Chinese Stories in English
My Father's Paramour
My father, Open Lui, was drop-dead handsome when he was young. He was six-one and could make set shots at basketball – no need for jump shots. He’d been to high school, too, one of only three in Rapeseed Slope at the time. After he graduated, he went home and farmed for just half a year before becoming a substitute teacher at the village primary school. He took over a phys-ed class and lead students playing basketball all day long. He was fair-skinned, agile and strong, and looked particularly striking when he ran around the playground in white shorts and a red top. It’s said that Select Li became enamored with him when she saw him playing ball. Later she became his paramour.
As his daughter, I of course shouldn’t speak so unabashedly about his love affair. Besides, it is a rather embarrassing subject. When I was a child, I’d get mad right then and there whenever someone mentioned him and his paramour. I’d cry and swear and pounce on them to scratch their faces. When I was a bit older, I’d get uncomfortable when people talked about them and would feel like I had nowhere to hide. I wouldn’t say anything, though, just turn around and look straight ahead as I walked away. Now I’ve reached middle age and have seen, been through and become indifferent to a lot about the human condition, so when I encounter someone talking about Father and Select, I maintain an air of unconcern and don’t lose my temper. Not only that, I’ll often think to myself about the past, which gives rise to a lot of rueful feelings about life.
Select was also a teacher at the village primary school. She taught music. She had a small mouth, small as a quail’s egg, but her eyes in contrast were almost as big as chicken’s eggs. She could sing and dance, too. The tune she did best was the Shanxi folk song "Cherries are Delicious but the Trees are Hard to Grow." The audience would cheer wildly when she sang it solo while dancing on stage. Father was one of the most loyal members of her audience. People said he’d throw flowers on the stage every time he watched, jasmine flowers, peonies, roses and rapeseed blossoms that he picked from the edge of the playground.
Father was three years younger than Select and she was already married when he went to substitute teach at the village primary school. Her husband was from a neighboring village, Gaze on Mother Mountain. He’d been a soldier and was later transferred to the Automobile Factory in Shiyan City, the biggest city in our area, where it seems he was an electric welder. Select’s family was from Smelter Strip, another neighboring village. She’d been recommended for two year’s teacher training in the County seat after she graduated from junior high, and from there was assigned to teach music at the Rapeseed Slope elementary school. She and the welder were introduced by a matchmaker. They only saw each other twice before they married.
He was quite a bit older than she was, and thin and dark-complected. In terms of physical appearance, he wasn’t a good match for her at all. The matchmaker said that Select just had to marry the welder and she’d get transferred to Shiyan City before long. Select was gullible back then and believed it, and so reluctantly agreed to the marriage. She didn’t discover she’d been tricked until after they were married. She learned not only that she wouldn’t be transferred, but that she and the welder would be spending pathetically few days together. Except for the summer and winter vacations, Select lived basically as an ignored mistress.
To this day I haven’t figured out whether Father or Select was the instigator in their relationship. One thing is certain, though; they’d known each other less than half a year when they got together. There was a cave behind the elementary school, deep but with a small entry, which stayed warm in winter and cool in summer. Red Army soldiers used to live in it. Father and Select never had a lover’s rendezvous on campus, because of the many eyes and ears of the people at school, and instead would make their way to the cave. They were quite circumspect about it, always coming and going separately, but they were discovered nonetheless. It was at dusk one weekend. They’d gone to the cave again, and after they finished and were about to put their clothes back on, the school’s Headmaster burst into the cave with two teachers.
It was the early seventies, when minor things like that between men and women were treated like huge disasters. Exposure was calamitous. On the day after their discovery, the school opened a struggle session against father. The Headmaster, who’d studied carpentry, took it on himself to personally make a wooden sign and hang it around Father's neck with hemp rope. The sign said “dissolute” in crude, black characters. The Headmaster had always secretly liked Select and wanted to protect her, so he wouldn't let her name be mentioned, much less put her on the stage to be struggled against. She sat quietly in the audience with her head hanging so low that no one could see her face. When the criticisms were done, the Headmaster announced loudly that, after studying the matter, the school had decided to terminate Open Lui as a substitute teacher and he would return home to farm that very day.
Select stood up at once, before the Headmaster had even finished speaking. With her head held high and her chest swelled with pride, she said, “Headmaster, please don’t terminate Mr. Open Lui. Terminate me if you want to terminate someone!”
The Headmaster was startled and his face turned dark. “Why?”
Select didn’t hesitate a bit. “It was me that started the affair.”
Now Father was shocked. He stared straight at Select for some time without saying anything. Then, after a long silence, he opened his mouth and shouted, “No, I was the instigator! Fire me! I’ll go home today!”
As soon as he said that, the Headmaster quickly waved his hand at Select and said, “Since he admits it was him, why do you want to bring this down on yourself?”
