Chinese Stories in English
The People's Fish
Su Tong (Tong Zhonggui)
As the Chinese New Year and Spring Festival drew near, the fishes' final day was also approaching. The fool who lives on our street, whose name is Spring Light, loves to go fishing. One day when he came back from the fish pond by the railroad, his cotton trousers were wet and he still had a layer of ice on his pants legs. He walked along the street carrying a fishing pole made from a piece of bamboo that had been used to dry clothes, and along the way he told people some strange news. They'd moved the pond's water pump and the fish in the pond were crying. He said there were a lot of fish in the pond and they were all crying under the water!
No one was concerned by what the fool was saying. We’d already seen a lot of fish bid farewell to the rivers and ponds and come to our Toon Tree Street. What puzzled people of normal intelligence, or made them feel that an injustice was being done, was where the fish were going. It seemed as though the home of a Party cadre, Forest-Born Jü, had become a fish pond and a large number of fish had swum over there.
Jealous neighbors leaned in their doorways and spread rumors about this business. They pointed out that some cats had been running crazy down the street: “Did you see them? Forest-Born Jü’s house has turned into a fishpond and all the alley cats are running there.”
Fish, and people delivering them, had been coming and going at No. 127 Toon Tree Street. A number of the fish, some of them high and mighty, got out of Red Star sedans. Others rode in mini-vans, trucks or tractors. Still others had been hung casually from the handlebars of people’s bicycles. They swung back and forth rhythmically, their mouths puckered, as they went down the road on the way to the courtyard of Forest-Born’s house.
The Jü’s courtyard was redolent with the particularly sweet smell that fish have. There were dripping wet black carp, grass carp and carp, and blackfish as well. Almost all of the big types were over five pounds and had their mouths tied with strings of grass fiber. There were paper tags tied to some of the strings, and the word “Jü” could be seen clearly on the tags that weren’t too sodden. The meaning, obviously, was that this string of fish belongs to the Jü family. All those fish lying or hanging there had been received by Forest-Born Jü as Spring Festival gifts.
The fish hadn’t known one another beforehand, that is, before coming to this strange and mysterious place. The dead ones remained silent, and most of the survivors stared blankly with a perplexed look in their eyes: “What is this place? What are they going to do with us?” Unfortunately the fish could only lie there, hardly able to breathe and unable to communicate with each other.
Perhaps some of the smarter fish knew that they were Spring Festival gifts, but even if they were smarter than that, they still had no way to understand people’s current fads for gift-giving. The word for “fish” is pronounced the same as “surplus”. Somehow, in some part of some district, giving fish as a gift started to get popular because it’s like wishing someone an abundance of good times. You could say this fad was beneficial to fish, and you could also say it was inimical to them.
People around here considered fish the most auspicious and fashionable gifts to send back and forth. Everywhere on the streets before the Spring Festival, you could see people with fish scurrying here and there in the frigid wind. The scene brought a festive holiday atmosphere to the desolation of wintertime Toon Tree Street.
But fish don’t know anything. Even little kids in primary school understand the profundity that having fish every year means having a surplus every year, but the fish themselves don’t understand. Fish can’t read and don’t know what a homophone is, so they don’t understand why this disaster falls solely on fish-dom. They stare in grief and indignation, or flap their tails impatiently. Some of them spend their last bit of strength flip-flopping around in protest in someone’s hands. But we know that all a fish’s anger after it has lost the water is futile. No matter how much it jumps around, it won’t make it back to the pond.
Guests crowded into the Jü residence once the New Year’s festivities started, giving all of us a chance to see Forest-Born, the biggest cadre on our street. This was especially true in the evenings, when Forest-Born and his wife, Fragrant Moon Liu, often stood at their gate to send the guests on their way. Sometimes just Fragrant Moon saw the guests off, or sometimes Forest-Born himself bid them farewell, but sometimes, when the guests clearly had a lot of connections, husband and wife would both come out together to do the honors.
Although Forest-Born was only a section-level cadre at the time, his belly was already as big as a drum, just like a leader’s. He picked his teeth with a passion. When the neighbors saw him with his belly protruding like a general’s, with one hand resting on his waist and the other in the air casually waving goodbye to his guests, those with sharp eyes noticed that the hand he was waving also held a toothpick.
