Chinese Stories in English
Leafy vegetables in the garden are most susceptible to insects in early autumn. The bugs eat night and day, grabbing the last chance to build up their strength to propagate the species. Holes all over the leaves often result from their nibbling. People catch the critters or spray pesticides to lessen the effects of their eating, but as soon as the weather allows, the bugs come right back and initiate an even more voracious attack on the leaves.
Often, as a result, only a few web-like veins remain until, ultimately, the leaves wither away in defeat.
Sometimes I imagine that insects can also break out in the human body. A breakout of disease is a breakout of bugs. Except that bugs on leaves are external, while the body’s bugs are internal, in the nature of quislings. Cells that harbor toxins are bugs that grow within the body. Insects on leaves are out in the open, but bugs in the body are hidden away inside the fortress. That’s why bugs in the body are more evil, more damnable.
During the time my mother was seriously ill, it seemed I could see that bunch of vicious tumors showing their poisonous fangs and attacking her in her weakness. The tumors afflicted her like poisonous bugs, which caused me great distress. I gnashed my teeth in hatred of those bugs, but there was nothing at all I could do.
Mother’s pain introduced me to the fierceness of disease. Nobody has any real enemies in life other than the diseases of their own body, and ultimately everyone will be defeated by sickness.
Mother's condition was irreversible. I could only ask her what she wanted to eat, and do everything possible to do make something delicious that would provide some nutrition for her body.
So that’s what I did, and it was just what the tumors wanted. They had already gained a dominant position in her body and stole almost all the nutrition from her. The result was that the tumors grew stronger day by day while Mother’s condition steadily deteriorated.
Sometimes she looked very anxious. “I take medicine and get shots every day,” she said. “So why don’t I get better? Why does the sickness get worse the more treatment I get?” I was always circumspect and kept the truth from her. I didn’t tell her that what was growing in her body was cancer.
I like other Chinese characters very much, but have an extreme aversion to the character for “cancer” [癌]. I think it looks like a hideous, ruthless face. It’s so disgusting that I’ve never in my life been willing to write it.
I told mother, “It’s nothing. It’s just because you’re older and not as resistant to disease as before. Everyone gets old, you can’t avoid it.”
I mentioned some famous people and told her that their medical conditions were really great, but they had to get old eventually, too. That seemed to be a revelation to her. She let out a long "oh" and said, “I understand.” She’s almost eighty, and that really is old.
Where I’m from, we don’t use the word “health”. When we talk about health, we say “sturdy”:
Q: “Is so and so still sturdy?”
A: “Still goin’ strong.”
We also don’t say “die” when someone up in years dies. We say they “got old”. So Mother associated “die” with “old”. She said “When the time comes, I ought to just die. It’s cleaner that way.” When she said that, it seemed like she had death all figured out and had put it behind her.
On the other hand, she also said, “It’s not important that I’ll be dead, but how can I bear to leave my children?” Her eyes teared up as she said it. The meaning behind her words was that she was still unwilling to die and wanted to continue in this world.
My wife took my place caring for my bedridden mother in Kaifeng for a time. Late one night, Mother was sitting up in bed wearing a shawl over her shoulders. She wasn’t willing to lie down and go to sleep. When my wife asked her about it, she said she was worried that if she lay down and fell asleep, she’d never wake up, and then she’d never see her eldest son again.
I put aside what I was doing and hurried to Kaifeng. After I was at Mother’s side, she lay down to sleep at night. Whether she was sitting up or lying down, though, she didn’t sleep soundly. Sleeping is an ability, and she’d lost that ability in the torment of her illness.
She still had the ability to think, however, and when she couldn’t sleep, she was certainly thinking things over in her mind. I don’t know what she thought about – I only know her moods were contradictory. First she told my siblings and I, “Don’t any of you cry when I’m gone. Hearing you cry will make me feel bad.” Such talk made it obvious that she was thinking about her death. There was nothing we could say when she gave us instructions like that. All we could do was remain silent start to cry.
But another day she said to me and my second youngest sister, “Since I’m going to die, I should get on with it. If I wait too long to die, your oldest sister won’t be able cry.” First she’d told us not to cry, but now she was worried that our sister would be too old to cry, an apparent contradiction.
