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FLAME/H« Jin ALETTER WAS lying on Nimei's desk. She was puzzled because the envelope did not give a return address. The postmark showed the letter came from Harbin, but she knew nobody in that city. When she opened the envelope, the squarish handwriting looked familiar to her, and she turned the first page to see who the sender was. As she saw the name Hsu Peng, her heart began palpitating, and a surge of emotion overcame her. She had not heard from him for seventeen years. He wrote that through an acquaintance of his he had learned that Nimei worked in the Central Hospital. How glad he was that he had at last found her. He was going to attend a conference at the headquarters of Muji Military Sub-Command at the end of September. "For old time's sake," he said, "I hope you will allow me to visit you and your family." Without mentioning his wife, he told Nimei that he had three children now—two girls and one boy—and that he was the commissar of an armored division garrisoned in the suburbs of Harbin. In the bottom left-hand corner of the second page, he gave her the address of his office. Nimei locked away the letter in the middle drawer of her desk. She glanced across the office and saw nobody, so she stretched up her arms. Again a pain tightened the small of her back, and she let out a moan. It was already early September. If she wanted to meet Hsu Peng, she should write him back soon, but she was unsure why he wanted to see her. The door opened and Wanyan, a young nurse, came in. "Nimei," she said, "the patient in Ward 3 wants to see you." "What happened?" Nimei asked in alarm. "I've no idea. He just wants to see the head nurse." The patient in Ward 3 was the director of the Cadre Department at the Prefecture Administration, who had been operated on for gastric perforation two weeks ago. Although he no longer needed special care, he had to stick to a soft diet for at least another week. Nimei got up and walked to the door while slipping on her white robe. She stopped to pat her bobbed hair, then went out. When she arrived at Ward 3, the patient was sitting up in bed, his shoulders hunched over a magazine, a marking pencil between his fingers . "Director Liao, how are you today?" Nimei asked pleasantly. The Missouri Review · 54 "Fine." He put the magazine and the pencil on the bedside cabinet, on which stood two scarlet thermoses and four white teacups with landscapes painted on their sides. "Did you have a good nap?" she asked, resting her hand on the brass knob of a bedpost. "Yes, I slept two hours after lunch." "How is your appetite?" "My appetite is all right, but Tm tired of the liquid stuff." She smiled. "Rice porridge and egg-drop soup don't taste very good." "They're not bad, but it's hard to eat them every day. Can I have something else for a change?" "What would you like?" "Fish—a soup or a stew." Nimei looked at her wristwatch. "It's almost four. It may be too late for today, but I'll go and tell the kitchen manager." Director Liao thanked her, but he didn't look happy; his thick-lidded eyes glinted as the muscles of his face suddenly hardened. Nimei noticed , but she pretended she had seen nothing. Although one of the hospital leaders had informed her that the nurses should show special attention to Liao, she couldn't bother too much about him. There were too many patients here. From the ward she went directly downstairs to the kitchen and told the manager to have a fish stew made for the patient the next day. Meanwhile, she couldn't help thinking of Hsu Peng's letter. She returned to the office, took it out of the drawer, and read it again before she left for home. Walking along Peace Avenue, she was thinking of Hsu Peng. On the street dozens of...


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pp. 54-64
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