At the end of the meeting that day, Father immediately gathered his bags and left the school. It was almost noon but no one asked him to stay for lunch, and no one said goodbye. He walked alone across the field where he’d played ball every day, accompanied only by his silent shadow on the ground. Suddenly, as he was about to exit through the school gate, he heard someone running up behind him. The urgent footsteps made his heart beat faster. He stopped and turned slowly, and saw Select running towards him.
“What’ve you come here for?” he asked in surprise.
She didn’t answer, but her face was covered with tears. She was carrying a bulging bag in her hand, and it was wet in several spots from her tears. She stopped in front of Father and held the bag out to him.
Father didn't take it. He asked in confusion, “What’s in the bag?”
Select raised one hand to wipe her tears. “I knitted a sweater for you,” she said through her sobs. “I just finished the stitches on the collar. Take it, it’ll be nice to wear when the weather gets cold. There’s a few mooncakes, too. You can eat them for lunch on your way!” She stuffed the bag into his arms, then turned and left.
Father held the bag and watched her walk slowly away. The teardrops that had been swirling around in his eyes for a long time suddenly started to flow.
He wasn’t yet twenty years old that year. As a saying popular at the time had it, he was like the sun at eight or nine in the morning. If he hadn’t had a paramour, he might have had a bright future; brilliant career prospects, one could say. Because of Select Li, though, this sun was setting just after it had risen.
Truth is, Select also paid a heavy price. The Headmaster had wanted to protect her in the beginning, and didn’t want to punish her at all. She wasn’t grateful, though. She not only failed to throw herself in his arms, but didn’t even say a word of thanks. The Headmaster was disappointed at first, then annoyed, and then in a pique he reported the matter to the commune’s Education Team. They soon issued an order transferring her to the grade school in Rooster Ditch, a poor, outlying village seven miles or so from Rapeseed Slope, with four mountains and three ravines between them. They demoted her to that ghastly place apparently to keep her away from Father, lest the two of them carry on with their affair.
To their superior’s regret, the feelings between a man and a woman aren’t something that can be blocked by mountains and rivers. That is to say, the relationship between Father and Select didn’t end because of their separation. The story continued to develop.
His parents, my grandparents, had already heard about his affair by the time Father got home from the school. That kind of news couldn’t travel faster if it had wings. The story of Father and Select had gone all around Rapeseed Slope overnight, while they were still being struggled against. As the story went from mouth to mouth, people kept fleshing it out with some added spice, so it had acquired vivid details by the time it reached my grandparents’ ears. Someone had even described the noises Father and Select made when they were carrying on in the cave. They said that when the two cried out, a group of fruit bats perching on the roof had gone crazy with fear and flew all around in the cave. The whooshing sound of their wings as was loud as when the Monkey King wreaked havoc in Heaven.
Grandma was devastated when she learned about Father’s affair. She wasn’t educated, but she knew enough to realize that it would ruin his reputation and prospects. At the same time, she was even more worried that Grandpa would beat the tar out of him. Grandpa was short-tempered and had beaten Father in the past whenever he caused trouble. This time, since Father had made such a big mistake, Grandma was sure Grandpa wouldn’t let him off lightly. What’s more, Grandpa had already cut a bamboo cane and was waiting for Father to get back from the school.
Her tears were still wet when Father walked through the door with his luggage in hand. She didn't say hello or ask him what he was doing home. At the time, Father thought his parents didn't yet know what had happened to him. “The August Moon Festival will be here soon,” he said after a moment’s thought. “I brought you a few mooncakes.” He took one out and handed it to her as he spoke.
Grandma didn't take it. She just looked at him with an unusually complex expression on her face and whispered, “Run if you have to when your dad beats you, and don't....”
Before she could finish, Grandpa rushed out from the back room with the bamboo cane in his hand. His face was steel-blue and his nose was all bent out of shape. He whacked Father on the butt before Father had a chance to react. Father didn’t run, just stood there motionless and let Grandpa whip him. Grandpa beat him and cursed him, “You shameless thing, see if I don’t beat you to death!” He hit him dozens of times and didn’t stop until Father fell face forward on the floor.
The day after he got home, Father was walking along the road with some village commune members on their way to work in the fields. They were giving him funny looks and talking about him. Someone said, “That Open Lui is so handsome, he was born with the makings to find himself a paramour.”
Someone else said, “I’ve seen men who could get paramours, but I’ve never seen anyone start at it as young as Open Lui.”
“It must’ve been his paramour who started it,” another said. “I heard she’s married but her husband lives miles away. If you can’t slake your thirst from distant waters, you take a drink closer to home.”
Father didn’t say anything in response to their taunts, but they didn’t think anything less of him because of his silence. To the contrary, he gained some stature in their eyes. They all offered him cigarettes and vied to give him a light. Father didn't smoke, but it wouldn’t have been proper to refuse them. It was during this time that he acquired his smoking problem.
Just a few days after he turned twenty that autumn, Grandma began asking people to find a wife for him. Grandpa didn’t do much at first, figuring that Father wasn’t old enough and they could wait a couple of years and still not be too late. Grandma had her own thoughts on the matter, though. Although Father and Select were separated after he came home to farm, she was still in his heart, and Grandma was astute enough when it came to people’s lives that nothing Father did escaped her eyes.
