​​         Chinese Stories in English   

Grandma Lives to be a Granddaughter

Li Jinxiang

     

Grandma, seventy; Granddaughter, twenty

      Her grandson’s wife, who we can refer to as “Granddaughter”, was doing a “sitting month”. That is, she was taking the traditional month of rest and seclusion after giving birth. Grandma had taken on her chores. The whole family was happy at having a male baby, and Grandma was especially happy to have a great-grandson. They all said that seeing another generation took a load off their minds. They were busy keeping up with things during the wheat harvest, though, so waiting on Granddaughter would be a problem. The new mother’s own mother had already passed away, and her mother-in-law was striving to get to the “the Yellow Fields”, meaning Japan. So Grandma said she’d do it.
      Grandma used the old methods to wait on Granddaughter for the month. She dug up a single large clod of soil in the hills, broke it into pieces and ground it into fine bits to pile on
the brick kang, or bed-stove. She pulled the cotton mattress and felt blankets off the bed, leaving only a single woven mat. The fine soil would cover the mat, and both the new mother and the baby would sleep on it. Any blood lost by the mother, as well as the baby’s feces and urine, would be absorbed by the soil. When it got dirty, it would be thrown away and replaced with new soil.
      Doing it this way was convenient, but Granddaughter felt it was a little unsanitary. Her mother had died from an illness contracted while she was sitting a month. Granddaughter was worried, not so much for herself, but mostly for the baby. She was afraid that something would go wrong with such a fragile little thing, whose skin was thin as paper, if he slept on soil. She was careful when she told Grandma about her fears. Grandma said, “It doesn't matter, people have been doing it like this for five generations. Your father-in-law and your man both rolled around in the soil, and they turned out fine.” Granddaughter didn’t feel it would be good to say any more. She’d been in the family for more than a year but still didn’t dare talk too much.
      The new mother told her man about her worries when he got back from harvesting the wheat. The man repeated her concerns to Grandma, who smiled and said, “You’re all grown up now, Grandson, and I know you love the baby. Don’t worry. You love the baby, and I love my Bug, too.” That’s what she called her great-grandson “If you’re still worried, you can stay home and wait on them, and I’ll go out to the fields with the others to harvest the wheat.” She gave Granddaughter a sharp look while she was talking.
      She wasn’t happy that Granddaughter had complained to her man. Unhappy or not, though, she still waited on the new mother, making rice for her, and rice-water soup, poached eggs and molasses tea, the same old stuff as before. And Granddaughter didn’t dare say anything more. All she could do was tell herself that things would be okay as long as the baby didn’t have a problem. She’d only just become a mother and naturally had a mother’s feelings, so all her thoughts were focused on the baby.
      Grandma still kept the baby on the soil. When it got wet from urine, she replaced it with dry soil, and the same when it got wet from sweat. She also used dry soil like it was baby powder to roughen the baby’s body. Granddaughter watched her and worried. Such a small little guy, she was truly worried that Grandma would rub his flesh raw and hurt some part of his body. The baby showed no discomfort, though. He just curled up his teeny legs and stretched out his tiny arms.
      Grandma would purse her lips and say, “My little Bug’s growing so big”. Granddaughter thought it looked funny when the old lady pursed her lips. She also thought it was funny when she called the child “Bug”, but she didn’t dare laugh in front of Grandma. She only laughed when Grandma went to the other room to cook. She also liked to play with the baby when she was alone with him, and she too couldn't help but purse her lips when she did. The baby would look at her and seem to recognize her. His clean, clear eyes were so black they were almost indigo, and it seemed as if nothing could dirty them, that nothing could want to get them dirty.
      That’s what she thought, anyway, but the baby still got sick. For some unknown reason, he began crying loudly. Grandma hugged and patted him to settle him down, so he could more easily fall asleep, but his heart would palpitate like he was frightened and he’d wake up and cry again. Grandma said his heart couldn’t take it. Granddaughter couldn’t figure it out – such a little guy, what did he have to be so frightened about that he couldn’t take it?
      Grandma said it didn't matter, they’d just feed him some cinnabar and he’d be all right. She got out a small iron box with some bright red stuff in it, dug some of the stuff out with a curette they used for cleaning their ears, and fed it to the boy. The stuff was so red it looked like a flame, and Granddaughter was apprehensive at seeing it put in her son's mouth. After two or three doses, though, the baby really did stop his caterwauling.
