Chinese Stories in English
King Family Village on Earth
I still like the ducks better. There were eighty-six of them in all. The team leader turned them over to me. He told me in no uncertain terms: "Eighty-six, count them well. You can have more, but you can't have less."
There's no way I could count them. It's not that I didn't know how, of course. I can count from one to a thousand when I have the time. But I couldn't get a good count of that herd of ducks. They kept moving. Not one of them was willing to stand still like a good little duck for even one minute. One time I counted the eighty-six ducks as one hundred and two. Numbers are unreliable, anyway, because they're dead. Ducks are living things. So the numbers are always a lot bigger than the ducks.
I took the ducks out every day at daybreak. I herded the eighty-six of them down to the river – or maybe it was a hundred and two of them – then along the river to Coal Pond. It's a good place, right next to our village on the farthest east side. The pond is really wide, but very shallow, with water grass growing all over the bottom.
I was eight full years old. Logically I shouldn't have been herding ducks at that age. I should've been sitting in a classroom listening to the teachers tell stories about revolutionary heroes like Liu Hulan or Lei Feng. But I couldn't. I'll have to wait until I'm ten before I can get into school. Our commune has a rule: Children go to school at ten and graduate at fifteen, and then they're strong laborers.
My father was getting more and more interested in the night. Every day he waited. He was waiting for it to get dark. Back then he'd gotten hooked on the universe all of a sudden. When it was late and everyone was quiet, he liked to hang out in the pitch black with the faraway stars. He stood on a ridge between the rice paddies with a flashlight in one hand and a book in the other.
It was that book What's In The Universe? that he'd brought back from the county seat a few days before. All night he'd crane his neck looking up, gazing at the starry sky all by himself. If he saw anything important, he'd put his head down into the book, turn on the flashlight and flip a few pages. What he was doing was a complete mystery, but his actions made me believe that the universe existed only at night. When it got light – like the song says, "The east is red, the sun has risen" – that's when the universe actually disappeared. All that was left in the whole world was pigs and more pigs, dogs and more dogs, people and more people.
Father'd brought a World Map back from the county seat, too. He stuck it up in the gable in the living room. No one expected it, but this World Map started something sort of big in King Family Village.
It was probably after dinner. My house was full of people, mostly young, who'd all come over to see the world. Everyone was talking, except I wasn't. That didn't keep us from noticing a bit of basic knowledge about the world, though: the world shoots out along this central spoke "China". It's just like a lump of dough that someone flattened out with a rolling pin, so it had to spread out in all four directions and lots of colors, giving rise to the seven continents and the four oceans. China's contribution to the world could be seen at a glance on the World Map.
We left our house together after we'd finished looking at the map. When we got to the Production Brigade's gate, we naturally split into several different groups according to our ages. We started discussing what we'd learned.
In a nutshell we talked about these points: First, exactly how big is the world? The map had everything on it, even the U.S. Imperialists and the Soviet Revisionists. So why wasn't our King Family Village on it? The problem was, everybody in the village knew where the village was, so how the heck could the map overlook it? We would have to ask the Brigade's Party Branch for their thoughts on this.
Second, and this point was raised by Patriot Wang, if we wanted to dig straight down like we were digging a well, but without stopping, he said, just kept on digging, where would we get to? The world surely has a foundation, that couldn't be doubted. But where was it? What was holding us up? And if whatever was holding us up disappeared, where would we fall to?
This question intrigued all of us. We huddled together and, obviously, started to worry about it. We just had to express our deepest concern about this issue. Of course, there was no answer, and because there was no answer, our faces were all exceptionally downcast. You could say it was like night coming over us. But it was Patriot Wang who broke through the darkness by raising a question that scared everyone even more.
Third, if we went outside and walked straight ahead, we would certainly come to the edge of the world. That would be OK in the daytime, but if it was night, one foot would step off, and we would definitely fall into a chasm. The chasm would be a bottomless abyss, no doubt about it. That is, after we fell in, we wouldn't die from the fall, or from drowning. We'd just keep falling, falling, straight down, falling forever.
