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In the early spring of 1944 the Yangtze River wreacked its annual havoc on the inhabitants living along its shores. I had turned five, and remember crossing the river with my parents at the height of its flood.

No. In 1944 I crossed the Yangtze River with my parents. It seemed to me as a five year old that most of the world had sunk under the turbulent heavy water. There as flotsam, the branches and logs and pieces of lumber, a dead chicken, bloated goat, carried a sucking dark smell that the wind and brown current would not dissipate.

Everything has shifted just a little since, probably including more of what wasn't there than what was.

From the first tense of my memory life, I have only two or three impressions of my father. This was one of them. He seldom told by example and even less by word. He was away most of the time, but he was to tell me four years later when I had just finished practicing the piano, he said Don't follow in the steps of Turgenev.

So this one I remember, though not in this order. The Yangtze starts somewhere in the Tibetan Highlands and meanders some 3,500 miles before it empties into the East China Sea at Shanghai. Until dams and levees were constructed to control the river's annual spring flood, much of the lowlands was threatened every year. But this was 1944, years before the completion of the flood-control project.

The water was muddy that spring, that is to say, I remember the color of the water.

Shouting at another boat that had turned over upstream from ours, our boatman steered to scavenge the planks drifting downriver from the fast sinking sampan. From the opposite end of ours, my father stood up dangerously with an oar and threatened to knock him overboard unless he helped with the drowning victims of the overturned boat. It had taken courage for me to get into that little boat in that swift water in the first place; then I cried and shivered and held onto my mother's hand for comfort, and kept an anxious eye on the diminishing closest shore. But the voices of my father's and the boatman's -- shouting, cursing, threatening -- made the crest of the opposite shore tilt ever so steeper as the two of them pitched back and forth, both boats sweeping downriver out of control.

High above the Yangtze that summer, we lived in a house on a plateau to the south of the river. It was the last summer that my brother Will lived at home, the last summer that our father had a garden for his tomatoes. It was also the year before the end of the war.

If what happened imperfectly there on that river included my holding onto my mother Katherine's hand for the crossing, I have no image of her face, not even from earlier photographs. I held onto her same hand again a year later when she and I flew from Chungking to Shanghai in a stuffed C-47 cargo plane with makeshift wooden seats roped alongside its inside wall.

It was also a summer that involved a strange funeral procession that left me stranded by the gates of the house. Was it my mother's, and it was someone else's hand that I held onto during the flight to Shanghai? Did Katherine disappear that summer, or the next?

Now when I am alone playing a piece on the piano, I sometimes hear the pitch shifting ever so slightly above the noise of that summer. Under my eyelids I can still see the pagodas perched high in the distance above the gorge of the rampaging river in my sleep, the tiny monks sequestered from the roily din below.
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Title Annotation:short story
Author:Kuo, Alex
Publication:Chicago Review
Date:Jun 22, 1988
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