Fiction: Swann Li
THE GIRL FROM HIGHWATER
In the early morning when Father Fan came home, on his back a bamboo tub of newly dug-up peanuts, muddy and wet, the rain was still falling. Shafts of water were beating on stone slabs in the yard, splashing up into hundreds of fuzzy dandelion blossoms, wetting the feathers of two black-dotted hens tied and lying on the porch, eyelids stretched thin over tiny fast-blinking eyes, as if they were thinking hard about their situation.
“What are those for?” Father Fan asked.
“For you to take to Linlin.” Mother Fan, a small fifty-year-old woman wearing an old-style side-buttoned shirt and a modern short haircut, forced on her by the barber in town, was sitting on a stool, counting a stack of brand-new bills.
“I know that’s what you’re thinking.” Father Fan shook his head in disapproval, setting down the bamboo tub. “But, granny, use your head, what can Linlin do with them?”
“Can’t she cook them for herself?”
“You think she has a kitchen? And even if she has, you expect Linlin to hold a knife to a chicken? Ever since she was five, every time I was to kill a chicken, she would grab it and run away. I had to chase her all over the village. Silly girl.” Despite the criticizing tone, Father Fan smiled over the memory of his youngest daughter, grey goatee quivering in the white mist from his mouth.
“Silly girl.” Mother Fan’s eyes curled in a smile. “Should I cook the chickens? You can take it in an earthen jar. She can still taste it on the same day.”
“No,” Father Fan said decisively. “Not fresh.”
Mother Fan slipped the red rubber band from her wrist onto the wad of bills and handed them to her husband. “One hundred. Not one fen more, not one fen less.”
Father Fan unbuttoned his blue shirt, put the bills in his watch pocket, and sighed. “What can she buy with one yuan nowadays?”
“You don’t remember how she loved new bills? She always held on to her lucky money and couldn’t stop counting them. She would never spend it.”
“But she’s not a little girl anymore.” Father Fan sat down in his bamboo chair, wondering what his daughter would look like in city-girl clothes. After she failed the high school entrance exam, a match had been made for her at fourteen, but she ran away at fifteen. Six months later she wrote back, saying she had found a job in a performance troupe and was getting closer to her dream of becoming a famous singer. Father Fan apologized to the young man’s family, but still felt uneasy whenever he ran into one of them in the fair. She seemed to be doing well in the city, as she sent them money for a few months. But it suddenly stopped two months ago.
“Shall we do one hundred or two hundred?” Mother Fan came in to ask.
“You can carry that many?”
“Of course I can.” Father Fan looked almost angry now.
He smoked a pipe and walked out onto the porch. It was all ready. In a wooden crate, two hundred yellow-mud-swaddled duck eggs, Linlin’s favorite food. Her parents bought these eggs from families who kept their ducks in a private pond, instead of having them waddle and swim in water fields sprayed with pesticides and fertilizers. They gathered pine branches from the mountain behind their home, burnt them, and mixed the ashes in the cleanest yellow mud, rolled the eggs in the mixture, and set them aside for one hundred days. Now they were perfect for eating: the alkali had dwindled away, the egg whites congealed and translucent, the egg yolks golden and sticky smooth. After chipping away the dried mud, Linlin could wash one egg, crack it open, peel it, and count all the pine-flowers on the egg white before nibbling and sucking on it with a silly smile.
Mother Fan laid a plastic bag holding the washed raw peanuts on the eggs, straightened up, and looked timidly at her husband.
Father Fan bent down and lifted the crate. His arms slightly trembling, he put it over a shoulder. “Soon I’ll be on the bus,” he said.
His wife draped a clear plastic cloth over him before putting one on herself. They descended the stone steps and walked into the fields.
They waited for an hour at the mouth of the village. Someone came out of the house by the road, hoe in hand, and walked past them.
“Village fellow, has Blacktwo’s bus left for the day?” Father Fan thought of offering a cigarette, but decided it was not a good idea in the rain.
