Chinese Stories in English
A Fishy Pregnancy
This river that runs from east to west,* nobody knows exactly how long it is. Some people walked to the east along the river, but they didn’t reach the end. Others followed it west and didn’t reach an end, either. People nicknamed it “Fat River”, but how could a river be fat or skinny? Fucking ancestors! Truth is, it hasn’t had any fish worth catching for a long time. The locals say it was fished out years ago. It’s like an old lady who can’t get pregnant and have kids any more. She can’t produce anything worthwhile no matter how hard you work.
*[Almost all China’s rivers flow from west to east. This among other clues indicates that the story takes place in Sichuan Province. — Fannyi]
There’s still water in the river, but it’s become a narrow, restricted flow, so calling it a “skinny river” wouldn’t be far off. Still, people often tell stories about the river’s past. Those a little further along in years can remember the year and month when so-and-so caught a grayfish as big as a boat in this river; or the year and month when a fish caught by so-and-so was too big to fit in several large carts, and the guy used his sudden wealth to get himself a wife from Inner River Prefecture. That guy was old Mulberry Qiao.
Back then people along the river all made their living by fishing. Forget about the fishy stink – fish gave them housing and money and wives, almost everything. But nowadays people don't know where the fish have all gone, the silvery ones, big and small ones with big and small mouths, fish in schools, whatever. There’re almost no fish in the river now. All the men can do is pull their boats ashore, prop up the oars and head out for better climes. And the women no longer mend the fishing nets. Even if someone rows out in a boat, in almost a whole day they’ll get just a smattering of fish no bigger than a finger. People are full of nostalgia for the fish, and animosity, too, but they don’t wait long between visits to Fish God Temple to burn a few sticks of incense. In their hearts they say, "Fish, don't go wandering. Hurry home!"
Old Mulberry was a great fisherman back then. Count him as the village’s best “tracker” of the river. Wherever he pointed in the river, an eddy would appear before long and the fish would seem like they were jumping into the nets. The whole village appreciated him. They said only people like him had the talent to make a Village Chief, but he served as chief ten-plus years and never accomplished anything to speak of. He was never much with the women, either, even though his Inner River wife was really something. She had a temper and told him, “You’d sooner die than mess with me.”
Now he’s old and doesn’t have anything better to do than stay home and sleep, or stand on the riverside in a daze leaning on a pole. His Inner River wife has already rushed off to sleep in the ground – her pointed tombstone is on a slope beside the river.
His two sons moved to the county seat, one after the other. There was nothing for them by the river and they weren’t willing to stay. They weren’t even willing to farm there, and besides, they didn’t have any land. The land by the river was all opened up for people appointed by the current Village Chief. The river might lack fish, but the nearby land is very fertile and can grow bok choy, greens, cabbages, broccoli, radishes, artichokes – no matter what vegetable you plant, it will come whishing up in a few days and will always grow better and faster. A lot of the people who used to fish for a living now grow vegetables. They bend over and stick out their butts with raggedy straw hats tied to the top of their heads. Clay Pot Qiao is one of them.
Old Mulberry said to Clay Pot and some other riverside vegetable growers:
"Dog fuckers, you’ve squashed the fish under the vegetables."
"Dog fuckers, you guys squashed the fish to death."
"Dog fuckers, can't you hear the fish croaking under there?"
Old Mulberry’s words had Clay Pot rocking back and forth with laughter.
"Old fellow and old village chief, it’s great when old folks talk crazy. Keeps things lively."
Old Mulberry got even angrier. He pounded the ground by Clay Pot’s feet with his wooden pole. "Don't you know you’ve squashed the fish? What kind of good fucking times will we have now?"
“Don't shout, old fellow and old village chief," Clay Pot said. “There’s good times in the county seat. Why didn't you go there with your sons? The women there, you can pinch the piss out of them. Go pinch ‘em, if you’ve got the skill.
Old Mulberry raised the pole in his hand. "I want to let the fish out of the ground,” he said to Clay Pot. “They’re right here, and they’re all big ones. I’ll hit fish wherever I poke my pole.”
Clay Pot and the other vegetable growers were rocking back and forth with laughter.
"Is there a river under here? There’re people in our village who want to do it with a bastard turtle,” Clay Pot said. “Sunrise Qiao will be the first to do it!”
“It’s up to you guys whether you believe it or not,” Mulberry said, “but I hear the glug-glug under there clearly every day. I lay in bed every day listening to the fish go ‘tch tch tch tch’ like crazy under there.”
That scared the guys a little. They looked back and forth at each other, then stared at Mulberry. After a long while Clay Pot stamped his foot and said, “Old fellow and old village chief, of course we all know that there’s water under a thin surface here. Otherwise, why would we dig wells? But water’s one thing and fish are another. There aren’t necessarily fish everywhere there’s water. You imagine things all day long until you go out of your skull from imagining. The fish have drilled into your brain and your belly and your cock. They’ve even drilled into your ears, and that’s why you hear them. They can drill into your skull and your belly and your ears because they’re all tiny fish with cocks so small they couldn’t get any smaller.
Clay Pot jumped over and handed a lit cigarette to Mulberry.
"The water in the river’s no good anymore,” he said. “How could there be any big fish?"
"Grayfish are the biggest fish I’ve seen." Mulberry took the cigarette.
"Tell me about it." Clay Pot said.
"It’s just, there’s no bigger fish than grayfish," Mulberry said.
"Say something about the others."
Mulberry poked the ground with his pole. "I’m going to be sleeping under there pretty soon. Don’t know if I’ll be able to see big fish."
He hadn’t seen that big a fish for many years.
That day at noon, Mulberry’s oldest son, Tall Tree, brought two grayfish over for his old man. The young fellow was happy and animated.
