A Bear Coughs at the North Pole
by Robert Payne
Published by William Heinemann Ltd, London, 1947.
Chapter III: The happy excursion
The sun was so hot that almost immediately he unbuttoned the collar of his gown and held the fan over his eyes. Shaoyu was thirty-five. His gown was of pure blue silk on which, if you looked closely enough, you would see pattern of phoenixes in deeper blue . . .
The old man crouched back again under the shelter of the silk canopy, busily fanning himself.
“I am not so sure,” he murmured. “Kingdoms have
been broken before by starving children. Surely it is possible, Shaoyu, that that terrible undersized baby may be the future Generalissimo of China. Oh, you should never believe that things have no significance. Everything has significance. Even that black squealing pig over there which is being carried to the slaughter may have significance—it may even have significance for you and me. Everything that moves moves everything else. A bear coughing at the North Pole stirs the sands of the Sahara. If I breathe—if I breathe only once—I so displace the air that perhaps in a thousand years’ time a man may be killed, or a woman may give birth, or a whole nation may be set in flames. I lift my fan. Do you not see all the birds of the air leaping from their nests? A flower opens—and all flowers open. A man is killed, and all men are killed; or a man is born, and all men are re-born. Be careful, Shaoyu. Be careful of everything you do. The world is marvellous, filled with miracles, and I beg you, Shaoyu, never for one moment to believe that nothing has significance.”
Shaoyu burst out laughing, a pleasant low lazy laugh which had no beginning and no end.
“We were discussing rats, father,” he said at last.
“Of course. Why not? The internal ducts of rats are quite splendid—I believe they are even more splendid than human intestines, and far more complicated. A discussion which begins with rats must inevitably lead to a discussion of the whole universe.”
“You really believe, father, that the old woman who just passed could set a nation on fire? And what precisely do you mean by saying that she could set a nation on fire—it is not very definite?”
“Well then, I believe that it is perfectly possible that she could set Chunking on fire.”
“But I am being quite serious, Shaoyu. A bear coughs at the North Pole—— Why shouldn’t she set Chungking on fire? Can you give me any rational explanation? A match can set a city on fire. Why not a woman?”
. . .
Shaoyu grimaced. He had heard it all before. The hot sun, the long shadows of the coolies, the sweat rippling off their shoulders, the green paddy-fields ablaze in the morning light, the cloud of butterflies hovering over the pools and the pink blossoms of the almond trees beside the road made him drowsy after the long winter which was just over. Lying in the sedan-chair, his body continually jerked and excited by the movement of the chair, he knew how hungry a human body could be for the
sun’s warmth after a long winter. Impossible to believe that the ugly woman would ever enter his life. Impossible to believe that if a bear coughed at the North Pole——
A mist rose from the rice-fields, white and thick with summer moisture, rose up above the shoulders of water-buffaloes, hiding the cloudy branches of acacia trees. The sky was milky blue. They had been winding among the fields for about half an hour, and now at last the blue hills rose steeply above them, smoke curling in short plumes from the quarries; and he thought he could hear the sound of a passing motor-car.
“Yes, yes,” he said drowsily to himself, “everything in the world touches everything else, and how terrible it is! Everyone, everything has power to kill. Everyone, everything has power to create. This duckweed in the pool may become a forest—it may contain the first seeds of the forest that will engulf China. Yes, and that drop of water resting on the lotos may contain the seed of ice which will begin a new Ice Age. And this boy, whose brown sturdy legs flash in the sun, who is more handsome than all his brothers, the one I envy most because he is most carefree and not weighed down by cares of State, this boy may kill me, not because he desires to kill me—that would be absurd—but because his breath at a certain time and place moves something else, which in turn moves something else which kills me. It’s extraordinary, I never thought of it before. That leaf falling from the tree——“
He had never paid much attention to scenery, but now urged on by some curious intonation in his father’s words, he began to look at the beautiful liquid landscape of flooded rice-fields with new interest. The geese and ducks had never been so blue, and had never seemed so dangerous, and there seemed to him at that moment to
be a terrible beauty in the shoulders of the boys carrying the poles. A clump of bamboos burnt with a yellow flame. The strangest thing—a flight of herons high up in the sky—he was suddenly appalled with the weight of significance which lay concealed in their ivory wings. Anything might happen. Everything could happen . . . He was thinking drowsily . . . when a butterfly blew into his face. He felt the flapping of the soft moist wings, heavily laden with dew, but what frightened him was that it flew against his left eye: it seemed bigger than anything in the whole world. He snapped his hands to his face and crushed the butterfly, as he crushed mosquitoes . . .
“This is quite the most terrible thing that has happened to me since my marriage,” Shaoyu told himself. “The damned butterfly could have killed me; it could have crippled me for life; it could have prevented me for ever from becoming Minister of Foreign Affairs. What is terrible is that it should have happened at that moment—at the precise moment when my father must have been giggling at the success of his absurd theories. Of course it is true, but it is true to the most limited extent. I don’t believe there are any bears at the North Pole. Even if there are, I don’t believe they have the slightest effect on my life, they have even less effect upon me than my wife, who eats sweets, goes to mahjong parties and behaves with a kind of studied malevolence. I am not interested in Polar bears. I am not interested in my wife, who resembles Polar bears only to the extent that she lives in a world of ice. If I am interested in anything, it is only in the Foreign Office, where at least the Foreign Minister has the sense to ask me for advice.”
“What’s the matter?” Shaoyu asked, lazily feeling the warmth of the sedan-chair, and suddenly it seemed to him that the whole country under the white stretched sky was silent, hovering, breathless.
“What’s the matter?” he asked again, and then he noticed that the sedan-chair had stopped and all round him people were staring up at the sky. For the third time he asked: “What’s the matter?”
“Aeroplanes,” the boy said.
Shaoyu lifted the curtain of the sedan-chair and watched the aeroplanes, gold in the sun, coming low over the hills. Little blue puffs of anti-aircraft fire burst among them, but they went on, heedless, diving straight for the city of Chungking.
“Japanese—they’ve come! They’ve come!” he heard himself saying stupidly, and as the sedan-chair was laid slowly on the ground, he saw the twenty-seven aeroplanes streaking above his head and so low that he thought he could have thrown a stone at them.
. . . “The whole world has suddenly become beautiful because twenty-seven aeroplanes have appeared in the sky.” He noticed that he was breathing with extraordinary ease. He did not breathe as he had been accustomed to breathe: he did not exhale and inhale: the whole movement of breath was a single movement. He was still running after the boy. “I killed a butterfly this morning—that is why the aeroplanes have come. A bear coughs at the North Pole, and the fortunes of dynasties are decided. At Hankow a Japanese officer lifts a red flag, aeroplanes set off, and everything in Chungking becomes suddenly beautiful.”
. . . “The aeroplanes are so beautiful,” Shaoyu murmured, dazed by the inexplicable brightness of the air. “I suppose I am afraid, and that is why everything looks so beautiful.”