Chinese Stories in English
Waiting for Moses
Peter Liu was the person who’d been a Christian for the longest time in my home, Northeast Township, in Shandong Province. His grandson, Protect the East Liu, was my classmate in primary school. We weren’t just in the same class; we shared a desk. We got along pretty well, although we did have our fights.
He was originally named Moses. The characters used to write “Moses” literally mean “Rub the West”, however, so when the "Cultural Revolution" started, he changed his name to the more patriotic Protect the East. He didn’t just change his own namethen; he also suggested that his grandfather change his name to Love the East. He got two hard smacks upside the head for that suggestion. The Red Guards in the school were opposed to the change as well, because his grandfather was being struggled against. Denouncing a “Peter”, a guy trying to be like a foreign devil, felt appropriate, but criticizing someone named Love the East wouldn’t have felt quite right.
Protect put a lot of effort into his criticisms of Peter. He was the first to shout the slogans, "Down with the foreign slave Peter Liu!” and “Down with the imperialist running dog Peter Liu!" He also jumped up on the pile of dirt that served as a stage and slapped Peter, and pulled his hair and spit in his face. Peter didn't follow God's teaching to turn the other cheek when his grandson slapped him; instead he opened his mouth and bit off one of the boy’s fingers. Peter was almost beaten to death by the Red Guards because of that, but Protect won their trust and became a hero of the Put Righteousness before Family movement.
I joined the army and left my hometown in 1975. I saw Protect before I left. He envied me very much because being a soldier was a way out of the village for rural youth at the time. He’d signed up, too, but ended up being rejected because of his grandfather's status as a Christian. I remember him saying angrily, “I’ll be defamed my whole life at the hands of that bastard Peter.” I rather hypocritically tried to soothe him by saying things like, "The countryside is a vast world and you can have a promising future here."
He smiled bitterly and said, “Yeah, it's vast all right. When you leave the village, it’s a white expanse of saline soil as far as the eye can see.”
I hadn’t been in the army long before I got a letter from him. He said he was about to marry Treasured Virtue Ma's daughter, Elegant Beauty, and hoped I could send him a military cap to wear at the wedding to make a good impression. I wrote back and told him that recruits only got one cap and I really couldn't send it to him. He didn't reply, and we had no further contact.
The news that he was going to marry Elegant Beauty Ma surprised me. She was five years older than him; further, her grandfather's younger sister was the wife of his great grandfather's younger brother, so as far as position in the family hierarchy went, he should’ve called her “auntie” and their love was more or less incestuous. I’d previously heard she was engaged to a forestry worker in Northeast China, and her breaking the marriage contract to marry Protect was unexpected. The backdrop to their story set my mind to wondering.
I was sent on a temporary assignment during my second year in the army, which gave me an opportunity to go home and visit relatives. I didn’t need to ask around specifically about Protect’s and Elegant’s love story; it came up and hit me in the face. Everyone said there was nothing special about Protect, and his family background was also average, but he did have a great way with women.
When I asked for details, there was nothing overly exciting about the story. The facts were that Elegant had already bought a ticket to go to the northeast to marry the forestry worker when she had second thoughts. She withstood oral threats and inducements directly from the matchmaker, as well as her parents’ threats to commit suicide, and steeled her mind not to look back. When the forestry worker saw that the duck he’d thought was cooked had taken wing, he was so angry that he made out a detailed bill claiming recompence from the Ma family for expenses, including money he’d spent on a popsicle for Elegant on such and such a day in such-and-such a month in such-and-such a year. The bill added up to almost all the Ma family’s assets.
Elegant's three brothers had made names for themselves as assholes. The eldest was married and relatively settled down, but the second and third were bachelors. They were masters of fisticuffs and always looking for a fight, and now they fancied they had a righteous opportunity to beat up on someone. The two younger brothers took Protect to an old cemetery east of the village, where they struck and kicked him to force him to end his relationship with their sister. Protect acted like a real man and refused to give in.
People say a large crowd of villagers gathered around to watch the excitement while the two Mas were beating Protect. At first they thought he deserved the beating, and many of them added fuel to the fire and fanned the flames, as though the two Mas had become the incarnation of justice or heroes delivering the people from evil. When they saw Protect collapse to the ground with blood streaming from his head, however, their sympathy was aroused. Some of them condemned the two Mas for being too ruthless; others said they were making Protect pay with his life even though falling in love wasn’t a crime. Many people who normally didn’t cry easily were moved to shed tears of sympathy, especially after Elegant came running to the cemetery and sobbed while Protect lay dying in her arms,
I wanted to visit Protect to see how he was doing, but my father advised me not to. He said Protect’s parents had disowned him after he got married. The couple had set up a temporary shed at one end of the village and were living in misery. But I ran into them the day I returned to the army, while I was on the highway behind the village waiting for a bus.
