ALL the population of Manchuria knew about the coming flood. Early in the spring of 1933 our Granny came from the market with — as usual — one basketful of provisions and another of news. In China, markets are the places of information. The distributing of news is done carefully, with consideration of one’s financial assets; the more you buy, the more you know about the world and its wicked ways.

After the usual recital of prices, Granny concluded: ‘And we shall have a flood this summer.'

Flood was a thing we never had before. The children grew excited and greedy for details.

‘You wait,’I said. ‘We shall ask our tailor.'

Our tailor was an accomplished politician. To add the unpleasant truth, he was an indifferent tailor. He just could not get interested in somebody else’s clothes. If he ever sewed them, it was from sheer politeness. His real vocation had always been in the field of international politics. Of course he knew about the coming flood, too. He could even give the causes of it.

‘Japanese,’ he said laconically.

The children did not perceive the sequence.

‘Their country has plenty of water. Japanese are coming into Manchuria in masses. They bring water with them.'

Thus the astonished children learned that people bring something of their own with them: Russians bring cold winters; Americans, money. Every nation moves in its element.

But, unlike other modern politicians, the tailor would not talk much. His words were rare and weighty.

‘All right,’ I said to the children, ‘we shall ask our laundryman.’

The laundryman in fact was an astronomer. He would not pay much attention to things going on upon the earth. He instantly put the coming flood on a cosmic plane. Well versed in the science of omens, he was glad to share the burden of knowledge.

He traced on the floor with a piece of chalk the scheme of the Moon Year. Being rather shortsighted, the astronomer happened to mix up the Chinese zodiac and we had to accept on his word of honor that the Phœnix or Fowl stood for Summer and the South. He was extremely talkative, but we were soon lost in the darkness of the stellar systems. Fascinated, we acquired this information, given to us in a chanting voice: —

‘Constellation “The Badger.” Unfortunate. Children bom on that day are either deaf and dumb or idiots. Business started on that day brings no profit. A kitchen stove repaired becomes the cause of fire in the house.

‘Constellation “The Hare.” Lucky for funerals.

‘Constellation “The Earthworm.” If you choose this day for a burial, a successful official will be born to your daughter.’

Likewise our flood was decided in the heavens. We became convinced. One cannot break into the scheme of the twenty-eight constellations with one’s protests or fancies.

But the most accurate news we got from our gardener. This man grew vegetables. He spoke in the name of Natural Science. He was wisdom and poetry in one.

‘See,’ he said, and pointed his finger to the Sungari River. We could not see from where we stood. We climbed a garden bench. Our house being on a hill, we saw the lower part of Harbin and there — behind — the majestic Sungari River.

‘See that island?’ the man said. ‘This spring, as always, migratory birds flew to that land. But soon they left it. They did not build their nests there. It means that the island will be hidden under water.’

This seemed monstrous, impossible.

‘ See that other island? ‘ and he pointed his brown finger. Cracked and rugged, it seemed to be made of earth itself.

We could not see that distant island.

There are birds’ nests. That land will not be flooded. Look at the level; all the lower part of the city will be flooded. This hill will not.’

The news that our house would not be flooded annoyed the children.


Thus we were informed, as was everyone else in the town. When everything was specified — the time, the probable height of the water, the area to be covered — the people lost interest in the flood. It was not news any more. Other vital topics attracted the mind: the New Deal in the United States of America, and the departure of Japan from the League of Nations. Therefore when, toward the end of June, ‘in the time when garlic ripens,’ rains began to pour down and the water in the river to rise, only lazy people paid any attention to it. The unemployed, for want of anything better to do, would stand on the banks of the river or bend over the rails of a bridge, watching the water. Connoisseurs of floods would gather small groups of listeners and orate on how it was with the Sungari in 1899, and 1906, and then again in 1912.

The ‘real’ people in the town had their daily problems to ponder over. Nothing was done to prevent the disaster. If only they would build a dam! But who would do that? Private initiative could not, the government would not. Nobody knew exactly whose the town was; the Russians had lost their hold over it, the Chinese were at the end of the process of losing theirs, and the Japanese had not yet grasped it. The common people were sweating for bread, the uncommon sweating in politics, and the water in the Sungari River was meanwhile rising.

Some people’s spirits were even going up with the level of the water. Boys like dangers and rush to meet them. Girls enjoy being a little afraid. Old people had something to foresee and forecast. And the water was rising.

Still, when the flood came, it seemed most unexpected, most outrageously unbelievable.

