​​         Chinese Stories in English   

3. Life

1. The Pockmarked Bandit
2. Saihanwula’s Summit

Percolator 10
Stories printed in Chinese Mini-Stories 2017
2017年中国年度微型小说, 作家网选编, 冰峰•陈亚美主编
Text at page cited after each story; translated from the webpages cited below.

4. Who’s Calling Me Mother?
5. Deliver New Year's Goods

1. The Pockmarked Bandit's Sky (麻匪的天空)
Zhang Shouxin (张守新)

      The Pockmarked Bandit turned his face toward the sky, where a large Vee formation of wild geese was flying over. He watched the goose in the lead up above and felt that it was he himself leading the flock. He looked at the beautiful woman behind him with his son, who was wearing a school uniform. “Hurry up!” he shouted at them.
      “Go slower, Dad,” his son cried. “Wait for us.”
      The Bandit turned around and took his son in his arms. Then he grasped his woman's hand and said, “Walk beside me, Orchid.”
      This was his son’s last day on the mountain, the last time the parents would be with their son. The National Elementary School in the county seat would start the next day.
      The Pockmarked Bandit was the leader of the bandits on this mountain, and a bandit leader is the man with the say-so. But this bandit leader listened to his woman in everything. The woman was the Bandit’s family, and their son was the woman’s family, so their son was the one with the say-so as far as his father and mother were concerned. Both father and mother were very fond of this son of theirs.
      “Our son will do well at school in the city,” the woman said. “He’ll score a hundred in both Mandarin and arithmetic.
      The Bandit said, “I’m a bandit, and we’ve got to have our son do well in school so he won’t follow in my footsteps.”
      The boy raised his little face and said to the Bandit, "I want to be a bandit, Dad, a bandit as chivalrous as you are."
      The Bandit gestured with his palm as if he would slap the boy, to frighten him. "You will study hard for me,” he said. “If you dare disobey the old man, the old man will beat you up."
      The boy raised his little fist and gestured towards the Bandit. “If you dare disobey my Mom, she’ll beat you up.”
      The woman stood between them. “Alright, alright, stop messing around, you two. Tomorrow I’ll help you pack your bags and go to the city, son.”
      “Do we need to bring more people to protect our son on the way into the city?” the Bandit asked.
      "No. More people would make a bigger target. I’ll take him by myself.”
      The boy was not in fact the natural-born son of the Bandit. His woman and her child had followed the Bandit halfway up the mountain.
      The Bandit had previously had no pockmarks on his face. He’d led a very delicate life and his complexion was as pure as a scholar’s. He liked to read, and so could be classed as a refined thief. He’d led his forces to attack a rich man’s granary. The rich man had unexpectedly snuck out of the official mansion, and the Bandit was thus being chased by government troops.
      He knocked on the door of a farmhouse in desperation. A woman who looked to be about twenty-five or twenty-six years old opened the door for him. She had a toddler about one year old who was demanding to be fed. The child had been crying incessantly but stopped, perhaps because he saw a stranger come inside, and even showed a smile on his face. He was smiling at the Bandit.
      At such a time, even as cute the child was, how could the Bandit even think about looking at the boy’s smiling face! He knelt down on the floor as soon as he came in the door, without even looking to see if there were others in the room, and begged, "Please let me hide."
      All he saw was a pair of soft, slender hands holding his. Please get up, my brother.”
      The sound of the government troops’ horses’ hooves drew near, and there was no hiding place in the woman's home. Then she looked at the pile of grain in one corner. “Are you afraid of pain, brother?” she asked.
      “No.”
      The woman walked to the corner where the grain was piled up and took out a handful of soybeans with her beautiful, slender hands. She told the Bandit, “This is the only way to save you."