It had only been two years since I’d last seen him, but there were lots of gray hairs on Protect’s head. His left leg was lame, his back was hunched, and he’d lost two front teeth. He wore a torn shirt from which all the buttons were missing, with a red, rubber-coated electric wire tied around his waist. Elegant had been the most beautiful girl in our village, but you’d never know it looking at her now. She was pregnant and seemed about to give birth. Her belly protruded from a greasy men's jacket and her ashen face was covered with a rash. A rheumy discharge leaked from her sad eyes, her hair was disheveled and her body smelled of rotten vegetable leaves. It seemed that they’d both paid a heavy price for their love.
I next got home to visit relatives early in the 1980s, when the Reform and Opening Up was starting. The countryside had undergone enormous changes with huge improvements in the lives of the farmers. By then Protect had become the richest man in our Northeast Township. He’d become a leading figure in society who was said to drink with the county’s leaders often.
Super Wang ran a small convenience shop in the village and was up on whatever was happening in the area. Most of the rumors I heard about Protect and his wife came from him.
I was minding my own business in his shop once when he told me, “Mr. Liu went to Shenzhen yesterday.” Shenzhen was the new “special economic zone” in south China, and I felt he used the term "Mister" with obvious irony to refer to Protect. “Take a guess, how did Mr. Liu go to Shenzhen? By plane!” In the early 1980s, it was still a novelty for a farmer to ride in an airplane. “And it’s not the first time Mr. Liu has taken a plane. I heard he even goes to Japan some days! Also by plane.”
Another time when I went to his shop to buy cigarettes, he told me, “You might be an officer in the army, a minor one, anyway, but Mr. Liu doesn’t even look twice at the cigarettes you smoke! He likes the "555" brand from England, or the “Good Companion” brand made in Hong Kong by the American company Philip Morris. When he smokes, he’s no less stylish than a movie star – Super held a piece of chalk between the index and middle fingers of his right hand to imitate Mr. Liu's manner of smoking.
When I went there to buy liquor one day, I broached the subject myself: “What kind of booze does Mr. Liu like?” I asked. “Certainly not this rotgut.”
He was taken aback for a moment, then laughed out loud. Then he said to me mysteriously, “I heard he’s going to divorce his wife!”
I said, “That’s impossible! They truly married for love! They’re a couple that’s been through the wringer together!”
“Mr. Liu's status has changed now,” Super said, “and he can't take Elegant anywhere!”
I bumped into Protect when I went to get a haircut at the barber shop on the street east of the government building. When I went in, the woman stylist was blow drying his hair. There was only one chair, so she had me sit on a stool by the wall and wait, and I saw Protect's pitch-black, luxurious hair and radiant face in the mirror. He was probably asleep when I came in, but he opened his eyes when I sat down. I said:
He stood up abruptly, then sat down again and said loudly,
"You son of a gun!"
"Bah!" he said. "You’re on my case? Aren’t you the embarrassed one?! You come back to town and don’t come to see me."
"You're such a busy person, Shenzhen one day and Hainan the next," I said. "Where was I supposed to go to see you?"
"No excuses," he said. "If I owed you ten thousand yuan, you’d find me even if I hid in a rat’s nest. But tell me, what’re you doing back here? Oh, yeah, I heard you and your wife have had a baby, and you came back to take care of her during her sitting month. How many days leave do you have?"
"That’s it," I said. "I’ve got one month."
"Can’t do what you want when you’re on official business."
"Maybe I'll just change my profession and come back to work with you."
"Making fun of me again, huh?" he said. "You’re an army officer, a platoon commander now and a company commander in another couple of years. A few more years and you’ll be a battalion commander, then a regiment commander and then a division commander. And what am I? I just turn over some merch to make a little money. Now you’re happy to call me an entrepreneur, but in a few days you’ll turn hostile and say I’m a speculator or profiteer."
"But I bet you don't ever have to worry about anything," I said, "just let yourself go and do what you want."
The stylist put down her blow dryer and picked up a mirror. She showed him the back of his head and asked, "Is that satisfactory? Mr. Liu?"
He raised his hand and gently patted his fluffy hair. "It'll do," he said.
"A beautiful head of hair," I said.
"On my case again," he said. "It’s dyed! When you’re mixing in with outsiders, it's really a no-go if you don't tidy yourself up to look respectable. Haven't you
heard people say that? I speak nothing but standard Mandarin whenever I leave the village."
"I haven't heard that," I said, laughing, "but I did hear you’re going to divorce your wife."
"Who says?" He stood up and adjusted his shirt. "It’s got to be drivel from Super Wang's foul mouth!” he said. “That punk and his groundless accusations. That shop of his is rumor central."
"It wasn’t him," I said. "You’d best not go looking for him."
