The main door of Puh-Chi was ajar when the police chief arrived. A small knot of men and women stood watching. They could see Father Michael standing in the middle of the floor. Over in one corner there was another figure, a young, naked man, suddenly ravished by an unnatural look of great age, a long knife in his hands. On the shelves around the inner walls of the storehouse lay rows and rows of naked corpses in various stages of mutilation and putrefaction.
“YOU!!” the naked man was screaming as the police captain elbowed his way to the door, “YOU want to know MY name!” The words “you” and “my” hit the captain like two clenched fists across the ears. He saw the priest visibly wilt and stagger backward. But, even so, it was the voice that made the captain wonder. He had known Thomas Wu. Never had he heard him speak with such a voice.
“In the name of Jesus,” Michael began weakly, “you are commanded . . .”<
“Get outta here! Get the hell outta here, you filthy old eunuch!”
“You will release Thomas Wu, evil spirit, and …”
“I’m taking him with me, pigmy,” came the voice from Thomas Wu. “I’m taking him. And no power anywhere, anywhere, you hear, can stop us. We are as strong as death. No one stronger! And he wants to come! You hear? He wants to!”
“Tell me your name …”
The priest was interrupted by a sudden roaring. No one there could say later how the fire started. An incendiary? A spark carried by the wind from burning Nanking? It was like a sudden, noisy ambush sprung by a silent signal. In a flash the fire had jumped up, a living red weed running around the sides of the storehouse, along the curved roof, and across the wooden floor by the walls.
The police captain was already inside, and he gripped Father Michael by the arm, pulling him outside.
The voice of Wu pursued them over the noise: “It’s all one. Fool! We’re all the same. Always were. Always.”
Michael and the captain were outside by then and turned around to listen.
“There’s only one of us. One . . .”
The rest of the sentence was drowned in a sudden outburst of flaming timbers.
Now, the glass rectangle of the single window was darkening over with smoke and grime. In a few minutes it would be impossible to see anything. Michael lurched over and peered in. Against the window he could see Thomas’ face plastered for an instant of fixed, grinning agony a horrible picture, a Bosch nightmare come alive.
Long, quickly lashing tongues of flame were licking at Thomas’ temples, neck, and hair. Through the hissing and crackling of the fire, Michael could hear Thomas laughing, but very dimly, almost lost to I lie ear. Between the flames he could see the shelves with their gray-white load of corpses. Some were melting. Some were burning. Eyes oozing out of sockets like broken eggs. Hair burning in little tufts. First, fingers and toes and noses and ears, then whole limbs and torsos melting and blackening. And the smell. God! That smell!
Then the fixity of Thomas’ grin broke; his face seemed to be replaced by another face with a similar grin. At the top speed of a kaleidoscope, a long succession of faces came and went, one flickering after the other. All grinning. All with “Cain’s thumbprint on the chin,” as Michael described the mark that haunted him for the rest of his life. Every pair of lips was rounded into the grinning shape of Thomas’ last word: “one!” Faces and expressions Michael never had known. Some he imagined he knew. Some he knew he imagined. Some he had seen in history books, in paintings, in churches, in newspapers, in nightmares. Japanese, Chinese, Burmese, Korean, British, Slavic. Old, young, bearded, clean-shaven.
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.
That’s from the prologue. The book was deeply disturbing to me, though at the time I read it I was a doctrinaire agnostic. Hell, it creeps me out still just remembering it from fifteen years ago.