“There has not been any bus since the rains came.” The man shook his head. “Look at the road.”
The road had turned soupy. The man left no footprints. The mud closed as soon as he pulled out his feet.
“Oh, they can’t drive on this road?” Mother Fan mumbled, ashamed of her ignorance. “Shall we wait until the road dries up?” The minibus was a new business. After being charged ten yuan each on their first ride half a year ago, the couple had been saving money by walking to town.
Father Fan thought about it but slowly shook his head. “Tomorrow is Spring Festival.”
Mother Fan nodded.
“It’s just eight li to the town, isn’t it?” Father Fan continued. “From there I can take a bus.”
Mother Fan put a hand under the crate and lifted it slightly to test the weight. Finally she said, “I’ll just walk with you there and come back.”
They crossed the bridge and followed the road out of the village. Father Fan set his foot down carefully with every step. The rubber soles of his military-green shoes could slide easily in the mud. He walked on slowly but steadily, head tilted to one side, both hands steadying the crate on his shoulder.
Soon the rain drenched the mud on the eggs and the crate felt much heavier. More and more often he came to a stop and caught his breath as smoothly as possible, not wanting to alarm his wife.
“You should have brought just one hundred,” Mother Fan complained, “but you had to be so greedy and insisted on two hundred. Someone even told me these eggs aren’t healthy. There is something harmful inside.”
“Harmful! Harmful!” Father Fan stood still and yelled. “Who has died from eating these eggs? Have you heard of anyone? Do you eat pesticides? Don’t we use it on our crops? What do you know is harmful? Stupid woman!” His face flushed and he was sweating. He unbuttoned his shirt with one hand but then quickly rebuttoned it, worried about wetting the new bills.
Two motorcycles scuttled past them, starting and halting, making deep ruts in the road that quickly filled up.
“Is it one of those motorcycle-taxis? Give us a ride?” Mother Fan called to the drivers, sounding nervous.
“It is a motorcycle-taxi, but can’t do now, can’t do.” One of the drivers shook his head. “This road.”
“Why on earth did they give up on this road?” Mother Fan asked her husband.
“Not sure, some things didn’t work out. It’s not for us common folks to know such things,” her husband said, panting, starting to walk again. Half a year ago, the villages had talked about building a paved road into the town. Village heads got together, ate and drank and sang, had some unknown disagreements, and the “paved road” was never mentioned again.
Half a li later, they stood still and looked at the long winding road ahead of them, blurred by the curtain of rain. Occasionally a young couple dressed in fashionable clothes trudged past, dragging soiled bulging suitcases filled with gifts they had brought back from cities where they worked.
“Grandpa, better stop going on this road, too twisted, too long.” Mother Fan pointed to a narrow path in the fields. “We should take a shortcut.”
Father Fan’s chest heaved slowly up and down. He blinked weakly.
They climbed down the slope and walked on the earthy bank along the river. About two li later, Father Fan cried.
“Granny, take it off my shoulder.”
Mother Fan grabbed the crate and together they eased it off his shoulder and set it on a bundle of grass.
They rested for a moment.
“Did you bring anything to eat?” Father Fan asked.
Mother Fan shook her head in guilt. “Thought you were just going to take the bus.” She hesitated, then began to untie the plastic bag. “Raw peanuts can be bought in cities, too.”
“But not as special as those from one’s own fields.” Father Fan stared at the peanuts for a minute, but finally gave in to his hunger. He cracked the shells and chewed on the juicy kernels.
“Girl did the right thing,” he said. “No good being a peasant. Life too difficult.”
“Girl did the right thing,” Mother Fan nodded, not eating any peanuts.
Father Fan felt the sap of peanuts traveling all around in his veins. He stood up and grabbed the crate. His arms trembled in straining but he could not lift it up.
“Too old, too old.” He straightened up and sighed in defeat.
