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An Act of Kindness
It was an unusually warm morning in April. It was the Roaring Twenties: the economy was booming and life was easy. The Great War had been finished for years, but the glory of Vimy Ridge lived on in Canada. I had been too young to fight the first time, but was determined to partake in the heroism the next. Meanwhile, I was a literary major at the University of Toronto, young and naïve and dully inspired by the lush hedonism around me.
It was on that mid-April day that I decided to lead a man to his death.
He told me that I was acting out of kindness, and I still believe him.
I was walking from campus to Chinatown, where the cheapest food could be found. My family was comfortably middle class, but it seemed to me that to be a writer, I had to experience penury first. Thus, I lived in the cramped basement of an elderly widow and ate in Chinatown.
There was a shortcut I frequently employed, a side alley that cut the distance between Knox College and Chinatown in half. Though convenient, the alley was where shady Chinese parlours opened their doors. Dirty and strewn with suspicious trash, it was a drug man’s haven. It was impossible to get from one end to the other without having the scent of opium cling to you. But opium, contrary to popular opinion, is not a foul substance. No, it is sweet and sickly, and those who have traversed the alleys of Chinatown as I have will leave sniffing their clothes to find traces of its cloying fragrance. In the human body, too, opium is sweet and sickly; it will suck away all of your troubles and take your soul with them. I have seen it happen.
On that particular mid-April day, a white woman in a drab grey dress was running along the dirty alleyway. She did not belong; her eyes were too wide and her steps were too unsure. I’ve always believed it was the sense of utter foreignness about her that made her a target.
She was crying; I could see the blaring red of her eyes from more than two metres away. She was hollering shrilly, “Christopher! Please come home! Christopher!” The desperation etched onto her sallow face was raw; she seemed crazed by an ineffable grief. She did not notice me stroll past her in the shadows cast by the morning sun.
Her screaming brought three Chinese men, one of them hauling his smoking opium pipe with him, to a shabby door lined with red Chinese characters. The characters were meant to bring fortune to those inside.
The narcotic draw of the opium intensified in the air as the man with the pipe puffed away, leaving me feeling lulled and dreamy. On any other day, I would have hurried away. But that day, I watched stupidly as the Chinese men leered at the woman.
Hitting on a woman, regardless of language, always seems to be the same ritual; it must be a shared ritual amongst men. The Chinese men’s jeering expressions, if not the low, guttural phrases bursting forth from them, made their intentions clear. The woman did not notice them, only continued to march down the alley, howling for Christopher.
I stood, pinned there by a force I still cannot name, I stood behind a grimy green dumpster and watched a short, porky man wield a jagged knife and step towards the woman. His left arm twitched erratically, his rough language spilled forth in uncoordinated gasps and his head seemed to loll in unnatural angles. He began to stagger towards the woman. I cried out, for her to move, to notice. But she only screamed for Christopher. The two other men turned, saw me, and disappeared behind the door.
Suddenly, a white man stumbled out of the red door.
The white man was a cesspool. His eyes were sunken far enough into his skull that he gave the impression of being a skeleton. His skin was stretched tightly over the bones of his face, as if there was not quite enough of it left to cover his wasting flesh. He possessed a horrifically emaciated face, a festering cut along his bottom lip, and eyes that were neither human nor animal. “Sara,” he was croaking. “Sa-ra,” he tried again, straining like each syllable took an unbearable effort to rip out of his vocal cords.
But the woman did not hear him. She continued along the alleyway, yelling for Christopher. The porky man hurtled towards her now, knife in hand, in a ghastly facsimile of courtship. Panic seized me; it was obvious from the addict’s malicious glee that the woman was about to be hurt, raped, perhaps killed.
My body finally began to move as the porky man broke into a run behind the woman. She was a fool, she had not noticed yet—but it was the skeletal white man who ran ahead of me in a haphazard line towards the porky man and the woman. He was moaning pathetically, making the sound of pain and helplessness.