Fragrant Moon was comparatively proficient in the etiquette of bidding farewell to guests. She’d stand at the gate as straight as a pen with smiles all over her face. Everyone could hear her crystalline voice. “Have New Year’s dinner with us. You must come! If you don’t, you’ll find out how ill-tempered I can be!”
But too much of a good thing can be a bad thing, and having so many fish was harrying Fragrant Moon to death. As one of the women cadres in the Neighborhood Affairs Office, she often dealt with people, but now she was forced to keep company with a crowd of fish. Blackfish were her favorite kind of fish because they were considerate of their owner. She could throw them in a tank and they’d flip over and start to swim, as if they were saying “Go ahead and do your chores. I’m easy to take care of. You can deal with me any old time.”
The other fish were the picture of heroism. They’d stare tragically at Fragrant Moon and the knife in her hand like they were saying, “Come on, kill me! If I was afraid to die I wouldn’t be a fish!” You couldn’t take care of those fish, couldn’t keep them alive. You just had to kill them.
Fragrant Moon carried the fish into the kitchen one by one, scraped off the scales and cleaned them, and she did these things all by herself. At first she’d had Forest-Born help her with the scaling, but he was clumsy and cut himself before doing anything to the fish. Nothing strange about that. How could a man who never did housework be expected to scale fish? All she could do was send him back to the living room to watch TV.
She’d called her son to come and help, but he just whined and moaned from the next room. “I told you to give them away and you wouldn’t do it, so now we’ve got a whole houseful of fish. We eat fish every day, so much that even our hair smells like fish. Now just the sight of fish makes me want to throw up!”
So Fragrant Moon had to deal with all those fish by herself. She was a mild-mannered person, but not a saint, and the more she worked the more she grumbled. “These people are brain-dead. The only New Year’s gift they know how to give is fish. Can’t they give something else? This fad – it’s really too much! We don’t even have a duck this year. No one thought to give us one.
“Giving fish is the in thing now,” she continued, “so what can I do? I can’t just tell people I have too many fish at home and need some ducks. Wouldn’t that be a joke?
“Ducks are no good, anyway. They’re hard to slaughter. Some people are smart about giving gifts. They don’t give anything but Gold China hams or stuff like dried fruits and nuts.”
It made Forest-Born uncomfortable to hear such talk. From the other room he made fun of his wife. “All right, tomorrow I’ll tell people, ‘Don’t give us fish.’ I’ll have them give us hams or dried foods!”
“How come it’s so fashionable to give fish?” Fragrant Moon asked with a sigh. “Fish is good, of course, and you can get a large black carp in the market for forty or fifty yuan. But you can’t just follow along like bees in a hive and give fish just because everyone else does. We’d be better off if they simply gave us the fifty yuan instead of sending us the fish.”
That made Forest-Born mad. He rushed in and shouted at his wife, “All right, I’ll have them send me money – Do you have any clue about these things? You want me to break the law and get sentenced to squat in a re-education camp?”
Seeing the anger on her husband's face, Fragrant Moon knew she’d crossed the line with her grumbling. Forest-Born had misunderstood and thought she was complaining that he wasn’t able to change things. She giggled and stood up quickly, nudging her husband back into the living room with her shoulder.
“Oh, you,” she said, “why do you take things so seriously? I was just chatting away at home, and you took it for real. And you say I haven’t got a clue. If I didn’t understand things I’d carry this fish off to the fishmongers’. Such a large black carp, they’d give me at least fifty yuan for it.”
Fragrant Moon, while quite capable, was so busy that she was getting faint. When she went outside to throw away a large basin of fish offal, it suddenly occurred to her that the vat she used to salt fish wasn’t going to be big enough, so she went next door to Bright Lute Zhang’s home to borrow one.
She told Bright Lute she was going to pickle some mustard greens. Bright Lute pursed her lips and said, “What mustard greens? Your family's fish are stinking up the whole street. Haven’t you seen the alley cats running up to your door?”
Fragrant Moon was rather embarrassed but said stubbornly, “They only gave us a few fish. How could they stink up the whole street? My husband Old Jü really doesn’t like it when people send him New Year’s gifts, and he doesn’t like fish, either. I’m not kidding, I’m going to pickle some mustard greens.” She still felt faint, and when she brought the borrowed vat home, she put the basin of fish offal outside.
