asked to have a look at his progress. 

What do you think? 

The deputy commander put on a pair of gold-rimmed glasses and accepted the ivory bangle. He sat on a block of wood to examine it more closely, then closed the fingers on one hand and pulled the bangle onto his wrist. He pays attention to his health, and spends more than an hour each day practising tai chi. Now in his fifties, he’s still fit as a fiddle and can walk a good distance up a slope at a steady pace without even breathing hard. His sparse white hair is combed over the top of his head, and between the strands you can see his scalp, ruddy with vigour. 

Not bad! He smiled. Since this is a gift, it needs to be special, something you couldn’t find anywhere else. And the handiwork has to be exquisite, so it can compare with stuff from outside. 

Zhizai had heard that this pair of bangles was intended for a dignitary from the island to the south, a gift that would open the door to talks. 

Was that really true? 

For months now, the unit’s attention had been riveted to news of peace talks. In all sorts of gatherings, big or small, discourse flowed like a river, splashing water droplets through the air, while deep beneath the surface were complicated emotions it would be difficult to put into words. He’d noticed a dozen or so comrades in the barracks unable to conceal their anxiety—there were no representatives from their country on the other side of these talks. 

Would they have to wait for another agenda? And now he’d been dragged into it. 

Each day, the kik-kak as he walked to the workshop made him think of knocking at a door. 

These were Party secrets, though, and there was no way he was going to ask. 

He took the bangles back from the deputy commander and gave them a gentle wipe with a rag cut from an old pair of uniform trousers. I still need to polish them slowly with toothpaste, so they’ll shine like the ones in jewellery shops. Only these will be more lustrous and beautifully designed! 

Back in the day, it was his wife who made contact and arranged our meeting. The deputy commander looked meaningfully at him, and then his gaze shifted to the wilderness outside. It’s been thirty years. Time moves on, but feelings remain. When we send her this pair of bangles, surely she’ll respond to that? 

As the deputy commander left, he patted Zhizai on the shoulder. Keep up the good work! 

So it’s true! Even in his dreams, he never imagined the piece of ivory in his hands would have such significance. 

He’s made all kinds of things out of ivory—a knife handle, a belt buckle, ammunition pouch buckles, even toothpicks—but only because he had no other materials on hand. If he’d had plastic bags he could have melted, for instance, he’d much rather have made the handle out of those. Ivory is slippery when wet and hard to get a grip on. He swapped it for a proper handle as soon as he got back to the border zone. He kept the belt buckle, though. 

It’s a funny story now. Back in the commando squad, their main source of meat was elephants. Nothing was wasted, from the skin to the feet to the stomach. What about the tusks? They were just a leftover part of the carcass, worth less even than the bones, which at least contained marrow and could be broken up and turned into soup. What could you do with ivory? One time, when they were cutting up deadwood to burn, they used a tusk as a wedge to split each piece before taking a saw to it. It was hard to think of other uses. As they moved on from each temporary camp, they’d dry the elephant meat and skin over a fire and either bring it with them or bury it, leaving no traces behind. As for the tusks, they were treated like firewood they hadn’t got round to burning, abandoned with no regrets. 

In their ammunition pouches, the commandos often stashed containers the size of their little fingers containing salt, medicated oil or Yunnan white pills, that sort of thing. No one would have ever thought of keeping elephant tusks in there. 

Who had the strength to carry something so heavy, useless and bulky? 

And that’s why it’s so unusual that Zhizai was able to reach under his bamboo bed for this ten-inch section of tusk. 

It wasn’t originally his. After he lost his foot and had to head north, over hills and across rivers, his comrades had to carry his belongings, and sometimes even himself—to get across flowing water, for instance. How could he have needlessly added to the burden?  

Jiefang, one of his good friends from the commando squad who also happened to have been his middle school classmate, brought this tusk back. Before heading out on another expedition, he handed it to Zhizai and said, Keep it under your bed; maybe you’ll find a use for it! You can make something or other for me next time. 