During the August Moon Festival, they’d eaten three of the mooncakes that Select had given Father, but he couldn’t let go of the rest and had stored them away. He’d bring them out from time to time to look at them, though, or put them under his nose and inhale their scent. As for the sweater Select had knitted, Father regarded it as an even greater treasure. He’d only worn it once, for his birthday, and when he took it off the next day, he folded it up and put it beside his pillow. He cuddled it every night when he went to sleep. Grandma told Grandpa seriously that they needed to get another woman for him right away to give his heart a break. When she put it that way, Grandpa couldn’t say no.
At first, Father was unhappy when he learned they wanted to introduce him to a prospective wife. The lady matchmakers, on the other hand, were quite enthusiastic and brought a girl around every few days for an interview. The first was a Ms. Zhou from Pan Pipe Plain. She’d no sooner come in the front door when Father ran out the back without even meeting her. Before the second girl came through door, Grandpa warned him that if he ran away again, “You better watch out or this old man’ll beat your legs!” That’s the only reason Father met with any others.
He didn't care for the next three that came over, though. It must be said that the girls were all right – good looking, hardworking and courteous. Grandma and Grandpa said they were fine, but Father didn’t agree. He criticized every little thing: If their faces weren’t white enough, their waists were too thick or their butts too big.
The fifth was a girl named Worthy Shang from Intersection Wash. The night before they were to meet, Grandma made a point of going to Father's bedroom before she went to bed. In a very serious and meaningful tone of voice, she said, “Son, when you meet this girl tomorrow, you mustn’t compare her with that teacher. If she compares favorably to the teacher, would she be willing to marry you?”
Grandma’s words got to Father. He felt like he’d suddenly fallen back to earth from midair. When he met the girl the next day, he was much more enthusiastic than he’d been with the previous ones. He not only smiled at her, but personally poured her a cup of tea. After the meeting, the lady matchmaker called Father aside and asked him circumspectly what he thought of this one. When Father said she was acceptable, the matchmaker was so happy that her hand shot out and patted Father on shoulder. “Finally,” she exclaimed, “one you fancy!”
So the girl named Worthy Shang married Father shortly after their meeting. In the fall of the next year, she gave birth to a girl. That was me. Father gave me a nice-sounding name, Little Declaration Lui.
Their wedding, while not ostentatious, was a rather festive occasion. Grandpa was somewhat concerned with social status, so while changes in customs and conventions were being advocated at the time, he went ahead and hired a band, bought bunches of firecrackers and pasted couplets written in red characters on every door.
Mother was dressed in particularly bright colors that day, with a red cotton jacket on her shoulders and a red scarf wrapped around her head. The dowry she brought along from Intersection Wash was also red – red chests, red tables – practically half the slope was covered in red. She was in a very good mood that day, too, with smile upon smile on her face. It seemed like a person could reach out and pluck off a handful. Something no one expected happened on the night of the wedding, though. When the guests were gone and Father and Mother were preparing to enter the bridal chamber, someone unexpectedly gave Father a blanket.
A young fellow about thirty years old brought it. Father asked, “Why are you giving me a blanket?” The young man said it wasn’t from him, he’d just carried it on the road for someone else. Father, taken aback, asked, “Who?”
“Sorry,” the young man said. “When I was leaving the person told me to just give you the blanket and not say anything else.” With that, conventions notwithstanding, he simply put the blanket in Father’s hands, turned around and rode off on his bicycle. Father chased after him right away and, running alongside the fellow, asked, “Please, where are you from?” The young man turned his head and said, “Rooster Ditch”.
Father knew instantly who’d sent the blanket. There was no doubt it was Select. Although he hadn’t seen her since leaving the school, he knew everything that had happened to her there. Several primary school students lived in the village and he’d often sought them out to ask about her. When he learned she was being transferred to Rooster Ditch, he wanted to go send her off, but Grandpa kept such a close eye on him he hadn’t been able to.
Mother had been sitting by the bed waiting for a long time when Father returned to his new home with the blanket in his arms. She was obviously agitated when she saw him come in. Father looked distracted, though, and his eyes were lifeless. He kept the blanket in his arms after he came inside. His mind was not at all on Mother.
“Who sent you the blanket?” Mother asked, deeply distressed.
“A friend of mine from before.” He was stroking the blanket as though he were caressing a pet.
Mother’s tone changed abruptly. “A woman?”
Father hesitated but then answered truthfully, “Yes.”
Neither of them said anything further. Father held on to the blanket until, after quite some time, he noticed Mother was crying and put it down. Mother’s tears flowed more heavily, like pearls falling from a broken necklace. Father was sensitive and his heart immediately softened. He hurried over to Mother and reached out to dry her tears, but she wouldn’t let him. She slapped his hand away and turned aside. Both of them hardly slept at all that night. Each stayed on their side of the bed with their clothes on. They didn't even touch hands.
