Listen in Chinese (read by 吴大明):
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Listen in English (read by David Webster):
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When I got on to the main road in Wudouqu, there they were – the higgledy-piggledy prints of eight horse hooves. A wave of fine yellow dust rose in the air when your foot hit the loose surface, but the ground was firm and shiny where the hooves had been. I didn’t need to take a closer look. I knew that they – Hongqi and Dongliang – had come this way. And there he was, standing shirtless in front of the melon shack, his eyes fixed on the two jujube-red horses galloping down the dusty road.
His name was Soybean, or that’s what his father called him. Hongqi and Dongliang called him Beansprout, because he was small and thin, like a beansprout that hasn’t grown properly. I only got to know him when I started passing through Wudouqu to take my buffalo to graze. There were very few people who really knew him. All we knew was that he and his father looked after a melon patch and two fishponds in the rough land not far from the dirt road. They weren’t from round here.
I used to walk my buffalo past his melon shack, and that’s how I got to know him, bit by bit. I thought he was younger than me, but he said he was the same age, in fact older by six weeks. One day he asked me where all the cars and trucks that rush along the sandy road were going. We’d only just started talking to each other at that stage.
‘I don’t know’, I said. ‘I’ve never been in a car.’
It was a while before he spoke.
As the evening sun faded, all kinds of cars and trucks trundled along the road, raising dust storms in their wake. Fine grains of sand swirled in the air in front of his melon shack, and left a thick layer of dust on the melon seedlings and the fishponds. I couldn’t resist following the hoof-prints, leaping from one to the next. But my buffalo idled along, and I had to whip it on the backside with a strip of fresh willow to keep it moving. I couldn’t hang around though, I had to find it fresh grass and water, and then walk it home again. When I looked back in the distance, there he was, still leaning against the melon shack, staring at the busy dirt road. The cars and trucks appeared in the haze between dust and dusk, on their way to who knows where. All around him the vast rough land stretched as far as the eye could see, as though he was the only person left on earth.
We didn’t talk much, and we never talked for long. He rarely spoke, and I couldn’t hang around all day in a place where the grass had long since been eaten by passing livestock. I had to take my buffalo to graze somewhere else. In time, we got talking about Hongqi and Dongliang, and their horses. They used to ride past the melon shack on their way to graze the horses by the Wulong River. Afterwards, when the horses were full, they would bring them on to the dirt road to gallop, and race against the cars and trucks with their four, or more, wheels. How I envied their high spirits, their freedom, as they rode bareback, clutching the mane with their right hands, cracking the whip with their left, whooping and hollering, their shirts, bereft of buttons, whipped up in the wind, like the battle flags of a victory charge in a movie. They galloped along, side by side, forcing the cars and trucks to the edge of the road. Hongqi said drivers used to stick their heads out of the window and swear at them, but why should they care? Their horses were faster than the cars. It thrilled me just to imagine being on the back of a galloping jujube-red horse, its long strong legs stretching and reaching.
‘Have you ever been on a horse?’ Beansprout asked me.
‘No. Did it feel good?’
‘Fantastic. Love it,’ I said, fiddling with my hands and shuffling my feet. I’d only been on a horse twice – one walk, one trot – on the threshing ground. I’d paid Hongqi ten cicadas to have a go. I grabbed hold of the mane, like they did. But when the horse started to run I got really scared: my hands went all sweaty, my legs went stiff as wood and I lost any grip I had on the horse’s belly. Then Dongliang said I was hopeless, and cracked his whip on the horse’s backside. Its buttocks flinched, throwing me off its back and into a pile of rotting straw. ‘If you’ve never ridden a horse, you can’t imagine how wonderful it is, to feel the power of a field marshal. The horse runs so fast that the wind rushes past, smacking you in the face and on your ears. Really, it’s like you’re flying.’ As I described it to Beansprout, I felt a trembling in my limbs as though I really was going to take off, although I had never had the sensation of flying while on horseback. And I didn’t tell Beansprout that when I walked my buffalo all the way to the Wulong River to graze, it was really because I wanted to be near Hongqi and Dongliang, and that I was hoping for a chance to ride on their horses and feel the power of a field marshal, and race against the cars and trucks on the dirt road, like they did. I’d always grazed my buffalo in the pine forest north of the graveyard before.
‘I want to ride a horse too,’ said Beansprout, unable to hold it in any longer, ‘Can you ask them if I can have a go?’
‘Sure. Next time I’ll ask them to bring the horses over.’
‘I want to ride on the dirt road, as fast as they go.’
I regretted it straight away. How was I going to get a horse for him to ride? I’d been following Hongqi and Dongliang around for days, and all I had managed was a few strokes while the horses were grazing. They wouldn’t let me ride.