Tall Tree had driven his jalopy a long way. He was sweating as he dragged the fish out of the car and on into the house with some effort. He slammed them down on the floor, “ker-plunk”, then ladled some water from the water tank and drank it. His throat bulged and bulged again as he drank. He was really dying of thirst. It had been unusually hot and humid for the last few days, and ominously dark clouds were piling up in the sky, but they just refused to release any rain. That had everybody on edge.
The sound of the fish hitting the floor made old Mulberry jump. He almost jumped out of his chair, but even walking was difficult for him these days, and he’d have to wait until his next life before he’d be able to jump again. It had been years since he’d seen such large grayfish. Each was fully as big as a man. Their smallest scales were probably bigger than a five-fen coin.
Old Mulberry began to circle around the two big fish. He got excited and started panting as he walked around them, looking. The way he put it, seeing those fish was like seeing his dear ancestors boring their way out of the ground.
The first thing Tall Tree did when he finished drinking water was light a cigarette and hand it to his old man. Then he lit one for himself and asked the old man to sit down. "Don’t walk around in circles, OK, Dad? You’re making me dizzy."
He squatted down and asked again. "How come you’re still circling around Dad?"
He blew some smoke towards his palm. "Dad, sit down and listen to what I’ve got to say."
"I’m not without ears,” Old Mulberry said. “If I can hear the fish croaking I can hear you talking."
"Everyone says a heavy rain’s no good, but I think it is. Rice Dam over to the east just opened the floodgates, and a lot of fish as big as these got out of the reservoir. People couldn’t catch all of them, couldn’t catch them all. I didn’t know what to do when I got there, so I just soaked those ones there in table salt so we could take our time eating them. There really are tons of fish coming down in the flood this time. How could we get a blessing like this if it weren’t for the heavy rains?"
Tall Tree told his old man he’d hurried back to spread the good news to the whole family. "Whenever it rains, we get a rush of water right away here, too. If not today then tomorrow, I heard. If they don't open the gates, the reservoir won’t be able to take it. Now, when the time comes the fish’ll get here whether they want to or not. One after the other, they’ll come. You won’t be able to catch them all, so we have to be prepared."
"I’m old. Can't fight those fish, I’m afraid," Mulberry said.
"How can people not outfight fish? I asked Thriving Tree to come here this evening." Thriving Tree was Tall Tree’s little brother.
"Fuck their ancestors!" Old Mulberry may have been old, but he could still swear loud and clear.
He was thinking of the guys who’d come from somewhere outside the village the day before. They were all from the county seat. They wore shiny black rubber boots and walked back and forth along the river like they were hot shits, looking here and there. So that’s what it was.
He took his pair of big clippers down from the wall – they’d gone to rust hanging there because there were no fish – and began to clean the two big fish Tall Tree had brought. If you don’t clean fish right away, they’ll start to stink from the inside. He wasn’t much good at cleaning fish anymore. He was stiff all over now, and after squatting for a while it’d take him half a day to stand back up.
He scooped the fish-stinky parts out of their bellies and threw them to the cat that was waiting outside. It howled “meowr” in excitement, took the stuff in its mouth and just like that the whole pile was gone. Then he extended three of his chicken-claw fingers, grabbed off the fins on both sides of the fish and threw them to the chickens in the yard. The chickens weren’t like the cat. They’d pick up the things in their beaks and run. Either that or a fight would start, three or four chickens pecking away at each other, clucking and jumping and flapping their wings up high.
Then he put the table salt to good use and wiped some on the fish’s bellies and bodies, and just like that the job was done. The fish were shiny white, and if you just took a quick look, they seemed more like whitefish than grayfish.
Mulberry held the fish up high in both hands and went outside, where he hung the two scary-big creatures under the eaves of the house to dry. In the past, the wooden poles under the eaves had always been filled with big fish he’d caught from the river and hung out to dry in the sun. These days, forget about fish this big, there weren’t even any small ones to hang there.
As the fishy smell spread, stray cats and dogs ran over and gathered in Mulberry’s courtyard like they were attending an assembly. They squeezed each other coming in from the outside, then jostled each other for position as they stood there. The smell of the fish had made them suddenly angry. They looked at each other, bared their teeth each other and growled at each other. Then they abruptly quieted down and squatted there in rows, seemingly well disciplined. They didn't know what blessing would be coming to them, so they were nervous.
Then someone came striding over. The smell of the fish had stabbed him like an awl. It was Clay Pot Qiao. He was stunned by the fish hanging there.
"Wow, old man old village chief, aren’t those fish? Could they be? Or could they be two dogs and you’re making dogmeat jerky? But it isn’t the season to make jerky yet, eh?"
"Open your doggy eyes and take a good look good,” Mulberry said, giggling. These aren’t just two dogs, they’re two big dogs, two big dogs that could swim in the river."
Clay Pot had put three of his fingers together, the thumb, index finger and middle finger, and stuck them into one fish’s open maw. He laughed and pulled his fingers in and out of the fish’s mouth. He kept clicking his tongue.
Mulberry knew what joke Clay Pot was making, but he was really too old for such things. His body was deteriorating from one day to the next, and he no longer had any interest in jokes like that.
Before long a wave of people had circled around and spilled into the courtyard. It was the smell of the fish that had summoned them – their noses were quite acute. They hadn’t seen such large grayfish in years. The message spread among them at once and they looked at each other in surprise and excitement. They’d already heard about the opening of the Rice Dam floodgates, but they always thought that the flood could never be big enough to reach their village, so it had meant nothing to them. Now they were excited that the unexpected floods would be coming there and, even more unexpectedly, that the flood would bring the people such large grayfish for free.