On the third day after the wedding, Father pretended to have a headache and went to the commune to see a doctor. He also took the opportunity to go to the Rooster Ditch Primary School, but his luck was bad and he didn’t see Select that time. It was the first day of the school’s winter vacation, and she’d gone to Shiyan City for the holiday.
I went on a trip to Rooster Ditch when I was eight. That’s where I saw Select for the first time. In good conscience, I have to admit she really was good-looking, and not just her mouth and eyes. Everything about her was striking.
There was coal in Rooster Ditch and the commune there had opened a mine. For as long as I could remember, Rapeseed Slope had sent two people there every year to dig coal. Father always wanted to go, but Grandpa wouldn’t let him. Grandpa was the only one in our family that Father was afraid to buck, and after he unfortunately died of a sudden heart attack in the winter of my seventh year, Father became like a wild horse who’d broken his reins. No one could manage him. He got along pretty well with the village cadres and, in the second year after Grandpa’s death, they allocated one of the coal mining quotas to him. Mother and Grandma were both opposed when they heard Father was going to Rooster Ditch, but their opposition didn’t matter. Mother cried up a storm but couldn’t get him to stay home.
Father rarely came home while he was away on this job. We often didn't see hide nor hair of him for a month or two. The other villager who went to dig coal came home two or three times a month. Mother often complained about Father because of this, and sometimes her face would be awash in tears when she thought no one was looking. Grandma felt rather sorry for her and wanted her to go straight to Rooster Ditch and bring Father back, but she refused to go. She wasn’t willing to go fight with him, and besides, she couldn’t leave our home anyway. I was only in first grade at the time, but I still left home early in the mornings and didn’t get home until late. Grandma was in poor health and didn’t feel well two out of every three days. Besides taking care of me and Grandma, Mother had to put the cow out to pasture, feed the pig and tend to the chickens, too. She couldn’t be away from home for any time at all.
Grandma fell ill suddenly at the beginning of that summer, when the weather was just getting hot. She lay in bed and didn't eat anything for several days, and her face looked like a bag of bones. Mother panicked and seemed helpless. Our school happened to be closed for three days so the children could help in the fields, and Mother sent me to Rooster Ditch to bring Father home.
It was the first time I’d been away from home. I left early in the morning and asked for directions as I walked along, and arrived at Rooster Ditch at three in the afternoon. It was in a deep, secluded canyon with row upon row of peaks on either side. The tallest one was shaped like a big rooster, complete with a comb.
The coal mine happened to be at the foot of the big rooster. I saw the huge black hole while I was still some distance away. It looked like an open tiger’s mouth. People were continually coming and going through the hole, all wearing yellow helmets and pushing wheelbarrows. I ran towards the hole in a hurry, thinking that Father must be among them. I got all sweaty from the running, and by the time I got to the hole my shirt was soaking wet. I stood there a long time but didn’t see Father.
I was just starting to get anxious when the other coal miner from our village came out pushing a cartful of coal. I ran up to him right away and asked him about Father. He said Father worked the night shift and wasn’t at the mine during the day. I asked where he was during the day. He hesitated for a long time, then pointed to two rows of red tile buildings across the valley. “Go look for him at the grade school.”
Like my school, Rooster Ditch Elementary School was closed temporarily and there were no students on campus. I walked through the two rows of red tile buildings and found a row of low, black tile buildings behind them, obviously the teachers’ housing. There were five doors, but only one was open. I saw Father right in front of the open door. He was naked and had an axe in his hands. He was chopping wood, swinging the axe hard, and was tired and sweaty. Beads of sweat even hung from the tip of his nose.
He didn't see me. I was about to run towards him when a beautiful woman suddenly came out of the door, and I stopped in my tracks as soon as I saw her. She truly was gorgeous. Her mouth and eyes looked like they’d been painted on her face. I’d never seen such a lovely woman before.
It was Select. She was carrying things when she came out the door, a towel in her left hand and a teacup in her right. She went straight up to Father and said softly, “Take a break, Open!”
Father stopped what he was doing immediately and turned to face her. She looked at him flirtatiously and said, “Here, I’ll wipe your brow for you.” Father quickly lowered his face to her like an obedient child. After wiping his face, she gave him another coquettish look and said that since he was sweating so much, he should have some tea! She held the cup close to Father’s mouth as she said it. He said nothing, just gave his full attention to drinking the tea. I could hear the “glug-glug” as it went down his throat.
I didn’t walk over to Father until he’d finished the tea. He’d never dreamed that I’d come to Rooster Ditch and looked stupefied when I saw me. The axe he was holding slipped to the ground without him noticing.
Select could tell at a glance that I was his daughter. She smiled and bent down to ask me, “Are you Little Declaration?” and reached out to pat my head. I nodded and said yes. She was an observant lady, and also warm-hearted. Next she asked me if I’d had lunch, and when I said no, she looked distressed and said, “My God, this late and you haven’t had lunch yet! You sure must be starving.” She pulled me toward the building. “Come inside and I’ll get you some noodles!”
