Writing Chinese

The Stone Ox That Grazed

Translated by Nicky Harman and originally printed in Asymptote2014. Read the original Chinese here.

Listen in Chinese (read by the author)

Listen in English (read by the translator)

The stone ox from the opposite bank crossed the river one night to graze the Blogs family’s wheat. The news was all over the village. The stone ox is eating your wheat. Get a move on, get over there before it’s too late, the villagers urged Blogs. At the start, it was nothing to worry about. But the next night, great patches of the wheat field were stripped bare. At daybreak, the swirling veils of mist dissolved, to reveal the river in spate and the stone ox lying in the undergrowth on the opposite bank.

The stone ox has eaten your wheat. No, an ox has eaten our wheat. You don’t believe that. I know who’s been eating our wheat.

Dark clouds broke over the sun and the wind whined in our ears. The river was called Stone Horse River and our village was Stone Horse Pasture, although the stone statue on the opposite bank was an ox not a horse. This area used to be Ten Thousand Li Lake, but at the end of the Ming Dynasty, the waters drained away leaving a wasteland, and people settled here.

Stone Horse River was in spate. On Stone Horse Bridge, splash after splash of its waters broke through the gaps between the flagstones. Blogs crossed the bridge. He was running fast into the teeth of the wind, and the wind pressed down on his jacket and trousers as if it were a bridegroom. The force of the blast bowled him over several times. The wind rippled through the sugar cane, sifting Blogs out from between its stems. Up the slope he toiled, until his feet were red and sore, then he tumbled head over heels into the village. He got to his feet and slapped the dust off. You’ve got grass growing out of your head, Blogs, the villagers said. Blogs rubbed the dust off his face then said, What are you laughing at? Your brats have been at the sugar cane. It’s your Brat, they said. With that brat on your back, you’ll soon be bent double. And this was just what happened: Brat saw Blogs heading fast his way, and clasped his hands around his knees and began to cry. Blogs leapt over his head. Brat ran after him and brought him down with a chunk of sugar cane. The burr-grass slashed Brat’s face. He rolled down the slope after Blogs, then fell on Blogs’s back. Blogs threw him off and cursed. I saw the stone ox grazing your wheat, Dad, said Brat. Don’t call me Dad, said Blogs. It was an ox grazing our wheat. Maybe the stone ox came to life, said the villagers. Dads, Brat said, I saw the stone ox grazing the Blogs’ wheat. Don’t call us Dads, they said. I know who grazed our wheat, said Blogs. There’s grass growing out of your head, Dad, Brat said.

Stone Horse River was in spate. On Stone Horse Bridge, splash after splash of its waters broke through the gaps between the flagstones. Blogs ran onto Stone Horse Bridge, and fell head first, knocking his teeth out. Someone on the bridge asked him, Where are you off to in such a hurry? That someone passed through the sugar cane and, in the distance, saw Brat hurl a chunk of cane and knock Blogs flat. Then he saw Brat and Blogs tumbling down the slope. He followed them and pushed his way through the crowd. Brat was saying: There’s grass growing out of your head, Dad. It’s growing out of yours, said Blogs. That someone went up to them and kicked Brat to the ground, knocking him sideways. What are you doing? said Blogs. I saw the stone ox graze your wheat, someone said. It was an ox that grazed our wheat, said Blogs. Do you believe that? someone said. I know who grazed our wheat, said Blogs. The stone ox still has your wheat seedlings in its mouth, someone said. I saw that, said Blogs. The villagers watched from a distance, as densely packed as a clump of weeds. Maybe that stone ox came to life and grazed the Blogs’ wheat, they said.

The Fullbarns lost their ox and went searching all over the village but there was no trace of it. Fullbarn reckoned it had been stolen.

