Short Story: Tianjin Summers By Shruti Bhutada
I look at the TV screen in the hospital waiting room. The headlines spell gloom and doom. We are in the middle of one of the deadliest pandemic in a century after all.
As I wait to see the doctor, my past flashes in front of my eyes. It is a past filled with warmth and a never ending summer.
My life had been a succession of lazy summer days, some happy and many uneventful. Then, I met Chen Rong.
With his wire rimmed glasses and a perpetually somber expression; as if the weight of the whole world was upon his narrow shoulders; he walked into my life just as a stray cool breeze hits you on a smarmy summer day.
I fell in curiosity over the conversations we had while enjoying savory crepes in Tianjin’s night markets. I grew enamored as we sat silently by each other, immersing ourselves in Shanghai style jazz solo’s at the centuries old Astor Hotel. Then, on one of our many strolls along the Hai He river, as he confided in me his hunger to save this “dying” world, his eyes alight with both agony and hope; I realized that I was deeply in love with this man.
Chen Rong’s angst was something I could understand but not relate to. Like a scientific concept that makes sense to your mind but does not register in your heart. The bright city of Tianjin, with skyscrapers sprouting like wildflowers, contrasting against the archaeological mammoths of its colonial past and throbbing with millions of people that poured into the city every day, seemed a far cry from the “dying world” he saw. But at that time, I was more interested in his desire to bring light where darkness existed, than verifying if it was dark at all.
Thus, our whirlwind romance began and in a few months, I was pregnant with his child. While Rong labored in a lab trying to save the “dying” world, I lived out my endless summer walking through the city I loved and felt fortunate to belong to, eagerly waiting to meet our child.
Then, winter came.
“Another woman was diagnosed with the ‘si-chong’ virus and is in critical condition. This brings the number of patients to 300. Over 50 of the women who were affected with the virus have died. The DDC has said that it is too early to say what might be causing the outbreak. While the virus only seems to be dangerous for pregnant women and people with weaker immune systems, they have advised everyone to limit contact with sickly people and all women who are pregnant, to seek immediate medical attention if they experience any of the symptoms such as shivers or cold. At this point, there is no cure for the virus.”
The word ‘si’ means death and the word ‘chong’ means worm in mandarin. Death worm. Such an ominous name. I had looked at Rong following this news that what we were experiencing was a deadly pandemic that mainly affected pregnant women.
“It should be okay for us right?” I was hopeful as I looked at my heavy belly that held our child.
Rong only nodded and asked me to not leave home or have contact with anyone. From that moment, I was pretty much under house arrest.
Then, another 200 victims were added to the list of those in critical condition. 100 had already died and almost all of them had lost their babies. The odds of survival for the mother were one to five. The odds of survival for the unborn child were zero.
“Do you know something about this? Is your department working on a cure?” Rong worked in the Department of Disease Control or the DDC. It was an arm of the government that dealt with public health.
He had become quiet since the pandemic started, his somber expression replaced with a tortured one. If a city bursting with life had seemed like a dying wasteland to him, I could not imagine how he saw Tianjin now.
Streets were empty. The many street food joints, once full of people who all shared a love for food that defines us Tianjin-ites, were boarded up. The many cross talk shows which were once overbooked were now running with barely any audience or cancelled. This was the dying world Rong had always described to me. But now that it had become a reality, he seemed to be conflicted. Where was the savior I had fallen in love with?
I got my answer two days before I felt the first chill.
“Rong, boss said the higher ups are worried that this is spreading too fast. That buffoon Jiannan may have messed up the cryostorage unit and leaked more than he was supposed to. They want us to freeze whatever strains we may have in the new cryostorage units. Lets not let analysts handle this and do it ourselves, just in case. Better safe than sorry. They do not want a repeat of this mess. The last word from higher ups was, ‘controlled trails only’.”
I don’t usually pick up Rong’s calls. I also do not understand microbiology. But Rong was fascinated with viruses and had even managed to teach a few things to a bad student like me.
“Which virus? What controlled trial? Why did your colleague make it sound like DDC is behind this pandemic?!”
I still remember the look on Rong’s face when I made this accusation. It was the same tortured look he had had since the pandemic began.
“You assume too much and don’t know enough.” He had said after almost 15 minutes of looking away.
“Then enlighten me!” It felt strange to be so calm when my world was crumbling. All those endless and uneventful days of summer, all those feelings of curiosity, joy, pride and love; were they all a lie? My heart registered the shock my mind was yet to comprehend.
“Do you know what the current population of China is? It is just over 2 billion. 2 billion! Mortality rates have gone down, the average life expectancy is now 120 years and we are closer to attaining immortality than ever before! And the birth rate? While it is nowhere near what it used to be in the past centuries, it is not negative either. We are living longer and we still birth more humans. The teacup is already full! What do you think will happen when it overflows?!”
It was bizarre that he was comparing loss of lives to the old Chinese etiquette of leaving the guest’s teacup only three quarters full. It was numbing that he had confirmed my doubts in so many words. My mind was finally beginning to comprehend what was happening.