This happened early in August. I went to our garden. It was six o’clock in the morning. Suddenly I heard a strange noise. Although distant, it was as heavy as if the earth itself gave out deep sighs. The soil trembled under my feet.

I climbed the bench and looked over the fence. All the space on the hill was filled with a dark and dense moving crowd. People were in tens of thousands. Like ants, they moved up from below and poured over the space, filling every available foot of streets and squares. They moved in silence. That heavy noise was produced by their steps. It was the weight of the movement, so to say.

They approached. I saw them clearer. They were Chinese, about 100,000, the population of the Chinese part of Harbin — Fu-dia-dian. They left their abodes precisely at the last moment, when the water pushed them out of their houses.

All were burdened with heavy loads. Everybody was carrying somebody or something else. Women were carrying children. Some men had parents on their backs and children in their arms: three generations moving uphill on two feet. Of course they had things to carry too — movable property.

They reached the top of the hill and began to settle down — to build houses.

Chinese, like birds, can build without nails and hammers. Here they had to build almost without any materials and almost on no space. An exhausted family would sit on the ground; this meant that the lot beneath them was theirs. They could claim only a sitting space. Mothers began instantly to feed babies at their breasts, and the bigger ones would cling to them and to each other in one tight cluster of life — and that instantly became home. Fathers would surround the whole with some cover, giving to it the most economical shape, — that of a tent, — and the house was ready.

New masses were pushing up from below the hill. Narrow spaces were left to them, like the streets, and they moved farther, beyond the lines of this new settlement. There were no disputes and no quarrels. An unspoken law ruled over all — everybody had equal rights. Justice and order were necessary to economize time and life. There was no leisure for abuse and persecution.

Still there were things like the play of chance and the smile of fortune, even in those conditions. Although born equal, people cannot achieve an equal living. Happiest were those who got space near fences. It gave one solid wall to cling to; and the pavement ran along it — this gave a concrete floor. Some had only the pavement’s advantage; those farther along had to live on the damp, clammy soil, sliding down the hill.

As if to complete the disaster, a storm came, with thunder, lightning, and rain. That rain, once started, never stopped for weeks. New parts of Harbin became covered with water. The Sungari River was trying its utmost to show what it could do. And the consequences of the flood brought no less misery than the inundation itself.

In theory, cholera is difficult to catch by those with hygienic habits of cleanliness. In practice even inoculated foreigners sometimes die from it in China. In that flood, when the draining system was broken and became one with the sources of water supply, when all the vegetables got rotten, the milk instantly turned sour and the bread mouldy and damp, those hygienic habits were of little value.

An average human being does not care to be kind unless challenged. Now the flood became everybody’s concern. White or yellow, rich or poor, friends or foes—all rushed to help each other. Even children had plenty to do. Boy Scouts saved half of the drowning cattle, and girls some of the stray dogs and blind kittens. Mothers gave food or clothes, fathers gave money. Private yards were turned into kindergartens and houses were filled with somebody else’s friends. Every church, club, or society was doing its best. Japan gave medicine, China gave workers, Russians were doctors or nurses. All cried. All prayed. One third of those efforts in the spring would have been enough to prevent the disaster. To build a dam, for instance.

It lasted two months and a half — the gloom, the privations, the fear, the dirt, the dampness, the cholera, the typhus, and the typhoid fever. In our house several people were ill and one died. What was going on in those small tents of the Chinese refugees is hard to imagine. There was no living space, and no dying space. Often we heard the siren of the ambulance. It never could approach the place where help was needed — there was no room to move among the tents, so thick was the population. The ambulance would stop somewhere at a distance and the staff would come with stretchers for a patient or a body, and the siren would howl. And the rain was pouring from above.


Our house filled with our Russian friends from the lower parts of the town. A family of four, we became twentythree. And our servants had to give shelter to their friends too.

Once, in the depth of the night, the bell of our gate rang. This was quite unusual. In order to ring our bell a whole household, clinging to our gate, had to be removed. We tried to use the gate as little as possible, always warning in advance that somebody was going to market, or the doctor was coming in — and they had to dislocate their tent and stand on foot waiting for the incident to pass.

Yes, the bell rang again. I went out with my servant. We unlocked and opened the gate. I saw a man. He stood bent in a deep bow. I could not see his face. Behind him, in a shaggy group, stood the disturbed family of the undone tent. The rain poured over the whole.