What Patriot Wang said had really gotten to us. We felt terror, unlimited terror, terror without end. We huddled close together because of the terror. However, a doubt was soon raised about Patriot's idea. Love-the-Poor Wang immediately said it was impossible. He'd examined the map very meticulously and the ends of the world aren't land at all, there's only ocean. And there's no roads, either, so we couldn't walk there. He added that the map was absolutely clear. The Atlantic Ocean is on the left side of the world, and it's on right side, too, and how we could possibly walk into the Atlantic Ocean?
What he said made sense. We were all grateful and sighed in relief. Patriot Wang, though, immediately started to argue about it. He asked "What if we were on a boat?"
That threw us back into the bottomless abyss. The situation was quite grim. You could say we were on the eve of destruction.
Yeah, what if we were on a boat? If we took a boat, it wouldn't just be us that fell in the abyss. The sampan would go in, too. The loss could never be made up. All of us youngsters lowered our heads. To tell the truth, none of us wanted to hear any more about this.
Right at this crucial moment, it was once again Love-the-Poor Wang who stepped up to the plate. He didn't directly counterattack Patriot Wang, but he did lead us straight to a conclusion.
"Why's that?" Patriot wanted to know.
"Let me ask you this," Love-the-Poor said with a laugh. "If the boat could fall in, what would happen to all the world's water?"
We all took a look behind us at Carp River and it was still there. It hadn't stuck on wings and flown away, and it hadn't gone roaring off, either. It was as quiet as a well. We saw hope in that and settled down. We felt confident that, as long as the river was here, we'd be here, too. We all looked at Love-the-Poor with admiration and respect. The deed he had done for the world would never be forgotten.
However, I was still uneasy. Or, I should say, I still had doubts. Why didn't all the world's water trickle off the edge of the Atlantic? What force, after all, maintained the ocean?
Suddenly I remembered the World Map. I could be sure that the world's shape must have been absolutely square in the beginning, and the edges of the Atlantic surely had been straight lines. The huge arc on the map just showed the problem, namely, that it was holding water. Like an archer's bow, it had curved around under the tension. It was in serious danger of collapsing, but ultimately it didn't collapse. This was miraculous strength, incredible strength, strength that we can't fathom, but still, a kind of strength that does exist.
We absolutely can imagine that a gap will bust open in the edge of the Atlantic Ocean someday. The seawater will disappear into the endless black like meteors in the sky. All the waters in the world are connected like they're holding hands, and once they know about the hole they'll get sucked right in.
The Carp River that runs through Wang Family Village will rush away. At that time the mysterious river bottom will indeed be laid bare before our eyes, with water grasses, fish and shrimps, crabs, mussels, eels, boats and ducks spread all over the place. Maybe even the five-fen coin I lost last year will appear by our family's dock.
But will five fen be able to buy back all the world's water? In less than two days, the world will start to stink to high heaven.
I stood there, numb. My heart was like the universe on a summer night, with every star being a hole. I didn't go home, but instead went straight to my father. I went to him for safety and to find the answers to these questions.
He was standing on the ridge between two rice paddies, his book in one hand and his flashlight in the other. He was looking up, completely absorbed. The sky was full of stars, more beautiful together than any one would have been alone. There was nothing in the whole word except me and my father.
I asked, "Where is Wang Family Village, really?"
"We're on the Earth," he answered. "Earth is one of the stars in the universe."
I turned my head up and looked at the sky. I had to find where in the universe the Earth was, to see where it was flashing. I took the flashlight from my father's hands and shined it all around the sky, looking everywhere. The stars were twinkling, but no light was reflected from the flashlight. Without reflected light, the flashlight completely lost all usefulness.
I got nervous and asked, "Where's the Earth?"
Father said, "You can't find the Earth with your eyes. You have to use your feet."
Father cast his eyes around the blackness surrounding us. He hesitated a long time, flicking at the nearby fireflies with his hand. Then he said, "Let's not talk about earthly things."
I shoved the flashlight back in his hand and walked away, looking down toward the ground. When I was some distance away, I shouted back toward him, "Everyone says you're crazy."
I was sitting on a small sampan with eighty-six ducks around me, or maybe it was a hundred and two ducks. They were putting everything they had into eating and drinking, and were totally unaware of my inner fears. There wasn't a cloud in the sky and the universe was gone, too. There was only the sun.