      The Bandit was confused. The woman put the handful of soybeans on the fire and heated them, then pulled the Bandit up and sat him down on a chair. She used bamboo chopsticks to pick up the piping hot soybeans and put them on the Bandit’s face. The pain was so intense that the Bandit couldn’t stop screaming.
      “If you want to survive, you’ll have to restrain yourself,” the woman told him.
      The Bandit obeyed her. He was as obedient as a child while the woman burned his face with the soybeans.
      The sound of someone pounding rapidly on the door carried with it the sound gun butts beating on it. The woman pulled the Bandit from the chair, pushed him onto the bed and covered him with a quilt.
      When she went to open the door, a troop of government soldiers broke in and demanded, “Are you hiding anyone in your home?”
      “No,” she replied calmly.
      A man who seemed to be the troop leader asked, “Who’s that lying on the bed?”
      “My man. He’s just contracted smallpox.”
      She pulled back the quilt from the bed as she spoke, revealing the Bandit’s face. It had just been scalded by soybeans and was extremely frightening. The troops’ leader saw that incomparably ugly, scary face and said repeatedly, “Cursed!”
      So he took his troops and left the woman's home.
      After they were gone, the Bandit got a clear look at his scary face in the clean water in a vat. He burst into tears right then and cried through his tears, “I don't have a woman yet! Where will I find a woman looking like this?”
      The woman held his head to her breast and, as if soothing a child, told him, "If you can't find a woman, I'll go with you. I’ll be your woman from now on."
      “You have a baby!” he replied.
      The woman then disclosed all the details about how her husband had been murdered by the government for resisting the official tax. When he’d heard the full story, the Bandit stopped crying and told her, “Sister, from now on, you’ll be my woman and I’ll be the child's father.”
      The Bandit hadn’t successfully attacked the rich man’s house on that trip down the mountain, and instead was left with an ugly, pock-marked face. But he’d also brought a beautiful woman back to the camp, along with a son who didn’t know who his father was. Now this son would be attending elementary school in the county seat.
      The Bandit’s woman was leaving at dawn the next day to take their son down the mountain. The Bandit wanted to accompany them on their way, but his woman looked at him affectionately and said, "Go on home."
      The Bandit called one of his men to his side and said, “Protect them well on their way. If anything happens, I’ll hold you to account.”
      “Yes, boss,” the man answered.
      As he spoke, the Bandit watched his woman and son heading down the mountain and off into the distance. The man who’d escorted them down the mountain came back after a couple of hours. As he came through the camp’s gate, he kept yelling, “Bad news, boss! Government troops took your wife and son inside the county government office!”
      The Bandit was shaken. He grabbed the man by the collar and yelled, “What the hell happened?”
      “Your wife ran into someone she knew as soon as she entered the city gate,” the man reported. “It was a junior leader of government troops, and then they took your wife away.”
      Flames of anxiety engulfed the Bandit’s heart. He shouted, “Gather ‘round, my fellows! We’re going to attack the county seat!” The band assembled, the Bandit issued orders breathlessly, and they headed down the mountain to attack the county seat.
      They found the town gate tightly closed when they arrived. A troop of government soldiers pushed the woman and her son into view above the gate; they were trussed up with their hands tied behind their backs and the rope looped around their necks. Someone who looked like an official yelled down at the bandits, “All of you, listen carefully. If your bandit leader surrenders voluntarily and if he lays down his arms, I’ll release this woman and child immediately!”
      When the Bandit heard this, he shouted up at the soldiers, “Is what you say the truth?
      “We in the military don’t go back on our word,” the man who looked like an official shouted back.
      Hearing this, the Bandit took out his weapons and threw them on the ground. He ordered his subordinates to tie him up, then strode towards the city gate....