Mrs Blogs sat in her doorway watching as Fullbarn, riding their ox, emerged from the morning mist. His wife walked behind. They climbed slowly upwards. Mrs Blogs couldn’t see them anymore, but still they climbed. Mrs Blogs stood on the mud wall around their field and caught sight of the Fullbarn ox tied up in the sugar cane by the roadside. Mrs Fullbarn was sitting weeping on the mud wall, drenched in the morning sunlight. Her face was dissected by lines of tears. Mrs Blogs crossed over Stone Horse Bridge and went home. Her son was there, in just his trousers. Dad, he said, I saw the stone ox graze your wheat. Don’t call me Dad, said Mrs Blogs, I’m your Mum. Dad, you’re my Mum, said the son. And Dad, I saw the stone ox graze your wheat. Mrs Blogs pulled the quilt off Blogs and said, I saw the Fullbarns’ ox. Don’t you care? Did you see it grazing? asked Blogs. Let the beast eat for nothing, said his wife. Blogs grabbed the quilt back and went to sleep. Mrs Blogs shoved her son out of the way and sat down on the doorstep. She watched as the figure of Fullbarn emerged from the morning mist, his wife walking behind. They climbed slowly upwards. Mrs Blogs couldn’t see them anymore, but still they climbed. They came closer to her. The ox chewed the cud and snorted as it clipclopped along the dirt lane past the Blogs’ house. Its breath stank, Mrs Blogs thought. A huge pile of grass was tied to its back. I know who grazed our wheat, said Mrs Blogs as the Fullbarns passed. I know who grazed our wheat, repeated Mrs Blogs. Fullbarn jumped off the ox’s back. Are you saying our ox grazed your wheat? No, I didn’t say that, said Mrs Blogs. It’s what you meant, said Fullbarn. I saw it eat the Pillars’ sugar cane, said Mrs Blogs. Only the rind, not the pith, said Mrs Fullbarn. I saw it eating, said Mrs Blogs. Don’t you go pinning it on us, said Mrs Fullbarn. The whole village knows it was the stone ox grazed your wheat. You don’t believe that fairy-tale, said Mrs Blogs. That’s what Brat said, said Mrs Fullbarn. You can’t believe what Brat says, said Mrs Blogs. It doesn’t matter whether you believe him or not, he calls everyone in the village Dad, said Mrs Fullbarn. Mrs Blogs bounced to her feet and rushed at her. You keep your gob shut! Don’t you dare say that again! Fullbarn grabbed his wife. You stupid old bag, he said, why don’t you take the ox home? All of a sudden, the bundle of grass fell from the ox’s back, and scattered on the ground. The Fullbarns’ ox wandered off and no one saw where it went. Fullbarn’s wife was frantic. She sat on her big arse and had a good cry. She cried in great gulping sobs. Fullbarn heaved himself upright and went off to look. Evening came and Mrs Fullbarn was still crying. Mrs Blogs sat on the doorstep with one foot outside and the other in the room, watching the sun go down, her face bathed red in the sunset glow.

Fullbarn came back, puffing and panting. Why don’t you go home? he said to his wife. You’re making an exhibition of yourself. But Mrs Fullbarn carried on crying until her tears drenched the twilight. Stop crying, said Fullbarn, our ox has gone home by itself. But Mrs Fullbarn looked up at him, You don’t fool me, she said. It’s the beast that’s fooling you, said Fullbarn. You think you’re not a beast? said his wife. And her face crinkled into a smile. She got to her feet and tied the grass into a bundle again. They set off towards the flaring red clouds, and then the evening darkness enveloped them. Mrs Blogs went indoors. We need candles, it’s dark, shouted her son. Are you hungry? his mother asked. Yes! I could eat the candle! I’ll cook your dinner then, his mother said. No dinner, Dad, said her son. It’s getting dark. After dinner, Blogs told his wife off for picking a fight with Mrs Fullbarn. His wife got out clean bedding, turned her back on him and went to sleep. That night, there was a big gap between their heads, and a draught got in. The next morning, Blogs’ snoring woke her. She got out of bed and put her slippers on. Her head swam—she’d caught a chill—but she didn’t give it a thought, just dressed her son. He’d wet the bed again and she sobbed as she put the bedding out to air. Her head still swam and she sat in the doorway for a rest. The morning light flooded her face. She watched as the Fullbarns emerged from the mist. Fullbarn shouted all over the village, scattering flocks of sparrows into the air. Fullbarn shouted that they had lost their ox. They had searched all over the village but there was no trace of it. Fullbarn reckoned someone had stolen it.