My younger sister and I weren’t willing to talk about death with her. We just hoped that she would keep on living, whether for one year or one more day. We couldn’t accept the logic of her using our sister’s inability to cry as an opportunity to die earlier, so my younger sister said, “If she can’t cry, then she just won’t cry.” Mother didn’t say any more about it.
Mother attached great importance to funerary matters and was quite familiar with the whole set of procedures. My older sister says that when the Flower Garden Gates on the Yellow River were pried open [in June 1938, to flood the river and stop the advance of Japanese troops], our mother was only thirteen or fourteen years old. Along with her little brother, that is, our fifth uncle, she made the funeral arrangements for her father. Afterwards, when someone in the village died, she got asked to help with the funeral most of the time.
She didn’t have to run around on errands or even do anything. The people doing the funeral would set up a chair in the west room, and Mother just had to sit there wracking her brains and jabbering about it, her expression solemn and composed. If there were pale flickers in the shadows inside or outside the room, or if anything else happened, the people would ask for her advice. She would explain it all in detail with just a few words.
She was just like a great general or military strategist in a command tent on a battlefield, directing affairs truly methodically and competently. The villagers praised her and said that, even though she was an illiterate old lady, she held more in her one mind than any ten literate people together. Someone younger than Mother even joked that he’d fight for the chance to go before she did, so that she’d be around to send him on his way. He said if she went first, no one suitable would be left to send him off.
But even if a person is highly experienced in handling funerals, and even if they do them perfectly, they can’t possibly handle their own funeral. A funeral occurs after death, after one has lost their life, so everyone’s funeral must necessarily be handled by someone else.
My third uncle lived nearby. He was unwilling to pass the job onto others and took the responsibility on himself. He called Mother “Big Sister” and stepped up to promise her, “Don’t worry, Big Sister, you won’t need a funeral until after you turn one hundred, and then I’ll take care of it for you. I guarantee I’ll arrange everything that should be done the way it should be done. No one will be able find fault and you’ll be completely satisfied.”
Mother didn’t accept his offer. But she didn’t turn him down, either. She couldn’t think of anyone else in Third Uncle’s generation who could put all the parts together, so he would probably be the only option. He’d studied a few years in a private school and knew how to read and write. In fact, he’d been my teacher.
He was the first teacher in our village primary school when it was set up. He was serious about the job and quite responsible, but his teaching methods were behind the times. He followed the methodology used in private schools and advocated lots of memorization for us. Those who couldn’t memorize didn’t get whipped at first, but, whether boy or girl, they were made to kneel for long periods as punishment. Every day lots of boys and girls had to kneel on the hard floor in front of Third Uncle’s desk. After kneeling there they had to straighten up and continue reciting the lesson. If they still couldn’t recite it smoothly, they had to stick out their hands for the switch.
I was lucky. Because I was pretty good at memorizing, I never had to kneel and never suffered Third Uncle’s switch, but a lot of my classmates weren’t so lucky and had to kneel and get switched almost every day. One of my cousins, a girl, had to kneel so much it became a habit. Third Uncle just had to call her name and her knees would tremble and she’d automatically kneel down. She had to kneel and get switched so much that her limbs sometimes got swollen.
Some parents sympathized with the children and complained to the village cadres that Third Uncle was beating them too severely. After the cadres talked it over they didn’t let Third Uncle teach any more. They hired another fellow, who was also a third-rate teacher, to take his place. There weren’t many literate people in the village in those days. Only a few could recognize easy characters like “人”, the word for "people", and none of the literate ones had the time to teach.
After Third Uncle stopped teaching, the village gave him a new duty. They made him the Chief Food Officer in the canteen. Talking about it is like telling a joke. We were spurred on by the slogans of the Great Leap Forward back then and said that communism had already been realized. The village was not called a “village”; it was a “collective”. None of the households had to start a cooking fire; when the “soup’s on” whistle sounded, everyone would line up at the cafeteria.
During that period Mother didn’t have to work in the fields any more. She ground flour in the canteen. After grinding she had to sift it, and when you sift flour, you can’t keep the powder from floating up into the air. It got all over her head, so she always looked like a white-haired old lady.
Third Uncle didn’t have much to do as Chief Food Officer. When he came around the millhouse, Mother would ask him to read to her. Her memory was very good, and when Uncle read her a story, she’d memorize it, and back home she’d tell us whatever story Third Uncle had read to her. We listened eagerly. Decades later, I still remember some of the stories.