      After a few more days passed, the baby got diarrhea and spit up milk. Grandma said his stomach was cold and fed him something black. She said it was made from musk and would make the baby better. Granddaughter was still a bit worried even though Grandma’s methods were quite effective. When her mother-in-law came for a look, she beat around the bush and told her they should get a health care worker to check the boy out. “The baby doesn’t have anything major wrong,” her mother-in-law said with a smile. “Just do like Grandma says.” There was nothing else Granddaughter could do, once her mother-in-law said that.
      Granddaughter got out of bed seven or eight days later. She changed the water, bathed and got dressed, and wouldn't have to sleep on the soil from then on. The baby still did, though, but he didn’t have the powdery yellow soil rubbed on his skin any more, except on his scalp. The fine soil turned to mud when it mixed with sweat on his head, forming a black, oily helmet as it got thicker. It made Granddaughter uncomfortable to look at it and she said she wanted to wash it off. “You can’t do that,” Grandma said. “A covering of mud on a baby’s head brings luck to our family. The thicker it is, the more luck it brings.” Granddaughter didn’t quite believe the talk of good luck, but since Grandma had said it, she didn’t wash the mud off. Fortunately the baby’s hair was getting longer and covered it up.
      At the end of the sitting month, they got someone to shave off the baby's birth fuzz. The mud was more obvious without hair, practically a black pot lid on the boy’s head. The more Granddaughter looked at it, the more unsightly she thought it was. Eventually she mixed up some warm water as a shampoo for the baby, but the accumulation of mud was too thick and couldn't be washed off all at once. She could only wet a towel and wipe the gunk off little by little. The baby's scalp was soft and she was afraid she’d hurt him if she was too rough, so she could only wipe gently and slowly. It took a long time to clean his scalp.
      Once clean, the baby looked fresh and unspoiled, much prettier than before. Granddaughter was happy. That night, though, he began to burn with fever. She thought he might just be cold and would get better in a while. Who could have figured that the fever would get worse and the baby would start twitching? She was scared and quickly called her mother-in-law and Grandmother. Her mother-in-law went along with Grandma, who said they should get Third Grandma over there right away to give the baby a
moxibustion treatment. Then Grandma picked up the baby and saw how he was twitching. She rushed over and shouted, “What good will moxibustion do when he’s like this? Let’s get him to the hospital right now.” Then she said to Granddaughter, “If my Bug dies from this, I’ll never let you forget it.”
      They took the baby to the hospital, and that’s what saved his life. He did have a high fever for a long time, however, which had repercussions, namely attention-deficit disorder. He was slow and couldn’t finish reading a book. Later on his younger brother and sister both tested into college, and he was the only one relegated to the village to farm. Granddaughter always felt a bit embarrassed by this and regretted somewhat that she hadn’t done what Grandma said.
      Grandma also took care of her when she was sitting a month after the births of her other two babies. She never again dared to act on her own initiative and obeyed Grandma in everything. Grandma waited on her for those months and took care of the babies until Granddaughter was recovered, seldom returning to her own home. Grandpa had passed several years before, so when Grandma did go home, she was alone. She only went home to tend her arbor.
      She’d planted the arbor herself. As she told it, she’d come into the household at the age of fourteen as a future bride for their son. The neighbor happened to be digging up a jujube tree and several seedlings, and they were drying out in the sun. When she saw how green and lush the bitty leaves on the seedlings were, she took a fancy to them and asked for one. She took it home and planted it in the backyard. It lived and grew and bore fruit in the year when she and Grandpa consummated their marriage.
      Jujube trees are hardy and self-propagate. After a few years, new little trees emerged from the ground and grew around it, and then more sprouted near them. The one jujube tree left its droppings over a large area and turned into an orchard. Jujube trees do spread, and some seedlings took root outside the garden. They grew in other people’s yards or on the edges of their fields and became their property. It seems that some of them also could have grown from cuttings.
      Peach and apricot trees from places unknown began to grow alongside them, and later, Grandma planted apple and pear trees as well. Flowers bloomed in the garden from spring through summer, and fruit was available from autumn to winter. The fruits were all common and thus not worth much money, so they gave most of them away. No one in the family except Grandma was willing to take care of the arbor.