The cocks crowed and the crows cawed. Fullbarn shouted that they had lost their ox. They had searched all over the village but there was no trace of it. He reckoned someone had stolen it. His shouts shook the leaves off the trees and set the dogs off barking. In and out of the village, up and down the hills, and far away he went searching. Mrs Fullbarn asked all over the village if anyone had seen their ox. Isn’t it tied up at your house? they asked. We haven’t seen it since we got up, Mrs Fullbarn said. You’d better carry on looking then, they said. We’ve looked all over. Have you seen our ox? Mrs Fullbarn said, with a furtive look at Mrs Blogs. Mrs Fullbarn grabbed the villagers by the arm. I don’t know who’s stolen it, she said. Maybe it’s wandered off, they said. I wonder which fucking thief took it, said Mrs Fullbarn. The villagers slunk away, but Mrs Fullbarn repeated: I wonder which fucking thief took it.

Mrs Blogs rolled up her trousers legs and began to shout, You can take your craziness away from my front door. What? demanded Mrs Fullbarn. You heard, said Mrs Blogs. This village is big enough, why bring your craziness to my front door? This isn’t your home! said Mrs Fullbarn. If I want to speak, I’ll do it wherever I want. Well, I didn’t steal your ox, said Mrs Blogs. Whoever did it knows what they’ve done, said Mrs Fullbarn. Mrs Blogs was gripping her son but he wriggled free. I stole it, he shouted. Mrs Blogs grabbed Brat’s stick and snapped it in two. Then she picked up her son by the scruff of the neck and marched him indoors. Idiot! Don’t you butt in, she said. Brat knows what happened, said Mrs Fullbarn. Mrs Blogs gave Brat a slap. You can’t believe a word Brat says, she said. Why not? asked Mrs Fullbarn. You can’t even look after your own ox, said Mrs Blogs. And then you come to my house to play the fool. You said you stole the ox, said Mrs Fullbarn. When did I say that? Brat said so, but you can’t believe a word he says, said Mrs Blogs. You can believe everything he says, retorted Mrs Fullbarn. If he says you stole it then you stole it. You deny it, and you’ll shame your ancestors.

Mrs Fullbarn was exhausted. She sat down with her back against the Chinese scholar tree to rest. Then, from the spot where he had vanished, Fullbarn staggered into view. He stumbled along, setting the dogs off barking, covered from head to toe in mud, until he reached his wife. He grabbed her and they set off home. Blogs’s wife shut the door on the sunset glow, and gave Brat a thrashing. She hit him so hard that tears poured down his face. Blogs got out of bed and said, What are you beating him for? Mrs Blogs felt aggrieved. She slumped down against the wall, and wiped the tears from her eyes. Free from his mother’s clutches, Brat took refuge under the table. Mrs Blogs whimpered, My head’s swimming. Blogs looked out of the window. The weather’s fine today, he said. Not like last night. Bars of light came in through the windows and the breeze rustled in the trees. Mrs Blogs sat there, looking at the floor, and the sunlight pooled on her sore feet.

A rainstorm that night soaked the ground. The moon glowed dully, and water-laden clouds drifted across the sky. Mrs Blogs got up to pee, smattering the moonlight. She went out and walked down the dirt lane, slipping and sliding in the mud. Weeds dangled from the earthen walls on either side. Everything was quiet. She paused and looked around, checking the walls were not about to fall on her. Drops of water hung from the limp, yellowed weeds and their jagged tips merged into the darkness. Her eyes searched the lane ahead. She carried on walking, up and up, her body leaning into the slope, the night wind chilling her to the bone. Before she turned the corner, she looked back. The moon’s rays lit the black clouds in a dull glow. She sat down on a stone for a rest, casting a long shadow against the mud wall. Half of the Fullbarns’ yard was fenced. She squatted down and poked around until she found a gap, then clambered through. Her clothes caught on the fence. She stood under the trees, her heart thudding hot from her efforts, her clothes wet from sweat. Inside the Fullbarns’ yard, it was pitch dark. She looked around. The door was wide open, and the moonlight bored in. She went into the cowshed. The lamp hanging from the pillar was not lit. The ox was munching on grass. Its nostrils were as big as frying pans, and it snorted hot breath. She leaned over, undid its rope, and gave it a slap on the shoulder. The ox lumbered from its shed, then trotted out of the yard under the silver moonlight. There was a shout from inside the house, Who’s that? Then a light came on. Who’s that? Mrs Fullbarn opened the door a crack and shouted again. Then she bent down and came out, a padded jacket slung around her shoulders. She was swallowed up in darkness. How come the ox isn’t making a sound? said Mrs Fullbarn. It’s asleep, shouted Fullbarn, still inside the house. I’ll go and have a look, said Mrs Fullbarn. She clattered over to the shed. Why are you keeping us all awake? Get back to sleep! said Fullbarn. Mrs Blogs stood hidden behind the pillar, mooing throatily like the ox, and Mrs Fullbarn turned and went inside again. Mrs Blogs stole up to the window and, brushing off the dust, took a good look. The Fullbarns turned out the light and Mrs Blogs was in darkness. Our mum’s light has gone out too, said Mrs Fullbarn. Drops of water fell from the eaves and spattered Mrs Blogs’s face. She opened her mouth and gulped some down, then left. Back home, Blogs was still asleep, wrapped up in his quilt. A rainstorm that night soaked the ground.

