Jan/Feb 2011  •   Fiction

The Onion and the Spider

by William Han

On the early morning of December 20, 1941, a Japanese shell destroyed the apartment directly opposite from mine, on the fourth and top floor of the building across the street. The same force making the roof cave in presumably took my neighbor as well. I had gotten used to admiring the sight of her potted plants as I worked at my desk, meticulously cared for as they were, hanging over her balcony. Once in a while we would wave at each other. Once in a while I would see her in the market, haggling with the fishmonger or gently squeezing the pears to see whether they were ripe. We never really spoke to each other, at least no more than greetings. All of that was before the siege of Hong Kong began twelve days before, of course. Before the shells began to fall. And now I stared at only rubbles, my anonymous neighbor nowhere to be found. The heretical thought briefly occurred to me that perhaps she had never existed, not outside of my imagination. I'd heard the Americans had joined the war, but the thought felt so distant as to be barely noticeable.

More explosions and more rapid ta-da-da rhythms of machine guns reverberated ever more closely, one neighborhood and then another. The Japanese Imperial Army had taken over half of this colony, and now the soldiers marched with inexorable bitterness towards my little corner of it as well, this space between four cramped walls, chaotic and strewn with mildewed books as it was. But I could stop them. I knew I could, if I only solved the puzzle before me, if I only solved it in time.

Right before the war began, Mr. Fitzwilliam at the Colonial Office lent me his copy of The Brothers Karamazov. Perhaps Mr. Fitzwilliam found it marvelous (and amusing?) that a Chinese man might appreciate Dostoevsky in English translation, which according to him was the second best way to read Russian authors, second only to reading them in French. And perhaps there were limits to our friendship. A friendship, after all, was a relationship between equals, and as a servant of His Majesty King George VI, Mr. Fitzwilliam could not have considered me his equal. In any case, I thanked him and brought the book home with me. I began to read it voraciously, until I hit upon this passage on page 375:

Once upon a time there was a peasant woman, and a very wicked woman she was. She died and did not leave a single good deed behind. The devils caught her and plunged her into the lake of fire. So her guardian angel stood and wondered what good deed of hers he could remember to tell to God: "She once pulled an onion in her garden," he said, "and gave it to a beggar woman."

And God answered, "You take that onion then, hold it out to her in the lake, and let her take hold and be pulled out. And if you can pull her out of the lake, let her come to Paradise, but if the onion breaks, then the woman must stay where she is."

The angel ran to the woman and held out the onion to her. "Come," he said, "catch hold and I'll pull you out." And he began cautiously pulling her out. He had just pulled her right out, when the other sinners in the lake, seeing how she was being drawn out, began catching hold of her so as to be pulled out with her. But she was a very wicked woman and she began kicking them.

"I'm to be pulled out, not you. It's my onion, not yours." As soon as she said that, the onion broke. And the woman fell into the lake, and she is burning there to this day. So the angel wept and went away.

As I read the passage, I instantly recalled a story I read as a child. The echoes were unmistakable. In fact, it was clearly the same story, but instead of a woman, it was a man; instead of an angel, it was the Buddha who sought to save the sinner's soul; instead of giving an onion to a beggar woman, it was letting live a spider he could have killed; instead of the onion that would be the instrument of the sinner's salvation but in the end breaks, it was the spider's web. I distinctly remembered reading the story—or did my mother read it to me? It must have been in one of the Buddhist sutras in my father's study, one of the many parables told by many gurus and collected over the ages. And how did Dostoevsky come across it? Did he, too, learn it as a child? Did he read it in some collection of Orthodox fables, or hear it among the peasants? Did he realize then, as I did now, it must have had a common origin with the Chinese tale that enlivened one evening of my childhood, some shared ancient source lost in the mist of centuries?

And as the bombs began to fall and the bullets scarred the buildings across the island and the peninsula beyond, I understood what I had to do. If I could only trace these two offshoots, divided by the Eurasian continent as they were, to their common ancestor, I could stop this war, at least in this city. I went to the public library, which, thanks to men like Mr. Fitzwilliam, was well stocked with Western learning. It was deserted, the librarians having abandoned their posts, and no one stopped me from trundling home a wheelbarrow full of books and scrolls, the research of German professors and Confucian scholars alike. Refugees in the streets looked at me with my useless volumes strangely, but they had not the luxury of curiosity and quickly returned to tending their children or fastening the bread basket on their backs. I came home and scoured my hoard, so many words spread over so many pages.

And then this morning I awoke to the crash of the shell, and the apartment opposite mine with its hanging potted plants was gone. I wondered whether anyone would find my neighbor's body. I wondered whether anyone would try.

But I could stop it all. I could make the storm and steel go away. The answer by which we could pull ourselves up was right here in these books. I just needed to find it, the thread connecting the two stories and me with Dostoevsky, as long as the onion, as strong and unbreakable as the spider's web.