Text at p. 169; Translated from 千叶帆文摘 at
http://www.bje-edu.com/ganenqinqing/1509713.html
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2. Saihanwula’s Summit (赛罕乌拉之巅)

Liu Guoxing (刘国星)

      The three of us, drivers for a mining company, found it exciting to be stationed at the foot of Saihanwula Mountain. Our tent wasn’t far from the Khitan Imperial Mausoleum dug out by the Jurchen Jin people. Saihanwula, the former summer resort of the Khitan emperor, is also home to various flora and fauna, plus mountain springs and white clouds. We were aware that our tent might be pitched on the emperor's summer residence, but we weren’t worried about ghosts. We were just spending a relaxing summer there. From time to time we could stand and admire the rock paintings on the protruding stone walls around the area.
      One thing not to our liking was, after a tiring day, we couldn’t handle spending a long, slow night with the bright moon shining down on us over the top of the mountain. Old Zhang, young Wei and I would get ourselves some 120-proof
Taomagan wine and some peanuts. We’d drink while we talked about love stories, to the extent we knew them. Some of those stories had been told many times, but we could hear them a hundred times over and still consider them delightful “stories to drink by”.
      Old Zhang knew more stories than a tire has tread patterns, but he was still an old bachelor. I had a wife and child, and all the complicated emotions of a man who’d been around the block, so I had plenty of stories to tell. Young Wei was twenty-seven and didn’t have a family yet, so he could only listen fervently and pour the drinks. With the mountain breeze blowing softly, we’d stretch the stories out for a while and have a few cups while the moon slid slowly toward the western ridge of Saihanwula. Then one day Young Wei spoke up and said something astonishing. “That woman and I got it together!” Old Zhang and I were so shocked our faces paled and the moon’s reflection in our cups fell into the mud.
      That woman, we all knew her. She had a tent at the top of Saihanwula Mountain, at the end of Coil Mountain Road, where she made her home. She herded a flock of sheep, and the white robe she wore flowed over the summit like a cloud. The vegetation on Saihanwula was luxuriant, and mountain springs sounded like birdsong in the ravines at the bottom. When the sheep went into or out of the woods to graze, the woman put on an eyeshade and set her sights on the grassland below the mountain. Sometimes a bird would fly over her head, and the Chagan Murun River, looking like a sheep's intestines, gurgled off into the distance below the mountain.
      Old Zhang was the one with experience in what we talked about that evening. He touched Young Wei's forehead and looked into his eyes, then got close up to my ear and said, “It's true love!” I was astonished. “Birds in love with each other fly differently,” he continued, “and people in love see each other differently. Look at Young Wei. When you talk about that woman, his eyes fog over.”
      He’d hit the nail on the head about that. I went and got Gachada, a local fellow, to talk it over that night. Old Zhang said, “What’s done is done. Ha, ha....”
      Young Wei declared, “I’m going to take her into the city when the job’s done!” He looked determined.
      Go figure. Once he’d heard the whole story and all the details, Gachada said, “This is a good thing! I’m sure of it. We just have to ask the woman, ‘how ‘bout it?’ She used to have a man, but soon after the wedding the guy froze to death in a snowstorm looking for a sheep. But the woman didn't believe he was dead and insisted that he was still out looking for a sheep. Later,” he continued, “I introduced her to some other guys, but she didn't go for them. She’s a little crazy, too!”