"Truth is," he said, "he’s not the only one saying bad things about me behind my back. If you spend any time with people and are better than they are, they can’t resist bringing you down. It’s the green-eye disease! This here old man made some money, but wasn’t tied to them and didn’t let them share the wealth!"
"It's not just them," I said. "Everyone’s like that."
"They sure are. It’s understandable. So, let them say whatever they want and don’t let it get to you. That’s what this old man does. The more they talk me down, the more up I get." He pointed to the pile of shiny green bamboo poles in the empty lot in front of the public commissary. "I just got those in from Jiangxi Province. Authentic Jinggang Mountains green bamboo. Use them for ridgepoles when you build a house and they’ll last a hundred years! For that batch, I put out…” He waived his left index finger at me – and I immediately thought of the right index finger that he’d had bitten off.
"A thousand?" I asked.
He didn't answer me. He took a thick wad of money from his pocket, picked out one bill and put it down in front of the mirror. "Don’t give me the change”, he told the stylist. “I’ll get his, too."
"How could I let you do that?" I said.
"You and me, no need to be so polite. I’ll have you over to dinner one day."
The silver fillings in his front teeth shone. He looked refreshed.
A little girl appeared in my yard two days later.
"Who are you looking for, young lady?" I asked. I was washing diapers.
My wife stuck her face outside the window frame and said, "She's Protect's daughter. Her name’s Eyebrow. Come here, Eyebrow. I want to ask you something."
"My pa wants you to hurry on over," she said, ignoring my wife and staring wide-eyed at me. "OK, you go on home and I’ll be there in a bit."
"Pa said for me to bring you," she said stubbornly. She had eyes like Elegant’s and her mouth was like Protect’s.
I followed her over the dyke to Protect's new residence.
It was a newly built, five-room building with a large-tile roof. The east and west wings enclosed an immense courtyard. A couplet written in red on the big, black-painted iron gate read, "Poems and literature last a long time; A sincere and loyal family long endures.” A large character meaning “good fortune” was inscribed in red tiles on the spirit wall shielding the entryway. A wolfhound tied in the courtyard glared at me and barked ferociously.
Elegant came out to greet me, her hands covered in flour. "A distinguished guest has come to our door,” she said with a smile. “Come right on in. Protect hasn’t stopped talking about you these last few days!"
I looked at her protruding belly and asked, "When are you due?"
"Lord bless and protect us, this time I just hope it’ll be one with a handle on it," using a northeastern term for a male child. She sounded deeply worried.
I was looking at an image of Jesus Christ hanging on the wall of their home. I realized she’d become a believer.
"Come on in, you son of a gun!" Protect came out of the back room with a cigarette dangling from his lips. "The commune’s Secretary Sun is coming, too. He’ll be here in a bit, but let's you and me have a couple of drinks first."
We sat on the sofa and I admired his fourteen-inch color TV and four-speaker stereo cassette recorder. At that time these were symbols of a wealthy familyin the village. He pressed a button on the recorder and his raspy singing voice came from the speaker. "Listen!” he said. “The famous tenor Protect the East Liu!"
Elegant came in to pour some tea for me. She made a face and said, "Aren’t you embarrassed to have anyone hear that? Sounds like a donkey braying."
"What do you know?" he said. "This is called the ‘bel canto’ style of singing. The sound comes from down in the stomach!"
"Sound that comes from the stomach is a fart!" she retorted.
"How can you besuch a pain, you stinky old lady?" Protect waved his hand and said, "Go away, don't ruin our mood."
"Mr. Liu," I said, "Can you change the tape?"
"Who do you want to hear?" He said, "Teresa Teng, Kris Phillips, I’ve got them all here."
"Nothing so decadent," I said. "Do you have any Maoqiang style traditional opera?"
"Yeah," he said. "Is the Hunan opera version of "Gauze Shirt Recollections" OK?"
"Super Wang said Protect is going to divorce Elegant,” I told my wife when I got home. “Baloney. I think their relationship is quite good."
"But I’ve heard people say he has another family in Wenzhou, and that the woman is much younger than Elegant." She said, "When a man has money, he’s bound to go bad."
"But if he doesn’t have money, his wife will think he’s incompetent," I replied.
I heard from many people about Protect’s disappearance when I came home to visit relatives again in the spring of 1983. I took my child shopping at the public commissary and saw that the bamboo poles were still there, but the green was gone from them after years in the wind and sun. I ran into Elegant at the market. She was holding a bamboo basket with a dozen or so eggs in it, and I could tell from her gray hair and tattered clothes that life was grim for her again.
With tears in her eyes, she asked, "Tell me, Brother, why is that son of a bitch so cruel? Could it be that he ditched me and the kids because I gave him a second daughter instead of a son?"