There was no next time. On that southern expedition, Jiefang was in the advance troop. He died in an attack right as they passed the Perak River. He was the same age as Zhizai, not yet twenty-six. 

For a long time after that, whenever Zhizai thought of Jiefang, he remembered the object under his bed. 

Then came the peace talks! 

A photograph to commemorate the occasion! 

Exchanging letters with their families! 

Carving heart-shaped ivory tablets, for the comrades to bring back home! 

What an unexpected development. How to respond to this sudden swerve? 

Zhizai pulled the relic out from under his bed, unrolled the straw mat it was wrapped in and looked closely for the first time at this teninch piece of tusk. He held his breath. His chest grew tight, and it was hard to get any air. He flashed back to the morning of Jiefang’s departure. The two of them sat on the edge of the bamboo bed. Jiefang said nothing, just ran his fingers over Zhizai’s stump, blinking, trying to comfort him but unable to find the words. 

Only when he’d cleaned the tusk did he realise with a start how unusual it is—within the gleaming white was a blush of cherry red, a drop of blood dispersing in water. 

When the deputy commander saw this, he ordered a pair of bangles to be made from it. 

Being flawlessly smooth and round, the tusk was ideal for turning into bangles. He calculated that by sawing it into centimetre-wide segments with a small steel saw, he should be able to get fourteen or fifteen bangles out of it. 

That’s when the trouble started. Two of these bangles are reserved for the Organisation, leaving thirteen. Everyone wants one—whether they’re in his squad or not, whether they know him well or not. They demand one when he runs into them, or even come knocking on his door to ask for one. 

But he only has thirteen to give away! 

He doesn’t want to hand this over to the Organisation to sort out, but it doesn’t feel right to handle the matter by himself. No matter what he decides, it will be awkward. That’s the other reason he’s sequestered in the workshop, beavering away—he’s in hiding! 

What a headache! How will he get out of this mess? 

Sometimes he gets so stuck, he prays that Jiefang will send him the answer in a dream. After all, he’s the real owner of the tusk! 

* 

When Yuanshan comes calling, Zhizai has already taken off his prosthetic leg and is getting ready for bed. 

This is getting annoying. Yuanshan has been pestering him constantly for the last few days, and it’s starting to feel as if Zhizai will have to give him a bangle. 

It’s very quiet. The flame of the kerosene lamp flickers in the night breeze. The kik-kak of Yuanshan’s footsteps is very clear—he, too, is an iron-legged general. 

According to the other comrades, this happened a while back, after two detachments seceded from the Party and holed up in the hilltops, then sent troops into our territory. Our unit sent a patrol out to investigate. Only three days into the expedition, Yuanshan stepped on a land mine left by the other side. 

The comrades who witnessed this said after the thunderous explosion, Yuanshan was still standing when the smoke cleared, even though his entire left foot had been blown off below the ankle. 

His prosthetic reaches even higher than Zhizai’s, because the inflammation after his injury wasn’t properly treated, and he ended up with a bacterial infection that meant his leg had to be amputated below the knee. He has even more difficulty getting around than Zhizai does. 

Zhizai often exchanges a few words with him, and they have a certain amount of fellow feeling. 

But that’s no basis for handing over a bangle, just like that! Besides, in terms of seniority, Yuanshan certainly isn’t the first in line. 

Have a seat, says Zhizai by way of greeting. 

You have to give me one of those.’ Yuanshan’s squad dorm is on the hillside, and he has clearly hurried here—he is breathing hard, which makes him sound curt and rather bossy. 

I only have a dozen or so—not enough for everyone.’ Zhizai is getting cross with him but manages to hold his temper. All the people who want one say I have to give them one—so who should I listen to? You’re not the first to ask me either. 