The skeleton man was too late and too slow; I saw the moment that the porky man threw himself onto the woman and heard her ear-splitting shrieks, the nauseating snap of bone. The man was stabbing, stabbing, stabbing, deaf to her hideous screams, blind to the gruesome sight of her raw flesh, unfeeling to the wet gush of blood that spilled out from under his knife, carrying her life with it. Then he had dropped the knife into the dirt and was flapping on the corpse like a demented fish. The degradation forced bile, bitter and burning, into my mouth.
I had scrambled towards them, now bound to the scene by the horrified pulsing of my conscience. The skeleton man was on his knees, howling, his useless fists beating at the man rubbing himself on the dead woman. The scene was so sinisterly macabre that, for one relieving heartbeat, I was convinced it could not be real.
But the horror settled back in, and I ran, shaking, and kicked at the necrophiliac, kicked until I had dragged him off the woman. I couldn’t look at her. The skeleton man was torn between his howling and crying, “I’m sorry, Sara, I’m so sorry.”
It was moments before a small Chinese woman and bespectacled Chinese man had arrived, exchanging a distressed volley of Cantonese. The skeleton man turned his howling to them, and tried to pummel the man. They stepped around him as if he was nothing more than a misbehaving mongrel, and together they dragged the struggling necrophiliac, careful not to let blood on his body seep onto the road, behind the door. They came back for the knife and casually poured a caustic liquid into the dirt. The blood disappeared. They covered their tracks and disappeared behind the red fortune door. The skeleton was still howling, but now he was at my feet. Bewildered, I stared after the door where the couple had disappeared and thoughtlessly made towards it, but the skeleton man dragged me back.
“Please,” he was moaning into my pant legs. He dragged himself upwards, and his face hovered within an inch of mine. His breath was perfumed with opium. “The—the police, they’re always around here. They’ll be here soon.”
He swayed violently. His hands, yellowing skin pulled over white bones, were shaking. “Tell them I did it,” he whispered. “Please.” He gestured to the woman’s body. I refused to look once more. “Say it!” his hands jerked at the lapels of my shirt with a jolting force. “Say that I killed her!”
I began to shake my head, like a child who refuses to let go of his belief in the Tooth Fairy. “Please,” the man was begging. “She’s the last—she’s my last.” A pitiful sound, half-way between gasp and choke, escaped his scabbing lips. “It would be the greatest act of kindness you could do for me.”
I froze. His words made me tremble. “Please,” he begged again. He was crying now, the tears streaking dirty trails down his atrophied cheeks. “I tried to do it,” he was sobbing, “I tried to shoot my head. I can’t hold a gun again, not man enough to do it. Now Sara’s dead. My fault. Please. Tell them I did it.”
The hoarse, authoritative yells of a police officer began to rise behind us. The skeleton man released my lapels with a last pleading “Please,” and fell to his knees beside the corpse.
They made me sit in on the interrogation in a nondescript, whitewashed room. The officers who had arrived on the scene, a few station wardens, and the detective accompanied me. They made the skeleton man sit on a wooden stool across from the detective. I was quaking with the shock of what I had seen, with the burden of what the skeleton man had asked of me. His plea for an act of kindness ravaged all logical thought.
The detective was middle-aged, with a ruddy face and beady black eyes. One of the officers murmured to him, “This is Lieutenant McPherson. Twenty-six. No family, ‘cept a sister. Fought at Vimy. Says he killed the woman.” The detective’s lips pressed together suspiciously. The law was lenient for soldiers, willing to overlook their drunkenness and drug habits, but I suspect that the detective feared the consequences of allowing a self-proclaimed murderer run loose.
“Lieutenant,” the detective began.
The skeleton man, McPherson, snarled like a caged tiger. “Don’t call me Lieutenant,” he spat.
The detective’s black eyes travelled calmly over the skeleton man, though the bulging vein at his temple betrayed his anxiety. “Fine,” he conceded. “Mr. McPherson. Did you, or did you not, kill a woman in the alley between D’Arcy and Orde St. today?”
“Yes,” McPherson said vehemently. “It was me.”