There is a peculiar thing about the Chinese language — everybody can speak it without previous study. You say what you like, and an average Chinese has enough insight and intuition to understand what you want. What he wants he would never say bluntly and directly in any language. All the foreigners in China speak Chinese; the Chinese concerned with foreigners speak all the foreign languages. Not much is misunderstood.

The man at the gate spoke in a dialect. He asked for clean and hot boiled water. I invited him to come in. The inhabitants of the dismantled tent stood sleepily in the rain. I invited them too. The flickering lights in the eyes of the womenfolk accepted the invitation, but the men of the family — tall and stern — said they would wait there. The visitor did not belong to their family; he came from somewhere afar.

The man stepped into the yard and we went to the kitchen. The fire was made to boil water. The man stood before it, motionless and silent. The brown skin of his face glistened under the moving reflections of the fire. His quietness was too tense to be natural. He looked at the fire as if hypnotizing it — to burn brighter, to make the water boil quicker.

From time to time he would give my kitchen a furtive, searching look, and every time his eyes halted for a while on one thing — a new tin basin.

The fire was slow. I listened to the noise the rain made upon the roof and thought, with pain, about the family waiting outside.

At last the water was ready. My visitor was in a hurry now. His tension turned into a feverish activity. The kettle was covered with a lid, and the man, all bent over, was ready to leave the house. On the sill he tarried, and his look went again to the basin. I guessed he wanted it. I took the thing and said that I offered it to him as a gift. He accepted. For a moment I had the vision of a happy man. He put the kettle on the ground, took the basin, and held it close to his breast, as if it were a child.

My servant offered to carry the basin, but the man would not part with it. He held it now in one arm, carrying the heavy kettle of hot water in the other hand. The night was dark, the path was slippery, and the short way to the gate seemed long under the rain. The electric lantern revealed instantly the mournful picture of the family waiting for us. One more figure gave an additional lugubrious touch to it. An old woman, disheveled and dirty, met the man with a cry which seemed a blame and a reproach. She snatched the basin and on her small bound feet, as on stilts, quickly padded away. The man hastily followed her.

Although my tactics with Chinese were always not to ask questions, here I could not restrain myself and asked what had happened.

‘He was too long absent,’one of the women said. ‘They needed water long ago. A child is born there.'

Whatever I felt, I could not help. Foreigners are not welcome to interfere with Chinese family affairs. I only told them that whatever they needed I was ready to give, and that we had a telephone in the house.


Weeks longer the rain poured, the ambulance gave signals, people with stretchers were moving among the tents.

Then, suddenly, the sun broke through the clouds and with bewilderment looked down at what had been done to us through its negligence. Quickly and heartily it began to shine, to dry the earth, to kill the germs. The beautiful Manchurian autumn invited us to forget the dead and think of life. The refugees began to move down to their houses. The hard work of cleaning and repairing filled our days.

Once, when we all were very busy, somebody rang the bell. The servant went to answer it and presently came back, angry.

‘A fool was there. Imagine a big Chinaman asking what Russian ladies like most to eat!’

‘And what did you do?’

‘I mocked him and said, “They really enjoy only onions.” He smelled of onions so terribly.'

‘And the man?’

‘He asked, “Would they not like to eat something else?” “No,” I said, “their diet is almost exclusively onions.”’

Very early in the spring, during the days of the Chinese New Year, I had visitors. First appeared the man, triumphantly carrying a basin in his outstretched arms. It was like the basin I had given, only much smaller. Behind the man walked a young, round-faced woman. She carried a child in her arms.

They came to thank me for the boiled water. That night their first child had been born — a son. Now the mother was proudly, yet modestly, smiling. The child was asleep. The tiny slits of his eyes wore shut, and several single hairs of his eyelashes, ridiculously thin and pathetic, trembled in the air.

When I was taking the basin, the father said in a tone of restrained pride that a gift was inside.

There were onions. Six. Big, round, golden. Splendid. Of an unmistakably onion smell. The best onions one could get — chosen with care — given with dignity and pride.

‘We planned to bring you cakes or apples,’the man said, ‘but knowing you cat. only onions . . .’

It was my turn to say something gracious. I took one onion and, raising it to my face, sniffed it to show appreciation.

And suddenly it was not an onion any more. I saw, instead, a tent with human pain and sorrow hidden in it.

‘Nunc dimittis . . .’ I said. ‘I see the end of it.'

If the man did not understand my Latin, he did not show it.

‘Yes.’ he said, ‘there will be no flood for thirty years hence . . . and meanwhile the onions will grow.’