The two big fish under the eaves of Mulberry’s house had started the excitement, and then the people turned their heads to the sky and the clouds that had been gathering there for days. Clouds are the kind of thing that portend an event when they crowd together. Namely, they’ll eventually fall from the sky, and when clouds fall from the sky it’s rain, or maybe hail.
At this time, Clay Pot talked again about the flood. "Once the rainstorm comes, maybe today or maybe tomorrow, just wait and the big fish’ll get here, just wait and then you’ll catch some fish. Then they’ll come like a herd of pigs, big ones and little ones, too many to count. They’ll make their way right into your fishing baskets and into your fishnets and into the women's pants. The women absolutely have to tie their pants up tightly at that time, and if they don’t, I’m afraid bad things will happen."
This guy Clay Pot could never keep even half a sentence to himself, and the people got even more excited. They got more excited still when they saw Mulberry bending over and pulling his big wooden fish bucket and his big fishnet bags out from inside his house. These things hadn’t been used for years, but they understood clearly what it meant when he got them out. They dispersed knowing for sure that the big fish were really coming. This wasn’t something they could wait for. Time is money. They ran off to their own homes knowing and telling each other what was going to happen:
"The big fish are coming."
"The big fish are coming."
"The big fish are coming."
Normally Clay Pot and Mulberry got along well together, even though the old man was getting more and more eccentric every day. He was always jabbering away whether he had anything worthwhile to say or not, and no one could understand what he was talking about. Clay Pot was ill at ease now. He took a cigarette that Tall Tree handed him and said he’d be leaving right after he finished smoking it. He said he’d go home to get ready because it looked like it was about to start raining. He giggled and said to Mulberry, "You usually seem like a good old boy. This time for some reason you’re just working away and not saying a word."
“Who told you to be a pot?” Mulberry said. “You just go ahead and wait. When the time comes and you open your mouth, the fish’ll just fall into your fucking pot.
"But it won't be big fish. To hold big fish, you need to have a big bucket like this one."
Mulberry knocked on the bucket with his pole, “thump, thump, thump.”
Clay Pot didn’t leave. He squatted down and rubbed his hand along Mulberry’s fish bucket. "When it comes to taking fish, no one’s better than you. You know which direction the big ones are coming from. When the time comes, I’ll definitely invite you over for drinks."
"When people get old, none of them can still read the water,” Mulberry replied. “They’re lucky if the water doesn’t just rush on by them."
"I’ll stick right with you anyway, when the time comes. I’ll come over at the first sign things’re getting going.”
"Grab these fish under here," Mulberry said suddenly. He poked the ground viciously with the pole in his hand.
Then he said, “Dig here and the fish will come out.”
Clay Pot stood up. "I’ll go get our drinks ready."
"One after another,” Mulberry yelled. “The big fish’ll come one after another."
"We have to drink after we go down to the river and catch fish. I’m going to get ready." Clay Pot patted his butt and said he really was leaving this time.
Tall Tree and Thriving Tree walked Clay Pot outside. It was windy, which made them feel comfortable.
"Your dad’s been that way for a long time," Clay Pot whispered to Mulberry’s two sons.
"It’s going to rain pretty soon. He’ll be fine when the big fish come, as soon as he sees them."
"Catching big fish is a pain. Catching fish is what I hate the most." Thriving looked at Clay Pot.
Clay Pot waved his hand. “Wind’s coming from over there.” Once again he smelled that good fishy smell.
That evening Mulberry was so excited he couldn’t sleep. Outside was very windy. It seemed it was really going to come down.
Mulberry told his two sons that the fish were coming soon. It was really going to happen this time, the fish were coming back. As long as they had a heavy rain, the fish would come from the water, from the land, from all over. When they came you wouldn’t be able catch them all, wouldn’t be able to finish the job. "It's too bad your mother can't see it. Your mother can't see such big fish anymore."
Many people in the village were also too excited to get to sleep. They were all waiting. A few of them had even started drinking. They roasted some dried fish or potatoes in indoor fire pits and drank while they waited for the arrival of heavy rains. But they were still most concerned with the opening of those floodgates. It really had them on edge. They hadn’t seen such big grayfish for so many years, they’d seemed to have completely forgotten about them.
But then the grayfish suddenly reappeared, those surprisingly big grayfish that were hanging under Mulberry’s eaves. Although they were just two dead fish, the people knew that equally large grayfish would appear one after another, following along in the flooding after the storm. The people didn’t hate the rain now; they expected things would be better with even more rain. Only with heavy rains would the floodgates at that reservoir be opened, and only after opening the floodgates would the big fish arrive, following along with the flood. Only when the big fish came could the people rebuild their dilapidated houses. Only then could they buy new TVs and other such things. A good life for the people would be realized when the big fish appeared. Only then would the lonely men without wives be able to find brides.
The people also hoped for the best, hoped that such heavy rain not stop at all. It would best if it rained nonstop for several months. Having the reservoir release water just once wouldn’t be enough – the big fish which usually hid in the depths of the reservoir would only get washed down to the village one after the other if water was released continuously. Those fish were better than gold or silver. You ancestor-fucking fish, you’ll be coming now, won’t you? And why are you appearing again?
The people are ready. The nets that had usually been thrown off to the side where they were useless had been brought out again. Those nets that you could stick a fist through were used specifically for big grayfish. And among the other things they had were various types of harpoons and clubs. The clubs were made from pearwood and always had a few gleaming silver fish scales stuck on them. Those big fish, you have to bash their heads with clubs as hard as you can. If you don’t stun them, they won't let you take them peacefully.
The women were excited, too. They were busy with another thing in the rain. They cleaned everything out the houses that wasn’t being used to put racks up to use to dry the fish. If a family didn’t have enough hands, they sent impatient text messages to people living outside the village, telling them to return home right away. They didn’t have to say much, just one thing: "The big fish are coming! The big fish are coming!"
