Waiting (Ha Jin)

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  The next summer Lin and Shuyu went to the divorce court again. The day before setting out for Wujia Town, he had talked with her, promising to take good care of her and their daughter after the divorce, so she had agreed to it. He told her that all he wanted was a home in the city.

They waited almost an hour in the courtroom before the judge appeared. He was a tall police officer who had just been promoted to the position; he was so corpulent that he had no neck. Having sat down on a scarlet leatherette chair, the judge licked his buck teeth, then peered at the couple with one eye open and the other shut, as though aiming a gun. His broad, greasy face reminded Lin of the day statue of a local god in the Divine Horse Shrine west of Goose Village. With his left hand picking a wart under his nostril and with his right forefinger pointing at Lin, the judge ordered, "Now, present your case."

Lin began with a slight stammer: "Respectable Judge, I--I came here today to beg you to allow me to divorce my wife. We have been separated for six years, and there's no love between us anymore. According to the Marriage Law, every citizen has the freedom to choose a wife or a hus-"

"Excuse me," the judge cut him short. "May I remind you that the law does not say every married man is entitled to a divorce? Go on."

Lin was flustered. He remained silent for a moment while his face was burning. Then he resumed warily, "I understand that, Comrade Judge, but my wife has already agreed to a divorce. We have worked out an arrangement between us, and I shall financially support her and our child afterward. Believe me, I'm a responsible man."

As he was speaking, Shuyu covered her mouth with a crumpled piece of paper. Her eyes were closed as though her scalp were smarting.

The judge turned to her after Lin was finished. "Comrade Shuyu Liu, I have a few questions for you. Now promise me you will think about them carefully before you answer me."

"I will." She nodded.

"What's the true reason that your husband wants a divorce?"

"Don't have a clue."

"Is there a third party involved?"

"What that mean?"

The young scribe, sitting behind the judge and taking notes, shook his head, blinking his round eyes. The judge went on, "I mean, has he been seeing another woman?"

"I reckon there must be lots of them around him in the army. He's a handsome man, you know."

The scribe chuckled, but the judge kept a stern face. "Answer me, do you know if he's having an affair with another woman?"

"I'm not sure. He said he needs a family in the city."

"A family with another woman?"

"Probably true."

"I have a final question for you. Do you still have feelings for him?"

"Oh yes, of course," she moaned, then broke out sobbing, as the last question had touched her heart.

"Do you still love him?"

"Yes." She nodded, wiping her tears, too moved to say more.

The judge turned to her husband. "Well, Officer Lin Kong, you must confess to the court whether you have a mistress in the city."

"I don't have a mistress, Comrade Judge," he said in a shaking voice, realizing that the judge meant to drag Manna into the case.

"Even if you have no mistress, there must be an illicit love affair."

"I've never had an affair."

"Then with whom will you form a new family in Muji? Another man?"

"Oh no. With a friend of mine."

"What's her name?"

"Is that relevant to this case, Comrade Judge?"

"Of course it is. We have to investigate and find out your true relationship with her before we can decide how to handle your request for a divorce."

"She has nothing to do with this. We have a relationship of pure comradeship."

"Then why are you so reluctant to tell me her name and work unit? Do you feel too ashamed, or do you want to cover something up?"

"I... I..." Sweat was breaking out on Lin's face.

The judge folded a yellow booklet and with it swatted at a hornet fluttering on the table. He missed the insect, which took off buzzing as if catapulted. He was waiting for the husband to answer the question, but Lin remained speechless, unsure about the consequences if he revealed Manna's name. He glanced at the judge, whose thick-lidded eyes were half closed as though he were about to doze off. Uncertainty kept Lin from saying anything.

Having waited almost two minutes, the judge cleared his throat and concluded, "All right. If you had not done anything to be ashamed of, you would not be afraid of a ghost knocking at your door. We cannot proceed with this case unless you provide us with that woman's name, age, workplace, and marital status. Go home and come again when you have the needed information ready. In the meantime, you must treat your wife decently, like a friend and comrade. The court will check on that." He smiled with one eye screwed up.

Lin knew it was no use to argue, so he said diffidently, "All right, we'll come again."

As if in a trance, he rose to his feet and turned to the door, Shuyu following. His right leg had gone to sleep and made him limp a little.

While the couple were inside the courthouse, Bensheng and a dozen men from Goose Village had stood outside, waving spades, flails, hoes, shoulder poles. They threatened to create a disturbance if the judge granted Lin a divorce. A large crowd gathered on the street, believing the maddened villagers were going to beat up the unfaithful husband. Nobody wanted to miss such a spectacle. The judge called the county's Military Department, which immediately dispatched a militia platoon to keep order outside the courthouse.

"So he's a big officer or something? Still he mustn't be bigger than the law," a middle-aged woman said to others.

"Even an emperor isn't free to divorce his wife," a toothless crone put in.

"Men are all alike, beasts."

An old man in bifocals retorted, "A woman shouldn't be allowed to divorce either, or else there'll be disorder everywhere. The order of the world is rooted in every family, as Confucius said."

"What a heartless animal!"

"He has no reason to do this to her."

"The army should send him back and let him scratch a living out of the earth."

"I heard he's a doctor."

"Small wonder he has no heart. Doctors are butchers."

To the dismay of some of them, the judge had turned down Lin's petition and therefore precluded the anticipated spectacle. Seeing the husband and wife come out of the courthouse, some spectators whispered that the couple indeed didn't match. The husband looked quite gentle, in no way like an evil, abusive man, whereas the wife was as thin as a chicken whose flesh, if cooked, couldn't fill a plate. If they were so different, they might not be able to avoid conflicts. But that should provide no grounds for divorce, because it was normal for a married couple to have a quarrel or even a fist fight once in a while. A good marriage was full of moments of cats and dogs. It was the uneventful marriage that was headed toward disaster. In a word, the differences between the husband and the wife should only help stabilize their marriage.

Lin's face turned bloodless when he saw so many eyes in the crowd glaring at him. Hurriedly he and Shuyu left the courthouse for the bus stop. All the way home he didn't say a word.

After the couple had left, the militia was withdrawn from the courthouse. But it took half an hour for the crowd to disperse completely. The ground was littered with popsicle wrappers and sticks, bottle caps, cucumber ends, patches of melon seeds.

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Excerpted from Waiting by Ha Jin. Copyright © 1999 by Ha Jin. Excerpted by permission of Knopf, a division of Random House. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.