Black, white, yellow. Male, female. Faster. Faster. All grinning with the same grin. More and more and more. Michael felt himself hurtling down an unending lane of faces, decades and centuries and millennia ticking by him, until the speed slowed finally, and the last grinning face appeared, wreathed in hate, its chin just one big thumbprint.
Now the window was completely black Michael could see nothing. “Cain . . .” he began to say weakly to himself. But a stablike realization stopped the word in his throat, just as if someone had hissed into his inner ear: “Wrong again, fool! Cain’s father. I. The cosmic Father of Lies and the cosmic Lord of Death. From the beginning of the beginning. I ... I ... I ... I ... I ...”
Michael felt a sharp pain in his chest. A strong hand was around his heart stifling its movement, and an unbearable weight lay on his chest, bending him over. He heard the blood thumping in his head and then loud, roaring winds. A dazzling flash of light burst across his eyes. He slumped to the ground.
Strong hands plucked Michael away from the window just in time.
The storehouse was now an inferno. With a tearing crash, the roof caved in. The flames shot up triumphantly and licked the outside walls, burning and consuming ravenously.
“Get the old man away from here!” screamed the captain through the smoke and the smell. They all drew back. Michael, slung over the shoulder of one man, was babbling and sobbing incoherently. The captain could barely make his words out:
“I failed ... I failed ... I must go back. Please . . . Please . . . must go back . . . not later .. . please . . .”
When they got Michael to the hospital, his condition was critical. Apart from burns and smoke inhalation, he had suffered a minor heart attack. And until the following evening, he continued in a delirium.
Before the fall of Nanking, he was smuggled out by the faithful police captain and a few parishioners. They made their way northwestwards, barely escaping the tightening Japanese net.
On December 14, the Japanese High Command let loose 50,000 of their soldiers on the city with orders to kill every living person. The city became a slaughterhouse. Whole groups of men and women were used for bayonet and machine-gun practice. Others were burned alive or slowly cut to pieces. Rows of children were beheaded by samurai-swinging officers competing to see who could take off the most heads with one sweep of the sword. Women were raped by squads, then killed. Fetuses were torn alive from wombs, carved up, and fed to the dogs.
All told, over 42,000 were murdered. Death enveloped Nanking as it had the entire Yangtze delta. Animals and crops died and rotted in the fields.
It was as though the spirit that Michael had tangled with in the microcosm of Thomas Wu’s grisly charnel house in the suburbs of Nanking -“the Cosmic Lord of Death”- had been let loose over all the lands. In the world-shaking events of the war years, some special viciousness had been given free rein, had impressed itself on hundreds of thousands with the sting of absolute and irresistible authority. Death was the strongest weapon. It settled all disputes over who was master. And eventually it claimed all as its victims, putting everyone on an equal level. In war, where death was the victor, you tried to have it on your side.