      That autumn the sun turned over a paint bucket on Saihanwula Mountain. A large patch of crimson, a large patch of gold, a large patch of dark green – intense colors in thick ink. Clouds rose from the mountain and went back into the sky. The woman still wore a white Mongolian robe and drove her sheep. They flashed in and out among the trees, making them look like they had white mushrooms growing on them.
      “Look at that woman,” Old Zhang said to me. “She’s got one going. Obviously pregnant!” I looked at the woods, at the slopes and ridges that seemed to be covered with painted colors and said, “Sure is some harvest season!”
      Young Wei came back to the tent that night, but he started crying. He said, “Oh, man, she doesn't want to go with me!”
      Old Zhang slurped a sip of wine and laughed happily. I gave him a push and told him, “The guy’s crying. What are you laughing at?”
      “You lead a cow by the nose,” he replied. “Look, cooked rice starts out as rice kernels. If she doesn’t obey you now, she never will.”
      Young Wei said, “She still can't forget her man. She’s got to wait for him!”
      I went looking for Gachada again, and he went to persuade the woman. She told him, “When he went looking for the sheep, he asked me to wait for him! I won’t leave!”
      I took Old Zhang with me and went to talk to her. “You’re with child. It’s not easy to be a single mother!” She didn’t say anything, just put her right hand on her belly. The look of an expectant mother came over her as she watched a little lamb playing in front of her.
      When we were drinking that night, and Young Wei started crying again. “I’m asking you, please go talk to her again!”
      “Waste of time!” Old Zhang said. “Forget her. Heh, heh....”
      I scoffed at him. “But she’s with child, eh?”
      Young Wei howled all of a sudden, “I’m scum!”
      “Don’t be like that,” I said, rubbing his back. “Things can’t always go well when you’re trying to get in good with a woman, can they?”
      “I dressed up like a Mongolian man,” Young Wei said through his tears. “That’s when….”
      I grabbed him by the collar and shouted angrily, “What? You did what?”
      “I fell in love with her!” He ran out of the tent, screaming. Old Zhang and I chased him outside. The road up the mountain wasn’t entirely in the woods, but night was coming down on it like a cold rain. The trees cast unsettling shadows, but Young Wei's shadow was nowhere to be seen.
      Old Zhang and I were getting anxious. There were bruins and wolves on the mountain, and birds of the night occasionally flapped past us as we groped our way through the woods. Suddenly we heard Young Wei call out from the woods: “Tana! Tana.” We wanted to look for him, but echoes came at us from all directions: “Tana! Tana”. The whole forest and valley were calling her name. That’s when Old Zhang and I learned the woman was called Tana.
      We weren’t able to lead each other out of the forest until daybreak. After climbing halfway up the mountain ridge overnight, we were surprised to see young Wei lying outside the tent, covered in a white Mongolian robe, snoring like thunder.
      We finally left the day the job ended, down the road that coiled around Saihanwula Mountain like a rope. Old Zhang and I could see Young Wei off and on for a while. He waived at us from the mountaintop at first, then later held his hand up in a salute, like a statue, piercing the sky.... Saihanwula’s summit is as flat as a whetstone and has a pond that holds water year around but never overflows. Golden lotus grow all around the edges. The Khitan emperor used to use it as grazing ground for horses. Young Wei had set up another tent beside the woman's and waited there with her.
      Eventually our vehicle got onto an asphalt road. I could see Saihanwula Mountain standing majestically through the vast haze when I looked back. The sunlight pierced through the clouds, and the sky and shadows almost pressed against my eyes.... Two white tents showed faintly on the summit, looking like puffs of cloud in the distance, a patch of unperturbed calm.
      Old Zhang phoned me later. Choking back sobs, he said, “I, I want to have a family!”