Select lived in a suite. The first room inside the door was a combination kitchen and living room, and the inner room was a bedroom. Select worked efficiently and gave me a large bowl of cooked noodles not long after we entered the room. They were delicious. She’d cooked them in bacon grease and added MSG and chopped green onions. I ate half the bowl in one gulp, and when I finished the noodles, I found two poached eggs buried in the bottom of the bowl. I almost screamed with surprise and delight when I saw them.
Our family was poor at the time, and we sold all the eggs we collected to make some money. Mother couldn’t bear to let me eat any except on New Year’s or other holidays. I hadn't expected Select to make even one for me and she’d actually cooked two. I stopped my chopsticks short of picking one up and turned my head to look at her, my heart filled with emotion. When she saw my chopsticks weren’t moving, she urged me, “Go ahead, hurry up and eat the eggs.”
I dug in and was about to eat the eggs when a girl about my age suddenly ran out of the bedroom. She ran over to me, looked at the poached eggs in my bowl, and turned back to Select. “Mom, I want some eggs, too.”
“You’ve already had your lunch”, Select said, “and you still want eggs to eat?”
The girl licked her lips. “I want some. You haven’t cooked any for me for days!”
I hadn’t known until then that Select also had a daughter. She was half a year younger than me. Her name was Little Apricot and she was also in the first grade. She’d been doing homework in her bedroom.
I stopped eating as soon as I heard Little Apricot say she wanted some eggs and immediately handed her the one I had left. “Take this one,” I said.
Little Apricot stared at me a moment. Just as she reached out to take the egg, Select stopped her. “Little Apricot,” she said sharply, “you can't have that egg! Your sister went hungry and is just now eating lunch.” She pulled her daughter’s hand away as she spoke and dragged the girl back to the bedroom. Little Apricot turned and looked at me as she went into the bedroom, and I noticed that she was crying. Even the groove under her nose was filled with tears.
I don’t know how I was able to eat that second poached egg. I felt it embodied all the joys and sorrows of life, and I had incredibly mixed emotions. I did finish it though, and just as I did, Father burst in with chopped firewood in his hands. He’d calmed down by then and whispered to me, “Why’re you here?”
“Grandma’s sick,” I said. “Mom wants you to....” Before I finished, Father freaked. He dropped the wood right where he was, turned and ran out the door. Select ran to the door and shouted after him, “Where’re you going?”
Father didn’t even look back at her. “I’m going to the Manager to ask for leave. I’m going back to Rapeseed Slope tonight.”
Father returned before long, looking dejected. It seems the manager wouldn’t let him go home immediately – he’d have to do his night shift before he could leave. “I’ve never seen such an unempathetic manager!” Father said bluntly. Select hurried over to comfort him. “It’s better to go tomorrow morning, because walking at night is dangerous. Besides, Little Declaration is tired from walking all day and should rest tonight.” She was persuasive and Father cooled off quite a bit.
I also ate dinner at Select’s place. Father had wanted to take me to the mine’s canteen but Select wouldn’t have it. She said the food in the canteen was so bad that we had to eat with her. She prepared a lot of dishes, including shredded pork stir-fried with green peppers just for me.
Father was leaving for work after dinner and wanted to take me to the miners' dormitory to sleep, but Select wouldn’t let me go. She said there were lots of mosquitoes there and I should stay at her place. Father thought about it and agreed. After he left, Select cleared the table and I gave her a hand. She kept staring at my shirt while we worked.
“When was your shirt made?” she asked.
“Last year,” I recalled.
“No wonder it looks so old.”
“It's not important that it's old,” I said. “The thing is, it’s a little small and tight on me.”
She looked grieved but didn’t ask anything else. When the dishes were done, she suddenly thought of something and her eyes lit up. She hurried into the bedroom and, after four or five minutes, came back out with a paper bag in her hand. She walked over to me with quick steps and whispered, “Come outside with me!” She seemed so mysterious, I followed her out without a word.
There was a big willow tree next to Rooster Ditch School and a tailor shop under the tree. I didn’t realize Select was taking me to get a dress made until we got there. It turned out she had a piece of white fabric with a red floral pattern in the bag, and she asked the tailor to sew me a dress. After he measured me, the tailor asked, “When you want it?” She told him the sooner the better, and the next morning at the latest. The tailor asked, “Why so urgent?”
Select patted my head and said “Little Declaration will be leaving Rooster Ditch first thing in the morning.” The tailor said OK and that he’d get right on it.
On the way back to her place, Select asked me not to tell Little Apricot about the skirt. When I asked why not, she hesitated a moment before saying, “I bought that piece of fabric to make her a dress. She’s been nagging me about it, but I haven’t had the time.” I felt sorry for Little Apricot when I heard that.