The moon glowed dully, and water-laden clouds drifted across the sky. Cat-like, Blogs got out of bed. The door had swung to, and he pushed it open. In the sky, the moon shone bright as water. A foot of water, six inches of moon. The lush treetops nibbled at branches and leaves, casting shadows on the ground and against the wall. He followed his wife as she went down the dirt lane, slipping and sliding in the mud. Weeds dangled from the earthen walls. Everything was quiet. He hid behind a tree and the leaves brushed his face. The further he walked, the steeper the lane. His wife turned to look around, and he hid at the foot of the wall, where the shadows gathered and pressed down on his head. Then he took a rest on the stone his wife had sat on. The biting cold and damp chilled him to the bone, but his wife had left a warmth behind on the stone. He saw his wife crawling through the fence into the Fullbarns’ yard, and he collected up the shreds of cloth she left behind her. He hid outside the yard wall and soon the ox came charging out, knocking down the fence. He caught up with it but couldn’t see his wife. The ox, maddened, ran into the tree, making the branches rustle and sending the roosting crows squawking into the air. It bellowed and turned into another lane. It reached grass-covered slopes and serried ranks of trees. Blogs took a few tumbles in the gloom. The crazed ox charged up the slope, struggling through the dense undergrowth, making tremendous crashing noises.

Fullbarn’s mother died. Everyone was gossiping about it. His mother had died several sudden deaths in the air above Stone Horse Pasture. She froze to death in bed. No, she died of fury because they lost the ox. No, she choked on an aduki bean and died. I’ll give you an aduki bean, you son of a turtle. Fullbarn’s mother was entangled in the air above Stone Horse Pasture. Blogs remembered that afternoon. The skies wrinkled, the earth grew cold, and Stone Horse River suddenly bulged with ice. The snow came down and, in no time at all, the earth was buried under a white, frosty blanket. Only a trace of the river’s course could still be seen. The snowstorm buried the rumours too. Blogs started picking out the words one by one but he was restless and had to go outside. He walked through the empty lanes of Stone Horse Pasture. You could ‘smell the sadness in the wind’, as the old poem goes. The air was laden with snow, which grew thicker and thicker, and there was a fierce north wind. At the entrance to the village, a horse came charging past, trampling the deep snow as it galloped down the lanes. Blogs didn’t see it but someone did. She kept saying that the horse had flown past the willow trees, breaking their branches, and trampling the snow flat. She had no idea whose horse it was. It was going so fast, she said to Blogs, that it looked like it was going to knock the sky-blue roof tiles off and smash them. People gathered in the yard to talk. She strode over to Blogs and said: I never saw that horse before or since. But as it went by, it turned and looked at me, and its eyes were full of sadness. People controlled their sorrow. There was sobbing, but chattering too. Blogs knocked on the gate but no one answered. He heard a rustling and through the fence, saw a lot of people. He stepped through it and stood in the courtyard. The snow had stopped now and the sky was a dome of blue. The evening light was desolate and cold. The woman paced towards him slowly. Just as slowly, Blogs backed off, but she kept coming. I saw a horse, she said in a whining voice. Blogs shook his head. He wanted nothing to do with her. People clustered around. Fullbarn was watching two or three people laying his mother out in the bed. They flattened the rice straw, plumped up the quilt and laid her to rest, crossing her hands over her chest. Visitors burst in, their shoes clattering on the floor, all getting in each other’s way. Look at that face, someone said. She froze to death. No, one said, she died of rage after they lost the ox. Blogs shuddered. That horse trampled through the snow, she said in his ear. No, one said, she choked on an aduki bean. But where did the bean come from? one said. From the ox’s feeding trough, one said. But the ox was lost, one said. The ox was lost but not the trough, one said. Blogs pushed the woman away and went straight for the trough. Sweeping out the snow and wet grass, he found some aduki beans and looked at them carefully. Then he stuffed his mouth with them and chewed. Fullbarn skirted the crowd and came over. He said to Blogs, Are those beans yours? No, said Blogs. Be careful you don’t choke on them, said Fullbarn. Everyone backed away from Fullbarn. Only Blogs stood chewing on the beans, a dark frown on his face. Then the woman said again, the horse turned and looked at me. I’ll give you some aduki beans, said Blogs. She beamed a smile: You son of a turtle. I wouldn’t dare put those in my mouth. I’ve chewed them up, said Blogs. She asked, Are there any? Blogs said, Lend me a peck of your family’s wheat, and I’ll give it back to you at next year. But if your wheat fields are bare, how can you pay us back? She said. I will, said Blogs. That horse was galloping so fast, it nearly chewed off the sky-blue tiles. Blogs picked the remaining aduki beans out of the manger and put them in a bag. He stamped his feet and looked around. The yard was full of snow and people’s breath hung in the air. Mrs Fullbarn suddenly shot out of the house: He was the one who stole the ox, don’t let him get away, I’ll kill him! Blogs was off like the wind. By evening, he was home, sitting at his window. Outside the snow shook from the branches of the trees.

