Chinese Stories in English
A Strange Encounter
In the fall of 1982, I came back to Gaomi Northeast Township from Baoding Prefecture to visit my family. The train was late, so it was already past nine in the evening when the shuttle arrived at the Gaomi Bus Depot. There's only one bus through the township each day, and I'd have to wait until six in the morning. I looked up and saw a third-quarter moon hanging in the sky. It was clear and bright, and I decided to take advantage of it and walk home rather than getting a room in town. That way I'd see my parents sooner, and also get a breath of fresh air in the open fields.
I only had a small bag with me for this trip home, so I could walk quickly. I didn't take the asphalt road after going through the tunnel under the train tracks because it turns off at a right angle and is much farther. I went up through the bent-over thistles to the dirt road that had been abandoned years ago, which cuts off at an angle towards Gaomi Northeast Township. The dirt road had been dug up in several places in recent years, so not many people walked that way and the road surface was covered with weeds and brush. There was just a trace of a trail down the middle, trampled down by people.
Crops were growing on both sides of the road: sorghum, corn, sweet potatoes and more. The moon shining on the crop leaves made them glisten with a faint silvery light. There was almost no wind, so all the foliage was motionless. The chirping of grasshoppers came up from under the crops, very loud, and seemed to penetrate my flesh and bones. The grasshoppers' cries made the moonlit night seem particularly lonely.
The crops got denser and denser further down the road. It's over thirteen miles from town to Gaomi Northeast Township. In addition to the grasshoppers' chirping, a bird or some small animal occasionally cried out in the crops.
Suddenly I felt a dense coldness on the nape of my neck, and heard the sound of my own footsteps becoming especially loud and heavy. I started to regret coming this way alone at night. I felt that countless secrets were hidden under the crops on each side of the road and that countless eyes were scrutinizing me. I also felt that something was tailing me.
All of a sudden the moonlight got hazy. I involuntarily started to walk faster, but the faster I walked, the more I felt there was danger behind me. Finally, without thinking about what I was doing, I turned around to go back.
There was nothing behind me, of course.
I continued walking toward home, and as I walked, I rebuked myself: "Are you an officer in the People's Liberation Army? Are you a member of the Communist Party? A teacher of Marxist-Leninism? You are, and you're a materialist. And a pure materialist is afraid of nothing. A communist doesn't fear death, so what else is there to fear? Ghosts, causing afflictions? No! Are there wild beasts here? No! Not in this world. It's just much ado about nothing...."
But I was still tensed up and my teeth were chattering. The ghost stories I'd heard growing up in this area seethed through my mind "en masse": The man walking along a road who suddenly heard the clacking of a peddler's poles up ahead, but when he looked he saw only two poles and two legs moving, with no body; or the man walking down a road at night who ran into someone giggling at him, and when he looked closely he saw it was the "faceless ghost", a woman whose face had only a red mouth and nothing else; or the man walking at night who suddenly saw a white-bearded old man eating grass....
Later I realized that I'd been sweating profusely, drenching my clothes.
I started to sing loudly. "Forward, forward, forward — Charge —"
I went the rest of the way without incident, naturally. It was nearly dawn by the time I approached the village. The sky was clear and black, with only a hint of red glowing in the east. It was very peaceful scene, overall, with the roosters crowing in the village. Looking back the way I'd come, the crops were just crops and the road was just a road. I thought of how frightened I'd been on the road and felt like a complete fool.
As I was about to enter the village, I saw an old man coming out from between the shadows under a tree. I looked closely – it was my neighbor Old Man Zhao, dressed very neatly. He stopped and stood four or five steps from me.
"You're up early today, Mr. Zhao," I said right away.
"Got up early to go to town," he said. "Knew you were coming home, been waiting for you."
I talked with him for a bit, small talk, and gave him a cigarette with a filter.
After lighting the cigarette, he said, "Young man, I still owe your father five Yuan, but I can't use my money. You take this pipe and give it to him, and that'll square it."
"Why do you have to do that, Mr. Zhao?" I asked.
"You get on home, now," he said. "Your Ma and Pa are looking forward to seeing you!"
The pipe was made of agate and it was very cold when I took it from him. I quickly said goodbye to him and hurried off into the village.
Mom and Dad made a fuss over me when I got home, asking me all kinds of questions. They said I shouldn't have walked home by myself at night. If something had happened, I wouldn't have been able to do anything about it. I laughed it off. "I really wanted to run into a ghost, but the ghosts were afraid to come out to see me."
Mom said, "Children shouldn't say such crazy things!"
When Dad made to smoke, I rummaged around in my bag and pulled out the agate pipe. "Dad," I said, "I ran into Mr. Zhao just now as I was coming into the village. He said he owes you five Yuan, and he asked me to give you this pipe to settle the debt."
"Who did you say it was?" Dad asked in surprise.
"Old Man Zhao!" I said.
He said, "Your eyes are going bad, right?"
"Absolutely not," I said. "I talked to him for a while, and gave him a cigarette, and there's this pipe, too."
I handed the pipe to him, but he hesitated, unwilling to take it.
Mom said: "Old Man Zhao died the day before yesterday, in the morning!"
So, I saw a ghost without realizing it. I didn't know it when I saw it because he wasn't scary like in the stories. He was friendly. He didn't want to die leaving an unpaid debt. Ghosts really don't hurt people, it's people who really hurt people. People are a lot scarier than ghosts!
传世经典微型小说108篇 / 108 World-Wide Classic Mini-Stories, page 180
武汉长江文艺出版社; 高田宏, 方莹, 孙琳 主任编辑 Gao Tianhong, Fang Ying, Sun Lin, Eds.
Translated from version at http://www.douban.com/group/topic/33349635/
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