After a while the neighbor Bright Lute came knocking on the door. She stood sideways in the doorway, holding the basin of fish offal in her hands and gazing at the row of fish hanging neatly on a rope in the courtyard. They looked like organized and disciplined soldiers on their way to make the ultimate sacrifice. Bright Lute covered her mouth as she laughed. “You’re going to pickle all those mustard greens? You won’t be able to eat that many in a whole year!”
Since her neighbor had seen the fish with her own eyes, Fragrant Moon could no longer deny it. “I won’t try to fool you,” she said. “We got an insider’s deal on all these fish. They were so cheap, it would've been a shame not buy them.”
Bright Lute didn’t say anything about the fib. She just stood there laughing. Pointing at the brine tank, she asked, “Why are you throwing away the fish heads? You can preserve them with the bodies.”
“There’s so many fish,” Fragrant Moon said, “and I’m doing this by myself. Where would I find the time?” As she spoke she suddenly recalled that Bright Lute could do chores like this quicker than anyone else. She could simply ask her to help. Before she even opened her mouth, she’d decided that she’d give her neighbor a three-pound carp for her trouble. Everyone knew that Bright Lute had no particular strong points except that she was warm-hearted with a disposition to help people.
Soon Bright Lute was squatting in the Jü’s courtyard. The two women formed a production line, with one removing the scales and the other gutting the fish. They worked side by side and inevitably began to chat idly about things that had nothing to do with their labors.
“A huge fish like this is enough to last a big family for two days,” Bright Lute said as she stroked the spine that stuck out along the back of a large blackfish. “You’re so lucky.”
“What do you mean, lucky?” Fragrant Moon knew what she meant but played dumb.
“You’re so lucky.” Bright Lute just sighed and repeated what she’d said.
Fragrant Moon glanced at her furtively in the dim lamplight and saw, not a face full of jealousy, but rather a neighbor lady feeling hurt and sorry for herself. She didn’t say anything, just stood up and pulled a sack out from behind the coal pile. She took the blackfish and plopped it down at her neighbor’s feet. “Forget the customary polite refusals,” she said. “Take this fish home with you. You can braise it and feed it to your kids.”
Bright Lute didn’t turn down the fish, but didn’t take it, either. She just looked it over and said, “You don’t need to treat me like a guest.”
“You have to use a lot of millet wine when you braise blackfish. It’s got a strong earthy, fishy smell, but it’s very tender,” Fragrant Moon said. “People around here don’t eat a lot of it, but up north, the northerners really love it.”
“No matter how fishy it smells, it’s not as strong as frozen croaker,” Bright Lute said. “I tell you, my husband Old Sun and the kids are like cats. We’re poor, but they just had to grow up with rich people’s stomachs. They don’t eat vegetables, but they eat fish, any kind of fish, as long as it has that fishy smell. Old Sun likes the eyes, but our third kid is even more unique – he loves the swim bladders.”
“Fish is expensive. If you feed your family what they like to eat, it makes life that much tougher.”
“I’ll say,” Bright Lute said. “I kid you not, I bought some of those little fish they use for cat food just to satisfy their craving. There was nothing else I could do, they forced me into it. I simmered some pork fat in oil and fried the cat food in it for them, with a few dried peppers. Hey, it tasted good. If the idea of it doesn’t turn you off, I’ll bring a bowl over someday and let you try it.”
“You know, you’re right. You can make good-tasting meals out of cheap stuff.” Fragrant Moon indicated that she agreed, but she was hesitant at the idea of eating cat food, so she changed the subject. “Looks like we’ve about got a handle on the fish I’ve accumulated over the last few days.”
In the living room Forest-Born had turned off the TV. He gave out an exaggerated yawn, probably to remind his wife that it was time for bed. Fragrant Moon looked absent-mindedly behind the door at the basin they used to wash their feet. She noticed suddenly that there was still a pile of fish heads in the basin. She had been planning to give them to Virtuous Wang’s family, but had been so busy she’d forgotten about them. Now she was anxious to empty out the basin, so she decided to give the fish heads to Bright Lute, instead.
“You guys eat fish heads, don't you?” she asked. “I was going to give these to Virtuous Wang. He always helps us get coal. I’ll go ahead and give them to you if you want.”
“Why wouldn’t we eat them,” Bright Lute said. “We eat every part of the fish except the gall bladder. “I kid you not, I love fish heads the best.”