"Protect isn’t that kind of man, Sister," I said.
"So tell me, where could he be? Dead or alive, we should’ve gotten a letter, right?"
"Could be…. he’s got a big business deal going somewhere…. And maybe he’ll be back soon...."
Now it’s 2012, thirty years since Protect disappeared. If he’s still alive, he’ll be an old man of sixty. His wife has been waiting for him all that time. During the first few years, most people in the village thought he’d found a woman and started a family somewhere, but as time went on, everyone decided the guy must no longer be with us in the mortal world. Some people thought he in fact must’ve been killed in the county seat.
I happened to run into Super Wang, who’d long ago opened a supermarket the city, in a public bath. We were both in the sauna. I was dry as a bone but he sat there drenched in sweat, talking to me. "Brother, four bigshots in the county and city governments got together and took your old classmate away thirty years ago,” he said with an air of mystery. “They murdered him...." But Elegant never doubted that he was still alive. People said Protect was deep in debt when he disappeared, and after he was gone, a debt collector took anything valuable from their home, leaving only a cooking pot for the three females.
Elegant collected rubbish and scrap materials to support herself and raise her two daughters. The eldest daughter, Eyebrow, went to work in a canvas factory after she graduated from junior high. She fell in love there, a young worker from Yellow Island, and later married him and went to live with him in his hometown. Now she has two children of her own. Protect’s youngest daughter, Treeleaf, was a good student and tested into Shandong Teachers University. She stayed in Jinan to work after graduation.
Both daughters wanted their mother to move in with them so they could take care of her as she grew elderly, but Elegant was determined to stay where she was. She watched over their once grand but now dilapidated home and waited for her husband to return. Ten years ago she built a gas station in front of the place. Cars coming from either direction stop there to gas up. Every day she puts together a stack of missing person notices. She takes a small bucket of glue and pastes the notices on large trucks that stop for gas. The so-called missing person notice is actually a letter to her husband that she had someone write for her:
“Protect, father of my children, where are you? If you get this letter, come back home. In the blink of an eye, it’s been almost thirty years since you went away. Our grandson, Hope, is in the third grade but has never even seen his grandfather’s face. Come home, Protect. I don’t hate you even if you really did start another family. This home will always be yours.... I’ve written my home phone and our daughter’s cell number here. If you don’t want to talk to me, just contact your daughter….”
Lots of the drivers have heard this woman’s story, so they don’t stop her from posting the notices on their vehicles.
Now it’s August 1, 2017, and I’m staying at the Eight Immortals Hotel, room 801, in Penglai City. I just returned from a banquet and rushed to turn on my computer, where I found this story which I’d written on May 8, 2012, in Hu County, Shaanxi Province, but never published. (I call it a story, but in fact it’s basically a record of actual events.) The reason I didn’t publish it is that I’ve always felt the story wasn’t finished. How can a person full of life be gone just because you say they’re gone? It's beyond common experience to have a birth without seeing a baby, or a death without seeing a body.
I’ve always felt that the missing person notices the gray-haired Elegant kept posting on trucks would one day get results. The pattern of Chinese operas ending in family reunions is in tune with our psychological needs. Of course, theoretically speaking, the possibility of Protect being murdered was certainly there, as was the possibility that he committed suicide in some seldom-traveled place. It was also possible that he stumbled and fell into a river and was eaten by fish, or that he fell into a mountain stream and broke every bone in his body. There was also a possibility that his disappearance would turn out to be an unsolvable riddle. But, like Elegant, I expected a miracle to happen.
One day, perhaps, when Elegant is returning home from the market with a Chinese cabbage and a walking stick in her hands, she’ll see someone sitting on the threshold. He’ll have his elbows on his knees and his hands covering his face,so she can only see his full head of gray hair. He’ll lift his head when he hears Elegant asking about him and she’ll instantly guess who he is, but she still won’t be able to tell for sure.
Will she drop the cabbage she holds? No way, because a woman who’s gotten used to living in hard times won’t let go of what she has even if she herself falls to the ground. Will she faint? No, because if she did, she wouldn’t be Elegant Ma. So what will she do? I recall similar scenes in literary works I’ve read, and remember how the people involved had acted, but none of them seems to fit Elegant. I have to resolve the problem, though, have to give a series of descriptions showing how this deeply miserable but persistently hopeful woman feels inside, and how she’ll react upon suddenly seeing the husband who’s been missing for more than thirty years sitting on the threshold of her house. It seems that whatever I write, it won’t be overstated; but it also seems that whatever I write will be inadequate, no more than a cliché.
If I hadn't met up with Protect's younger brother at the banquet, I wouldn’t have turned on my computer to continue writing this work. I’ve known for a long time that Protect's brother, Facing the Sun Liu, has his fingers in a lot of pies. When our village raised funds to build that bridge behind the village, he was the one who invested the most, and when Christians in Northeast Township built a church, he was the one who donated the most to that project as well.