Text at p. 175; Translated from 小小说月刊 at
http://xxs.d0088.cn/archives/13570.html
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3. Life (生命)

Chai Yajuan (柴亚娟)

      That event from the past is firmly nestled in my heart. I think of it every year during the season when the cherries turn red.
      I was in fifth grade in the early 70s. One Sunday morning, my father and mother went to work on a large stretch of land on the east side of the village. I stayed home to babysit my little brother, Iron Egg, who wasn’t yet three. I steamed egg custard the way my mother had told me, brought it to Iron Egg and fed it to him spoon by spoon. When he was finished, his little face blossomed with happiness.
      That’s when my classmate, Beautiful China Liu, came over to play. After we talked a bit about school stuff, I noticed that her eyes were fixed on the two cherry trees in the arbor in our courtyard.
      It was right in the season when the cherries turn red, and the big, bright scarlet cherries on those two trees were plentiful and plump with juice. I knew what my friend was thinking, so I said, “Let's go pick some fruit in the garden, China.” She happily followed me out to the cherry trees, and we giggled while we picked some and ate them.
      That’s when the tragedy happened. It happened because I ignored my brother, Iron Egg, so I haven’t been able to get over it my entire life.
      Iron Egg had just learned to crawl, and he was actually able to climb up from the
kang bed onto the windowsill while me and China were picking and eating cherries in the garden. We kept the windows open in the summer, and that’s why his two hands just grabbed air when he crawled forward from the window sill. He smashed his big head on the windowsill and fell to the ground. The coincidence that caused the tragedy was that, when he landed, a nail protruding from a board stuck him in the head.
      Me and China ran over to where he was laying under the window. We saw the blood that was oozing out from the nail hole in his head.
      I got anxious and panicked. I didn't know what to do. It was China who went to get the neighbors. When they arrived, they didn’t dare pull the nail out from my brother's head. They said they were afraid that more blood would come out.
      There wasn’t time to go to the stretch of land east of the village to get my father and mother. The neighbors picked up Iron Egg and loaded him into a four-wheel cart, baby, board and nail all together, and headed for the county seat.
      I felt terrible standing at the village entrance watching the four-wheeler going away in a cloud of dust.
      With tears in my eyes, I turned around and ran to get my father and mother.
      I got to that stretch of land and told my parents what had happened to Iron Egg. They dropped what they were doing and ran off towards the village right away.
      Iron Egg, my brother, had already stopped breathing when my parents rushed into the hospital in the county seat. His life had instantly disappeared, gone with the wind, because of my negligence.
      My mother held him in her arms and cried as though her heart had been cleaved in two until she fainted. I cried like I was going to die as well.
      I knew I’d never be able to feed him custard again, and never be able to play with him again.
      After arranging for his funeral, my father asked me what had happened on the day of Iron Egg’s accident. And he said, “Didn’t we tell you to take care of your little brother at home?”
      I told him Beautiful China Liu wanted to eat cherries that day.
      My father was upset when he heard that. “Then you left your brother and went to the garden with China to eat cherries, and your brother had an accident. Is that right?”
      I nodded.
      I noticed a light flash in my father's eyes. I couldn't understand what it meant at the time. Thinking back on it now, I should understand it as a flash of hatred and fierceness.
      Unfortunately, I understood that too late.
      China's body was discovered in a stretch of land on the east side of the village a few days later. She’d been strangled. My father was the murderer, and he didn’t hide or evade the consequences. He turned himself in.
      He gave a very simple answer when the police asked him about his motive for committing the crime: “My son Iron Egg’s death had to do with Beautiful China Liu, so she had to pay with her life. Since ancient times, murder means you pay with your life, like you pay with money when you borrow money!”
      My uncle on my mother’s side was the mayor of our town at the time. He found some way to get China's parents not to hold my father criminally responsible.
      My father seemed to be a different person after he was released. He stayed home all day long and hardly ever said anything.
      He ended his life with rat poison one night not long thereafter. Although basically illiterate, he left a suicide note with only one line: “Since ancient times, murder means you pay with your life, like you pay with money when you borrow money!”
      My uncle beat his chest. "If I’d known this was going to happen. I would’ve sold my house to save you!"
      My mother’s hair turned completely white from enduring so much pain, and she became mentally ill. That’s how my family was torn to pieces.
      I skipped the college entrance examination few years later because of my mother's illness. I took her to the county seat, borrowed some money from relatives and rented a space in a department store. I run my small business and use what money I make for my mother’s treatments.
      Time slips away. More than forty years have passed in a flash, and I’m about to become a senior citizen, a sixty-year-old woman. I never married and live with my mother. Even with all that, however, or maybe because of it, the knot in my heart is still there. I’ve never gone to my father’s grave and I’ve never been able to forgive him.
      No matter how busy I am, I always go to Beautiful China Liu's grave on both the
Ghost Festival and Grave Sweeping Day, to be with her and chat a bit.