The rainstorm that night had not yet happened. Brat put out the oil lamp and settled down to sleep. The moon came out and he woke from a dream. He undid the rope, pushed aside the tree branches and jumped the wall. He stood outside. There were lanes in every direction. He went south, bowled along by gusts of wind. The walls towered above him. The lane narrowed and rose steeply. Ahead, ribbons of track looked like wavelets breaking on the shore. He carried on walking through the night. The way widened as he climbed. He trudged on and on, until he found a flat place. There he sat on a stone to rest, and almost fell asleep again. The indigo sky was scattered with stars and a bright moon. Along a low wall, the moonlight cast tree shadows. He smelled roasting meat and stumbled towards it. He got to a double wooden door and was about to push it when it was blown open. A gust of wind swooped into the yard and the flames guttered, then leapt back. He took a few steps towards the light and sat down with his back against a pillar to enjoy the blaze. A hen rushed over and pecked his foot. Another rushed over and did the same. Brat took no notice. He heard an ox suddenly bellow behind him, and that made him sit up. Flames crackled and leapt high into the air, fusing together like the petals of a lotus flower. He recognised Fullbarn and his wife, wearing anxious smiles on paper. Brat, warmer now, took little steps towards the bonfire and stood there a long time, until his face was covered in smoke and ash. When he sat down again, he saw Fullbarn’s mother putting the photograph in the flames. Is there anything to eat? he asked her, I’m hungry. I’m too old, said Fullbarn’s mother, I can’t move. I’m hungry, Brat said again. Why aren’t your mum and dad looking after you? asked Fullbarn’s mother. They’re asleep, and I’m hungry, he said. She took a handful of beans from her pocket and gave it to him. He took them and crammed them into his mouth. The flames were dying down and the old woman went into the house. As she left the bonfire, she said to Brat, Off you go back home, it’s too cold to be out. Then she shut the doors, turned off the light and went to sleep. Brat pissed on the embers and heard the ox bellow again. He ducked down and went into the cowshed. There he spat out the half-chewed beans and pushed them into the ox’s mouth. He untethered the ox and leapt onto its back. The beast snorted and ran three times round its shed, then it jumped the wall and was off. It charged down the lane out of the village with Brat on its back. Dried twigs stuck out from Brat’s hair. The ox galloped through the lush marshland. In the distance, the road merged with the darkness. It was bitterly cold and a fierce north wind blew in his face. The ox kicked up the dust under its hooves. A full moon hung low in the sky as the frenzied beast veered this way and that, bumping into obstacles in its path, up the slope, trampling the sugar cane and into the wheat fields. It was bolting, and Brat could not stop it by hauling on the rope. Eventually the ox crashed into the willow trees at the water’s edge and fell to the ground. Its head sagged with exhaustion and it trembled all over. Its eyes bulged, its legs were rigid and its belly rose and fell in great gasps. Soon, it breathed its last breath. Brat scrambled out of the wheat and went to the riverbank. Ripples gleamed in the moonlight and the wind blew off the river. There was a sudden cloudburst and Brat got drenched to the skin. The rain fell heavier and heavier and the hollow which had formed under the ox, became deeper and deeper. Eventually, the great corpse floated and was blown down into Stone Horse River. Brat watched as the beast was bowled over and over by the waves. The rain finally washed Brat clean. It was coming down hard and fast, and Brat was fed up. He decided to seek shelter in the sugar cane plantation. There he propped himself against a clump of sugar cane and went to sleep. It was a cloudy night with a crescent moon. Someone got hold of Brat and pulled him upright. He woke up and grumbled curses.
Blogs took a few tumbles in the gloom. The crazed ox charged up the slope, struggling through the dense undergrowth, making tremendous crashing noises. The ox turned east along another track. The ground had leveled out, and it pushed its way through the sugar cane plantation. Blogs ran after it until his legs felt weak. He could see the crazed ox ahead, heading through the wheat towards Stone Horse River. Just at that moment, a crow cawed and flew up into the air. The ox stopped at Stone Horse Bridge, and bellowed three times. The river was narrow and full, and waves lapped over the riverbank. Countless images of the moon were imprinted on the surface of the water. Blogs made a dash for the riverbank, but the ox swam across, climbed the bank on the other side and jumped into the undergrowth. Blogs crossed by Stone Horse Bridge and peered over but the ox had turned back into a stone effigy which stood motionless, and lifeless, facing east as before. The wind rose and ruffled the waters, and suddenly Blogs realized he could not see the old stone ox any more. In the distance, clumps of sugar cane swayed in the wind. Blogs walked across his bare-patched wheat fields, and into the sugar cane. It was a cloudy night with a crescent moon. He snapped off a piece of cane and hit Brat with it. Brat woke up and opened his eyes, mumbling, The ox is gone. Yes, the ox is gone, agreed Blogs. Brat muttered curses, and then shut his eyes and fell back to sleep in the mud. Blogs picked Brat up, slung him over his shoulder and stomped home through the marshland. When he got home, Blogs peeled off his clothes and rubbed himself clean of mud, then dived into bed. Gradually he warmed up. He turned over and turned out the light. The moonlight came in through the window and he reached out his hand to touch his wife’s shoulder.