And so Fragrant Moon also gave the pile of fish heads to Bright Lute. The next day as she was passing by her neighbor’s kitchen window, she smelled the pungent aroma of fish. She stopped and asked through the window, “What are you cooking that shells so good?”
From the inside Bright Lute replied, “The fish heads you gave me. Come in for a taste?”
“I don’t eat fish heads,” Fragrant Moon said, but right away she felt that was a stupid thing to say. “Why tell anyone that?” she thought. She heard Bright Lute inside say “Oh” like she’d come to a sudden realization, and regretted that she’d spoken too fast and weakened the bond with her neighbor.
The fish greatly increased the neighborly feelings between her and Bright Lute. Without the fish, the relationship between the two women had been harmonious, but afterwards their relationship could almost be said to be sisterly.
They prepared and exchanged their specialty dishes. Fragrant Moon was good at making salted fish, as everyone can guess from the fact that the family received so many fish as gifts every year. They could never eat them all at once, so she preserved them to eat bit by bit. Familiarity breeds expertise, so naturally she became good at it.
But Bright Lute was a whole other story. She was “the clever wife who can make a meal out of anything”. Fragrant Moon thought that everything Bright Lute gave her, including the wonton soup with pork and vegetable, the baby soybeans in brine and the white-cut pork belly, were all delicious.
Once Fragrant Moon burst into Bright Lute’s kitchen unannounced and saw her friend eating there alone. There were no main dishes, just a bowl of soup – kelp-onion soup with a few drops of sesame oil. Fragrant Moon was curious and picked up a spoon to have a taste. It was actually fantastic!
At that time no one used fashionable slogans like “seek out gifted people”. While Fragrant Moon was quite talented herself, she sincerely appreciated her neighbor lady's culinary skills. Furthermore, Forest-Born had a lot of friends outside the home, so they often had people over for dinner. Whenever Fragrant Moon was planning a banquet of more than a certain size, she’d implore Bright Lute to come over and help out, and her friend never refused.
Everyone knew the kind of person Bright Lute was. If you looked down on her she’d spit on your shadow while you weren’t looking, but if you gave her a foot of respect she’d give you back a yard. Fragrant Moon treated her well, so she'd use her own hairpin to dig the wax from her friend’s ears.
Bright Lute busied herself in the Jü’s kitchen as though she were in her own home, and imperceptibly Fragrant Moon was reduced to her assistant. Neither of them realized it.
Bright Lute loved to hear herself praised, and while she busied herself off to one side her ears were always peaked to hear what the guests were saying about her skills. The comments were always favorable, of course. She didn’t object even when people told Forest-Born what a great cook his wife was. She’s just look toward Fragrant Moon and cover her mouth while she giggled.
Fragrant Moon was of course embarrassed about stealing the glory. She wanted to push her friend out into the living room and introduce her to their guests, but Bright Lute adamantly refused. “They’re all such big shots,” she’d say, “and I don’t know any of them. I’ll never get promoted to cadre, anyway, so what’d be the point of getting introduced?”
Like chefs in a restaurant, when the banquet concluded it was the two women’s turn to sit down and have a worker’s dinner consisting primarily of leftovers from the banquet. Fragrant Moon always felt remorseful and suggested that Bright Lute take the leftovers home. “Don’t want them,” Bright Lute would say. “If I take them home, nobody'll eat them. I’ll just carry the big fish head home, that’ll do.”
Fragrant Moon knew Bright Lute loved fish heads and she didn’t see anything strange about it. After all, some people even like silkworm pupa or chicken butts. As for Fragrant Moon herself, her diet was comparatively refined and delicate, and her dietary habits naturally affected her husband and son. The whole family avoided the head parts of livestock, fowl and fish. For some reason they felt that eating the heads was rather crude, even a bit savage, and they wouldn’t put such things in their mouths.
On several occasions Bright Lute encouraged Fragrant Moon to try a bit of braised fish head. Fragrant Moon could imagine that a fish head cooked by her friend would be oh, so delicious, but she still wasn’t willing to accept the little bit her friend offered to her with her chopsticks.
