Chinese Stories in English
Author: Shen Congwen
"Bastard! You gunna get up, or you want the old man to whack you one?"
"Unn.... my foot still hurts, you know!" The pup mushed up his face, making like he was going to cry.
But he knew his father's hand. It could not only twist his son's ear, but could also bring prickly pears for him to eat. He still would have liked to put a lovely little pout on his lips and complain that his foot hurt. Instead, though, with a swish he stuck his headful of blond hair out from under the old burlap mosquito netting around the bed — he was getting up.
"C'mon, c'mon, be quick about it!"
His father, the Old European, was sitting on a footstool pulling a twine, plaiting the sides for a pair of grass sandals. The hut's low grass ceiling had been stuck together with black pitch, and there was no window, so it was too dark for the work. His father had to make use of the sunlight that leaked in through cracks in the decrepit wall.
"Haven't you seen the Stone family's puppy, and Duck Feather's son? They climb up the hill before dawn, don't they?"
"My foot still—"
"So if your foot hurts you don't climb the hill. Is that it?"
The puppy wiped the sleep from his eyes with the back of his hand, then turned his shoulders a bit and took a pair of grass sandals down from the wall. He came over and sat beside his father.
"I cut a load of brush—"
"Devil take the brush you've cut in the last few days…. What are you afraid off? Go hack some from the back hill like you always have. When the monk comes, take to your heels. If you really can't get back across the hollow, just toss the chewstick under the thistles and climb a tree. The old monk's as blind as a kitten and won't get you. He'll go back to the temple for a nap, you know — and then you can take your time coming back. What's the problem?"
"That's all so easy to say."
"Just tread lightly while you're mowing."
"Suppose he comes on me in a flash, and grabs me before I know it, what then?"
"Stupid bastard! He'll be yelling 'Got him! Got him! Got him! Help me beat the daylights out of this firewood-stealing Miao brat!' In fact it's all talk, bullying a little kid! Are you really afraid he'd dare beat you to death if he caught you?"
The puppy thought of what had happened the day before and couldn't help shivering. He was the only one who knew what that shiver meant. There was no way his father would even notice…. Whack, whack, whack, the sickle cutting into the trunk of the bush, and the same sound echoing back from the other side. Duck Feather's son was singing happily—
"In a hollow on the hill, the cloister stands upright.
"I climb on up around the top, some incense for to light.
"People like to burn the joss for their sons and daughters,
"Me, I like to burn the stuff for my charming mother."
Suddenly the old monk had appeared in front of the red wall of the monastery, looking like a vicious fiend, his gray cloth shirt tucked up under the sleeves of his robe. He kept shouting, "Got him! I got the dog fucker!"
He ran straight toward where the puppy was. Both the boys knew what the old monk would do to them, so off they flew, leaving behind the bush the puppy hadn't finished cutting down. They jumped over four or five lean-tos, crossed two ridges, and ran and ran until they could no longer hear the old monk shouting "Got him…."
They were out of danger, true, but during the crazed flight the puppy had stepped on a puncture vine, which took the opportunity to jam its spikes into the bottom of his foot. Duck Feather's son was able to pull them out, but he had lost a lot of blood. Even this morning, he'd still felt a rather painful itch when his feet touched the ground.
At first his foot was no big deal, but as the image of the monk's fiendish face rolled around in his mind, it seemed to make the puppy's body shrivel up, shrinking until it was smaller than the cricket that was just then walking across the kitchen stove.
Eventually he whispered the real reason he didn't want to go.
"If I go there again and he does catch me, he won't really beat me to death. But he'll tie my hands and arms up with kudzu vines and hang me up on Mountain Gate for everyone to see. He can do that! Then all those old ladies going up to the mountain will squint and stare at me, and cuss at me with their filthy mouths. They'll say, 'The little robber got what he deserves', and 'This devil's spawn thinks he can steal people's things just because he's tall. They'll have to cut his head off when he grows up', ugly things like that. How can I face people after that?"
"Then your old man will go see the Zhao family in Daping, and ask Master Zhao for protection."
The puppy couldn't make any more excuses after his old man said that. If he were a city kid who went to school, maybe he could think of some way to keep talking it over with his father. Unfortunately, people who haven't been to school are just too stupid!
Resigned to his fate, he stood up, stretched, and went to the column beside the stove to get the sickle hanging there. Looking over his shoulder, he happened to notice three or four crickets strolling casually across the stove. Suddenly he said— "Dad, buy an extra block of tofu when you go into town." Then he left.
The Old European didn't know how to keep house very well. He'd always loved to drink a cup of millet wine to string together body and soul, which made his hands shake. He often had his ten-year-old puppy go off behind South China Mountain Temple to do that dangerous work. But, after all, he was a confident man, you know.
He remembered going to Blind Man Yang three years ago to have his future told. His life was like a river flowing against the tide, and he would have to pass six more years before his luck would turn. So he'd decided to wait out the six years and then quit drinking when his luck changed.
He'd also considered what would happen if the puppy was caught by the monk. He really would be tied up and taken to Mountain Gate for a public display. It would probably be like that time before, when the father of the Stone family's tall puppy stole some bamboo. They'd picked a load of pine needles [for use as medicine], and gone to Prosperous Zhao's place. They kowtowed to Prosperous or the people in his house, as was appropriate for such a gargantuan matter. And because of Prosperous's instructions, which still rang in his ears: "Whenever there's a problem about the kudzu vines, either in front of the monastery or behind it, tell me about it. The old monk won't dare disrespect me. I've seen him stew pig's feet [in violation of his religious vows]. If he makes any kind of public complaint, he'll get what's what!"
But the Old European really wouldn't force his son the puppy to go be scared to death by the old monk just because he knew that Prosperous would intercede for him. He really had another reason. He knew that, while his son was little, he was also quite clever, and could run fast, too. The boy could never get caught by that blind old monk. Otherwise, if he weighed the cost of not having any firewood on the one hand, against, on the other hand, the cost of collecting a load of pine needles worth over two hundred coppers to request the man to speak on their behalf…. How would anyone make that calculation?
*[The term translated as "puppy" literally means "substitute dog". It is used by the Miao ethnic group of Southwest China to mean "child".]
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