At first light the next day, Select went to the tailor shop and brought the skirt back. Little Apricot was still asleep and dreaming at the time. Select had me try it on and it fit great. The pattern was very vivid, too. Select clapped her hands and said, “Beautiful. Little Declaration’s beautiful in the dress!” When Father came back to the school after work and saw me in the flowery skirt, he almost didn't recognize me.
So I went back to Rapeseed Slope that day wearing the flowery dress. That was my first time wearing a dress, and you wouldn't believe how happy I was. Select walked with Father and I all the way to the big willow tree. My tears flowed when we separated.
Unfortunately, Mother came down with a strange illness when she was thirty-six. Fits would catch her off guard and she’d fall to the ground, foaming at the mouth, limbs twitching crazily. Sometimes her whole body would go into convulsions and she’d pass out.
They said the onset of her fits had something to do with Select. At that time, Select had been transferred Shiyan City and had been there for many years. She’d never returned to the Rapeseed Slope area after the transfer and Father had lost contact with her. Mother thought the relationship between the two had been completely severed, but then, unexpectedly, the day before her thirty-sixth birthday, a letter from Shiyan fell into Mother’s hands.
The letter had been written by Select and addressed to Father. When the postman brought it, Father was at the well behind our house drawing water. Mother was inside cooking and the postman gave the letter to her. She’d attended elementary school and knew some common words. When she got the letter and saw it was from Shiyan, her emotions went wild. She immediately ripped the letter open and read it.
I never saw the letter and know nothing about its contents. I was living in town attending senior high at that time and got home only rarely. I can guess, though, that it upset mother terribly.
When Father came inside carrying two buckets of water on a shoulder pole, Mother was already down on the kitchen floor. She face was turned upwards and her hands and feet were twitching like she had muscle cramps. Mouthfuls of white, foamy spittle were pouring out of her mouth, like soap bubbles from washing clothes. Father had never seen this sickness before. He thought Mother had drunk pesticide and it scared him half to death. He threw down the pole, flew to her side, picked her up and ran carrying her to the small clinic in the village. Fortunately, the doctor had previously encountered this disease. He gave her a shot immediately, but it was half an hour before she calmed down.
As they were leaving the clinic that day, the doctor told Father that the disease Worthy Shang was suffering from was somewhat similar to epilepsy. It was a stubborn illness and the root cause was basically untreatable. She could have a fit any time, any place. That made Father very agitated. He frowned and asked, “Why did she get this disease?” The doctor said that it must have been brought on by some stimulus. Father thought about it and asked, “What kind of stimulus could she have gotten?”
As soon as the words left his mouth, Mother abruptly reached into her jacket pocket, took the letter out and threw it down right in front of Father. He understood everything as soon as he saw it. He couldn’t help but turn red-faced and break into a cold sweat.
Mother’s illness made Father suffer. He became a different person the day she got sick, always downcast and sighing in despair. He didn’t reply to Select for a long time so that Mother wouldn’t get irritated. He thought there’d be no more letters from Select if he didn’t reply, but he felt uneasy nonetheless. One day he took the time to go to the post office in town. He told the postman who’d delivered the letter that if another one should happen to come from Shiyan, he absolutely must not hand it to Worthy Shang.
The regrettable thing was, Mother’s illness kept breaking out despite Father’s caution. One day while Mother was cleaning out the chests and cabinets at home, she happened upon the sweater that Select had knitted for Father almost twenty years previously. It was so tattered that it could no longer be worn, but Father was reluctant to throw it out and kept it at the bottom of a chest. Mother got all flustered when she saw it. Rage burned from her eyes and she fell right to floor. Father was sitting by the front door, smoking a cigarette in boredom, and heard a “plop” from inside. He ran in to see what it was and found Mother unconscious.
Another time, a family near Rapeseed Slope Elementary School hired workers to harvest rapeseed seeds. They asked Mother over, too, along with four or five other middle-aged women. Their land was close to the cave behind the school and it could be seen as you stood in the field. When they were halfway through the job, an old woman unexpectedly pointed to the cave and said, “I once heard about two teachers, a man who taught PE and a woman who taught music, who used to go into that cave all the time, but then the headmaster caught them." As soon as she said it, Mother got unsteady on her feet fell headfirst onto the field of rapeseed.
What gave Father even more of a headache was that, after she got sick, Mother’s personality became increasingly eccentric. She’d get angry at the drop of a hat, really livid, blow-her-top mad. And the fits got more and more frequent, sometimes two or three a month. Father racked his brain trying to figure out how to keep her illness under control. He walked through every alley in the village looking for medicine, and took Mother to the clinic in Old Strip Town for treatment. It was all to no avail, though, and the fits kept on coming. They practically became a regular part of our lives.
Father broke off all contact with Select once Mother got sick. He didn’t write to her for several months, nor did he receive any letters from her. He didn’t forget her completely, though. He’d think about her silently when he was feeling down, and he saw her many times in his dreams.