Mother Fan looked at her husband’s flabby arms. He used to be so strong: a full tub of manure in each hand, he could leave their house and arrive at their land, unfairly assigned on the top of the mountain, in just five minutes. He also used to like the thing in the bottle too much. They had many fights. Sometimes Linlin was scared into crying and wouldn’t talk for days. But time had changed him: he had been drinking much less; he started playing erhu again; he was no longer mad at the village head and neighbors for things big and small, as everybody was on his own now. There was no doubt that they could share some nice old years together. Her only wish was that her youngest daughter could also live close by, but she shouldn’t be too selfish; she knew what was better for the girl.
“We’ll wash the mud away, what do you think?” Mother Fan proposed, to which her husband agreed.
They lifted the crate together and tottered to the river. They each found a twig and began chipping away the mud on eggshells. After finishing that, they swished the crate in the water until all the eggs looked clean, the yellowness of the insides showing through the shells. They did not say a word, but both felt the pity that their girl could not enjoy chipping away the mud herself and feeling the sweet expectation of the delicacy inside.
They started their journey again, but it felt much longer than usual with the eggs weighing Father Fan down. Four li later, Father Fan felt his chest tightening and closing in. In panic, they removed twenty eggs and planted them by the bank for whoever lucky enough to come across them. They had to desert more eggs along the way. By the time Mother Fan helped set the crate on the luggage rack of the bus in feelings of relief and victory, there were only one hundred and fifty eggs left.
Fatty Wang’s snack shop stood alone on the road from South Hill into the city. In twenty years the goods had changed, from the hand-made twenty-fen and thirty-fen pastries wrapped in coarse wax paper to colorful aluminum wraps of various snacks manufactured by joint enterprises: sugared black currants, cashews, pistachios; fruits and nuts growing in far regions of the world that Fatty Wang felt curious about. Just the small mundane details. Do their dogs bark the same way as Chinese dogs? What do they ask each other when they meet on the road? Instead of “Did you eat?” do they ask “What soup did you drink?” or, what? Fatty Wang always felt frustrated about how limited his imagination was. At one time he considered moving to Canton to see more of the world outside, but had to give up his plan.
Some of the other snack shop and tea shop owners had taken their businesses to a new level: replacing bamboo chairs and stools with stainless steel chairs and leather sofas, selling fancy teas at up to three hundred yuan a cup. One cup! Fatty Wang could make his shop into such a place, too, but why should he rob people? He often felt angry at how ridiculous things could be. And it was more ridiculous that no matter how absurd things were, it seemed no one other than himself found it ridiculous. Maybe he was just too idle. Everybody else was too busy making a living to think too much about the world.
More or less he was lucky. The shop had a steady flow of business. In the mornings the high school students rushed in to buy pancakes and boxed drinks on their way to the school. In the evenings and weekends the migrant workers came to make the place rowdy. They drank bottle after bottle of rice liquor, munched on plate after plate of cold cuts, played mahjong and cards, and shared their adventures in the city. Fatty Wang played rap music for them, adding to the happy-happy atmosphere, even though he never liked the dizzying music himself. He was an easygoing man. As soon as the workers came, he would remove the scenery calendar on top of the swimsuit calendar and let the almost-nude girls flash their smiles at these pent-up men. Across the river, the city looked steadily more and more modern; tall buildings shot up every few months. Most of the migrant workers were building a great stadium nearby, designed to host the seventh Provincial Sports Meet.
Nearing the Spring Festival Eve, the place was quiet. The school was silent in the winter holiday and the workers had gone back to their homes in the countryside. Fatty Wang read a newspaper for the time of a meal and felt sleep coming on. He took a look outside the shop, hoping to wake up in the cool wind. From around the bend in the road, he saw a slanted small figure hobbling near, a crate by his head.
He saw the person come closer and closer until he could see clearly a peasant about fifty years old.
“Ah, village fellow, where from?”
“Highwater Village, not far, a few hours by bus.” The old man set the crate on the ground and wiped his eyes with a dripping sleeve. “It’s where the big floods are every year. Maybe you have heard about it?”