“Do you understand, Mr. McPherson, what the consequences of this are? Do you know that this will lead to punishment by death? This is a serious crime against humanity—”
McPherson snarled again, and his watery blue eyes met the detective’s with a forceful hatred. “What is humanity?” McPherson demanded. His hands trembled and the stark white of his knuckles seemed eerily bright. He suddenly shoved himself out of his chair and began to prowl. “Humanity,” McPherson spat, his breath coming in laboured spasms, “is s***. Humanity is the stench of rotting flesh in the trenches, the taste of another man’s blood in your mouth, the howling of a wounded soldier left to die. Humanity is looking into a dismembered man’s eyes moments before his death, the agony of shrapnel cutting through your bones.” His thin chest, with ribs jutting out in strange angles, seemed to struggle with the task of moving his tattered cotton shirt up and down.
McPherson’s eyes seemed to pound into mine, and I suddenly heard his desolate begging—it seemed to rise like a geyser from my memory, with the same explosive force and heat. I looked away.
When I looked at McPherson again, I found him still glowering at me as he stalked up and down the room.
He glowered at me with a ferocity that twisted his features into a grotesque mask…At the time, I thought him consumed by opium withdrawal, perhaps by the inconsolable grief I had seen in him as he sobbed by the woman. But he was only a man living on stolen time with a stolen soul, the first taken from his dead comrades and the second from the dead woman. A man whose only peace came with his opium, or his death.
McPherson’s eyes begged of me what his voice could not. I wished sorely that I had seen nothing.
The detective did not respond to McPherson’s ranting and spoke to the officers who had been at the crime scene. “Is there any evidence? The weapon?” he asked nervously. Murder was a capital offence; hanging a soldier who had fought at Vimy would force an unspeakable shame upon every honour the Canadian Corps had garnered.
The officers shook their heads deftly. “We nearly took the doors off the Chinese opium dens but we found nothing in there, only the usual dump. There was one witness.” An officer pointed to me.
The detective’s face was glazed with an uneasy sheen as he gazed at me. I held breathlessly still. The detective opened his mouth to ask me something, but McPherson cut in.
“I killed her.” I felt my heart stutter, then race forward. “I killed her!” He was louder this time, screeching it into the face of each officer and warden he prowled past. “I KILLED HER, I KILLED HER, I KILLED HER!”
“The woman was stabbed to death,” an officer whispered to the detective insistently. “The soldier doesn’t have any blood on him. There wasn’t a knife found at the scene.”
“I killed her,” McPherson insisted. “I did it.”
The detective’s gaze settled on me, as did McPherson’s. I refused to look at McPherson, but I felt his electrifying gaze. I could hear his unconscionable plea…An act of kindness…please…
“Very well,” the detective said shakily. I swallowed the lump that had formed in my throat. “A confession like this backed with a witness account will suffice.”
With deliberate softness, the detective asked me, “Did you see Mr. McPherson stab a woman to death this morning?”
A thick silence.
I could feel instead of see McPherson’s hot gaze on me as I struggled to answer. Yes or no? Life or death? The clamour of my own thoughts rose until there were no thoughts left, only feeling.
Finally, finally, the words seemed to urge themselves past my lips. “Yes,” I said, with a steadiness that scared and surprised me. “Yes, I saw this man stab her to death.”
Two weeks later, Lieutenant Christopher McPherson of the 1st Canadian Division was hanged for the crime of stabbing his sister, Sara McPherson, to death in a decrepit Chinatown alleyway. The public was revolted, the authorities apologetic.
I was oddly at rest with my conscience. I quietly finished my literary degree and disappeared to New York to become an author of moderate success. I never enlisted in the army; the soldier’s mad eyes taunted me each time I tried.
Fifty years later, every November 11, they honour the fallen with poppy flowers. But the poppy is also the source of all opium, a dual symbol of heroism and heroin, with the power to evoke both the violent tragedies of battle and the violent raptures of opium.
I often wonder if Christopher McPherson, who destroyed himself and his sister with heroism and heroin, would find the little plastic poppies insulting or ironic.
"This will certify that the above work is completely original," Chloe Li.