      The jujube trees got denser as they dropped more seeds, and Grandma was reluctant to dig any of them up or trim any branches, so they grew crazily any which way they wanted. Jujube trees have thorns all over them, and people basically can't get near them. Fortunately Grandma was small and thin, so when she weeded she could bend down and get under the branches. When she picked the fruit, she could turn sideways and pass between the branches. It seemed also that the trees knew her and wouldn’t prick her. With things the way they were, she only had herself to worry about. Her son and daughter-in-law wanted to help but couldn’t.
      Grandma grew a whole arbor of trees, but she didn’t have many children. She’d had seven or eight babies in her life, but only one son and one daughter lived. The daughter was married out into another village and Grandma only saw her once every few months. Her son and daughter-in-law had a few children who had not yet started families of their own, and in their own sweet time they’d come to visit to see how she and Granddaughter were getting along, but they never asked her over for a visit. They’d just come over every once in a while to look in on her and decide how Granddaughter was taking care of her.
      When her man left the village to look for work and her babies went off to school, Granddaughter stayed home to farm and take care of Grandma. She said she was taking care of Grandma, but in fact Grandma didn’t want to be taken care of. She helped Granddaughter with the housework and also went out to work in the fields with her. While Granddaughter ploughed the ground, Grandma helped her by leading the ox; while Granddaughter did the sowing, Grandma helped spread the seeds; while Granddaughter harvested the corn, Grandma helped break the cobs from the stems.
      The villagers weren’t accustomed to seeing seniors in their seventies or eighties still working in the fields. It was an old village, and the people were conservative in their ways. They had a saying passed down from old –Heaven is being at the feet of one’s parents. Although the world had changed in recent years, and even the village customs were changing, they still weren’t willing to treat their elders shabbily. Whoever treated any senior poorly, let alone relatives from their own family, was the lowest of the low, a persona non grata, and was given a good talking to. As for Grandma working in the fields, the villagers gossiped and said her son and daughter-in-law weren’t filial. They also blamed Granddaughter.
      When Grandma’s son and daughter-in-law first heard the gossip, it made them anxious. If people in their fifties or sixties got a reputation for not being filial, they couldn’t hold their heads up as they walked through the village, so they hurried to bring the old lady back to live with them. Gossip spreads fast, and Grandma’s daughter also heard it. She too rushed home to find out what was going on.
      But Grandma told them that Granddaughter was treating her well indeed. She lived in Granddaughter's house and wasn’t going anywhere. Her son and daughter could do nothing when they heard what the old lady said, so the ball came to be in Granddaughter’s court. She advised Grandma to go back with her son and daughter-in-law to their home, but Grandma said, “Don't you want me here?” Granddaughter at once said, “No, no, that’s not it.” Then Granddaughter urged Grandma not to work in the fields, but Grandma said, “If you don't let me work, how will I stay alive?”
      A lifetime of bitter toil had made Grandma used to it, and if they wouldn’t let her work, she’d be really upset. Granddaughter had no choice but to do what Grandma wanted. And so Grandma went out to the fields to work with her every day, except during Ramadan. When the villagers saw her, they said even worse things than before, both publicly and privately. Just then Granddaughter’s man, who was working at a construction site outside the village, fell from a building and broke his arm. And their young son was riding in a three-wheeled bouncy car on the way to school when the car tipped over on him, breaking his leg. The villagers said it was instant karma for being unfilial toward the elderly. Granddaughter really was a little scared and told Grandma so.
      “Let them say what they want,” Grandma said, “I know what the truth is. When my grandson fell from such a high building, he broke his arm, but he still has his life. When my Bug got crushed under that car, he broke his leg, but he’s doing just fine. These two mishaps did happen, and your man and your son were hurt, but both had
good luck in the midst of bad. How could anyone think otherwise?”
      Grandma’s words opened Granddaughter's eyes. Two disasters had occurred, but her man and son had only been slightly injured. It really was good luck in the midst of bad, and the good luck had been revealed by Grandma. With that thought, Granddaughter appreciated Grandma more than ever. Grandma was also feeling much closer to her
      At first Grandma had called her “Grandson’s Wife”. After a time she’d switched to “Daughter-in-Law”, so most villagers started calling her that, too. Grandma’s use of that term was a confusion of the generations, and when Granddaughter mentioned it to her, she smiled and said, “I’m an old nitwit.” Nevertheless, she continued to refer to Granddaughter that way. Sometimes she did revert to “Grandson’s Wife”, but after her teeth fell out and her speech got slurred, that came out as "Bitty Wife". 