At first, Mother didn’t tell us that Third Uncle had read her those stories. We thought it was kind of funny. How could she know so many tales! Later we asked and found out that the stories came from Third Uncle's books. I was inspired by the thought that literate people could know so many stories. If I was hungry for stories, I’d have to learn more characters and read more books. That was one of the reasons I liked going to school.
My younger brother and I were both studious. Eventually we’d had more years of schooling and read more books than Third Uncle. I’ve not only read a lot of stories, I’ve also set my hand to writing a lot of stories myself. So I can read a story, but Third Uncle never thought I’d be able to write one.
When Third Uncle read a story, he never paid attention to who the author was. He didn’t deliberately ignore the author; he probably thought stories in books were more like gifts from heaven, not something written by human hand. He was shocked when my stories got compiled into a book. That’s when he learned that stories and books are actually written by people.
Since he was my elder, though, Third Uncle never praised me. He’d only loosen up a little when he was talking to Mother. Then he’d say things like, "Your two sons are coming up in the world."
What does "coming up" mean? What kind of evaluation is that? Third Uncle, a man who’d gone to a private school, actually said that, and he told Mother two more things right afterward. The first was that the reason my brother and I were able to "come up" was that our family’s graveyard was positioned well, with good fengshui. He even said that our graveyard’s fengshui elevated the fengshui of the entire village. The second thing he said was that that Mother was a virtuous person, since she’d been able to raise us kids after my father died young, an extremely difficult job. Reflecting on these things, he said, he’d want to do a good job of arranging Mother’s funeral.
Third Uncle said this intending to recognize Mother’s accomplishments, at least a little. But in that village we don’t talk about recognition. We never hold a recognition ceremony during anyone’s life. We hold everything back until after the person’s death and then express our recognition of their accomplishments at the funeral. These judgments are to be made after the coffin is closed. They’re posthumous honors for the departed to enjoy from the next world.
As for how he would go about making a good job of the funeral, Third Uncle didn’t elaborate. Judging from his smile, though, he seemed to have a well-thought-out plan in mind.
In some places, it might be taboo to discuss a person’s funeral while they’re still alive. It isn’t taboo in our village, though. As soon as a villager gets to a certain age, people begin to consider the funeral. This shows that we consider life important, but consider death important as well, and treat the funeral as a significant event.
I’d sent Mother some money while she was still well, but she’d been reluctant to spend it. She saved it to prepare a “chamber” for herself. By “chamber” she meant a coffin. Someone suggested that she have a coffin made of cypress wood because it takes a long time to grow, is fine-grained, doesn’t get soggy and won’t rot even after being buried in the ground a hundred years. They also said that only a cypress coffin would be both worthy of my mother and yet affordable.
Mother didn’t take that advice and instead had her coffin made of red pine. She’d thought it out meticulously and compared numerous types of wood before deciding on the red pine for her chamber. My mother made her own decisions, unlike the typical peasant wife. You can tell how independent a thinker she was from this. Even Third Uncle, who always thought highly of his own opinions, couldn’t tell her a thing.
Mother gave two reasons for why she chose red pine for her coffin. Both reasons were convincing and made the villagers teary-eyed. The first reason she gave was that she liked the fragrance of pine and would be able to smell it every day. The second reason, she said, was that the cypress wood was too heavy. She worried that, if she had a cypress coffin, it would be oppressive for her pallbearers. That was Mother, always considerate of others, even the people who would carry her coffin at the funeral. By her actions, Mother gave me a truth to remember about being a good person: Don’t stop being considerate of others, no matter the time.
Third Uncle said many times that he would take responsibility for Mother's funeral. Mother didn’t raise any objections, which was equivalent to tacit acquiescence in what he proposed.
When we brothers got wind of what Third Uncle said, we didn’t want to hear it. It wasn’t that we didn’t trust him – it just bothered us to talk about Mother’s funeral while she was still alive.