One time Bright Moon said, “If you don’t eat fish heads, then don’t eat it, but have some of the vegetables and aspic in the dish with it.” Fragrant Moon couldn’t well brush aside her friend’s kindness, so she took some of the aspic with her chopsticks. As she’d expected, the flavor was incomparably delicious. Psychological factors are strong in people, though, and astoundingly Fragrant Moon felt that the great taste had questionable origins and was base.
Later Fragrant Moon told her neighbor that the fish heads she'd given her over the years could fill a truck. Bright Lute understood clearly that Fragrant Moon was exaggerating, but it was nonetheless basically true. Everyone remembered that the grand times of giving fish were also a grand time for Forest-Born, and that Bright Lute, as the Jü family's dearest neighbor, had also shared in the good times.
She benefited mostly from the food. Leaving aside the fish heads during the Spring Festival, even in regular times her bowl of stir-fried vegetables would be covered with two or three chicken heads or duck heads or the like. Bright Lute didn't care if others were curious about it. She'd simply point next door and say, "Fragrant Moon sent it over. Her family's all picky eaters and she gives us whatever they don't eat – And why wouldn't we eat it? Fish heads, chicken heads, duck heads, they're all delicious!"
It’s a shame that the friendly relations the fish got started between the two women’s families grew cool later on. The wives continued to see each other, but without the fish acting as needle and thread to sew the families together, the friendship began to feel like a snug old shirt. If it got a bit loose somewhere you could sew it up anytime, but then no one would dare wear it. If we had the heart to take this as an example in an examination of the transmutation of neighborhood relations in the new forms and the new era, fashion trends would probably be a culprit.
Yes, we would first of all blame the changes in fashion that leave everyone so perplexed. Eventually, one year people stopped sending fish as gifts. Except for the occasional turtle that you might still see, the gifts people exchanged at New Years’ started to be more on track with the real world – primarily nutritional supplements and nostrums like American ginseng, turtle pellets, spirulina and White Gold Brain formula, complimented by beautifully packaged, easy-to-carry delicacies from surf and turf – all showy things with no real substance. As for the fish, they seemed to have been forgotten in their ponds.
That was lucky for the fish, but not for Bright Lute – that’s what was said behind her back. If you said it to her face, she’d cuss you out. “If there’s no rice to eat you starve to death, but you can’t die from not eating fish heads.”
Everyone knew that Bright Lute’s children were all grown and off making money. One son was self-employed and had made a fortune, so he could afford to buy as much fish as he wanted. I don’t mean to take what Bright Lute said about not having fish heads lightly, but I do want to make it clear that there were multiple reasons for the unforeseen events that the future held in store.
Another reason was directly related to the disappointments suffered by Forest-Born in his career. We people of Toon Tree Street had always had a sort of blind faith in his potential as a career official, but as it turned out, we heard he couldn’t get promoted. Not only couldn’t he climb the ladder, he even fell out of favor because he was getting on in years, and because of his lack of education, political refinement and professional leadership abilities, as well as many other factors.
As for the rumor that he lost his position because he liked to pinch the asses of his female comrades, and that he’d pinched so many he ended up pinching himself out of a job, it’s not very credible. I’ve never heard of anyone pinching off their political prospects simply by pinching a few asses. It’s undoubtedly a tale woven by those who were jealous of Forest-Born.
Back-alley hearsay isn’t worthy of belief, but his neighbors did believe that Forest-Born had indeed fallen from favor. They based this conclusion on their observation that annually on New Year's Eve, the peak time for gift-giving, all was quiet and deserted at the front door of his home. Sometimes at twilight they’d see one person standing in front of the door carrying something, but when they looked carefully, they’d see it was Forest-Born himself.
They seemed to have traded in their old world for a different one. The Jü family was being frustrated, while Bright Lute’s family was prospering. Later on, when people thought back on the source of Bright Lute’s good fortune, they agreed that it depended on her eldest son East Wind. It wasn’t easy to say what exactly of East Wind’s it depended on, though.
It wasn’t his filial piety, nor was it his academic accomplishments. He wasn’t born with an astute business mind, either. It was because he’d stabbed someone one year and almost killed him. He was sent to "the mountains" to a reform through labor camp. When he came down from "the mountains" he didn’t have a job, so he had to go into business for himself. As a result, relying entirely on this inappropriately named “self-employment”, he built up the family’s fortune!