Granddaughter actually liked the sound of that and felt there was an element of endearment in it. Over time it became her nickname. She felt the most loved when Grandma called her that, as if it were her own mother calling her.
      Her mother had died when Granddaughter was very young. She didn't remember what name her mother had called her, or even remember what she’d looked like, but she felt her loss deeply. She didn’t learn until after she was grown that her mother had developed postnatal complications from giving birth to her and died a little more than a year later. She’d always felt guilty because of that. The first time Grandma used her nickname “Bitty Wife”, her heart pounded and she felt like her mother was calling her. She got warm inside whenever Grandma used the nickname after that, and felt like she was seeing at her mother when she looked at Grandma. She knew that was cockeyed – Grandma was Grandma, and seeing the old lady as her mother confounded the generations. In her heart, though, she really did regard Grandma as her mother. 

                                                               Grandma, ninety; Granddaughter, forty

      Grandma had always been tiny, but her back curved as she grew older, making her even smaller. She still followed Granddaughter out to work in the fields. Once, when they got to the place where millet was growing and went to pull off the ears of grain, Grandma got swallowed up because the millet had spurted all at once to the height of a person. Granddaughter couldn’t find her and stood at the edge of the field shouting “Grandma, Grandma”. Grandma heard it but, afraid of being laughed at, deliberately didn’t answer and instead walked toward Granddaughter’s voice. The ears of grain were tangled together and blocked her way so she couldn't get out. Granddaughter saw the grain moving and knew where Grandma was. She had to pull the ears of grain apart to go in and rescue her.
      Another time they went to the field to pick some corn, but the ears were so high up that Grandma couldn’t reach them, even standing on tiptoe. She jumped a few of times and was able to grab one but couldn’t break it off and was left hanging there. Even at that, she wasn’t heavy enough to break it off, so she just swayed back and forth on the stalk. Granddaughter screamed in fright and rushed to help her. She put both arms around Grandma, but the old lady was in a contest of wills with the ear of corn and wouldn’t let go. Granddaughter had to pull both Grandma and the ear of corn down from the stalk. Grandma squeezed the ear tightly in both hands, exposing some of the kernels on the cob. They looked like they were snarling at her. That’s when Grandma knew she couldn't work in the fields anymore.
      It wasn’t only fieldwork she couldn’t do – she couldn’t tend her arbor anymore, either. She’d gone to the arbor with a hoe over her shoulder, intending to hoe up some weeds, but when she put the hoe to the ground it just brushed over the surface and wouldn’t bite in. That injured the stems of several weeds and they oozed a green liquid. Grandma sat angrily on the ground looking at them and felt like they were bleeding. Then she looked at the weeds in the rest of the arbor and noted how green they were and how luxuriantly they were growing. Suddenly she didn't want to hoe anymore. She went back home with the hoe on her shoulder and told her grandson, “I’m turning the arbor over to you from now on.”
      Once it was turned over to him, her grandson tended to it as he saw fit. He dug up some of the smaller trees, cut off some branches that had grown crooked and trimmed some that were too dense. Thus the arbor became sparser and let in more light, and was easier for people to get in and out. He used herbicides rather than a hoe to control the weeds, and they were all dead in just a few days.
      Granddaughter was worried that Grandma would be angry when she learned what her husband was doing to the arbor. She quietly tried to keep the old lady from seeing it by steering her away from the place. Grandma in fact didn't go to the arbor, but she found out about it anyway. She asked her grandson, “You didn’t dig up the old jujube tree, did you?”
      “No, no,” he said immediately. “That’s your tree. How could I dig it up? But it was too crowded and didn’t yield enough fruit, so I dug up some of the volunteers around it. We’ll get more fruit now, and it’ll taste better. I’m also thinking about expanding the arbor, plant some fruit that we can sell.”
      He talked a lot about his plans. Grandma said, “Whatever you want.”
      Since she couldn't work in the fields and couldn't tend the arbor, grandma raised cows, one each year. She’d send someone to buy one when the grass was growing, fatten it up, and sell it when the grass dried up. She could make some money that way.