Text at p. 180; Translated from 天天快报 at
https://kuaibao.qq.com/s/20180416G12CVU00?refer=spider
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4. Who’s Calling Me a Mother? ( 谁叫我是娘呢)

Shao Huoyan (邵火焰)

      Everyone in the village said that the characters in Auntie Jade Leaf’s birthdate were a good omen. Written with the symbols for one son, one daughter and one flower, they were filled with more joy than a Bodhisattva on the way to nirvana. Her son lived in the country and her daughter had married a city man. Auntie Jade Leaf said, "What’s so joyous about that?", but she was quite pleased nonetheless. After her grandson Tiger was born, though, joy was one thing, but there was another word for what she felt every day: tired.
      When Tiger was two years old, he was as naughty as he wanted to be and wouldn't let people stop him for a moment. If he wasn’t hungry he was thirsty, and if he wasn’t playing with his toys he was demanding that someone hold him up while he peed. If the house had just been cleaned he immediately made a mess of it. Sometimes he clamored to watch cartoons on TV, or sometimes he insisted that grandma take him outside to play, but when they got outside he wouldn’t walk and had to be carried. When the time came for his noontime nap, he wouldn't close his eyes unless someone stayed with him and sang a lullaby for at least half an hour. The little guy had a huge temper and would cry and fuss if everything wasn’t exactly the way he liked it.
      Auntie Jade Leaf’s son and daughter-in-law both worked in a village-run factory and were quite busy every day. In addition to babysitting her grandson, she also took on preparing three meals a day for the family and doing the family’s laundry as well. She hardly had a moment’s peace from morning to night, but despite all her hard work, her daughter-in-law wasn’t satisfied. Auntie Jade Leaf used to be able to vent her frustrations to her husband, but since he’d passed away the previous year, she could only stifle her grievances no matter how serious they were.
      That Sunday was another busy day for Auntie Jade Leaf. Taking advantage of the good weather, she’d removed and washed her son’s and daughter-in-law’s bedding. Her grandson screamed that he wanted an apple just as she was about to take a break, so she hurriedly went to peel one for him. She didn’t have a chance to rest until he’d eaten the apple and lay down on the floor by himself to play with his toy car. She thumped her aching back and said to herself, "Wouldn’t it be nice if I could go somewhere and rest for a few days."
      Maybe somebody read her mind. The phone in the living room rang right then, and it was her daughter. "Mother,” she said,” I want to have you over to stay with me for a few days. Okay?" Her daughter had married and moved to a city several hundred miles away a few years previously and Auntie Jade Leaf rarely visited her. For one thing she had lots of things to do at home and it was hard to get away, and for another, it was too long and inconvenient a journey. Her most recent visit had been three years before when her daughter gave birth.
      Now, when she heard that her daughter wanted her to visit, Auntie Jade Leaf didn’t have to think about it. She’d go there and relax for a while and then decide what to do next. She wasted no time answering, "Okay. Wait for me to fill in your brother and sister-in-law~"
      After her son and daughter-in-law came home from work, she told them about her decision to spend a few days with her daughter. The daughter-in-law seemed very dissatisfied and said, "Mother, what’ll we do with Tiger while you’re gone?"
      "I’ll only be away for a week,” Auntie Jade Leaf replied. “You’ll think of something for those few days.”
      “We both have to work. What can we do?" The daughter-in-law said coldly.
      "Don’t worry about it,” The son said. “Mother has it tough these days. Let her go to my sister’s for a few days off. I’ll have my colleague’s grandma take Tiger for a while." The daughter-in-law didn't say anything.
      Early the next morning, Auntie Jade Leaf packed a few changes of clothes and set off by train. She brought along some country goodies that her granddaughter Jingle loved. The ride in the hard seat coach was bumpy all the way, not to mention noisy, but none of that affected her mood. She looked out the window at the green carpet spreading across vast fields and the stretch of mountains leaping toward the rear of the train. She was thinking about being a nice guest in her daughter's home. “I’ll let my daughter and son-in-law take me to some popular scenic spots in the city. And I’ll let my daughter prepare a few meals for me while I relax and enjoy not having to do anything except “open my mouth when the food is served". She smiled unconsciously at the thought.
      She arrived in the city where her daughter lived late that evening. Her son-in-law drove to the station to pick her up. She didn’t feel that spending the entire day on the train was all that tiring.
      She was all smiles when she got to her daughter's house. As soon as she walked through the door, her daughter stepped forward and took her hand. "I've been looking forward to you getting here. Our superiors approved a one-week vacation for me and Jingle's father. We’re leaving tomorrow for a week out of town. We were going to take Jingle along, but she’s a handful and would be a real burden and we wouldn’t have much fun. So we’re leaving her home and I asked you to come here to help us out and take care of her for a few days."
      The smile froze on Auntie Jade Leaf’s face. Her mouth opened and closed several times as she looked at her daughter, but she didn’t utter a word for a long time.
      No doubt about it. Another week of hustle, bustle and exhaustion would follow.
      Her daughter and son-in-law got home a week later. They’d planned to ask Auntie Jade Leaf to stay for a couple more days, but her daughter-in-law called and urged her to come back to their place. She had no choice but to get going back to the countryside.
      As soon as she got there, her daughter-in-law carried her grandson up to her and said, "Mother, you’ve been off having a good time for so many days, you’ll have even more energy to take care of Tiger."
      Auntie Jade Leaf sighed, hugged her precious grandson and kissed him on the forehead, and said to herself "Who’s calling me a mother?~"

Text at p. 182; Translated from 范文九九网 at
this page, under the name 娘
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5. Delivering New Year's Goods (送年货)

Luo Shirong (罗世容)