His grandfather Peter, the first Christian in our Northeast Township, lived to be more than a hundred and died of old age. Followers often use his health and longevity as an example to persuade the masses to believe in their religion. Some people did convert, but others said sarcastically that he also ate baked buns and drank booze in the market. Once when his granddaughter-in-law Elegant took her child to pick over vegetable leaves at the market, the kid drooled with envy when she saw him eating buns. He ignored her and just kept on eating. The person next to him couldn't stand the sight and said, “Old Liu, look how your great-granddaughter craves those buns. You could eat one less and give her one.” But Peter said: “No, I can't. They’re suffering hardships that they have to suffer through before they can enjoy peace.”
A person’s behavior might be contrary to common sense, but as long as they can give a high-sounding reason for it, it’s really hard for anyone to say anything, especially if they claim to be acting in the name of God. From this I got to thinking: Was Elegant’s ability to endure tremendous pain and keep on going due to her faith? Although she wasn’t well educated and couldn’t read the Bible on her own, sometimes one needn’t be literate to understand the doctrine.
There are lots of things, like telepathy, that are difficult to explain in terms of common sense. I heard one of my nephews, a believer in Christianity, say that among all the believers in Northeast Township, none is more pious than Elegant. Every time she goes to church, she bursts into tears and weeps bitterly. She kneels in front of the image of Jesus Christ and makes the sign of the cross on her chest. Then her lips move and her mouth mutters: ‘Lord, bless him, bless this lost sheep….’ And every time that nephew of mine tells me how pious Elegant is, he also gets tears in his eyes.
When I joined the army in 1975, I was assigned as a recruit to the 34th Regiment Company in the Central Plain, Long Mountains, Penglai Fortress District. Now in 2017, forty-two years later, I’m revisiting the place to see some of my old comrades-in-arms. We held this banquet at the Eight Immortals Restaurant to reminisce about old times, and we drank "Drunken Eight Immortals", an expensive brand of baijiu. I hadn't seen the man with whom I had the closest comradeship for more than forty years, and now the fellow who’d been such an energetic youngster has become an old man with loose teeth and blurred vision. Deeply moved by a multitude of regrets, we consoled each other for our current woes and talked about the good old days. "To Du Kang, the legendary discoverer of baijiu, the only way to get rid of the blues.”
Just as I was starting to get tipsy, a waitress told me, “Sir, someone from your hometown wants to see you.”
“Let him in,” I said.
A moment later I saw a husky fellow come into the room. He was walking proud, swaggering a bit. “I’m sure you don’t recognize me, Third Brother,” he said to me. I looked him up and down and said, “You look familiar, but I really can't remember who you are.”
“I’m Facing the Sun Liu, Protect's little brother. I’m also called Matthew. My mom said you hit me with a brick before I was born.”
I jumped up involuntarily, the past appearing vividly before my eyes. “Matthew! Could it be you? You were a scrawny little kid when I joined the army!
“You haven’t considered how many years it’s been since you went away to be a soldier, Third Brother.”
Yes, forty-two years soldiering away from home, and Facing the Sun was now a man in his fifties. I was very moved and quickly made to introduce him to my comrades at the banquet. Surprisingly, most of them already knew him, and those who didn't had heard of him. He was the largest real estate developer in the region. Several of my comrades lived in condos he’d developed and praised their good quality right to his face. Several who were interested in buying a condo followed his posts anxiously on WeChat.
I told Facing that all these were my dear comrades whom I’d trained with as a recruit, so he had to give them discounts. “Don't worry, Third Brother, he said, “my father-in-law is the Deputy Political Commissar of the Plains Defensive Fortifications area, and I’m sympathetic to soldiers.”
“That’s great,” I said. “Sit down and have a couple. How did you know I was here having drinks?”
“Your face, Third Brother. It’s very singular. I knew as soon as you came in the restaurant.”
“You might as well tell me straight out that I'm ugly, instead of all that genteel twaddle.”
“You’re not ugly, Third Brother. You’re a beautiful man from our Density County in Northeast Township. Several young guys where I work consider you a model and want to be exactly like you.”
“Where’d you learn to talk like that, Matthew? You can talk trash without using dirty language.”
“Everything I said was the truth, Third Brother.”
“Okay, sit down. I sentence you to drink three glasses as a fine. And I have something I want to ask you.”
One of my comrades-in-arms interrupted and asked him, “Mr. Liu, what's this thing about getting hit by a brick before you were born?”
“You should ask my Third Brother here.”
I said, “As the saying goes, a real man doesn't talk about the brave deeds of his past.”