      Granddaughter let her do what she wanted, since she couldn’t stop her, anyway. She just cut alfalfa and other fresh grass with her husband and son, chopped it into small, one-inch pieces and piled it up close to the cowshed. They chopped corn and beans into one-inch pieces, too, and piled it even closer to the cowshed so it would be convenient for Grandma to feed it to the cow. They also brought water from the cellar and ladled it into a trough so Grandma could easily lead the animal to it.
      Grandma had never given her cows commercial feed, just grass and cereals, and not anything unclean. She said cows are big creatures connected with humans. If you give them unclean things to eat, people would bear the burden of your crime. Not only that, she washed everything she gave them thoroughly. She said that if someone wades across a river when they're dirty, the river will cry for forty days, or if they step on the grass, the grass will cry for forty days. Also, a dirty person feeding a cow is an attack on the cow, and it won’t eat or put on weight.
      Grandma stood watching the cow while she fed it. It stuck out its tongue, rolled the forage into his mouth, chewed it absent-mindedly a few times and then swallowed it, seemingly afraid that someone might snatch it away. It was only reassured when the fodder was gone, and then slowly chewed its cud. Grandma took a brush and swept the dung and grass clippings from its body. The cow loved being clean, full and carefree, and it washed the hair on its body with its tongue. Afterwards its hair was bright and shiny, and even a bit wavy. Grandma was so tiny standing there that the cow looked on her as a little baby, or maybe as a calf. It stretched out its head, stuck out its tongue and licked her face. Grandma didn’t try to avoid it and let the cow lick her.
      Granddaughter saw her with her face all wet and said, “Hurry on over here and I’ll wash it off. It’s filthy.”
      “Cows eat grass,” Grandma said with a smile. “It’s clean, not dirty.”
      Grandma took the cow out to drink. It’d been tied up for a long time, and when she loosened the tether, it saw a chance to get away and run around freely for a while. It tried to express its happiness by twisting its body, shaking its head and bucking. Such a big cow, if it had swung its head and pulled with all its strength, it would’ve sent Grandma flying into the air like a kite. When Granddaughter saw what was happening, she was so scared she screamed. Grandma seemed not to hear her, but the cow did. It saw how small grandma was, like a child it could bully. It didn’t realize she was an old lady, maybe older than its own grandmother, until it looked closer. Then it got ashamed, bowed its head and obediently followed Grandma to the trough to drink.
      Grandma continued to get smaller and eventually couldn’t reach the cow’s fodder crib, so it was difficult for her to feed the animal. She had to hoist a basket onto her back, then lift it up high to pour the fodder into the crib. The sight made even the cow feel sorry for her and it wanted to help, but without hands it could only use its mouth. It stretched its head out to pull the basket up, but it was clumsy and moved too quickly, turning the basket over on Grandma’s head and spilling grass clippings on her, her head covering and her hair. Granddaughter tidied up her head covering, gave her a shampoo and combed her hair.
      Grandma's hair was thin and soft, like a baby's birth fuzz, and it stuck to her scalp. Granddaughter combed it cautiously for fear of pulling it out. When a baby's birth fuzz is shaved off, more hair will grow, but any hair Grandma lost would be gone for good. Granddaughter pampered Grandma’s hair mainly because she was afraid the old lady would get chilled without it. She remembered the time several years previously when she’d washed her son’s head. She’d known that the little baby didn’t have much hair and that the windows and doors weren’t kept tightly closed, so it had been easy for him to catch cold. She thought, an oldster is probably the same as a baby.
      Old people are just like babies. If you don’t let them do something, they insist on doing it. Granddaughter didn’t want Grandma to feed the cow anymore, so Grandma insisted on feeding it. Granddaughter knew they made money from the cows, which made Grandma feel that she was still useful and comfortable with herself. When the cows she tended were sold, Grandma gave the money she’d earned to Granddaughter. Granddaughter took it and saved it up. When the roads or the mosque in the village were being repaired, she always donated the money in Grandma’s name. Grandma’s money had to be used to walk the path of righteousness. 
      Grandma also hoped that raising cows was walking the path of righteousness. 
She said, “When the neighborhood celebrates Mohammed's Birthday and a family spreads Niyyah, their Good Intentions shall anoint the sacrifice, for such is to walk the path of righteousness. If you just slaughter it and eat it, that’s a walk down the garden path.”