Mulberry sat on the bed with his eyes closed. It seemed like he was asleep, but then again, it seemed like he wasn’t. He’d always done this at such times, that is, whenever there were big fish in the river or a school of fish appeared. Maybe you could say he was asleep but his ears were awake. After so many years, as old as he’d gotten, he still hadn’t changed and possibly couldn’t change this habit.
He’d been able to hear fish croaking ever since he was born. It was a strange sound, a “tch tch tch tch”. It was rather faint, but his ears had always been sensitive to it. When he was fishing back then, he’d slept in his boat day and night, but his ears were always alert and never missed the fish’s sounds. Now he was sitting on the bed, asleep or lost in a fog, but he sensed that the rain had finally started to fall. Lightning flashed and split the sky like an axe that couldn’t be seen, and rain poured down through the gap left by the lightening.
His two sons, Tall Tree and Thriving Tree, were still sawing logs.
It was Mulberry’s yelling that woke them up.
"It’s really coming down! It’s really coming down!" he shouted. He jumped off the bed and ran outside.
"This much rain, the big fish’ll come." He said as he staggered out.
The brothers jumped down from the bed and followed their father outside. It was dark out, without a speck of light. A wind blew from treetop to treetop and beyond, making a whooshing sound. They immediately felt that something was wrong and looked up. They wiped their faces with their hands, but no rain had fallen on them, not a single drop. That was really strange, but even stranger, they unexpectedly saw stars, a whole sky full of them. The clouds that had been there during the day had now flown off to parts unknown. And since they were gone, no one could expect that even a drizzle would come pitter-pattering down from the sky, let alone a heavy rain.
Then they heard – what? A sound neither loud nor soft, not from far away but not close, either. It sounded like something was calling. After a long time, they realized it was a pig snorting in its sleep, like a woman moaning in bed. In addition to the pig’s snorting, they heard the “cluck-clucking” of chickens. The chickens slept in the pigsty at night, as if they were the pig’s relatives who had just grown up looking different.
"Big fish call like that,” Mulberry whispered abruptly. “Big fish call like that."
The wind was whooshing. Neither Tall Tree nor Thriving Tree said anything, but they both immediately got scared. They heard their old man talking softly to himself. “So many fish,” he was saying. “So many fish, wow, so many fish." He kept saying that and walking backwards. He felt like his ankle was already drowning in the river, then his waist, and now the water was almost to his neck, so he had to keep going back, back, back. Suddenly he shouted and plopped his butt down on the ground. When Tall Tree went to help him, Mulberry suddenly shouted that a big fish was pressing down on him.
"Oh, wow! It’s a big one!"
The brothers pulled their father back into the house and sat him down on the bed. He started shouting again. "Fish, fish, fish."
Tall Tree ran to get one of the grayfish hanging outside and brought it in. “Here’s your fish," he said.
Mulberry hugged the fish, and what a big one it was. Its smallest scales were almost as big as five-fen coins. Back when Mulberry had fished from his boat, he’d slept hugging fish as big as this one. He’d been able to catch a lot of fish every time he went out fishing back then, a lot of them, so many that he about ran out of room in the boat for himself. He said big fish were just like his wife – he only felt comfortable when he slept if he was hugging one.
Mulberry slept for a while and then woke up abruptly. Again he shouted. "Fish, fish, fish."
Tall Tree had carried the fish outside while his old man slept. Men aren’t supposed to stay in bed with fish.
When Tall Tree went outside to get the fish again, both the grayfish that had been hanging there were gone.
"Where’re the fish?" Tall Tree said to Thriving Tree in surprise.
"Where’re the fish?" Thriving Tree asked, too. He was following right on his brother’s heels.
"Where’re the big grayfish?" Mulberry asked from inside.
"They’re gone." The brothers went back in and stood by their father’s bed.
Mulberry sat up. His eyes were wide open and unusually bright. He stopped shouting abruptly and patted his stomach as he looked at his sons.
"A fish is in here," he said.
"A fish is right here," he repeated. He said it’d just gotten into his stomach.
"Two fish that big shouldn’t’ve been hung outside. I didn't know anyone’d be so cheap," Tall Tree said to his brother.
The two of them went outside for another look. There was nothing in front or in back of the house. It was almost dawn.
Mulberry was sick, but his illness was different from other people’s. Although he stayed where he was, half sitting and half laying down, he talked more than ten times as much as usual. He wasn’t talking about fish being underground any more. When he saw someone, he’d tell them he had a big fish in his stomach, a big one, a huge one, one this big.
"A really big one, always moving, right here." He’d frown and point at his belly.
The guys who farmed by the river came to his home to see him. Almost with one voice, they said: “Can a fish that big fit in your stomach? Doesn't it feel weird?"
"It’s a big one, and it’s in my stomach. It’s gotten inside.” This time, the old man tapped his stomach lightly with his pole. “Right here, and moving,” he said. “If I tap here, it moves over there, and if I tap there, it moves here. Oh, man, it’s a big’un."
"So hit it. Open your mouth and heave it right out." Everyone giggled at that.
Mulberry really did start hitting himself with his pole, "bam, bam," like he was practicing a martial arts routine.
The guys rushed over to hold onto the pole. While none of them believed that a fish had gotten into his stomach, everyone wanted to hear the old man tell how it had happened. They knew that kind of thing wasn’t possible, that the old man was just delusional, but they wanted to listen to his delusions. It was the only way to bring a little sparkle into their dull lives, a little joy.