When I was a child, I was known around Northeast Township for my tomfoolery. I read a comic book serial based on the story in "Water Margin" about Zhang Qing, who was called the Featherless Arrow because of his skill in hurling stones. I had a profound urge to practice flying stone magic skills that I couldn't stifle, and imagined myself running amuck through world. I practiced until, surprisingly, I was a pretty accurate thrower.
One day on my way home after school, I saw a crow perched on a locust tree by the side of the road, cawing away. So I fumbled around in my schoolbag and got out a rock that I’d picked up before. I raised my hand, flung the stone, and the crow fell to the ground. It happened that some villagers were on the way home from their casual labor jobs and they saw it all. They cheered in unison, which made me swell up with pride.
Another time, as I burst through the school door after classes let out, a group of women who’d just got off work was walking along the street, laughing and joking. The “mother of Moses” with her protruding belly was among them. She was pregnant with Mr. Liu, the one who came to see me at the banquet. She had a big mouth, and loved to talk and laugh, and you could hear her laughing all the way from the other end of the village. I had nothing against her, so why would I fling a brick at her for no reason at all?
Here’s the skinny: While Moses’ mother was coming from the east, there happened to be a black dog coming from the west. This dog had it in for me, and it bared its teeth and barked at me. I didn’t have ready-made throwing stones in my schoolbag, so I had to bend over and pick up a broken brick from the ground to throw at the dog. Because the brick was large and irregular in shape, it deviated from my planned trajectory and flew sideways into Moses' mother's belly.
It really was a coincidence. Why were dozens of women walking together, and why did the brick have to hit Moses’ mother? She was tall and big as a horse, so why did it have to hit her in the belly? Whatever will be will be, but this was a downright calamity. It's not so much that it had to happen to her; rather, that it had to happen to the child in her belly. And not so much that it had to happen to the baby in her belly; rather, it was a calamity that was fated to happen to me.
Moses’ mother screamed and plopped down on the ground, clutching her stomach. The other women froze for a moment, then surrounded her. Someone rushed to Moses' house right away to tell them what had happened. Moses' father was functioning as District Chief at the time, a leading figure in the area. Someone else rushed to my house right away to report the news, saying that I’d caused a terrible disaster, and someone rushed to the health clinic to call a doctor. Soon Moses' father came running up all bent out of shape. Just as soon, my father ran up, his face sallow. The doctor from the health clinic ran up right away, too, carrying his medicine kit.
All I could see were patches of black and white, red and yellow. I wasn’t afraid. It just felt like a burst of cold air was burrowing around inside my body. Later I heard someone say that my father had kicked me and I flew over three meters through the air. Moses' father was somber and said to my father, “Mr. Guan, I don't think you told him to do this, did you?” My father said, “Brother, if your wife has any unexpected problems, I’ll make this little bastard pay with his life.”
At the most critical moment, Protect seemed to pop up out of the ground. (He hadn't changed his name at that time). He stood in front of me and spoke to my father like an adult. “Uncle, your son and I are brothers. We weren’t born in the same year on the same month and day, but we’ve vowed to die at the same time!” Everyone in the crowd was stunned by his words. Later, my father said, “This Moses, he’s a little guy but he speaks like an adult. He’ll for sure be a big man when he grows up.”
Moses’ mother stood up and rubbed her belly. "I’ve felt around and found nothing wrong,” she said. “I won’t have you beating the child, Brother Guan. It just happened. Okay, I’m all right now.”
She patted me on the head as she was about to leave. “Keep your hands under control from now on,” she said. “Loose lips are annoying, but out-of-control hands will cause trouble.” I’ve completely forgotten many of the pearls of wisdom I’ve heard in the world, but those two sentences spoken by Moses’ mother are engraved in my mind.
It wasn’t long afterward that Moses’ mother gave birth to a big fat baby boy. This big fat boy was the Mr. Liu before my eyes. I didn't tell my comrades all the details. I just said, “Mr. Liu, when I heard the news that you were born without trouble and were in good health, I was the happiest person in this world.”
I was freed from this nightmare memory but my heart was still throbbing. I picked up a glass of baijiu and said, "Comrades, Brothers, that we can be sitting here drinking shows how blest we are. Come, for everything that’s past, for everything in the present and for everything to come, bottom’s up!"
"Brother, let’s step outside for a moment,” Facing said to me. “There’s something I want to tell you."
"We’re all brothers here. Just say what you have to say. Why be so mysterious?" That’s what I said, but I stood up and went outside the door with him. I heard him say, "My brother’s back."
I froze for a moment, then said excitedly, "I knew he wasn’t dead! That son of a gun! More than thirty years. Where’s he been?"
"Ask him.” Hemming and hawing, like a mountain peeking through the clouds, he said, “He says he was in Heilongjiang for a while, then supposedly in Hainan, then on a deserted island, then in an old-growth forest deep in the mountains. Bottom line, nothing he says is believable." Exasperated, he continued, “He doesn’t even know how to use a cell phone and has never seen a credit card. His mind is still stuck in the 80s."