      One time when they sold a cow Grandma had raised, it fell into the hands of a butcher who slaughtered it and sold the meat. A customer who’d bought some commented that it was especially delicious. He wanted more, so the butcher came to their home and asked, “Do you have another cow? The one I bought last time was really good eating.”
      Granddaughter quickly stopped him. She pulled him outside the door and told him, “Grandma only raises one cow a year. Come back next year if you want more.” She said it just to get rid of him but was afraid Grandma would hear it. The old lady certainly couldn’t stand it if she knew that a butcher had slaughtered her cow and sold the meat.
      As it was, a little bird eventually whispered it in Grandma’s ear. Even if old people’s vision isn’t so good, there are some things they can see quite clearly; and even if their hearing isn’t so good, there are things they can hear through several walls. It’s said that every living being has a predestined end, a predestined knife awaiting it, but it still upset Grandma that a cow she’d raised had been slaughtered by a butcher for its beef. She stopped raising cows.
      She was still restless and looked for chores to do around the house. When Granddaughter was going to prepare a meal, she’d rush to start the fire. While Granddaughter was cooking, she’d help trim the vegetables. But it wasn’t long before they got gas stoves and electric rice cookers in the countryside, and Grandma wouldn’t mess with electric or gas appliances. She wasn’t good at trimming vegetables, either, because her vision was poor. She couldn’t tell greens from weeds, and mixed yellowed leaves in with the fresh ones. Granddaughter didn’t want to bust her bubble and let her keep trimming, but then quietly redid all the trimming she’d done.
      Grandma’s vision really was lousy. Once when she went to sweep the floor, she saw some socks that her great-grandson had left on the floor and thought they were dead mice. She swept them up and said to Granddaughter in alarm, “What the heck? I get up early in the morning and there’s a pile of dead mice on the floor!” Granddaughter looked and saw it was her son’s cotton socks, and the family laughed about it for several days.
      Grandma laughed, too. She said, “My great-grandson, the lazy Bug! Your socks stink so bad I thought they were a pile of dead mice.”
      “Don’t you ever sweep your Bug out like I really was a bug, Ma’am,” he replied with a laugh.
      Grandma laughed as she chewed him out. “You really are a bad Bug. See if I don’t sweep you out to feed the birds someday.
      When the laughter died down, Granddaughter told Grandma, “You definitely need to slow down.”
      “If a person doesn’t work, what’ll they have to eat?” Grandma replied.
      “In these days of wine and roses, you’re still afraid you won’t get anything to eat.”
      “We’ve got to live frugally. Otherwise, what’ll we do if hard times come again?” Grandma had lived through tough times and was always worried. “Back then we didn't have anything to eat and people starved to death.”
      It wasn’t clear what time she was referring to. Grandma didn’t use the solar calendar to keep track of time, or the old calendar, either. She remembered the
Year of the Great Earthquake, or the Year the Cold Came, the Year My Son was Born, the Year of the Drought, the Year of High Water.... So when Grandma talked about the past, Granddaughter always got confused, but she was used to it and didn’t inquire further. She just listened quietly.
      One time Grandma got to talking about her childhood. She said she was out playing once with some of her little girlfriends and was having such a good time she forgot to eat. Her mother called her from the edge of the village, "Little Bitty Girl, come home to eat." That was Grandma's nickname. It hadn’t occurred to Granddaughter, but now she thought to herself, “Just so. She’s so tiny, if you didn’t call her ‘Little Bitty Girl’, what else would you call her?”
      Grandma had experienced so many things that she’d forgotten a lot of them, only she hadn’t forgotten the time her mother called her home to eat. Grandma imitated the sound of her mother’s voice calling her, “Little Bitty Girl – Come home to eat,” and tears welled up from deep within her eyes. Granddaughter saw her unspoken pain and even wanted to call out Grandma’s nickname, like a mother calling her daughter.

Grandma, one hundred; Granddaughter, fifty

      How old was Grandma, really? No one could say for sure, not even Grandma herself. She said, “I was born in the Year of the Rabbit, so you figure it out.” But no one knew which twelve-year cycle it was, so they came up with different answers. Some said ninety-six, some said a hundred eight, and some said a hundred twenty.
      They could only figure Grandma’s age by comparison. She said she was the same age as Ersa’s mother. The Ersa she referred to was over eighty years old and had been paralyzed and bedridden almost ten years. His children rather neglected him, and he didn’t like being a burden on them, so he wanted to die as fast as possible, but he couldn’t get it done. His mother had died a few decades previously. In fact, anyone you could compare to Grandma had already passed away, so they couldn’t figure her age that way.
