Chinese Stories in English
Love in the Sky
They're still living on the mountaintop, but they're not like the people in "Peach Blossom Spring", the story about the refugees [who found Utopia while] fleeing from China's First Emperor. They're just a couple who eloped to that place many years ago.
They originally lived in Xiushui County, Jiangxi Province, and were related by marriage – the woman was the wife of the man's nephew. Her husband had gone to Guangdong Province to find work and was away from home for many years, so she'd had to turn to his uncle for help. To sow the fields, she had to ask Uncle to drive the ox for the plowing; to sell her pig, she had to ask Uncle to catch it and tie it up. Sometimes she'd get headachy and feverish and had to rely on Uncle to get the doctor, or to fetch herbs and water to make a medicinal soup for her. Step by step, the two of them bonded. At the time, she was the village primary school teacher.
A little bird told the nephew about it. He hurried home with a kitchen knife in his hand, threatening murder, and frightened the adulterers into running away. They hit the road with almost nothing – they hadn't even had time to take a needle. They knew they'd committed incest and were too embarrassed to go back to the village, so they drifted around, working temporary jobs and begging, until they came from Jiangxi to these parts. Eventually they heard about an abandoned field and an empty hut on the old mountain, and they quietly settled in.
After about half a year, a man hauling timber on a horse cart saw smoke from a cooking fire and spread the word. That's how we came to know about the squatters on the mountain. The town government sent someone to investigate and found out they weren't spies or criminals, just a couple shacking up in defiance of public morals, an unregistered household wrecking the family planning program.
Logically such people should have been sent back to the place where they were registered. However, some folks living further down the mountain spoke up on their behalf, saying they felt sorry for the crazy man and woman. The couple had declared they would die together when they'd heard they were going to be sent back. They'd said they would hang themselves from a rafter—even though the woman was pregnant. When things got to that point, it didn't seem like a good idea to force them out. Besides, no one else was farming those fields on the mountain, anyway, and it would be an affront to the ancestors to let them lie fallow, so the best thing would be to let the couple grow some grain on them.
The village cadres couldn't think of anything better to do, so they solved the problem by doing nothing.
We climbed up a high slope to get to the runaways' earthen hut. There were dogs in the yard, as well as three babies, Do Re and Mi, obviously a series of love children. The kids had spotted us right away and began shouting excitedly. They must have thought we were aliens from outer space, or maybe human-shaped hallucinations.
But was this the Garden of Eden? There were no roses or crystal necklaces, nor was there an inexhaustible supply of sweet and fragrant fruit. Instead, pigs and sheep and poultry had had the run of the place for so long that the air was filled with the acrid smell of dung. The residents' tools and furniture were spread around haphazardly. It was an overly casual life lived both indoors and out – the entire area was their living room.
An old man was milling rice. He didn't look like the children's father, more like their grandfather. His back was bent and he was missing some teeth. Not just his skin was yellow, but his teeth were, too, and his hair. Every part of him had been baked by the sun into a uniform, sallow yellow, like an old piece of smoked pork. He didn't quite know how to greet us, and just smiled without saying anything: His lips moved a bit but still no words came out. He scurried in and out a few times but didn't bring us any tea. Finally he wrung his hands and had to go out to the fields to get his partner.
She came home after a while, carrying a load of corn, walking out of a rainbow in the mountain mist. She was a bit chubby, with big arms and a rounded waist, but her eyes were big and her eyebrows long, and she still had something of a young woman's charms. She was clearly much too young for the man. She had indeed been a teacher, and it showed in her natural and graceful manner as she entered the compound. Her Jiangxi accent carried a hint of Beijing dialect.
Mr. Long, also a teacher, watched the three children hide timidly behind her mother as he asked their ages. He'd come there to get them registered for school.
"Who says they're not [being schooled at home]? That's just the way it is, anyway, for people of our generation. They're only children...." Suddenly the woman's eyes were getting red.
"It's a ways to get to the school, but they can board there. It doesn't cost too much...."
The kids got excited and couldn't control themselves when they heard about going to school. They recited the pinyin alphabet in loud voices to show that they weren't completely uneducated. One of them also sang a song which had obviously been taught to him by his mother.
"I picked up a penny by the side of the lane,
"And handed it over to Mr. Policeman...."
"Is that how to sing it?" The mother felt the second line was off key and had to correct it. "And handed it over to Mr. Policeman.... That's how to do the transition. Do it again!"
In fact, she didn't sing it quite right, herself.
One of the other kids was bringing his penmanship practice book over when a billowing cloud blew in on a gust of wind. It followed along the lie of the mountain until it hit a boulder, splashing upwards like a wave. It froze momentarily, high up in the air, then slowly collapsed and engulfed us. But our hostess didn't invite us to have a seat inside. She seemed to take this kind of thing for granted.
Mr. Long was from this area and had himself gone down the mountain to go to school when he was just a small child. He stood there in the haze with our hostess, two silhouettes in the mist, and talked about farming, making charcoal, digging ditches, leopards and other foggy things. Finally he came back to the even foggier subject of schooling. As he saw it, the problem would be resolved if the children boarded at the school. The parents could drop them off and pick them up again every weekend at a place halfway down the mountain.
"How would we ever know what day of the week it is?" The voice coming from that part of the mist was a bit flustered. "We only know when it's daytime or nighttime, and whether it's a full moon or a new moon. Up here on the mountain, we can't even figure out when it's New Year's."
"You've got to have a calendar."
"And what would happen if we tore a page off by mistake? There's no one around here we could ask."
"Well.... Is there a cell phone signal?"
Through the mist I could barely see Mr. Long pulling out his cell phone. He'd forgotten that, even if there was a signal, charging a cell phone would be a problem.
While they were talking about these things, the cloud began quietly to dissolve into patchy rivulets of fog, flowing into a waterfall, a river and a lake of fog in a ravine on the right side of the mountain. We were thrown back into the bright sunshine. Wisps of cloud like cotton strands were left behind to drip down from our shoulders and the palms of our hands, flowing down to and swirling around our shoes.
We now returned to the subject with more clarity. I said there was a kind of small hydroelectric generator, not too expensive, that could run lights and a television for one family. I'd seen them in other mountainous areas and they were worth a try here.
Our hostess expressed her thanks for these recommendations and worked with us to compile the costs of storing water to generate electricity.
When she saw us pick up our walking sticks to leave, she warmly invited us to stay for dinner. She said they had freshly milled rice, and dried fish, too, and she insisted that we eat before we left.
It wasn't that we didn't want to eat a meal up there in the sky, but we were worried that going down the mountain would be dangerous if we didn't get back to Thousand Stone Cave before dark. The dark ravines get cold quickly and we were already shivering, so we rolled down our sleeves, buttoned up our jackets, and hurried back to the land below the clouds.
2011中国年度小小说, 2011China Mini-Stories Annual, Li River Publishing, p.12
Also published here.
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