A very ordinary—but usually unseen—thing happened this morning. A woman died today. I mean, statistically, it happens every minute on this vast planet of ours, but this was a violent death and it happened just outside my bedroom window. Today was a day of rest for me. I woke up to no alarm at 09h30 and immediately continued reading a new book that I had started last night. I only put the book down so I could go to bed. So with the morning, I read for a long time, saw the Jian Bing lady leave my neighbourhood, and made some food for brunch. At some point, I noticed a gathering in the courtyard below—I live on the 3rd floor of a 5-storey building, facing west. I had seen the likes of this before. The Chinese are quite fond of rubber-necking. If anything out of the ordinary happens on the street, a crowd will gather immediately and persist for a long time. Disputes happen on the street a lot, especially when the weather gets hot and people get edgy. And when they happen, everyone wants to look, and many get involved. Several months ago, a similar scene had developed outside my window. There was a man or two, and a dispute, pushing and shoving, and four guards from my campus ultimately taking control. And so a crowd.
Hence, this morning, I didn’t give much thought to this new crowd that had formed and so caught my attention. Things were quiet and there wasn’t much movement. I scanned the crowd and the parked cars and the men standing nearby, but I didn’t see anything. I opened the screen of my window and took a picture of the courtyard and the curious shape of the gathered crowd. Anytime I see anything peculiar about China, that seems like it would be a good story for my friends back in Canada, I like to record it somehow. So I too became a rubber-neck. It was after I took the picture that I noticed a lone uniformed police officer among the standing men and the campus guards. Then I saw that a squatting man in the crowd had noticed me and was watching me watch him. He had seen me with the camera. So I was a little disturbed because it’s best not to take pictures of police and such in a place like P.R. China. I played it cool and broke my gaze with the man, stepped back from the window and closed the screen, and put the whole affair out of my mind.
Only later did something more happen which caused me to begin to watch the crowd again, wondering why it was still there. I was doing dishes at my sink and saw that a patrol car had arrived and that a very large police van was arriving. It had search lights, a portable tower, and a ladder on the roof. I saw four un-uniformed men get out of the van, and I thought, “fuck”, plain clothes policemen. I don’t like seeing police at the best of times, but un-uniformed police is a bad sign, especially in a country I don’t know. And I knew I would soon lose the four men in the crowd and I didn’t want to be seen again watching the crowd.
But then something about the geometry of the situation caught my attention, and I began to find the focal point of the crowd, a feature which was actually quite far away from the people. I saw the far-off rectangular tarp on the ground. I saw the police begin to gather and move toward the colourful sheet. I saw the two thin, black canvas shoes on the ground, like they had been thrown there, several feet back from the tarp. And then the recognition came—a body. There must be a body under that tarp. As I was realizing this, the police pulled the tarp aside. I saw the body of a young woman in her thirties, lying barefoot and facedown in the courtyard, outside the window of my home. I ran from the window as far back as I could go into my apartment, yelling “fuck! fuck! fuck!” I had seen something I didn’t want to see, and I knew something that I didn’t want to know.
But very quickly the reality of the situation came to me and the emotional outburst lost its control over me. I returned calmly to the window to see this miracle of my day. The woman on the ground had just left our planet, our home. It was physical act that resulted in an obvious spiritual outcome. Although her body didn’t appear broken from my vantage point, it was plain that she had fallen from the roof of the building adjacent to mine. She had chosen to leave today—maybe not consciously, but her soul knew, and her soul had chosen.
This way out…