      Next they compared her to her tree. She said she’d planted the old jujube at the age of fourteen, which meant she was fourteen years older than the tree. It was still in the garden – her grandson hadn’t dig it up – but it was so old it didn’t even look like a tree. Its trunk and branches were shriveled up and it didn’t have many leaves. Jujube trees aren’t like pine or cypress trees, which grow taller the longer they live; jujubes grow to a certain height and then stop. Some of them even get shorter as they age, like people do, so there was no way to tell how old this one was.
      So how long had Grandma been alive, anyway? Let's just say she’d not only lived longer than her peers, but also longer than most of her children. Her daughter had passed several years previously. Her son and daughter-in-law were also in their seventies or eighties and couldn't take care of her, and in fact hadn't been to see her for quite some time. Actually, they did come over every few days to make sure Granddaughter was taking care of her, but they didn't want to go inside and see her. Maybe they were afraid to see what she looked like, afraid they’d become like that in the future.
      It wasn’t just that Grandma’s body was shriveling; her very bones seemed to have shrunk. She looked like a six or seven-year-old child. It was impossible to imagine that she’d given birth to a son and daughter and taken over raising a grandson and great-grandson. She also seemed to have forgotten that she still had a child and didn’t recognize her son and daughter-in-law when she did see them on occasion. She only recognized Granddaughter.
      Things had been difficult for Granddaughter during the last few years. Her eldest son had come home without completing school, wanting to get married and start a family. Her younger son and daughter had both tested into college and had to be supported. Her man had injured his arm, leaving him disabled, so he couldn’t do heavy work and no one would hire him if he left the village to look for a job. The couple could only scrape money out of the land to support their children and care for the old lady. Luckily her father-in-law and mother-in-law had other children and grandchildren to take care of them, so granddaughter mainly had only to provide care for Grandma.
      Grandma was no longer able to walk unsupported and couldn't go out with Granddaughter and her husband to work in the fields. They had to leave her home alone. After working a while, Granddaughter would run home to give Grandma something to eat and drink, help her to the bathroom, and see that she hadn’t fallen out of bed or slipped and fell. It was just like taking care of her children when they were little.
      Grandma got lonely being left at home. After not seeing Granddaughter for a while, she’d complain that she didn’t want her. Sometimes she’d throw a bit of a fit and say she wanted to go back to her own home. Granddaughter tried to work close to home as much as she could, so she could come and see her from time to time. When she was doing housework at home in another room, she’d also call out to Grandma every once in a while, just as a greeting. The villagers all praised Granddaughter for taking such good care of Grandma.
      Grandma rarely got sick, which made things easier. She’d just catch cold a few times every winter and cough for a few days. There was an old rule in the village that, when an elderly person got sick, everyone would go see them no matter who it was. They’d all come to visit Grandma when she in her eighties and nineties and got sick, and they’d told her “Keep going, you’ll live to be a hundred!”
      She’d replied, “If I live to be a hundred, I’ll be an ugly old creature."
      Now she really had lived to be a hundred. While she’d stayed healthy these last few years, the villagers, and especially the older ones, still visited her every year. She was embarrassed to see them and said, "I just keep on living. It’s such a hassle for you to keep coming to see me every year.”
      “What’re you saying,” they answered. "We come here because we hope some of your good fortune will rub off on us. It’s really rare for anyone to live a hundred years. When we visit you, we get steeped in your luck.”
      Grandma seemed to get even more embarrassed. “Allah won’t take me,” she said, bowing her head. “It seems living so long is a shameful thing.”
      “You just keep on going. You can live to be two hundred.”
      When Granddaughter heard that, she thought, “Grandma’s already so tiny, if she really lives to be two hundred years old, what’ll be left for Allah to take? She’ll have long since shrunk into the ground.” Then she had another thought. “If she keeps going that long, I won’t be here anymore, so who’ll take care of her?”
      Granddaughter got through those most difficult times. Her eldest son found a wife, while her other two kids both graduated from college and got jobs in the city. Granddaughter could relax and spend more time taking care of Grandma. The old lady couldn’t breathe well and was incontinent. She shyly said, “I’m just a shell of my former self.”