One day Mother told me out of the blue that she was rather angry with Third Uncle. I thought she was like me and didn’t want to hear him discuss her funeral arrangements. When I asked her why she was angry, though, the reason she gave me was something that hadn’t yet happened, something she anticipated, that had her worried. She was worried that Third Uncle would spare no expense and spend too much on her funeral. She was also worried that the way he’d do some things would upset my brother and me. I advised her not to think too much, because thinking about certain things too much can be bad for one’s health. We’d get past it doing things step by step, with discussion after each step.
Truth is, the things Mother was worried about had already occurred to me as well, but I just hadn’t wanted to think about them. When they occasionally came to mind I’d hurry to avoid them, a kind of self-deception. For example, on the question of expenditures, we would certainly want to spend money for our mother’s funeral. Mother had been good to us, and supporting her through old age to the end was our duty as children. We often gave her money while she was alive, but where could we go to give her money if she was gone from this world? You could say that spending money on her funeral would be our last chance to honor her, and we would seize the opportunity.
As for Mother’s worry that Third Uncle would do things that would upset my brother and me, I knew exactly what she was getting at. I’d seen other families’ funerals for their elderly departed many times when I was a lad and later when I was a young adult. A son who honored his parents had to wear white shoes and a cap of filial piety. He also had carry a stick of raw bugbane in a belt at his waist and walk with a cane in his hand. Moreover, he had to walk throughout the entire village inviting people to attend the deceased’s funeral, as well as the ceremony at the gravesite sending the dearly departed on his or her way. At every courtyard he entered, if people were there, he had to kneel down and kowtow to everyone, male or female, young or old, no matter what.
I remember a filial son from the same generation as my uncle who came into our courtyard when I was still in elementary school. As soon as he saw me, he knelt down and kowtowed to me. I was so surprised and scared that I almost ran away. He was tall and spoke with a loud voice, and normally was a pretty formidable fellow, but because his mother had passed away, he became weak and kowtowed at the sight of a young child like me.
That’s what worried Mother. She was afraid Third Uncle would follow the old tradition and have me and my brother kneel and kowtow to people. I didn’t know how my brother felt, but as for me, anyway, kneeling and kowtowing would indeed be a difficult thing. I have self-respect, and there’s no self-respect in kowtowing! I’d left home and gone to work more than thirty years previously, and was in my fifties, the same generation as a grandfather in the village, and I didn’t know if I’d be able to kowtow to anyone.
Not all filial sons in our village were willing to kowtow, though. After his mother died, one high school teacher just had members of his own clan stand in front of his mother's grave in a line, where they bowed three times. The villagers called that unfilial and even spread the story around as a joke. Fortunately, when the teacher died his son didn’t “follow the fad” and instead arranged his funeral in accordance with the previous customs. The villagers said that people only die once, and a funeral like that is the way things ought to be done.
Some things in this world are truly unpredictable. Third Uncle, who had always been in good health, went before Mother did. He didn’t die from illness. According to what people in the village told us, he was electrocuted. It was summer and he was using a pump to irrigate his corn field. The power source was fairly far away from his home, so he had to pull a long electric cord out to the field. The cord was wrapped in black rubber but there was a hole where electricity leaked out. When he finished watering the field, he coiled the cord around his shoulder. His arm was bare and he got electrocuted. Electricity may be formless, colorless and tasteless, but it’s very potent.
The way electricity hits you is so sudden. Third Uncle was knocked to the ground just like that. Before he had time to think or to say anything, he bid farewell to this world that he still liked so much. When they found him, the place where the electricity was leaking from the cord was still stuck to his arm, and half his body was burned beyond recognition.
Third Uncle presumably thought he was well-positioned in two ways to make a solemn vow to be responsible for handling Mother's funeral. First was his age, since he was a dozen or so years younger than Mother. Second was his physical condition. Mother had a serious illness and had undergone major surgery, while he could still eat and work like a young man with no health problems. He never realized that a good position is tenuous and can vanish into thin air if one isn’t careful, so as it turned out, the man who was going to take charge of Mother’s funeral had his own funeral come first.
I didn’t participate in arranging Third Uncle’s funeral. The weather was scorching hot, and Third Uncle's son sent him off right away without notifying me. Mother was away in the city for medical treatment and also couldn’t help send him off.
Mother got really down when she heard the news of Third Uncle’s sudden death. She sighed and sighed again, and said, “What’s going on here? Someone who ought to die, doesn’t, and someone who shouldn’t die, does.” Everyone could tell that she meant herself when she said “someone who ought to die”, and “someone who shouldn’t” was Third Uncle.