‘Go ride your water buffalo,’ they said. ‘It’s nice and steady. You can lose yourself in a day-dream.’
I had promised to ask, and now, every time I passed the melon patch, I felt like a thief. It seemed that every time I went by, Beansprout would be sitting at the side of the road. When he caught sight of me in the distance, he’d get up and ask if they’d said yes. I worried myself sick wondering what to say. At first, I could say that I hadn’t had time to ask, but after a while I couldn’t use that excuse any more. I could only say that I had asked, and that they hadn’t given an answer yet, which meant he was still in with a chance. The truth was, I hadn’t even raised it with Hongqi and Dongliang. Every time I got near them, they would pull faces, and brush me aside: ‘Go away. We’re off to race against those useless cars.’ Sometimes they were more cutting than that: ‘Stop hanging around here. Go ride your buffalo. Watch out for the horses. They can kill when they kick, you know.’
What could I say? Sometimes I thought I should forget about it, stop taking the buffalo to the Wulong River, and go back to the pine forest, so I wouldn’t have to go past his little shack any more. But I couldn’t stop myself. I wanted the chance to ride a horse just as much as he did. When I crossed the river and saw the confusion of hoof prints, I couldn’t resist stepping into them as I walked. Then, a wonderful scene came into my head of a horse galloping headlong, as though the hoof prints on the ground belonged to the horse beneath my legs. I had no choice but to follow the hoof prints.
Beansprout never lost hope. He kept asking if I had any news, and day after day waited at the side of the road for me to come along. He’d watch the cars and horses on the dirt road until I came past, listen to whatever excuse I could keep him quiet with, then watch the cars and horses on the dirt-road again. The way he looked around made me uncomfortable. Eventually I came up with a plan. As I was going past the melon patch, Beansprout started to ask the same old question. I ran my fingers over the mulberries wrapped in paper that were in my pocket.
‘No problem,’ I said, ‘today they will definitely say yes.’ I had picked the mulberries from the tree close to the eaves of my house. There were lots of unripe ones, and my mother said I wasn’t to pick them until they were ripe, but I’d had to do it sooner than that.
I handed the mulberries to Hongqi and Dongliang. Hongqi said: ‘Still want to ride a horse?’
‘I don’t, but Soybean does.’
‘Soybean?’ said Dongliang. ‘You mean that Beansprout who looks after the melon patch?’
‘Yes. He wants to ride a horse.’
He took handfuls of mulberries and stuffed them in his mouth. They were so sour they made his eyebrows wiggle. I was so excited I had to keep swallowing too.
‘Just one go.’
‘I’ll think about it,’ said Hongqi, wincing. ‘Why didn’t you bring the sweet black ones?’
Dongliang stopped eating, frowned at Hongqi and said, ‘Tell Beansprout we’ve said yes, but on one condition.’
‘He can only ride when the watermelons are ripe. And he has to let us eat what we like in his melon patch, as much as we want.’
‘That’s right, as much as we want.’
I told Beansprout, repeating word for word exactly what Hongqi and Dongliang had said. He slumped to the ground, and seemed even smaller than usual.
‘My dad will kill me. I have to look after the melons, every single one of them. He has to count them all every night, otherwise he can’t get to sleep.’
‘Well, that’s what they said.’
‘I’ll think about it,’ said Beansprout, scratching his head. Then he got up and walked over to his little shack. When he reached the door he turned round, ‘I’ll let you know when the melons are ripe.’
Finally, I had some peace for a few days. I hadn’t managed to get a ride, but I was happy. I could talk to Beansprout without getting worked up about it, and he stopped asking about riding. Every so often he’d ask if they had shown any war movies in my winding little street lately, and ask me to tell him about them. He had a few rides on my water buffalo, which was a bit like riding a horse, and imagined he was a powerful figure with supreme command.
Inevitably, the watermelons ripened. I often saw Beansprout’s father pushing a wheelbarrow full of melons for sale down our street. But Beansprout had not said a word about riding. I didn’t mention it either, not even when I saw him standing in front of the melon shack watching out for the horses that raced on the dirt road. That afternoon, when I passed by, riding on my water buffalo, Beansprout burst out of the little shack.
‘Stop!’ he yelled. His face was all red with excitement. There were beads of sweat rolling from his forehead and the ridge of his nose. ‘Tell them to come quickly. My dad’s out selling melons, and he fell asleep without counting them last night. Go tell them, quickly.’
I was stunned. It took me a moment to come to my senses. Then I jumped down from the buffalo, tethered it to a short poplar close to a tuft of grass, and ran as fast as I could to the Wulong River. There lay Hongqi and Dongliang, asleep in the shade of the trees. The two horses had their heads down, eating the grass. I woke them up. They obviously hadn’t expected this either.
‘Is this for real, or is he having us on?’ asked Hongqi.