The water of Coal Pond reflected the sunlight back up onto me. My body was covered with water-spots, dark ones, twinkling away. That didn't mean the light was shining into my heart, though, not even a little bit. There was only me on the pond, me and my eighty-six or maybe a hundred and two ducks.
I admit I was a little scared. Because I was on the water, in a boat. I was really scared that Coal Pond's waters would start to flow away, that they'd go roaring off recklessly toward some faraway place. I knew about the waters. They'd start flowing away some day, and in the time it takes to blink your eyes they'd change into a slippery eel, one that you couldn't grab hold of no matter how hard you tried. In the end you'd just watch them going into the distance, with nothing in your hands.
All this trouble was brought on by the World Map. But I'm not going to complain about the World Map or anything. Even if that damn map didn't exist, everything in the world would still be the same. The danger would certainly be there. As much as I started hating my father, the troubles with life in this world are always that huge. Don't ask, don't care, what's the use of wanting to screw around with the universe.
Danger is tempting at any time, though. It takes me deep into the tireless, limitless realm of my imagination. My thoughts press onward crazily along the surface of Coal Pond, swift as the wind and quick as lightning, straight to the Atlantic Ocean. The Atlantic is really big, bigger than Coal Pond and Great Long Lake.
Suddenly the seawater changes direction ninety degrees and dives straight down. Of course, when that happens you wish you could change into a bird. You head down vertically, following along the perpendicular section of the Atlantic, that is, along the edge of the world. You see largehead hairtails, swimmer crabs, dolphins, goblin sharks, inkfish and sea eels, floating contentedly in the depths of the Atlantic Ocean. They're cruising along the edge of the world, expecting to bust out.
But the edge of the world stops them. "Plunk", the fish that try to bust through get bounced back, just like the sparrows in the classroom get bounced back off of the windows. The basic reason, I discover, is that the edge of the world must have solidified from some kind of glass-like material. The material lets light through but is dense enough to keep the wind out, just like glass. I'm certain this material is ice. It's ice that blocks the sea water's way out. It's ice that preserves the stable arrangement of the world.
I picked up the bamboo punting pole and slapped it down on the surface of the water. "Splash", the ducks stuck out their necks and tried to escape as fast as possible. I wanted to herd my ducks to go with me to the edge of the world, to take a look around.
I herded the ducks out of Coal Pond and over to Great Long Lake. I couldn't see the other side of the lake but I was confident that, if I crossed it, then I'd just have to cross the Pacific Ocean and I'd come to the Atlantic.
I wasn't able to get across Great Long Lake. In fact, I hadn't been on the lake very long before I lost track of my direction. My heart was full of fighting spirit, full of passion. It was just that I didn't know which way to go: Looking at the vast lake, I gasped, and my fighting spirit and passion plummeted.
I was towed back the next morning by two members of the commune in another sampan. The ducks were gone. The losses from my unsuccessful expedition were quite heavy. Our Second Production Team had lost the eighty-six ducks forever, or maybe it was a hundred and two ducks.
The two commune members didn't take me to my father. They handed me over directly to the Team Leader. He reached out a hand and boxed my ear, and then he dragged me over to Brigade Headquarters.
The Brigade's Party Secretary was there, along with my father. Father was very differential. He was offering cigarettes to everyone, and lighting the cigarettes for them.
My father came over as soon as he saw me. "What about the ducks?" he asked sternly.
I strained to open my eyes wide. "Lost 'em."
Father looked at the Team Leader and looked at the Party Secretary. "Where did you lose them?" he yelled.
"I just lost them," I said, "They're gone."
Father looked at me closely and put his hand on my head. His hand was white and cold as ice. Then he slapped me hard on the mouth. I fell to the floor in a daze.
I've heard people in the village say that my father kicked me, too, after I fell to the ground, and told the Party Secretary that I was mentally ill. Later the people in Wang Family Village have always said I'm crazy.
My name has been "Crazy" since then. I'm very happy about it. It shows one thing at least, that I've been in the same boat as my father since the year I was eight.
21st Century Chinese Literature Compendium; 2002 Short Stories, p. 115
Translated from version at http://baike.baidu.com/view/1864652.htm
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