"Where is he now?” I asked: “I want to see him."
"He was still with me here the day before yesterday. He wanted me to invest in his plan for 'recovering the people’s wealth’. I ignored him, and he went away in a snit yesterday. He was supposedly going to his daughter's place in Yellow Island."
"What is this ‘plan for recovering the people’s wealth?"
"It’s an old scam in a different guise! Something about the last emperor having a huge sum in Citibank in America, 300 million US dollars plus interest of more than 30 billion. But they need capital to activate the account. It wouldn’t be convenient for the Chinese government to step in, so they’re entrusting private persons to handle it.... It’s the same old story. Even idiots wouldn’t believe it, but he does."
"I want to see him. Give me Eyebrow's phone number. I was going to Yellow Island in a few days, anyway."
"What do you want to see him for? I think he’s got mental problems." As he spoke, Facing flipped through his cell phone contacts for his niece’s number and gave it to me.
"I just want to know where he’s been hiding the last thirty-five years."
"Go ask for yourself, and remember to tell me what you learn. But I want to remind you, Third Brother,” he said mockingly, “absolutely do not let him con you. I’ve already called Eyebrow and Treeleaf to tell them to watch out. The documents he has with him are beautifully made, with embossed characters, watermarks, and embedded metal wires. They look more real than the real thing. Besides, you don’t know how eloquent he is."
I’d been to Yellow Island once, back when it was still called South Rubber and was still part of Wei River Prosperous Administrative District. Protect and I had just learned to ride bikes at the time, and we came along with Bright Wave Fang, an able man from the village, on a trip to King’s Stage Market to buy dried sweet potatoes. The road went over an earthen ridge to the north of King’s Stage Town, and the slope was quite steep. You’d be astonished by your speed on the way down even if you used the foot and hand brakes together.
My bike’s front and rear brakes were both broken that day, but I wasn’t about to push it down the hill, so I got up my courage and rode down. It wasn’t too fast at first, but after a few minutes I was going fast as lightning. All I could hear was the wind whistling in my ears. The trees on the roadside zipped by in a blur, and I left pedestrians and vehicles alike behind me. To avoid a collision, I squealed like a stuck pig: “Get out of the way! Get out of the way! – My brakes are broken,” – and all the carriages, ox carts, bicycles and pedestrians got far out of the way for me. I rushed toward the bottom of the hill, eyes straight ahead and hands gripping the handlebars. When I reached my fastest speed, I felt the bike lifting me into the air and the wind screaming through my body. When my huge inertia was exhausted, both bike and body fell to the side of the road.
Protect and Bright Wave arrived before long. They jumped off their bikes and helped me up. Protect gave me a thumbs up. “Well done!” he said. “I always looked down on you and thought you were a coward. I never thought you had the guts to do that!”
And Bright Wave said, “Really! The mouse that roared. I never thought you had it in you.”
“Next time I come back to the market,” Protect said, “I’m going to feel the urge to let go of the brakes, too.”
“Then you’d best not come back at all,” Bright Wave replied.
Eyebrow and her husband set out a feast for me in the most luxurious private room of the hotel they operated, the "Fisherman's Wharf". The room was decorated splendidly in gold and jade, a true nouveau riche atmosphere. Although I don't care for that kind of room, I was still very touched that the couple would use a large private room that could accommodate a dozen people to entertain just me. “Eyebrow”, I said, “I’m interfering with your business. Actually it’d be OK if we just had a quiet little room where we could talk.”
“Uncle,” she replied, “you seldom come here. We could have a sedan chair carried by eight people go get you and you still wouldn’t come, except to save face for my mother.”
Her husband had a shaved head, a goatee on his chin, a green dragon tattoo on his arm and a gold chain hanging from his neck. He looked a lot like an underworld figure from a TV series. Eyebrow explained, “Uncle, I know you’re uncomfortable with the way he looks, but he’s actually a great, well-behaved fellow. Running a restaurant and getting along on the docks isn’t easy. He grew the beard and got a dragon tattoo to protect himself.” I told her I understood.
I told them I only needed a bowl of seafood noodles, but they still served crabs, prawns, sea cucumbers, abalones, sea urchins ... a tableful of seafood that even twenty people couldn’t finish. I told them it was “too wasteful, too wasteful”, but Eyebrow said, “It was hard for you to get here once, and who knows when you’ll come again, so you should have a taste of everything. We won’t waste what you can't eat. We’ll give it to the wait staff later.” That eased my mind a bit.
I touched glasses with them and said, “I don’t have to tell you, Eyebrow, that I came here mainly to see your father.”