There seemed to be no suitable candidate for handling Mother’s funeral once Third Uncle was gone, which made her feel very much at a loss. She talked to me about some things from Third Uncle's past. His father disappeared shortly after Third Uncle was born, and his mother endured hardships and adversities in raising him. Third Uncle hadn’t had an easy life, either.
Mother also mentioned her views on electricity. She said that people had never used electricity in all the past generations, and they hadn’t necessarily been unable to make a go of it. Now that we have electricity, things like lighting and irrigation are more convenient, but electricity also kills people. Her conclusion was, no matter what time it is or what kind of good things people use, from every benefit will also come a harm.
While Mother was seriously ill, she didn’t stay in a hospital. She stayed at my brother’s place in Kaifeng. I put everything else aside and set up a small bed beside hers so I could be with her and care for her day and night. She came to rely on me and got agitated if she didn’t see me for a while. It seemed as if she could go on living as long as I was at her side.
It was during that period that she and I talked to each other the most. When it rained we talked about rain, and when it snowed we talked about snow. We’d talk about whatever we happened to think of. One day she told me that she had died once before when she was a child. It was a real bonus that she’d been able to live to such an old age now.
When she was five or six, a large ulcer had grown on her chest. It swelled up as big as a gourd, so big that the largest patch of plaster couldn’t cover it. Everyone said that it would get better when it burst, but they were afraid it wouldn’t burst. No one expected it, but when it finally did burst, it just festered and got bigger. It was so festered that they couldn’t clean it up.
Her father took her to see a doctor, but the doctor just glanced at her and shook his head. There was no way to treat her, he said, and he told her father to take the child home. “Make a box for her,” he whispered. What he called a “box” was a small coffin. When someone not yet fully grown died, the coffin they were buried in was referred to as a box. The word “coffin” wasn’t used.
Mother said she remembered it clearly. When her father was carrying her home, she couldn’t perch on his back and hold on to his neck like other children did. The ulcer on her chest was too big an obstacle. All she could do was ride back-to-back with her chest facing out. Her father hunched over and carried her all the way home on his hip, holding on to her hands.
When they got home, her father didn’t put her in a bed in the house Instead he put her on a pile of kindling in the courtyard. He asked someone to make her a box while he waited for her to die. She also knew she wasn’t going to survive, so she just lay there on the pile of kindling and wailed. When she got tired of crying she fell asleep, then she woke up and cried some more. As she went on like that, crying and sleeping without taking a breath, pink flesh grew over the ulcer and, surprisingly, she survived.
Mother told me that she got another ulcer shortly after she gave birth to me. This one was on her thigh. She loved me most of all her children, but because of the ulcer she hadn’t been able to do a good job of breast-feeding me. Her milk stopped when I was just one month old. She fed me pieces of steamed bread she steeped in water until I was bigger.
Hearing about Mother’s history of ulcers made me wonder if those ulcers were the reason her illness was so serious now. The only thing was that the two ulcers in
her past were external, but this time the illness was inside her body. The ulcers had broken out, but this time there was only swelling. The swellings had gotten bigger and more wide-spread, but had never dared break out into sores. This squared with a saying we have in our village: “People fear breaking out of the pack, and ulcers fear breaking out of the body.” Apparently, as I understood it, ulcers that didn’t break out were the most pernicious of tumors!
Mother's condition deteriorated day by day. Analgesics were no longer able to suppress her pain. She kept a stiff upper lip and tried not to let the pain show, keeping her self-respect even in the midst of a serious illness.
Her feet had been bound since childhood, but only partly, what people called “liberated feet”. She thought they were ugly and wore socks all day long. She wasn’t willing to take them off even when she slept. I told her to wake me if she got up at night to go to the bathroom, so that I could help her get out of bed. Truth is, I slept very lightly at the time and woke up right away whenever she moved.
One night I heard her bed rattling and knew she was going to get up. I told her to take it easy and went to help her. Right after she said, “Don’t bother,” she fell to the floor in front of the bed, and I rushed to help her up. I was afraid to complain even a little about her not listening to me.