Time flies, and in the blink of an eye it was summer. I came home from the city to Rapeseed Slope for vacation shortly after summer started. Mother was having one fit after another at the time and was quite weak. Her face was yellow and thin, she had no strength in her limbs and her emotions were way out of kilter. She had to stay in the house every day. Once I got home, Father turned over the job of watching her over to me, since it was the busy farming season and he had to work in the fields every day. If he wasn’t spreading fertilizer on the corn, he was killing bugs on the seedlings.
I’d been home on vacation for almost a week when Mother had another fit. I’d happened to mention Rooster Ditch at dinner that day, and as soon as she heard the name, her eyes turned red as fire. She knocked the bowls and chopsticks off the table and fell to the floor, her arms and legs waving wildly. Her neck was covered in froth she'd spit up. She tossed and turned continually until the middle of the night before calming down, keeping the whole family awake.
The morning of the second day after that, the postman came from town unexpectedly. Mother had fallen asleep in the house at the time, and Father was in the field weeding. I was sitting by the gate reading a book. The postman was looking for Father and said he had a letter he wanted to hand to him personally. I asked where it was from and he said it wasn’t clear. The return address wasn’t written on the envelope, just the words “Sender’s name and address inside”. I thought it must be from Select and asked the postman to hand it to me to give to Father, but he said “No” in no uncertain terms, he had to deliver it to Father himself. There was nothing for it, I had to point the way to the postman and let him go to fields to find Father.
Father came home from the field after he got the letter. He looked excited and was smiling. The frown he’d worn for so long was finally gone. First he went inside to see Mother, but she was sound asleep and snoring lightly, so he came out again before long.
He came over to me, walking fast, and whispered in my ear. “Little Declaration, do you still remember Auntie Select?” I said I did, that she’d moved to Shiyan. “She recently came back to Smelter Strip,” he said, his voice trembling. “She’s spending summer vacation at her mother’s place!” My heart thumped when I heard that. I didn’t know what to say. After a moment’s pause, he blushed and said, “She wrote me this letter. Wants me go to Smelter Strip.”
I rolled my eyes and asked, “Go to Smelter Strip to do what?”
“She says she has a secret formula that can cure your mother's illness.”
I thought it over and said, “So go.”
He looked up at the sky. “OK, I’ll leave now and bring the formula back right away.” Just before he left, he made a point of telling me, “Take good care of your mother. Absolutely don't tell her I’ve gone to Smelter Strip.”
Smelter Strip was to the west side of Rapeseed Slope. It wasn’t too far away, just two hours round trip. Father left at ten in the morning and didn’t return until one in the afternoon. When he got home, Mother had just taken a sedative and gone back to sleep. I asked Father, with a hint of blame in my voice, “What took you so long?”
“Select’s mother insisted that I stay for lunch,” he said, blushing.
My main concern at the time was Mother's illness. I couldn't wait to ask, “Did you bring back the secret formula?” He said it wasn’t actually a formula, just a kind of treatment. I was confused. “Who’ll treat her? And how?”
Father said, “Select will do the treatment herself and she guarantees a cure.”
I was taken aback. “What a joke! She’s a teacher, not a doctor. How can she cure Mother's illness?”
“She says she saw this disease in Shiyan,” Father replied, “and she saw someone use this formula to cure it.
“What is this formula that’s so magical,” I wondered.
“I really can't say,” Father muttered after a moment. “I’m taking your mother for the treatment tomorrow. Come with me and see for yourself.
Father hired a pedicab early the next morning to take Mother and me to Smelter Strip. At first he didn’t tell her where we were going. Only after we got to the entrance to the village did he say, “Haven’t you always wanted to meet my paramour, Worthy? Today’s the day.”
Mother perked up when she heard that. “Really?” she asked excitedly.
Mother’s voice grew loud. "Good! When I see that shameless thing, I’ll definitely beat her half to death!"
Select's family had a quaint, old-fashioned courtyard home with a verdant grassy field behind it where colorful wildflowers were blooming abundantly. In the distance we could see a woman wearing a dress bent over picking flowers in the field. Father had the pedicab stop when we were still dozens of steps away from the field of flowers. He pointed at the woman picking flowers and said, “Look. That’s my paramour.” Mother jumped down from the pedicab even before Father had finished speaking and ran like the wind toward the woman. I jumped out right away, too, and followed her into the field.
Mother was really fast. By the time I got to the flowers, she’d already grabbed ahold of Select. “You shameless thing!” The curse was the first thing out of her mouth, and she slapped Select on the face as she said it. Select didn’t duck. She stood there like an obedient child and let Mother hold on to her. Mother was like a tigress. The more she struck Select, the more energy she got. In a flash Select’s face was turning black and blue, and she was bleeding from the corner of her mouth. I couldn't stand it and finally rushed forward to put my arms around Mother.
It didn’t deter her. She slapped Select again and screamed, “I’ll kill you, you hussy!”
Select wiped the blood from her mouth with her hand. “Go ahead and beat me,” she said sincerely, “I owe you that much!”
