Big Li tightened the parachute harness and pulled at the crotch of his G- suit. “The last time,” he said.
“Don’t talk like that.” Zhang was much shorter, almost a head shorter than the bigger man. He clipped Big Li’s parachute on to the harness. “It’s bad luck to talk like that.”
“But it is the last time, you know.” Big Li enjoyed baiting Zhang, who was superstitious. “Even if I do get back, I’m going on leave tonight. You know that.”
“You’ll come back from leave.”
“Oh, by then the war will be over.”
It would, too, thought Big Li, walking over the cracked concrete to his plane. The peace talks were almost done; any day now the truce would be signed, and they could all go home. He hoped so. He hated this place, this Manchuria, so cold and barren, so unlike his native Yunnan. He even hated the ice-blue sky above, not the cloudy warm sky of home. And he had been here too long, had lost too many friends. It was all very well to talk of the revolutionary spirit being the only important thing, but a friend was a friend.
The MiG-15 came alive under his hands, as it did every time. He plugged and strapped himself into the craft, becoming as one with it, radio and air supply and parachute harness. He switched on the engine, and felt the vibrations. The ground crew snapped shut the canopy. Li pulled the throttle slowly back and the immense silver bird began to move.
The air above was like a sea, a clear blue sea with only a distant patch of cloud or two to break the continuity. The land below was a smudge of brown undulating earth, sans trees or vegetation or visible habitation, except far to the left where a stack of factory chimneys trailed a pall of dirty grey smoke. Li climbed steadily, wheeling to the south in a great curve, his wingmen behind and to the side. Looking back he could see the dust trails as the last of the squadron took off. Zhang would be there, somewhere.
The Yalu lay below, a winding black band through the barren brown countryside, even more barren than before after three years of war. Had it been the south, the hills would have been covered with trees, and the sky mottled with cloud. He wished he was back home.
Well, this would be the last time. He was going home tonight. And when he was home, he would meet his parents and then go out for a stroll in the town, and maybe he would meet Guo Xiumei. He looked forward to meeting Guo Xiumei. Now that he was an authentic war hero, maybe she would pay some attention to him. He hoped.
He thought all this while obeying the clipped instructions from ground control radar in his earphones, climbing steadily, changing course to west of south, the rest of the squadron following, silver fish in a clear blue airy sea. He thought all this while charging the guns, while setting the ejector seat handle, while scanning the sky to the south, looking for the enemy. All that was second nature to him by now.
He saw the bombers first by their long white contrails, far in the distance, and he turned further and raised the nose of his plane, the movement of it through the air ramming tons of air through the gaping nose intake every minute, smashing and cutting and twisting it through the engine blades, and blasting it out in a blast-furnace hot tail of fire behind. He checked to ensure the other planes were in position, and set his course for the enemy.
By the time he could actually see the American bombers, the tiny silver cross-shapes of the B29s against the blue, he was already well past them and high above, and he tipped a wing and plummeted down on them from behind and above, the air screaming over his swept wings, his thumb shifting on the gun buttons as the first B29 grew in his sights, and as the huge enemy aeroplane fell into the crosshairs he hit the buttons and the guns opened, deafeningly loud even through airstream and engine and outer helmet and inner helmet and earphone static, and the cockpit began filling with cordite fumes. Excitement and adrenaline were metallic and dry in his mouth. Only a moment, and he swung the control column to the side, and he was slashing past the bomber, almost close enough to see the helmeted head of the tail gunner swivelling frantically, and then he was past, and the B29 was trailing smoke, and then he could see it no more.
He never saw the Sabre that jumped him. He had just begun to flatten out from his power dive, and was looking for his squadron, to regroup and rise again for another assault. The F86 must have followed him down and got under him, and now the American pilot hit him from beneath. One moment he was easing back to level flight and the next the aircraft shuddered trembled screamed in agony as a volley of machine gun bullets smashed into it.
He reacted by instinct, throwing the MiG onto its side, the Sabre flashing past, and he fired but it was gone already, and there was only him in the stricken plane, and he was alone.
The MiG began to die. He felt it die through his connections to it, the static in his earphones falling silent, the controls going slushy, the air beginning to taste of hot, burned metal. It was time to leave.
He set off the explosive bolts and the canopy flew off. He pulled the ejection chair release, automatically, not thinking at all while doing it, and a moment later the parachute flew open with a sound like a gunshot and he stopped falling with a jerk, and was hanging from the straps and swinging down over Korea. He had just time enough for a quick look around. There was not a plane to be seen.
He landed in a ploughed field. He landed badly, one ankle twisting, falling heavily, the pain making him cry out. He unclipped the parachute and let it fall in on itself like a great white flower. He took off his boot and felt his ankle. It wasn’t broken, and he put on the boot again quickly before it could swell and stop him from putting on the boot at all.
When he looked up from the boot he saw a Korean standing nearby and looking at him. The man was probably a farmer, he thought, with a wrinkled, lined face and a few isolated clumps of whiskers. The man looked at him some more, and Big Li finally got up and hobbled over to him.
“Pardon me,” he said in Korean. His Korean was very poor. He had to think each syllable in his mind before uttering it. “Where is the nearest unit of the Chinese People’s Volunteers?”
“I’ll take you to them,” the old man answered in Mandarin. His Mandarin was better than Big Li’s own. “But do you mind if an old man asks you a question first, young man?”
“No, please ask whatever you want.”
“Good. Why are you here?”
“Why am I here? I was shot down. In the battle.”
“No, I mean, why are you really here?”
“How do you mean that? I don’t know what you mean by that. Do you mean why I’m fighting, or what?”
“No, no. I mean, why are you here in this field at this time?”
“I told you. I was in the battle.” Was the old man crazy?
“And why were you in the battle?”
“Because I’m a pilot of the People’s Liberation Army.”
“So. Why are you here, in Korea?”
“Why? Because the Americans attacked your country.”
“And the Americans? Why are they here?”
“Why?” Li began to feel strange. “Because I think they thought we would take over your country. Or something like that.”
“Precisely. Why are you here, you and the Americans? This isn’t China, is it? It isn’t America, is it? Why don’t you just leave us alone? Who told you to come here? We were all getting on well enough without you, all of you.”
“All of us?” Big Li put his weight on the hurt foot and winced.
“Americans. Chinese. Japanese. Who called you here? Haven’t you any problems of your own to fix? Who asked you to come here?”
“All right,” muttered Big Li. “I get the idea.” He began hobbling away.
“Why are you here, anyway?” the old man called after him.
“That was sixty years ago,” said Li. He pushed back his chair and thoughtfully rubbed his face. His old skin looked like fine parchment, with its mesh of wrinkles. “I walked for two days on that foot before I found a Third Field Army unit. But,” he added, “I still can’t forget it. He was right, you know, that old man, although why he picked on me that day I’ll never know. But he was right.” He heaved himself off his chair. "That was his country and we had problems of our own, every one of us. But if I'd had a gun then, I'd have killed him. Even though he was right.
“You’ll have some more tea,” he said. I nodded.
“Wait,” he said, and hobbled over to the kitchen door. At every step, his artificial leg squeaked.
"You see," he said, above the clink of porcelain. "It was a rotten war."
Copyright B Purkayastha 2012