At daybreak that day she told me that after someone dies, there’s a funeral ritual called “chaperone the soul”. Its purpose is to entice the soul of the departed from his or her home and escort it out of the village. This is done by having all the deceased’s children light a torch made from a bundle of stalks from the fields; then they go to the crossroad at the entrance of the village to burn paper funerary gifts for the departed. The most important part of the ritual requires the deceased’s eldest son to carry a live rooster in his arms when he goes to the village entrance. On his way back after the funerary gifts have been burned, he must grip the rooster’s neck tightly and strangle it to death with all his might. The rooster’s soul represents the spirit of a Phoenix, and with a Phoenix’s spirit as transportation, the deceased will be able to fly away from the village.
My heart was chilled by Mother’s words. I realized that this was her specific instruction as what I should do at her funeral. Her eldest son was none other than me! I don’t know why, but I was unwilling to hear her talk about such things.
Maybe I was still fooling myself and just didn’t want to admit that Mother’s journey to the beyond was about to become a reality. Maybe I didn’t want to be manipulated and was dreading the funeral and the part I would have to play in it. Maybe in my imagination I was surrounded by villagers staring at me. Whatever it was, when I heard my mother say these things I inexplicably started to worry.
“Why would anyone do such a complex funeral these days? It wasn’t that complicated in the past,” I said. “It’s because people have more money now, and more money means more formalities. And strangling a living rooster,” I added, “is just way too cruel.”
Mother must have sensed my anxiety, but the old girl didn’t say anything, not a word.
Mother died at home. She’d made it clear that she couldn’t stay in the city and had to be at home. My brother and I had both settled in the city, but Mother didn’t feel at home there. She only felt at home in the village. In 2003, when it was almost time for the Lunar New Year and Spring Festival, she told me, “I don’t think I’ll make it through this year. Let's go home.”
I comforted her, “No problem, just get ready for a good New Year’s.”
Right after the holiday she again urged me to go home. She said she was afraid she wouldn’t make it to the Lantern Festival on the 15th of the first lunar month. I knew what she was thinking. She was still concerned about her funeral. The villagers wouldn’t be able to take part in her funeral, wouldn’t be able to send her on her way, if she wasn’t at home.
My brother and I took her home a few days after the Lantern Festival. She was thin and frail from her illness. She did something that really scared me when my brother carried her from the car in his arms. She waved her arm and shouted twice. At first I thought she was in so much pain that she had to cry out, but I soon realized that she was shouting to tell the villagers that she was home.
One after another the village people came to visit my mother, regardless of whether their status was lower or higher than hers. Whether young or old, anyone who could move came to Mother’s bedside to speak with her.
Mother’s mind remained clear throughout. When visitors asked her, “Do you know who I am?” she would say their name right away. She would also tell people that this or that person had come to visit. She was gratified that the villagers were coming to see her. It was probably something she’d been hoping for, and something she needed.
It got to be March by the western calendar, or the second month by the lunar calendar. A heavy snow started on the second day of the lunar month. A farmer’s proverb says, “On the second day of the second month, the dragon raises its head.” It means that the rains should come on that day.
That year, however, what came that day was actually snow, and not just a little of it. In a short time it covered everything. The tiles on the sloped rooves, which were black a moment before, were hidden under large snowflakes in the blink of an eye. The branches of a toon tree in a corner of the courtyard had been visible, because the tree hadn’t yet budded out, but soon not a single branch could be seen because the tree looked like white flowers had suddenly bloomed all over it.
The kids inside couldn’t wait to go out and play. My young cousins used a large cloth curtain to make a shelter in the yard, but the snow got so thick on it that it finally came crashing down. Later my brother told me he had an ominous feeling the moment the shelter collapsed.
It was at twenty minutes after twelve that night, which was the morning of the third day of the lunar month (March fifth of the western calendar), that our mother, who had lived a life of bitter toil, left us forever.
Mother could no longer see us after she passed, and we could no longer talk to her. She’d no longer be there whenever we came home. We’d suddenly become motherless children. What could we siblings do? We were deeply saddened and had lost hope. All we could do was kneel in front of Mother as she lay in repose on her funerary couch, outside in the blowing snow, and wail out loud at our loss.
