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An excerpt from'The Human Phonograph'

And as a figure in reflective helmet and articulated suit half-walks half-floats over the unreal surface she make-believes he is her husband, and the moon itself could perfectly well be Qinghai province for all anybody can tell, and one of the other translators, one who specializes in English, says Mr. Armstrong is saying, 'A small step for man, a large step for man' and she shades her eyes with her hands so nobody can see her cry.

It has been seven years.

There are thoughts that cannot be spoken but can only be sung.

The summons comes in the form of a telegram to the secretary of her work unit. She has a week in which to pack.

They met in 1961 when she was a senior majoring in Russian at the Foreign Studies University and he was finishing his PhD in geology. They married and less than a year later he received the order. He was being sent to the far northwest to investigate a certain terrain - as much as he could say. He would remain there indefinitely. She was forbidden to accompany him. As if he were being sent into exile, or they both were, but it was presented as a reward, an opportunity to Serve the People … And in October 1964, Year of the Dragon, Mao proclaimed that China has the Bomb.

There is a photograph (it will not be made public till years later, after his death, and by then she will be back in Beijing) of scientists in identical suits raising their clenched left fists in a loyalty salute, on an open plain, under a bright sun. He is third from the left, over-exposed. Posed, of course. In reality they would have been cowering in a shelter, plugs in their ears and goggles over their eyes, while the earth shuddered.

The Bomb is a defense against the Soviet Union, and the irony is they helped us make it in the first place. As a schoolgirl she was taught to honor our fraternal ally. The class sang 'Katyusha' and 'My Land'. By the time she went to university Russian was the language of the enemy. We understand them in order to defeat them.

Once a week she sends a letter to the base's deliberately bland address: Factory 221, Mining Area 210, Qinghai. He replies when he can. He is forbidden to describe his work; he is forbidden even to describe the rocks beneath his feet. He writes about the weather. Today the temperature dropped to -20º. We are keeping warm in our goose down coats. (He is thinking of putting his arms around her, warming her!) … Today is a typical summer day, which is about the same temperature as spring in Beijing. (Here in the city the heat is oppressive … He is thinking of spring!)

A little bit about Jonathan Tel

Jonathan Tel

Jonathan Tel is a former quantum physicist with a Ph.D from Stanford University. He has lived and written in Tokyo, Beijing, Jerusalem, Berlin and San Francisco.

He is a previous shortlistee for the Sunday Times EFG Short Story Award, in 2014 for “The Shoe King of Shanghai. He won the 2015 V.S. Pritchett Story Award and was a finalist for the 2015 Elizabeth Jolley Short Story Prize for “The Seduction of a Provincial Accountant” and “Year of the Panda” respectively. This story, “The Human Phonograph”, won the 2015 Commonwealth Short Story Prize. The four stories are extracting from an unpublished collection relating to financial corruption in contemporary China entitled “Scratching the Head of Chairman Mao.”


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