Mother would’ve kept going, but when Select said that, she lowered her hands right away. Her eyes softened at the same time. I pulled on Mother’s hand and said, “Mom, you’ve cursed her and you’ve beat her and she’s apologized. Let’s go home now.” I pulled her away from the field.
As incredible as it seems, once Mother had beaten Select, her illness went away in no time. She never had another fit after we returned to Rapeseed Slope from Smelter Strip.
My son, Second Open Lui, graduated from high school the year before last. His scores on the college entrance exam were terrible because he was distracted by puppy love, and he only tested into vocational school. His teacher recommended more than ten schools when he was filling out his application. Most were in Wuhan, but there were others in Xiangyang, Jingzhou, Huangshi and Yichang. He didn’t take the teacher's suggestions, though, and ended up writing in a school in Shiyan as his first choice.
He came back to Rapeseed Slope after he’d made his selections. The evening before he received his notice of admission, I asked him why he wanted to go to school in Shiyan. He was a smart-aleck and told me to guess. I told him I really couldn’t. Father and Mother were watching TV in the back room at the time. Father’s in his sixties but his hearing’s still fine, and when he heard what my son and I were saying he came right out. At that moment my son said, “Ask Grandpa. For sure he’ll know why I picked Shiyan.”
Father immediately blushed and reached out to hit the boy. “Bastard! Don’t talk so loud. Be careful or your grandma’ll hear you!”
My son smirked. “Grandma’s deaf. She can't hear.”
Second Open has always been closest to Father in our family. Grandfather and grandson always treated each other as equals. Father didn't want to watch TV anymore when he heard Second Open talking about Shiyan. He pulled the boy into his arms and said, “Let me sound you out. What does your going to school in Shiyan have to do with me?”
Second Open looked askance at Father. "You have to ask?"
Father pretended to be calm. “I really don't know.”
“Then I should say it straight out?”
He cleared his throat and said, one word at a time, “Because your paramour’s there!”
“Heavens,” Father said, half in jest. “You know everything? Even that?”
Second Open looked proud. “Who doesn’t? Everyone knows about your romance. No kidding, I’ve heard all about you and Select Li going into the cave!”
As the boy’s mother, I felt like he knew too much. “Second Open Lui! The more you talk the more outrageous you get!” I was pretending to be angry, but it seemed to upset Father that I was criticizing the boy. He turned away quickly and went back into the inner room to watch TV.
Second Open left for school in Shiyan early in September that year. His father was working in the South and couldn’t get back to take him there. I was going to do it myself, but before we left, Second Open said he wanted Father to take him. I was surprised and asked him why he insisted on his Grandpa. He patted his chest and said, “A gentleman helps others attain their aims!” Father was beside himself with happiness when he learned he’d be going to Shiyan. He smiled so much for a few days it seemed the corners of his mouth had permanently turned upwards.
That was the first time Father had been to Shiyan. The round trip took seven full days. He had on a half-worn gray shirt when he left, but was wearing a brand new red sweater and a pair of white casual slacks when he came back. At first glance he looked like an overseas Chinese returning to the Fatherland. Mother had been getting calmer as she grew older and didn't care much about anything. When she got a look at the “new Father”, she hardly seemed to see him and even appeared numb. As a daughter, it wasn’t convenient for me to ask too much about his trip to the far-away big city, but when I saw how joyful he was, it made me feel quite happy.
It did seem like his whole personality had changed after he returned from Shiyan, though. He seemed more cheerful and was obviously more talkative. As soon as he came in the door, he told me all about Second Open’s situation, and every detail was vivid.
Second Open had spared no effort to find Select when he got to Shiyan, and she’d treated him with extreme affection when she saw him. She patted his shoulder and touched his face, and even held his head to her breast. She invited him to dinner at her home and made a table full of dishes, including a steamed saltwater fish. Later she personally escorted him to the school to sign in. Her daughter Little Apricot drove. Select had her drive to a shopping mall on the way, where she bought a pile of daily necessities for him. From big things like a mosquito net and blanket, to little things like a water bottle and lunch box, she bought them all. After he reported in, she went with him to his dorm, made the bed for him and hung the mosquito net. When she left, she told him to come to her home on the weekend and she’d make some sparerib soup....
Father also brought a big bag of delicacies back with him from Shiyan, including hard candies, nuts, sesame cake and chocolates with alcohol centers. He unpacked the food and gave it to Mother as soon as he got home. I didn't ask who’d bought those things, and Mother for sure didn't, either. She did enjoy eating the stuff, though, and did it with gusto. It wasn’t a pretty picture, watching her eat, with her mouth open too wide and sesame seeds dribbling out. I wanted to appear more elegant than she did, so I hid a piece of candy under my tongue and kept quiet while it slowly melted. I let the syrup go slowly down my throat and seep into my heart, and into the marrow of my bones.
2017年中国短篇小说精选 Best of Chinese Short Stories 2017, p. 226
长江文艺出版社，责任编辑：刘程程，周阳; Translated from 搜狐 at
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