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One sweltering August night of my early girlhood, a slow electric fan humming near the pulpit, the missionaries to China who visited our New Testament Baptist church unwrapped a pair of celadon porcelain dragons pried from the rafters of their house. No more evil spirits to ward off. No lingering demons to let slither through the open shutters once they had prayed for God's protection. I was not yet ten years old, captivated as they unveiled their treasure-trove of object lessons. When the red lacquered to pao ko was passed to me, I balanced it on my lap, sure I could find all 40 compartments in the box of hidden drawers, each concealed trigger that would spring the next choice riddle, and the next, as the missionaries told the story of a small village girl, just my age, who refused to "trample the cross and live." For this offense, Communist soldiers opened fire as she raised her hands to the sky and sang, in her own language, "Jesus Loves Me."

I looked up from the magical box. She made it look so easy: the pretzel bones of a small girl snapped in the desecration of her soul's house. She let the body go, when I would have snatched it back. The girl's face shone with tears while I would move to the back of the line, watching what was happening to the others, waiting for the soldiers to grow tired of their game, or hungry, so they would order me to run and get the rice they could smell scorching on the bottom of the old enameled cooking pot.

This is an age of atrocity, a "tyrant century," as the Russian poet Osip Mandelstam calls it: "My animal, my age, who will ever be able / to look into your eyes?" Though there are ways to resist resignation, despair--call it what you will--I read the stories of the Christian martyrs of ...

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August 12, 1996

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