"That’s impossible. How could a fish get into your stomach?" Clay Pot was there that day, too. He was squatting down, smoking a cigarette, looking up at Mulberry’s face and squinting, like he was enjoying himself. He thought it was just too funny. It wasn’t just Mulberry saying that a fish had found its way into his belly that was funny – the whole chain of events was funny. The funniest thing was that they’d worked so hard to get the fishing gear ready, all that stuff they hadn’t used for years, and then the clouds had suddenly flown off without a trace. Not even one wisp was left. Forget about the big fish, now it would be hard to find even little ones. It wasn’t just that the people had been waiting all these days for a rainstorm, but that there wasn’t even a tiny little cloud in the sky now, and no one knew where the clouds had gone.
"It’s right here, right here." Mulberry patted his stomach hard with his hand.
"Tell us where it is again. Where is it?" Clay Pot said, smiling.
"Right here. Right here." Mulberry patted his stomach hard.
Clay Pot started laughing. "Won’t hardly ever see that in a thousand years!"
"What’d’ya mean?" Mulberry looked at Clay Pot, his eyes surprisingly bright.
"Congratulations, old fellow and old village chief,” Clay Pot said. “You’re pregnant."
Mulberry’s eyes suddenly opened as wide as two bronze bells. He sat straight up in the bed and his pole flew towards Clay Pot, “bang”, but luckily Clay Pot dodged it agilely. What got smashed was a pickling jar behind him.
Clay Pot was running out the door as the brine in the jar gurgled out.
There were people outside watching what was happening. Clay Pot told them, "Tall Tree and Thriving Tree have got to get back here quick. Ask Immortal Qiao to come have a look, too, to see if some devil’s got inside him. How could there be room for such a big fish in one person’s belly?" Clay Pot said it was lucky he was so quick, because, “Otherwise that pole would’ve gone right through here.” He held a finger to his forehead, as if the pole really had gone through there.
Clay Pot went home with his hand covering his forehead like there was a hole in it. The wind seemed to whoosh through it.
The people hadn’t all left when Mulberry appeared at the door leaning on his pole.
"Clay Pot’s full of shit. Who could’ve gotten pregnant? What is ‘get pregnant’, anyway."
Mulberry was quite mad. He thought Clay Pot had said something completely out of order, completely disrespectful, because only women get pregnant. Even pigs, only the sows get pregnant, and sheep, only the ewes, and rabbits only the does. "What kind of anything gets pregnant?"
"This place is the belly, the belly." Mulberry spread open his shirt to expose his stomach. At that moment his belly button looked like a big, wide open eye. "The fish is in this place, the belly. How can he say I got pregnant in my stomach?” Mulberry was pat-patting his stomach while he spoke. He said he was looking for a knife to cut that place open and let the fish out. Then he said it was something only a doctor could do. Only a doctor could get the fish out of his belly.
His eyes were shining as he spoke. It was rather frightening.
That evening, Mulberry went leaning on his pole to visit his old buddy, Corn Ear Qiao, who had served as a barefoot doctor for many years. He hadn’t treated any patients for a long time, but he did still know a lot about herbal medicines. When he had the time, he still went all over the place collecting, and he knew a lot about treating illnesses.
Corn Ear couldn't help but giggle when he heard Mulberry’s story. "This is great,” he said. “Now people know that you’re pregnant with a fish in your stomach. Maybe, at the end of the tenth month by the lunar calendar, or the ninth month as the foreigners say, it’ll come out by itself. Then it’ll be up to you how you eat it. You can boil it or make fish jerky.”
"You, too?" Mulberry was fuming.
"You said there’s a big fish in your stomach, didn’t you?" Corn Ear responded.
"This place, this place is the stomach. Can you get pregnant in the stomach?’" Mulberry “thumped” his belly.
"If it isn’t pregnancy, what is it?" Corn Ear laughed some more.
Mulberry’s face paled. He looked at Corn Ear piteously and said, "You really don't know. There really is a big fish in my belly. It gurgles at night. If you don't step up and save me, who will? Do you want to see me take a knife and get it out of my belly by myself? If you take it out and something goes wrong, I won’t blame you. All you need to have is some booze and a knife. I know you have those two things."
"I don't have the least little inkling of what to do. I didn't study gynecology back then. If I was to do this surgery on any other part of your body, it might be OK. I guarantee I could cut you open and sew you back up. But this is a gynecological surgery." He was half joking and half serious.
"Rub me right here and you’ll be able to tell how big the fish is. When you rub here, it’ll move to the other side, and when you rub there, it’ll move back." He looked pale as he let Corn Ear massage his stomach.
"This is gynecological surgery,” Corn Ear repeated. “Too bad I haven’t studied it."
Mulberry had already placed Corn Ear’s hand on his belly, so Corn Ear had to go ahead and rub it. He pressed gown with his fingers and there was just a stomach there. It was like a slack bag with nothing in it. Right then Corn Ear didn't know what to say, so all he could do was dissemble. "If you want to take this big fish out of your stomach, it'd be best to kill it first." Mulberry’s face was covered with sweat, making him feel uncomfortable and edgy.
He said, "Who’d want it to die? I want to let it go back to the river and let it swim free."
Corn Ear walked with Mulberry out of his home. “Walk a little slower,” he said, “be careful not to let the fish fall out."
Corn Ear’s wife had just poured a bucket of slop in the pigsty as they came outside, and she whispered to her husband, "Looks to me like he’s trying to catch up with a ghost.” Corn Ear couldn't help but burst out laughing. Mulberry had already walked some distance away by then. Corn Ear told his wife, "Too bad he’s not pregnant with a pig. When the time comes he could kill it and make some dried pork." He laughed so hard he was shaking.