“He hasn't been here at all,” she answered. “How could he have the gall to come here where I am? I wouldn't recognize him even if he did. He ditched the three of us, my mother, sister and me. In more than thirty years, do you know how much we suffered? How wronged we were?
“I remember when my sister was three years old. She had a fever, and so did my mother. She didn't have the money to go to a hospital, so she stayed home waiting to die. I went to my dad’s father and asked him for money, but he just said, ‘Lord, forgive them.’ I went to my mother’s parents, but they closed the door and wouldn't see me. I stood in the street, wailing, ‘Kind gentlemen and ladies, my mother’s sick, and so’s my sister. Take pity on us. Lend me a few coins so I can go buy some medicine to cure my mother and sister. If they die, there’s no way I can keep on living....’”
She wiped the tears from her eyes and continued, “People in the village were afraid of offending my grandfather – he always thought it was my mother who’d colluded with someone to kill my father. Your ma – I call her auntie – was the only one. She took me home, gave me a bowl of sugar water, and gave me five yuan so I could buy medicine for my mother and my sister right away. I was only six years old that year. Six years old and such a burden to bear. I went to the township hospital and cried up a storm. The doctors and nurses were all crying, and even the head of the hospital was moved. He sent someone to pick up my mother and my sister and bring them to the hospital, where they were cured....”
Her husband patted the table. His eyes were rimmed with red as he said, “Now, now, Uncle’s come here after such a long time, why pester him with those old stories? Uncle, let me raise a glass to you. If you come to Yellow Island again, you’ll have to come in and visit with us.”
“Yes, definitely,” I said. “Eyebrow, I’m so relieved to see that the two of you are living well. Your father and I are good friends, and when I heard he was still alive, I felt happiness from the bottom of my heart. He evaporated so quietly back then, I thought something unspeakable must’ve happened. That’s why I hope you and your sister will take him back.”
She answered, “Let's see what happens as we go along, Uncle. Feelings can't be forced. If you want me to call a person I hate in my bones ‘father’, I can't do it.”
“But he is indeed your father.”
I understand your good intentions, Uncle, and I’ll tell my sister what you said. However, she’s more hard-headed than I am. She said if that man ever comes to her home, she’ll call the police right away.”
“Well, how’s your mother feel about it,” I asked cautiously.
She sighed. “Do you need me to tell you, Uncle? Think about it.”
Could I imagine Elegant's attitude towards Protect, the man who’d suddenly reappeared after abandoning her and her children thirty-five years before? No, I couldn’t. So what should I do, not being able to imagine her feelings but still wanting very much to know? Simple. I’d just ask.
Her house – no, I should say Protect’s house and courtyard – was not as dilapidated as I’d expected. I noted solar panels on the roof and air conditioners on the walls and knew that Elegant,with the help of her two well-off daughters and before Protect had returned, had achieved a living standard comparable to that of the richest families in the village. This made me somewhat gratified.
Elegant tottered out to greet me as soon as I came through the front gate. I’d imagined her back would be stooped and she’d be as thin as kindling. She might even be as inarticulate and unsophisticated as Xianglin's wife in Lu Xun’s story “New Year's Sacrifice”, who is sometimes considered the prototypical oppressed woman of old China. But the person in front of me was pleasantly plump with a rosy complexion. Her newly dyed hair was rather devilishly black, and she had a light in her eyes like a woman living the good life. I knew I wouldn't need to ask her anything.
"Lord, you’ve appeared again...." She made the sign of the cross on her chest and muttered under her breath, "Big Brother, Moses hit the nail on the head. He said that honored guests would be coming to the door for a couple of days, and sure enough, here you are...."
"Where is Protect?" I asked.
"He’s not called Protect the East anymore. His name is Moses."
"So, where’s Moses? Is he at home?"
"Yes, he’s talking with some people from the church. Wait a moment while I tell him you’re here."
I stood in her yard watching this devout believer, this loyal woman, as she parted the colorful plastic bead curtain that hung in the doorway and side-stepped into the house.
I saw a thicket of green bamboo, its stems crossing each other lushly,behind the spirit wall in the yard. I saw a pomegranate tree, heavily laden with fruit, next to the pressurized water well. I saw a swallows’ nest, swallows flying in and out, under the eaves of the house. And I saw the deep blue sky, white clouds floating across it.... Everything was quite normal, except me. So I turned around and walked out the gate of Moses' house.
August 8, 2017, at South Mountain, Density County
[From 2018 短篇小说 (人民文学出板设) at p. 20. Translated from 豆瓣 at:
https://www.douban.com/group/topic/140863062/. This story was also published as the fourth item in the collection “A Late Bloomer”《晚熟的人》, and the entire collection can be downloaded (in Chinese) for a nominal fee atAmazon.com : 晚熟的人 – Fannyi]
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