      Granddaughter didn’t turn her back on the old woman. She bought disposable diapers and put them under her. She washed her clothes and bedding as soon as they got dirty. Grandma spent so much time in bed sleeping that Granddaughter was afraid she’d get bedsores, so she helped her walk around. It was dark inside so Granddaughter 
took her outside to get some sun. Sometimes Granddaughter’s oldest son took her outside, but that embarrassed Grandma a little. She wouldn’t let him help her until he told her, “You held me when I was little, so now I’m holding you.” Then she warmed up and held on to him.
      Grandma didn't seem happy with the family taking care of her like this. She had something on her mind. When the villagers came to see her again, Grandma told them, “I’m afraid Allah’s forgotten this old woman.”
      The villagers smiled at that. “It’d be great if He did,” they said. “You could live forever.”
      Granddaughter hadn’t known what was on Grandma’s mind until then. “She’s lived enough and is afraid Allah’s forgotten her.” Granddaughter mulled it over and had a startling thought. “That’s a scary idea, that someone could be left behind in this world!”
      Grandma was really anxious about it. “I want to sleep in the soil,” she said.
      Granddaughter knew what Grandma meant. The villagers called an old person’s death “
Impermanence”, a Buddhist concept referring to the transitory nature of life, but they also called it “sleeping in the soil”. She deliberately tried to change the subject right away. “You don’t want to sleep on this comfy bed? You want to sleep on a hard earthen kang, instead?”
      That reminded Grandma. “I want to sleep on the kang,” she said.
      Once Grandma said it, Granddaughter had no choice and moved her over to the bed-stove. She was afraid the old lady would get chafed, so she covered the bed with felt, a cotton pad and a blanket. Grandma didn't want them and told her to take them off. She wanted a woven mat. She also wanted Granddaughter to dig up a clod of soil for her to sleep on.
      That reminded Granddaughter of how Grandma had waited on her during her sitting month. She’d dug up a clod of soil in the hills, broke it into pieces and ground it into fine bits to pile on the kang. Granddaughter and her son had slept on it. At the time she’d thought it was unsanitary, but remembering it now, she thought it had been quite comfortable. So she dug up a clod of soil in the hills, broke it into pieces and ground it into fine bits to pile on the kang for Grandma to sleep on. When Grandma saw the soil, she didn’t even want to wear clothes, so Granddaughter had to take them off her. Sleeping on the soil, Grandma was finally happy. Her hands and feet flailed around, and she squealed and squeaked just like a baby.
      Then another baby was added to the family – Granddaughter's grandson. 

      This baby was born in a hospital, and the new mother sat her month on a regular bed, not on a kang. Granddaughter waited on her for the month, and she didn’t insist that her daughter-in-law spend the month on a clod of soil.
      Grandma knew that her great-grandson’s wife had had a baby and wanted to go see it. Granddaughter walked her in. Grandma seemed to want to say something when she saw the new mother and her baby sleeping on a bed, but she didn’t say it. Her eyes were immediately drawn to the new-born and she climbed up beside the child. Granddaughter’s grandson? Great-grandchild’s child? – Grandma didn’t know what to call the newborn. She gazed at the child, smiling, and murmured, “Baby”.
      The child looked up at the sound of her voice and she got quite excited. She looked at the baby, then turned to look at Granddaughter, and the wrinkles on her face looked like a flower in bloom. She said “baby” again, then again, and then a third time. The baby didn’t react at all, not even a smile, but Grandma was still happy. Maybe she thought of herself as a child, or maybe as an infant only a few days old with a wrinkled face, and she seemed to have found herself a partner.
      Grandma was happy for now and wanted to spend all day with the baby. That made things easier for Granddaughter. She had to watch both of them anyway, so keeping them together was most convenient. Her little grandson grew bigger day by day. He learned to laugh, climb, walk, and talk. Grandma crawled along with her little grandson and followed him as he learned to walk, and laughed with him and spoke with him. He learned to say “Grandma” and Granddaughter happily said “Oh.” Grandma looked at her from off to the side and her lips moved a little.
      Granddaughter was a little worried. If Grandma called her “Grandma”, should she answer?


2017年中国短篇小说精选 Best of Chinese Short Stories 2017, p. 090
长江文艺出版社,责任编辑:刘程程,周阳;Translated from 搜狐 at
http://www.sohu.com/a/214753551_156481




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