The man that I had given my heart and soul to, the father of my unborn child, and his employer, were not helplessly fighting a pandemic. They had caused it, with the full intention of taking the lives they were supposed to protect.
“When the teacup is already full, adding any more will make it overflow. It is impossible for the guest to drink that tea and even holding the cup might burn their hand. That etiquette is not a random act of courtesy. It is based on the fundamental truth that we can only survive if we live in moderation.” Rong explained as if he wasn’t sure I understood this basic fact.
“So killing pregnant women and their children is your way of ensuring that everyone else can enjoy the benefits of a moderately populated country?!” I did not understand.
When we believe something to be unquestionably true, seeing it crumble, raises more doubts in us about ourselves than about that erstwhile truth. In that moment, both Rong and I were doubting ourselves.
“The virus was never developed to kill, it was and is supposed to be a humane form of population control. It just went out of control because an analyst made an error while releasing it. With a strong enough immune system, people should have been able to survive it easily. It was only meant to affect the truly weak, like very sick people or weaker fetuses. If our population keeps increasing the way it is, people will die much more horribly. Civil wars over resources, hunger, malnutrition, massive levels of unemployment and global warming are already severe enough. Just last week, there was mutiny in Tangshan because the rural districts surrounding it think the city is not sharing its resources equally with them. You probably did not even think this was important because we hear about mutinies and violent protests all the time. What do you think happens when districts fight or when more people live in poverty?! More people die!”
We could not agree and we could not agree to disagree. In his mind, I was a naive woman who would rather watch as my trolley drove through five people rather than pull a lever and consciously kill one person. He had chosen to pull the lever. People like me and our unborn child were simply a small price to save a world that was dying.
In all the time we had been together I had gained comfort in knowing that despite our different world views, Rong and I saw the same sight in the night lights of Tianjin. But we had been seeing a different Tianjin the entire time. While I saw it brimming with people trying their best to live against all odds, he saw a city burdened with the weight of its people.
Two days later, I got the chills.
It was the first time I had ever felt cold. I had grown up surviving brutal Tianjin winters without ever getting one. I thought maybe it was my heart that had grown colder, not my body.
“Take this antidote. This isn’t perfect and it is unlikely the lab will develop a permanent cure that will kill one of our most expensive projects. But this should help. I even had to steal this vial from my lab.” Rong had insisted.
“Why? If I and the baby die then that means we were not needed by this world.” Why could he not see the irony in his actions?
“You are incorrigible!! And you are purposefully misunderstanding me! Just take the antidote and go see a doctor!” Rong had reprimanded me, his face twisted in pain. I understood his pain, even though I could not relate to it. He had only done what he thought was right, never imagining that it would impact those he cared for, nor that they would respond the way I was responding. He wanted me to understand him. I wanted me to understand him too. But how could we see eye to eye now, when we had never seen the same Tianjin in the first place?
Tianjin is a beautiful city. It is modern, yet full of old corners, a city desperately trying to preserve its past while constantly marching into the future. A city overpopulated with life. Many people are now calling it a dead zone. The only place where you see people apparently, are the hospitals.
I never liked hospitals. They always reeked of death and decay to me. But strangely, this city and the fighting spirit of its residents has brought life even to this morose institution.
I peel my eyes from the television. I don’t think I need to hear the news anymore. Sitting across from me, a husband is desperately pleading with the nurse as his pregnant wife sobs quietly.
“Please! I will do anything! Please save her even if you cannot save our child.”
I know the doctors cannot do anything. The only solution to this couple’s problem lies in a secure vial in my handbag.
Maybe Rong is right. Maybe there are too many of us and most of us are not needed. But as much as I try to see his Tianjin, I can only believe in the Tianjin I see with my own eyes.
I walk over to the man and our eyes meet. His eyes are pleading for help from anyone, even me. They seem to be desperate yet unwilling to give up. I hand him the antidote. I didn’t tell Rong, but apart from chills I have also vomited blood once. Maybe there is more hope for this man’s wife as she looks healthier than I am.
“Take this. It can help. Trust me.” I say.
I know he is desperate because he does not question me as he cradles the antidote nimbly.
“Children are sacred in our culture because they are evidence that tomorrow will be better. Don’t give up on that child yet. When it is born, tell it that as long as there is hope, there is life. And life is one long, incredible, never ending summer.” I say, hoping he will remember. He nods frantically, and I know he will.
I smile in the knowledge that somewhere, through the small life I may just have saved, my Tianjin will live on in the dying world that Chen Rong and his kind see.
I make my way to the exit, ignoring Rong’s worried texts about the outcome of my visit.
I walk out into the arms of my hometown, ready to accept my fate. For me and my unborn child, the summer has finally ended.
About the Author
Shruti grew up in the town of Nagpur in India before moving to New York, London and finally San Francisco Bay Area. Her earliest memories include her making up imaginary worlds and enjoying those created by others. She has contributed non-fiction work to Times of India and Education Times. She is a behavioral scientist by training and profession, and enjoys writing science fiction and poetry (she believes these two genres have a lot in common). She currently lives in SF with her husband and their cat.