"I think he’s following the spirit of a fish," Corn Ear’s wife said. “Everything in the world has a spirit that stays around after death. Pig spirits, sheep spirits, cow spirits, snake spirits, dog spirits, cat spirits – Old Mulberry better get to Fish God Temple right away and burn some incense.”
Laughing, Corn Ear told her. "That’s obviously wrong. Wine doesn’t die, so why does it have spirits in it?"
She wanted to say something more, but Corn Ear left to get himself a drink. He had a variety of herbs soaking in a large pot of wine, and every time he drank some of it, he felt like he was a stove with the fire inside roaring as hot as possible. The flames whooshed and the head of his bed banged against the wall.
Tall Tree and Thriving Tree were carrying two pieces of dried pork and a tray of Mulberry’s favorite pork menudo when they came over to their father’s place that day. Tall Tree was startled when he massaged the old man’s hand. It was scalding hot. The brothers had already talked it over and decided to take Mulberry to the county seat this time. There was no river there, and if he couldn’t see a river, he wouldn’t talk about fish. Big fish, little fish, no kind of fish would matter to the old man. When people get old, they should enjoy life for a few years.
The brothers would take turns having their father live in their homes, one month at a time in each, so living in the city would stay fresh for him. He’d been a Village Chief, after all, and readily agreed with his sons’ plan. The idea even seemed refreshing to him. While they were eating dinner, though, he announced that moving to the city would be OK, but there was no way he could bring the fish that was living in his stomach along with him.
"Such a big fish, look how it’s swimming around in my belly right now, faster and faster, racing here and there.” Mulberry pulled Tall Tree’s hand and pressed it on his stomach. "The head’s here, and the tail’s here. Such a big fish, why can’t you feel it? It keeps swimming away. The head’s here, now here, now here."
Tall Tree pulled his hand away at once. "What’s with you, Dad? Your stomach’s as soft as cotton. You keep going on about a fish head and fish tail and a fish belly, but there's no fish there."
Mulberry pulled Thriving Tree’s hand over and pressed it on his belly. "Here, right here,” he said. “Press hard, right here."
Thriving Tree had been a bad boy since he was a child. "Yeah, really,” he giggled. “Here’s the mouth. I feel it. It’s opening and closing, opening and closing. Oh, boy, it’s turned around again. Here’s the tail, flapping away. The fucking fish’s tail is flapping like my mom waving her fan. It’s a big fan, too. I never thought there’d be a fan like this in my dad's belly."
Thriving Tree took a worn-out bamboo fan that he had in his hand and placed on Mulberry’s belly. “Tell me, Dad, does the fish in your stomach have a tail as big as this fan?”
"It’s bigger than that, of course." Mulberry suddenly became rather unhappy. “Do you two bastard brothers think your old man’s joking with you, or talking nonsense? I’m going to find a knife and show you.”
"This isn’t the time to shed blood,” Thriving Tree said. “You don't want to be saying scary things like that. You were the Village Chief, after all. The problem is, we all want to know how such a big fish got in there, and where it came from. You’ve really got to tell us clearly. When you talk so murky, you can't convince anyone. Was it a fish egg when it got in there, or did it crash its way in as a full-grown fish? What really happened?"
"Fuckers." Mulberry slammed his pole down on the table. "You guys don’t need to spend the money to get a doctor. I have my own money. I told you the fish is right here, and that means it’s right here. You keep talking about where it got in, but if I knew that it’d be great and I wouldn’t have this problem."
Mulberry stopped eating. The anger had filled him up, and the spicy fried sausage no longer had any taste.
The brothers didn’t feel like eating any more, either. They left together to go find Sunrise Qiao. He was the new Village Chief, after all, so if anything was wrong in the village, going to see him was the right thing to do. Besides, for this kind of thing, it was best to talk to people to get ideas. And further, Sunrise’s wife, Tea Flower Qiao, was their cousin. Sunrise couldn’t have become Village Chief if Tea Flower hadn’t been their cousin.
Sunrise lived in a house not far from Mulberry’s. They went around a few garden walls and were there. The leaves of plants growing on the walls were quite red.
The brothers hadn’t expected Sunrise to burst into laughter when he saw them. “That old man of yours,” he said, “put him in a decent place and be done with it. I’ve been thinking on this for the last few days.”
"Well, lookee here, lookee here,” Tall Tree said. “See what the Village Head has to say.”
"Tell me, then. How did such a big fish get into your old man's belly?" Sunrise was eating and had worked up a sweat. It looked like someone had smeared grease on his big fat face until it was shining bright.
“This is a good thing.” he continued. “Lots of outsiders want to come here for a look at your dad’s belly. They’re curious to no end about how a huge fish got into a person's stomach.” He said he’d already stopped several groups of people and not let them come in. "They were all from the county seat, and they were all interested in this. I said to them, ‘How could anything like that happen?’ but they wouldn’t listen. They said, ‘All kinds of bizarre things are going on in the world these days. This thing happening in your village is a good thing. You can increase your tourism income....’"
The brothers were flabbergasted by what Sunrise was saying.
"You could have reporters from the newspaper come over for a look and spread the news. Nothing wrong with that," Sunrise said.
"You think he’s a performing monkey?" Tall Tree was instantly unhappy. Sunrise wasn’t much older than him, and now that I mention it, they’d attended the same school at the same time. He said, “The two of us came over here to talk over an idea. What’re you talking about, ‘increasing tourism income’? My old man, you know what his personality is like. He’s been looking around the house for a knife. He says he’s going to cut his stomach open to let the fish out. If he really cut open his stomach with a knife, you won’t be able to avoid having a big problem. It’s your bailiwick. You’re the Village Head here.”
"The problem is, I’ve never run into anything like this before.” Sunrise said that several people had asked him about it while he was at a meeting in the county seat a few days previously. “They all wanted to come for a look. How would you have wanted me to answer them? If a circus had a performing monkey, people wouldn’t think twice about it.