East Wind and some friends had gotten together to smuggle cigarettes by boat. Although there was a certain risk, the profits from taking the risk were huge. Every time he came back from the sea, he was tanned as black as a piece of charcoal. His sweat smelled of the sea, but in his arms he carried a black plastic bag filled with cash.
Bright Lute’s heart was always in her throat when she counted her son’s money. The counting made her afraid. She was a loom tender in a silk factory, and in a lifetime of tending looms she hadn’t made as much as her son did for one day of perilous work, so why wouldn’t she be frightened? She was worried the boy would get into trouble again, and for the life of her she wouldn’t allow him to go to sea to pick up cigarettes any more. She definitely wanted him to do something more stable, but for the time being she couldn’t think what that might be. The kid didn’t have any brains, so of course he didn’t know, either.
One night Bright Lute passed by a lamp-lit night market in front of a department store. She saw lots of people who’d come out late to eat some snails or stinky tofu. The sounds of eating and sucking on snails echoed in the night air, accompanied by electronic love songs. From a distance the frying tofu really did stink, but the fragrance grew more pleasing as one drew near.
So many people eating nighttime snacks to their heart’s content in a prosperous and peaceful country, and they’d eat anything. Standing in front of a stall selling fried New Year’s rice cakes, Bright Lute picked up one cake from the vendor’s basket on impulse and tapped it against another. Her eyes shone as she stood there tapping on the rice cakes. The vendor stopped what he was doing and grabbed the cake from her.
“If you want to eat something hurry up and decide. Don’t just stand there tapping my cakes.”
Bright Lute wasn’t the kind of person to let anyone talk to her like that. She glanced at the ingredients on the guy’s stand and a look of contempt came over her face. “So this is how you make rice cakes?” she said. “How can you make New Year’s cakes that are worth eating if you don’t use spinach?”
I can tell you this. After she left that vendor’s stand, a new Bright Lute was born. She might not have had much culture, but without even thinking about it, she'd recognized a simple and time-tested business opportunity. No matter how the times change, people will have mouths and will always want to eat! There are people who love to eat, and there are people who love to cook, so you can’t go wrong no matter what. It’s got to be the most secure business in the world.
So Bright Lute’s son East Wind opened a restaurant, which is our street’s now celebrated East Wind Fish Head House. In the jargon of the restaurant industry his place is a specialty shop: home-style cooking with fish heads as the main product. Since I have a little skill as an artist, East Wind hired me to paint several fish heads and poems for the place. The fish heads everyone sees now on the glass window at the front of the Fish Head Restaurant, as well as the four lines of large characters on the first page of the menu, are my work.
“Clear Fish Head Soup
“Braised Fish Head
“Hot and Sour Fish Head
“Five Spice Fish Head”
And as for who the chef at the East Wind Fish Head House is, everyone can surely guess without my saying. The chef is none other than East Wind’s mother Bright Lute.
I’ve been outspoken all along about the backward features of our Toon Tree Street, this district where the modernization is proceeding so slowly. Even today there are people who steal power from the public utility, as well as people who play tricks with the water meter and steal the public’s water drop by drop – I’ll forbear from listing their names here.
The hard thing to understand is why people who hold on to their wallets so tightly are still willing to patronize the East Wind Fish Head Restaurant with such loyalty – especially since restaurants have actually been one of the more difficult businesses to keep going in the neighborhood over the past few years!
If we examine the matter calmly, though, maybe it’s not so strange. For one thing, it’s a restaurant where a healthy person can eat as much as they want. And even more to the point, Bright Lute spends every day standing by the stove, stewing up that clear fish head soup, and it’s uniquely enticing aroma assails the nostrils of everyone who lives in the vicinity. We can’t avoid it just by covering our noses as we pass by, you know.
But let me digress a moment. Those engaged in the restaurant industry may get a sudden inspiration – good advertising does not require the expenditure of any money. You don’t have to do spots on television, nor do you have to put ads in the newspaper. just advertise through the air. Word of mouth is a more specific and credible form of advertising, and people can't block out a temptation they can’t avoid!
We couldn’t avoid the temptation coming from the East Wind Fish Head House. And added to that, people from the neighborhood enjoyed a twenty percent discount, so lot of locals who never went to restaurants would go to Fish Head House to taste Bright Lute’s signature fish head dishes. Only Autumn Moon and her family were able to resist the temptation.