“Highwater Village?” Fatty Wang suddenly straightened up, eyes opening wide in radiant delight. “I’m from Highwater, too.”
The old man came closer and looked carefully at Fatty Wang.
“Is it not you, Wang Wei?” he asked at last.
“It’s just me, and you are…” Fatty Wang studied the man’s face. “And you are?”
“See, you can’t even recognize me.” The old man shook his head and grinned in shame. “I’m your old friend Fan Jinjun.”
“Oh, oh, oh! You, you, you!” Fatty Wang threw his fist on the old man’s upper arm. “Jinjun, it’s really you! Come in! Come in!”
They sat down by the table, which Fatty Wang had quickly covered with plates of fried peanuts, cold cuts, and nuts.
“What are these?” the old man asked.
“Jinjun, try, you have to try. These are from foreign countries. Cashews: kidney nuts. Pistachios: cracking-smile nuts.” Fatty Wang said the names carefully.
“We folks in country yards can’t possibly know these things.” The old man cracked a pistachio, looked carefully at the green kernel for a minute, and then put it in his mouth. He narrowed his eyes and chewed. He nodded, and then he nodded again.
“Hmm…” he said.
Fatty Wang smiled.
“You have a, you must have a…?” the old man asked.
“Yes.” Fatty Wang nodded. “A son. Wife passed away a couple of years ago. Cancer. Many more cancers these days.”
“Sorry to hear that, old buddy.” The old man chinked his cup of liquor to Fatty Wang’s. “She must be good and pain-free in the lunar side.”
Fatty Wang nodded.
“And where is the son working?”
“The son works in Guangzhou.” Fatty Wang gulped down a mouthful of rice liquor, inhaled deeply, and closed his eyes for a few seconds. “Canton province.”
“I guess he’s a government employee.”
“He is.” Fatty Wang slowly nodded. “He teaches in a college.”
The old man clicked his tongue and shook his head in admiration. “College teacher! What an honor.”
“And you have a …?” Fatty Wang asked.
“Wife is at home. I’m here to visit my youngest daughter.” The old man produced a slip of paper from his pocket. “But I just can’t find this place. She sent us money every month, but we haven’t heard from her for two months. I decided to just drop by and see if she’s all right.”
Fatty Wang took the slip of paper and studied it.
“Only sixteen years old, but she sang as dulcetly as singers on the TV,” the old man said. “She wants to become a famous singer.” He shook his head in disbelief. “Of course a singer is nothing as dignified as a college teacher.”
“That’s where she works?” Fatty Wang pointed at the return address on the paper.
“That’s what I guess.”
“Carmen Entertainment Troupe.” Fatty Wang thought about it for a moment and then shook his head. “No, not here anymore. Moved.”
“Moved?” A peanut dropped right before the chopsticks reached the old man’s lips. “Moved! Where? No wonder we haven’t heard from her.”
“Guangzhou, Canton,” Fatty Wang said. “That’s what I heard. They’re doing very well over there.”
“Are they coming back?”
“This I’m not sure. If they do really well, they might stay or they might come back, who knows? But I did hear that they moved.”
“Oh, Guangzhou,” the old man said the name carefully, looking like he was wondering what the place would look like and what his daughter would look like in it. “The same place as your son.”
Fatty Wang nodded slowly, putting a piece of beef covered in chili oil in his mouth, but not chewing.
“Will he come back for the Spring Festival?”
Fatty Wang looked at the old man with unfocused eyes for a long moment and then said, “Yes, he’s coming back, for the Festival. He should come back.”
“Then can you do one thing for your old friend?”
“Can you ask him to take these pine-flower duck eggs with him? Can he look for Linlin in Guangzhou and give them to her?”
“Guangzhou is a very big city. What if he can’t find her?”
“If he can’t find her, just enjoy them himself.” The old man smiled, patting Wang’s arm.