      It was Lunar New Year's Eve, The Chinese Spring Festival, but it didn’t feel like spring here at the border post. It was snowing heavily outside and the surrounding area was a vast expanse of white. The post looked lonely in the snow.
      A recruit named New Bright Zhang had been assigned to the post. He’d just arrived and wasn’t quite acclimated. He got a dazed look every time he went on duty and seemed especially homesick.
      He was scheduled for duty again that afternoon, but the squad leader had someone replace him. Zhang thought to himself that the squad leader was really nice, letting him have time off on New Year's Eve, but the squad leader told him, "I’ve got a special task for you to do today, Zhang. Are you up for it?"
      Zhang wondered what this special task could be. When the squad leader saw the recruit wasn’t answering, he demanded, "What? You don't dare perform this task by yourself?"
      Righty away Zhang puffed up his chest and said loudly, “I’ll do it, Squad Leader! What’s the task?"
      The squad leader smiled. "There’s a family four miles or so from the outpost. Our superiors have given us some New Year’s goods, special decorations and treats for the holidays, and I want you to deliver these goods to the family!"
      “Deliver New Year's goods? That's not difficult,” Zhang thought. Out loud he said, "I promise to complete the task, Squad Leader!"
      "Good!" The squad leader handed Zhang a package. “The New Year's goods are all wrapped in this. Be careful on the road!" Zhang took the package, put it in his backpack and stepped out into the wind-blown snow.
      Snowflakes swirled around and piled up on the ground layer upon layer. Zhang plodded over the snowy ground with the New Year's goods on his back, one step deep and the next one shallow. He wanted to open the package to see what was in it, but he didn't dare.
      It was hard going and Zhang accidentally fell heavily. He was worried that the contents of the package might be broken, so he opened it right away to check. He was stunned to see that the contents weren’t New Year’s goods, but a pair of old military boots!
      Zhang felt he’d been played for a fool, so he picked up the package and headed back toward the post. He stopped again after not many steps. He was thinking that if he went back, the squad leader would definitely scowl at him, so he decided it'd be better to pretend he didn’t know anything. He’d deliver the old army boots to the family and let them take any complaints to the squad leader! At that thought, he turned around and continued on.
      The snow was getting deeper and whiteness was everywhere. Zhang got lost and made many detours. It was almost dark before he made it to the family’s house. When he knocked on the door, the owner opened it and enthusiastically pulled him inside. He had Zhang change out of his jacket, shoes and socks, all of which were wet from the snow, and put them by the fire to dry out. Then he took the young soldier to the dinner table and sat him down.
      The table was filled with warmed wine and steaming dishes. "You must be hungry after walking so far”, the owner said. “Let’s eat before we do anything else!" His wife poured Zhang a bowl of wine right away. He definitely was hungry. It would have been polite to decline their offer, but instead he smiled at the couple and took up his chopsticks.
      Zhang wanted to return to the post when he finished eating. The owner said he was afraid Zhang would get lost again and insisted on escorting him back. Zhang refused at first but then reconsidered. If the man went back to the outpost with him, it would prove that he had indeed completed his task. Also, the man could speak up for him in the event the squad leader criticized him for staying to eat a meal and drinking some booze at the man’s house.
      The wife brought the dried socks and jacket over for Zhang to put on, but the shoes were still soaking wet and ice cold to the touch. Zhang Xinming would have to bite the bullet and squeeze his feet in, but the man handed him a pair of old military boots. "Wear these back. Put your wet shoes in the package."
      Zhang hesitated. "These, these are the, the 'New Year’s' goods the post had me, had me deliver to you….” While he was speaking, he was thinking diffidently, “Why would anyone send old boots as a gift?”
      Put them on,” the man said with a straightforward smile. “They’re comfortable and you can get along faster.”
      Back at the post, the squad leader smiled as he patted the snowflakes from Zhang’s body. Then he saluted the local man and shouted: "Old squad leader!" Zhang was flabbergasted. The man in front of him was actually a former squad leader! He didn’t feel good about that. "Squad leader, how could you let me deliver a pair of old boots to a former squad leader's house for a New Year’s gift?"
      The old squad leader burst out laughing when he heard that. The current squad leader started laughing, too. "It was all our former squad leader’s idea! "
      It turns out that when the old squad leader was on active duty, he noticed that new recruits always had a hard time getting used to spending their first holidays away from home in the army. They got especially homesick. The old squad leader and his wife had no sons or daughters tying them down, so when he left the army, they went ahead and moved their home to a spot four miles or so from the outpost so they could lay out a spread for new recruits every year on New Year’s Eve.
      The old squad leader knew that recruits would certainly be embarrassed if he openly had them over for New Year’s dinner, so he told the current squad leader to send recruits to his home on New Year's Eve to "deliver New Year’s goods". The first few times, the current squad leader always stuffed some common New Year’s goods into the package, things like millet and bacon, to show the good wishes of the soldiers at the outpost for their former squad leader. The old squad leader always sent back whatever he got. He said material supplies were tight at the outpost and that everything had to be held back for the soldiers. He definitely couldn’t accept anything.
      He also found that every time a recruit had to brave snow to deliver the New Year’s goods, his shoes and socks would get soaked, so he went ahead and gave the current squad leader an “order”: No need to put anything else in the New Year’s package, just a pair of old boots that fit the recruit. The recruit could wear the boots on the way back and be a little warmer!
      Once he realized what had happened, the tears flowed “pitter-patter” from Zhang’s eyes….

Text at p. 184; Translated from 中国古诗词 at
http://wap.exam58.com/yuedu/39167.html





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