"As long as you’re both here,” Sunrise continued, “tell me what I should do. I’m the Village Chief, that’s true, and you two should give me an idea. How can a big fish be in someone’s belly? The more this story gets spread around, the more people say it’s unclear. If it keeps on like this, it won’t be enough for me to have one mouth, I’ll have to grow a second one to answer all the questions.”
The brothers had nothing to say to that.
Then Tea Flower, who’d been eating off to the side, knocked on her rice bowl with her chopsticks. “I actually have an idea about this,” she said. “Don’t worry about what others say or how they see it. The important thing is to find a doctor to take the fish out of your father’s belly, and that’s that.”
"The problem is, there is no fish in there. It’d be better if there was," Tall Tree said.
"Listen to yourself. How could there be a fish in his belly." Thriving Tree said after his brother.
"You’re just kibitzing. You’re mad there’s nothing exciting going on."
Tea Flower replied, “So see what your uncle has to say.”
Tea Flower put her bowl down with the chopsticks beside it. “You three big men are about to die from stupidity,” she said. “Your dad’s just gotten befuddled by this, that’s all. It’s obvious your old man’s got a nervous disorder. Here’s what you’ve got to do. He’s my uncle,” she said, “so of course I’ve been worried. I’ve been thinking on it for the last few days, too.”
"So tell us, what should we do?" Sunrise said, looking at his wife. Truth is, he always looked to her for ideas whenever something happened in the village. He also knew he was a straw bag who only knew how to eat nonstop to obesity.
Tea Flower picked her rice bowl up and flicked a few bites of rice into her mouth, and only then told them her idea to do this and that and the other thing. She said, “This thing’s as easy to handle as it is to talk about it. Go somewhere and buy a big fish. Then tell him he’s going to have an operation to take the fish out of his belly. When the time comes give him a shot of anesthetic and make a slit in the skin of his belly, a little one at most so as not to put his life at risk. This is the last resort. It won’t kill him as long as you disinfect it well.
"This way will always be better than letting your dad use a knife to cut himself open on the spur of the moment someday,” she concluded.
Sunrise started laughing. He said, “Tea Flower, I never realized you have so much on the ball.”
"Well, who’s going to do it?” Tall Tree asked. “If you go to the hospital, will they do it for you? Do you think the hospital’s run by your family and will do whatever you want?”
Sunrise laughed again. "This is something Corn Ear can do. Back then when that donkey got hit by a car and had a big hole in its stomach, he’s the one who sewed it up, wasn’t he? Threaded a twine on a sewing needle. The donkey didn’t die and could pull the millstone to grind soybeans just like always.”
"Look, my dad isn’t a donkey," Tall Tree said, glaring at Sunrise.
"We’ll have Corn Ear do this thing,” Sunrise said. “I’ll tell him. He’ll only have to make a slit in the top layer of skin is all, not cut through, so there won’t be a big problem. When the time comes you just need to buy a big fish and pull the wool over your dad’s eyes."
Sunrise was an impetuous sort. He flicked up a few mouthfuls of rice but didn’t eat it. Instead, he patted his ass and went off to find Corn Ear. Tall Tree and Thriving Tree followed right behind his butt. It was quite hot outside. Chickens dozed off in the shade. Dogs were too hot to do anything but let their tongues hang out, swaying back and forth. From a distance you couldn’t tell what was hanging there.
Corn Ear was sleeping. He was a completely different type of person from the country folk. Except when he was drinking the medicinal alcohol, he laid down every day at noon and went to sleep. As soon as he heard they wanted him to perform the procedure on Mulberry, he immediately refused. “I run into him every day. I’d always be letting something slip out. I can’t do it.” He said it would be best to go to Rice Dam Hospital for the procedure. He had friends over there, and for a few yuan they could find a place in the hospital where they could pull the wool over the old fellow’s eyes. He could assist when the time came.
"I heard they dug out a thousand dead infants at one time from the outhouses over there,” Sunrise said.
"It wasn’t you, so what’ve you got to be afraid of?” Corn Ear said it was too liberated these days. Young people could get a room to do their thing as easy as pie. Rice Dam Hospital was also doing good things – if those young people couldn’t get abortions, they wouldn’t dare seek happiness again.
Sunrise had a fresh new idea on the way back after leaving Corn Ear’s place. He told Tall Tree and Thriving Tree, "You’ll want to buy a fish that’s good and big when the time comes. Also, you’ll want to spread the good news. Say that the big fish was removed from your father's stomach with complete success. Report it to the media. Make sure you report it to the media.
"Let’s talk about that after it’s done," Tall Tree said. “This is like acting in a play, and you don't want to mess it up with bad acting.”
"There won’t be a problem,” Sunrise replied. “Once he gets the anesthetic, he won't know anything. They’ll pull the knife across his belly real shallow, not like they’re really cutting in to his guts, and then they’ll pull the slit closed with a few stitches. Are you saying your old man won’t fall for it? Will he pull the wound open with his hands? No one in the world would do that."
"OK, we’ll do it that way." Tall Tree was suddenly happy because there was finally a solution to their problem.
Thriving Tree, on the other hand, was frowning. He whispered to Tall Tree, "Will it cost a lot of money?"
"It’s your old man, not just some guy! He brought the both of us out our mother’s belly!" Tall Tree erupted angrily and loudly.
Although they said no one clearly knew how long the river called "Fat River" was, one just had to walk east from Mother Qiao’s Cove and the first rest stop was Rice Dam. The old name of the place was actually Rice Town. People would get tired when they walked, which made them hungry, and the adults would say to the children, "Keep on walking, just a little further and we’ll be there and get some rice to eat," and that’s why the place came to be called Rice Town after a while. In 1988 when the dam was built, a government task force visited the project. No one had mentioned any other name for the town, so they just called the place Rice Dam.