“All right,” Fatty Wang said. “Write her name down for me.” He stood up, fetched a ballpoint pen from the counter and handed it to Fan.
The old man wrote down three characters carefully on the slip of paper in big bold strokes. Fatty Wang folded it and put it in his chest pocket.
“And oh, give this to her, too.” The old man unbuttoned his shirt, took out the wad of bills from his watch pocket and handed them to Wang.
“Just fen bills?” Immediately Wang regretted his rudeness. “Of course, lucky money, just a sign for good fortune. But she’s not a little girl anymore, old fellow.”
The old man smiled, trying to hide his embarrassment. He chinked his cup with Wang’s, downed it, and stood up. “I have to head back now. Granny is still waiting for me at home.” He looked around in the shop and up and down at Wang. “You, Wang Wei, you’re lucky. Carefree life. Not like us country folks.” He stooped down to roll up his wet pant legs.
“Don’t say. Parents have their own thinking. Can never blame them,” Fatty Wang said. “It’s all good. It’s all good.” Thirty years before, they had both decided to run away from their home village. They planned to get on a passing truck and go as far as northwestern China, where they would try to join the army. On that fateful morning in the blue dawn when they quietly stole away to the crossroad in Yulong Town, at the last moment, Fan was caught by his mother and dragged back. Wang joined the army and came back with enough money to open a shop.
“It’s all good, friend. Gua…rd your precious health.” The old man, slightly drunk now, started to bow, but Fatty Wang stopped him.
After seeing his friend totter away in the rain, Fatty Wang came back into the shop, plopped down into his bamboo chair, and sat as silently as a Buddha for a long time. He took out the old man’s slip of paper and wrote two characters on it.
A while later he stood up, put a lighter in his pocket, picked up the wet crate, grabbed a hoe and walked out of the back door. He followed the small trail down the slope until he came to the creek. There he dug a hole in the moist dirt and buried the crate with the brand-new bills. The turned-up black earth stared at him like a giant eye from among the rape bushes. He grabbed a few handfuls of their buds and let tiny golden petals rain on the mound until they covered it. Then he squatted below the willow tree and rested. The water was running fast and high. The green grass on the slope looked like long hair that had been combed and then smoothed with hands.
The girl from Highwater also had long black hair, shiny and smooth. With big darting eyes and a sweet high voice, she was the youngest ever of “Pleasures in the Country” in its five-year history. There was never any Carmen Entertainment Troupe in this city. She started out as a waitress but was finally talked into “real work,” in which she bled each time like a virgin, and the demand for her was high. One night her boss made her receive ten guests; she passed away in the dawn. Some migrant workers lamented that they had not got a chance.
Fatty Wang dug out the piece of paper from his chest pocket, flicked the lighter and set it on fire. The flame ate down the paper; the ash flew up in the air; the black edge oozed down toward his fingers. Before it reached his hand, he laid it gently on the water and saw it carried away.
Maybe he should have told his friend the truth, and maybe the girl’s boss would have paid the old man some money to make up for his loss. But what could money do for a father? When his son’s school sent him money to make up for his loss, he preferred that they had never let him know the truth. He would rather believe that his son was still working in Guangzhou, too busy to ever come home. As a young man from a small city, his son always took things too seriously. He had criticized a student’s paper and the student had brought a knife into the classroom and stabbed him in the heart when he stooped down to read the page the student pointed at. Fatty Wang read many shocking events like this in newspapers but never imagined that it would happen to his own son. How can someone have no tolerance for the disagreeable at all? And why is a man willing to kill a girl for a moment’s pleasure? He tried to imagine the man’s face during the girl’s last struggles, but again felt frustrated at his lack of imagination.
Fatty Wang lit a cigarette and let the blue smoke rise up into the willow, into the sky. He believed he had made the right decision. He believed the pine-flower eggs and lucky money would reach the young dead in the lunar side and bring some joy to their Spring Festival. Being both descendants of the Highwater Village, at least they could find each other and not have to greet the New Year alone.