Perhaps they'd eaten too much fish in the past, but the Jü family had never been to Fish Head House. The neighbors knew that the two wives had a good relationship and were puzzled that Fragrant Moon hadn't visited the place.
Some people who considered themselves intelligent analyzed the situation and wondered if it wasn't because Bright Lute was prospering, while Forest-Born now had neither status nor power. Bright Lute might go on and on about that, and Fragrant Moon really hated hearing people mention her husband's frustrations. Fragrant Moon parried such speculation by saying, "You people don't know, my family doesn't eat fish heads. We don't eat heads at all, not any kind of head!"
Actually Bright Lute felt put out about this, but only Fragrant Moon knew it. Bright Lute invited them to Fish Head House so fervently, and of course there would be no charge. She continually urged Fragrant Moon to bring her whole family. "I know you guys don't eat fish heads," she said, "so I'll make something else for you, OK?"
Fragrant Moon smiled stubbornly. She had that habit – a smile signified that she was turning you down. "You needn't treat us like special guests," she said. "You guys are in business, not operating a charity. How could we eat for nothing?"
"Other people can't eat for nothing," Bright Lute replied, "but you guys can come in and eat for free. I used to eat lots of stuff at your house and I never paid for it, did I?"
But Fragrant Moon still waived her off. "That was then, and this is now. It's different, not the same."
Bright Lute heard a different meaning behind those words. She was an intelligent person, too, and was able to sense the implications behind what people said. Things hadn't been going the way Fragrant Moon wanted the last few years. She'd been like a crane in a flock of chickens, but now she'd turned into just another hen. While Bright Lute couldn't say of herself that she'd changed from a hen into a crane, she'd become prosperous in other people's eyes.
While she sensed this, Bright Lute couldn't do anything to ease Fragrant Moon's resentment. She took her friend's arm and shook it forcefully. "Anyway, I don't care what you say," she told her. "I've invited you as my guest and the invitation stands. Do me the honor of coming voluntarily, but if you won't, I'll kidnap you! I'll have our kitchen help get a rope and tie your whole family up and bring you all here!"
But it was Bright Lute's sincerity that got through to Fragrant Moon. One day she finally came to the restaurant with Forest-Born and their son, Strong. They also brought Strong’s girlfriend. Bright Lute escorted them into a private room that had just been remodeled.
A table loaded with appetizers showed the degree of importance that Bright Lute attached to this banquet. It wasn’t merely the abundance of the food, but also Bright Lute’s intent to let Fragrant Moon know how much she appreciated the kindnesses her friend had shown her. Fragrant Moon caught a glimpse of sweet rice with lotus root, which was her favorite, and white cut pork liver, which Forest-Born loved. Bright Lute had even remembered the tofu in cold sauce that their son liked so much.
Fragrant Moon knew that her neighbor was repaying past kindnesses by her whole-hearted attention to this banquet. Her mind began to wander and she thought of the past, with all those fish and all those fish heads. A myriad of feelings welled up inexorably in her heart. She said to her husband and son, and his girlfriend as well, “She’s a true friend. Let’s eat! That’s why we’re here, so don’t stand on ceremony! Eat up!”
As Bright Lute had promised, there were no fish heads on the table, since the Jü family never ate them. But when Bright Lute herself carried out a pot of aged duck soup, Strong’s girlfriend whispered to him, “How come they’re serving duck soup. I thought we’d have fish head soup. Isn’t that what this place is famous for?”
Everyone heard the girl's question, and her yen for fish head soup could be heard behind her puzzlement. Bright Lute stifled a smile and stole a glance at Fragrant Moon, but Fragrant Moon avoided her glance, either from annoyance or embarrassment. She looked at her husband, then looked at their son, and finally looked at the pot of aged duck soup – from which their attentive host had removed the duck’s head.
Across the table, Strong was momentarily embarrassed. He put his hand over his mouth and explained something to his girlfriend. Fragrant Moon guessed that he must be telling her that the Jü family doesn’t eat fish heads.
The girl had personality, though, with the nerve to act spoiled no matter what the occasion. Maybe she’d learned it from watching My Fair Princess on TV. She seemed to give Strong a kick under the table – the crockery on the table jerked suddenly – then grabbed his ear and whispered in a voice that was naturally sharp enough for Fragrant Moon to hear clearly, “But you ate fish head the day before yesterday!”