‘We can eat as much as we want?’ asked Dongliang.
‘You’ll see when you get there.’
We rode back to Beansprout’s melon patch. I sat behind Dongliang, holding on to his waist, so I wouldn’t fall off. Beansprout was standing at the side of the road waiting for us. He said only one thing about the melon patch: ‘Tap the melons before you pick them. If they’re not ripe, for god’s sake don’t pick them.’
Hongqi and Dongliang ran into the melon patch with grins on their faces. Beansprout and I took the horses, one each. My buffalo was still tied to the little poplar tree. It would have to wait. Beansprout’s hands hadn’t stopped shaking, and every so often he licked his lip. It was the first time he had walked beside a horse. He wound the reins round his hand, but would not go close to the horse, staying as close to me as he could.
‘How do you ride?’ he asked. ‘I don’t even know how to get on.’
I showed him how to grab hold of the horse’s back and leap on sideways. Two hands on the horse’s back, then swing your body up. He couldn’t get the hang of it. He was too small, and he was afraid of getting too close to the horse. I tried to help him a few times, but he couldn’t get on.
‘Wait,’ said Beansprout, carefully combing his fingers through the horse’s mane. ‘I’ll walk it around for a while first, have a little walk.’
‘Do you want to go on the dirt road?’ I asked him.
‘There are too many cars. I’ll just walk for now.’
I daren’t go on the dirt road either. I was worried the cars would startle the horses, and then we’d be finished. I rode on one horse, Beansprout walked the other one. We were so careful. That’s how we spent the afternoon, one riding very very slowly, the other walking, as we went up and down the eight water channels that ran parallel with the dirt road. We were excited and content. Every moment was precious, and it didn’t occur to us to talk. The sky was unforgettable that day. The late afternoon sun was so bright it seemed the clouds were on fire, their changing shapes making different scenes in the western sky: a flock of sheep, or waves on the sea, then a pack of flying horses, a house with farmland and a dog, then two people running towards us, and shouting. They were shouting my name and Beansprout’s. It was Hongqi and Dongliang. But they weren’t figures in the sky, they were running on the ground, running and yelling. Beansprout dropped the reins as if they had burnt him, and froze stiff as a tree trunk. The flesh on his face started to quiver.
None of us had expected Beansprout’s father to return so soon. He had sold his barrow load of melons very quickly. On his way home he had seen a buffalo in the distance going towards his melon patch, and had run all the way home with his barrow to stop it from eating all his melon seedlings. It was lucky the buffalo had only eaten a few watermelon leaves. He kicked the buffalo’s head, then saw a load of split watermelons, none of which had really been eaten as most of the red flesh was still in the skins. The startled water buffalo ran south down the side of the melon patch, and into the fishpond on the eastern side. Beansprout’s father chased after it, but by the time he reached the fishpond the buffalo was already in the water. He was shouting for Beansprout, and at the same time trying to coax the water buffalo out of the fishpond with a tree branch and a handful of fresh grass. By now the fishpond was all muddy. It was my buffalo. Having eaten all the grass it could reach, it had started to eat the little poplar tree, and had more or less finished it off when the reins had come loose.
Having dealt with my buffalo, Beansprout’s father realized that his son still hadn’t emerged from the shack. Furious, he stormed inside, only to find Hongqi and Dongliang lying on the bed, snoring away. He hauled them up by the collar, and kicked them out of the door. He asked where Beansprout was, kicked them again, first one, then the other, and told them to get lost.
I knew Beansprout would be in for a hard time, and as I led my buffalo away from the melon patch I heard his screams. It had started. When I got home, Hongqi and Dongliang were already there, having ridden over on their horses. They asked about Beansprout. ‘What can we do?’ I asked. His father had probably strung him up for a beating by now. Hongqi and Dongliang felt awful. They asked me to tell Beansprout that if he hadn’t been able to ride today, he could carry on tomorrow, they wouldn’t charge him, not even a watermelon.
The next day, as soon as I got on to the main road in Wudouqu I saw Beansprout, shirtless, standing in front of the melon shack. He was watching two jujube-red horses galloping along the dirt road. When he heard me calling to my buffalo, he looked round and started to move back to the side of the road, his hands behind his back, pulling his underpants away from his body so they wouldn’t touch his bottom. The bloodstains on his underpants were already dark red, and there were streaks of congealed red-brown blood on his bare chest and upper back. He came to the side of the road, hanging his head.
‘Hongqi said if you still want to ride today, you can, he doesn’t want any watermelons’. I said, and when I saw the state of his buttocks, I added, ‘or any time you like, if you want to.’
‘I won’t be riding.’
‘Scared your dad will beat you?’
Beansprout watched the road with its clouds of dust. He hung his head low again, and dropped his voice with it.
‘No’, he said, ‘I can’t ride.’