There were tears in our eyes for several days. If we tried to talk or even opened our mouths, we’d choke up and the tears would come. Back when we’d realized that Mother would not be in this world for long, we’d made the effort to control ourselves. We didn’t want to cry or shed tears out of fear it would be bad luck. Now that Mother was gone, though, nothing was forbidden to us anymore. We no longer had to suppress ourselves, so we all shed a flood of tears and tormented our hearts and lungs.
The village folks were alerted by the sound of our crying. One by one, they braved the snow and came to our house to comfort us. Two older women picked me up by my arms and advised me not to cry so fiercely. One of them said, “A long time ago, your mother told me that you had too much heart as a child. She wanted me to keep a close eye on you after she’d reached the end of her allotted span, and not let you cry too much. She was worried you wouldn’t be able to breathe from all the crying.”
I understood as soon as the woman said it. When my youngest brother had gotten sick and died, I’d cried so hard that my whole body shook. It wasn’t until an old man in the village gave me a shot that I’d finally calmed down. Fortunately the old woman didn’t mention my youngest brother directly, but even what she did say added sadness on sadness and pain on pain. I shouted “Mother, oh, Mother,” and cried even more dismally. I wanted to cry myself to death and be done with it.
Crying is an ability, too, and as I’d grown older, I’d begun to doubt whether I still had what it takes. Mother's passing let me know that I’d retained the ability to cry. During her funeral my mouth seemed to lose the ability to speak, leaving only the ability to cry.
I cried myself hoarse, so that I almost couldn’t talk. I hadn’t realized I had so many tears in me. The tears gushed out and then gushed again in a never-ending stream, as if my whole body had become nothing more than a container of tears. My eyes were red and so swollen that only two slits were left. Whatever I looked at was blurry, seen through watery eyes. My entire self seemed to have changed, becoming extremely frail, extremely small, as small as a child. At the same time I became more submissive than I had had been, rejecting nothing they suggested.
Third Uncle wasn’t around anymore, but I had a lot of cousins from his generation in the village. I did whatever they wanted me to. I wore a mourning hat sewn from new white cloth, a belt which was also made of white cloth, and a cape of fresh hemp. In my hand I carried a mourning staff made of hemp stalks. It made me realize that culture isn’t something weak, and there are times when it can become something quite powerful.
While I was burning the paper funerary gifts at the crossroad at the entrance to the village, they handed me a huge living rooster. I squeezed its neck with all my might as I was walking back home after burning the gifts, strangling it to death.
Before I visited the households in the village to kowtow, my cousins worried that I wouldn’t kneel down. They took me aside specially to discuss the matter. They emphasized the importance of the rituals to get me to abide by them. I started crying the first time I kowtowed to my cousins, and my chocking sobs made them stop worrying. They probably hadn’t expected me to be like that, and their eyes immediately turned red with tears.
Our village has expanded impressively. In terms of area, the one village has almost become two. Two of our younger cousins took my brother and me around the village separately. We kowtowed at every household in the village, with me kowtowing from the west side and my brother from the east. We didn’t have to say anything. Our cousins called everyone to come outside, so all we had to do was kneel and kowtow.
It had stopped snowing, but there were still snowdrifts and mud puddles on the ground. I ignored them completely and knelt down wherever I happened to be. No one forced me – I kowtowed to the people willingly. If crying bitter tears was something I needed to do, kowtowing was as well. As I got down on my knees, all I could think of was my mother. When I lowered my forehead and hit it against the ground, I did it for my mother. My pants legs were covered with mud, as were both my hands, but that was good – it gave me a feeling sort of like a homecoming.
The people who received my kowtows weren’t surprised at all. They all said almost the same thing. First they’d tell me to hurry and stand up, and then they’d tell me that they’d go right over to my house to attend Mother's funeral. I was grateful to everyone.
When Mother's coffin was carried to the graveyard, everyone in the village, men, women, young and old, all joined the funeral procession. Snowdrifts in the wheat field made a blanket of pure white, and four groups of suonas together played songs of grief and heartbreak. All Mother's children cried inconsolably. I seemed to see Mother through eyes blurry with tears,. I thought, this woman who had always considered people’s funerals important should be satisfied with her own.
2011 中国最佳短片小说，主编王蒙，辽宁人民出版社，第 48 页
China's Best Short Stories 2011, Wang Meng Ed., p. 48
Translated from my life blog, http://blog.sina.com.cn/s/blog_5d67da8b01013u97.html
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