Strong got nervous and looked at his father and mother in a panic. Keeping his voice as low as it had been, but not low enough to escape Fragrant Moon’s sensitive ears, he said, “I was only helping you eat it!”
By this time Bright Lute had already started giggling. Maybe she was thanking the young couple for saving the honor of fish heads as she gave Strong and his fiancé a loving glance. The traitorous girl poked Strong’s forehead with a finger and retorted in fine fashion, “What’d’ya mean, ‘helping you eat it?’ Fish heads are great eating! You oughta help your parents eat some!”
The banquet’s atmosphere suddenly headed south. Fish heads became symbolic of a certain attitude, touching on the girl's liking of them, and Bright Lute’s admiration, and ever so faintly touching on the participants’ attitude toward the changes in their lives. Bright Lute grabbed the opportunity. Her eyes shiny, she stared at Fragrant Moon and said, “How about that. You can see what’s happened, right? Your refusal to eat fish heads won’t cut it any more. I’m going to bust this taboo of yours today, no matter what!”
Now Fragrant Moon was even more disconcerted. She was certainly aware that her decision didn’t only relate to fish heads. It was a significant responsibility. “Why are you so concerned about what I eat?” she asked Bright Lute. Then she kicked the ball over to Forest-Born as if she were playing soccer. “Ask him if he’ll eat them. Fish heads. Will he eat them?”
Bright Lute understood that this was a retreat by Fragrant Moon, so of course she carried on the attack. “Old Jü,” she asked, “do you love your son and his fiancé with all your heart? Then take a look at the impression you’re giving them!”
Forest-Born had been picking his teeth. The years had not been kind to him, and these days he had to pick his teeth every time he ate any little thing. At the suggestion that he state his position, he unconsciously threw down the toothpick and sat up straight. He was Forest-Born Jü, after all, and was able to recognize the situation and make a good impression.
His position was open-minded and kind. “It’s not a question of principles,” he said. “If you want to serve fish heads, then serve them. Whoever likes to eat them can eat them. “We should 'Let a hundred flowers bloom, and a hundred schools of thought contend.' Fish heads are just fish heads, and there’s no intrinsic reason for not eating them.”
And so fish heads were brought to the Jü family's table. But serving fish heads without having them eaten wouldn't have been much of a victory. What really made Bright Lute proud was that Forest-Born and Fragrant Moon had finally ended up with no way to resist the fragrant aroma of braised fish head. And when they finished that, she also served them a bowl of clear fish head soup, and the couple didn't refused it!
Later Bright Lute vividly described this banquet to others as a particularly special event. "I don't know what happened, either," she said. "It was like magic. I only wanted to get them to eat my fish heads. If I could see them eating some, I'd feel at peace."
Of course Bright Lute has never learned to be modest, even after all these years. She borrows phrases that Forrest-Born's family used to praise her skill at cooking fish heads. Listen to how she's learned to recite what they said –
"This is what Forrest-Born said: 'Fish heads, they're pretty darn good, you know.'
"Here's what Fragrant Moon said: 'They're good. I never thought they'd be so good.'
"And Strong's girlfriend said that: 'I'm going on a diet tomorrow. I didn't want this clear fish head soup to taste so good!'"
Strong had recently gotten into writing literature, and he would often recite impromptu lines of poetry for his girlfriend's enjoyment. That evening in Fish Head House he came up with this rhyme:
"We had fish every year,
"And a surplus to sell.
"Our world with fish was lovely,
"And prosperous as well."
In all fairness, Strong produced that poem while he was feeling emotional. Even Bright Lute could hear the author's feelings about the changing world in his poem. She stood to one side and clapped for him.
Fragrant Moon didn't show anything outwardly, but she seemed to take great pride in her son's talent.
To Forest-Born's ear, his son's poem was rhythmic. "You're getting better," he said.
Strong's girlfriend, on the other hand, was quite disappointed. She just said, between slurps of the fish soup, "No more! No more! What doggerel!"
21st Century Chinese Literature Compendium; 2002 Short Stories, p. 214
Translated from http://www.china.com.cn/news/citc/2013-08/29/content_29864101.htm
Tweet comments to Fannyi@Fannyi5, or Email Fannyi@Chinese-Stories-English.com
To get Chinese text by return email, send name of story to firstname.lastname@example.org