It’s not for myself… 

I know, I know, we’re all working together for the Revolution! Look at the pair of us. We’ve both lost a foot, and now we only have half our lives left. What’s the point in fighting over a bangle? These words have been churning repeatedly through Zhizai’s mind. Many times he’s wanted to say them to the comrades badgering him for a bangle, but he’s always swallowed them. Now they’ve finally spilled from his lips—this ought to be persuasive enough. 

I… I’m going to give it to Linying’s mother! 

Linying?’ 

Zhizai has heard that Linying and Yuanshan entered the unit at the same time, back when they were just eighteen or nineteen. A few years after that, they became husband and wife. After Yuanshan lost his foot, Linying gritted her teeth and stayed with him. They travelled together through the nadir of their lives. Soon after that, Linying was out on an expedition when a tree branch fell on her, and she was martyred at the bottom of a river gully. 

Everyone only knows that Linying and I joined up together. They have no idea…’ Yuanshan turns to look at the guttering flame of the kerosene lamp. A moth hurls itself at the glass lampshade and crashes onto the bamboo table with a soft thud. I was the one who brought her here. She hadn’t even finished school. Her mum’s a widow, and Linying was her only child… 

Oh. 

We did it for the Revolution. Never mind losing a foot, even losing an eye or an arm would have been fine, as long as we’d stayed alive to go back…someday.’ Yuanshan bows his head. But some people…will never return. 

Somehow the lamp seems to have darkened. Zhizai’s vision blurs. 

Yuanshan’s voice falters and grows gradually quieter. I thought…I thought this bangle could be like Linying’s hand, holding her mum’s wrist on this last stretch of the journey. That’s…that’s the only thing…I can bring back to her… 

All of a sudden, Zhizai is plunged into the dark night of the jungle. He shuts his eyes. 

* 

The comrades notice that Zhizai is no longer avoiding them. Although he still takes his lunch in the workshop, he joins them for dinner once again, as jovial as ever before. 

He proclaims that the bangles have been fairly distributed, and there’s not a single one left! 

Yuanshan’s words were a beam of light and gave him an idea. 

He blamed himself profoundly for having forgotten Jiefang—the owner of this length of tusk! When Jiefang said make something or other for me, did he already have this day in mind? Zhizai and Jiefang used to be classmates, and their families were close. They joined up at the same time too. He was a month older than Jiefang, and that’s how they came up with their names: Zhizai for determined,’ Jiefang for liberation. Determined to achieve Liberation. But he will have to return alone! No matter what, when the time comes, he’ll have to visit Jiefang’s parents. How will he comfort them? What will he be able to bring back of Jiefang’s possessions, as a memento for them? Jiefang was their eldest son! 

Then he thought of their deputy squad leader, a young guy from the border zone named Zhongming. Last year, on the eve of Mid AutumnZhongming bought a side of pork from his village for the unit to celebrate the festival. He carried it on his back to the handover point, where he was ambushed by the Thai army’s black shirts, who left him lying dead beneath the rubber trees he’d spent his life among. 

And so Zhizai decided that beginning with Linying, with Jiefang, with Zhongming, each bangle would go to a martyred comrade, as long as someone was definitely able to deliver it to their family. 

He made this decision very carefully, with great trepidation. 

This piece of cherry-red ivory was once a useless object, albeit a dazzlingly beautiful one. Will it really be able to push open the heavy door leading to peace talks? Can it really stand in place of these once-living voices and smiling faces? Soothe this endless yearning, this anguish? 


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Illustration by Erica Eng

About the Author

Hai Fan

Hai Fan (born 1953) entered the rainforest in 1976 as a soldier of the Malayan Communist Party and spent the next 13 years carrying out jungle guerrilla warfare near the Malaysia-Thai border. He now lives in Singapore.       海凡 (1953)曾参与马共领导的武装部队,1976年开始转战雨林十三年。现居新加坡,曾出版小说集《可口的饥饿》、《野径》。

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