When Tall Tree and Thriving Tree said they’d go to Rice Dam with their old man to get the big fish removed from his belly, they were in fact talking about Rice Town. They advised their dad to rest at home for two days to get ready to go and have the fish taken out. In fact, Tall Tree spent those two days running around shopping for a big fish. They couldn’t do the procedure without one. When the reservoir gates were opened, shops with big fish were all over every street in town, but later the fish that didn’t get sold started to stink like piles of dog shit, so buying a big fish now wasn’t easy. He finally hired someone to go and buy a fish for him.
Corn Ear had already made the arrangements with the hospital there. He’d found a temporary room, done everything in accordance with the procedures for an operation, and spent whatever money needed to be spent, so Mulberry shouldn’t be the least bit suspicious. It’d be necessary to give him an anesthetic when the time came, but the hospital personnel said they were worried something might go wrong if they gave him too much. They wouldn’t really be cutting in to his bowels, so how about just giving him a shot or two in the epidermis on his belly, followed by two sleeping pills. They’d let him see the fish when he woke up, and they’ tell him, "OK, the big fish has been removed from your stomach!" The hospital people all knew Mulberry’s strange story. They said it didn’t matter what sickness he had, or whether they could cure it. As long as they could do him some good, it would count as a successful treatment. So everything was going according to plan.
While the procedure was being done, a strong wind suddenly started to “whoosh, whoosh” across the sky. Then clouds gathered and it looked like it was going to rain heavily. The doctors whom Corn Ear had hired for the surgery were all old friends of his. They’d trained together as barefoot doctors. Sunrise had invited them out to eat before the operation, and they’d had both dog meat and donkey meat. They all drank some booze, too.
Mulberry was placed on the operating table. All his clothing was peeled off and he lay there bare to the world. A slit was made along his belly, but everyone knew what kind of procedure this was, so the cut was quite shallow. Before giving him the anesthetic, they just told him he had to take some pills to prevent vomiting. In fact, they were sleeping pills.
It was actually a most simple operation, just a gentle cut on the belly to make a very shallow opening, which was immediately sutured. A canvas bag used in the hospital’s operating room had been borrowed to keep the big fish. They sprayed some water on the fish and hung it on a metal shelf off to the side where Mulberry could see it at a glance when he woke up. Really the simplest of operations. And because they’d had some drinks, everyone was giggling “tee-hee-hee” and talking about old times while they did their jobs. After the pills were taken and the anesthetic injected, Mulberry looked like he was sleeping. It was a long time before he woke up.
Sunrise told Tall Tree and Thriving Tree, "Your dad’ll be fine now the operation is done. He’ll be like a normal person and have a good life for several fucking years." The doctors were standing nearby and said they should have more like this one. “It can only be regarded as the mildest case of hysteria. The more serious ones run around in the street, and when they see dog shit, they’ll pick it up and eat it.” The doctor in charge of anesthesia said, “This type of illness is easy to treat, all right. Just clean up his delusion and the person’s as good as new.”
After the operation, which only took a few moments, Sunrise, Corn Ear and the two brothers accompanied the doctors to another room to talk, drink tea, nibble on melon seeds and eat watermelon. The operation really had been successful, and when Mulberry woke up he really was awake.
He woke up, opened his eyes, and started turning his eyeballs around to look this way and that way. Tall Tree and Thriving Tree, standing beside him, leaned over him and said, "It’s done. The fish is gone. It was a really big fish.”
Mulberry’s voice at the moment could only manage “tch, tch, tch, tch”. His tongue seemed to be wound in a circle. A doctor standing there said it didn’t matter. “It’s an effect of the anesthetic.” Mulberry lowered his gaze and saw the big fish in the hospital’s canvas bag. It was so big its head and tail were exposed outside the bag.
Suddenly he yelled, “tch, tch, tch, tch, tch, tch, tch, tch”. What he meant by that was ambiguous, but they clearly understood he was yelling that something was wrong. When Tall Tree hugged his father to stop him from waving his arms around, he heard Mulberry say, “That fish in my belly was a big greyfish, a really big greyfish, how could it now be a bearded bighead carp?
Mulberry "tch-tch-ed" that it wasn’t his fish. His fish was still in his belly.
The doctors in the hospital were quick to gather around. They knew how to handle this sort of situation. They pressed Mulberry down gently and hurried to tell him, "The surgery isn’t done yet. It’s not finished. That one is someone else’s fish. These days a lot of people have fish in their bellies. Your fish hasn’t been taken out yet.” In a flurry of activity, they gave Mulberry more pills and another shot of anesthetic. It was busy in there, and Tall Tree and Thriving Tree ran out of the hospital to busy themselves with their own job – finding a big greyfish. Rice Town isn’t big, but while Tall Tree and Thriving Tree knew where people went for fun, they just didn’t know what place might still have a big greyfish left. Tall Tree suddenly wanted to sob:
“What’ll we do if there aren’t any big greyfish?”
“What’ll we do if there aren’t any big greyfish?”
“What’ll we do if there aren’t any big greyfish?”
Thriving Tree didn’t know what he should say. He just kept walking quickly behind his brother.
Corn Ear had caught up from behind and, before Thriving Tree had had a chance to answer his brother, said "If it’s a big fish, it’ll due. Your dad is really a lot of trouble!" He was going to the town market to buy some leaf tobacco.
2017年中国短篇小说精选 Best of Chinese Short Stories 2017, p. 043
长江文艺出版社，责任编辑：刘程程，周阳; Translated from here, also available from
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