That evening the stone ox crossed back over the river and grazed the Blogs’ wheat right down to the bare earth. By the time word got around the village, the morning mist had dispersed and the sun was high in the sky. Someone rushed to bring the news. Blogs looked out of his window and said, The weather’s fine today. Not like last night. Bars of light came in through the windows and the breeze rustled in the trees. Mrs Blogs sat looking at the floor, and the sunlight pooled on her sore feet. As Blogs remembered it, the bringer of the news arrived at noon, stood with her back to the light, and said, Last night the stone ox grazed your wheat down to bare earth. That’s Fullbarn’s ox, said Blogs. You’re joking, said the bringer of news, the Fullbarn’s ox was lost ages ago. I saw it, said Blogs. It was the Fullbarns’ stone ox. The bringer of news said, That ox has been there a hundred years, it was there even before Granddad Fullbarn was born, how can the stone ox belong to the Fullbarns? I don’t believe you, said Blogs. I believe you, said the bringer of news, but the fact is, your wheat’s gone, whether you believe me or not. Blogs ran to the field so fast that he arrived sweating and out of breath. Their wheat field was just bare earth. We’ll need to borrow some wheat to get through the winter, said Mrs Blogs. I know, said her husband. We need grain for next spring too, said Mrs Blogs. Without grain, we’ll either freeze to death or starve. I know, said Blogs, but where are we going to borrow grain? From anyone who’s got a bit extra, said his wife. I’ve already done the rounds, said Blogs, and no one will lend us any. No one? Said his wife. No one, said Blogs. What the hell are you doing standing here? said Mrs Blogs to the bringer of news. Yes, what the hell are you doing standing here? said Blogs. Lend us a couple of bushels of wheat. The bringer of news didn’t hang around to answer, just disappeared. Have you been to the Fullbarns’? asked Mrs Blogs. They’ve got piles of surplus wheat. You go if you want, said Blogs. And she did.

But she came straight back in shouting, Brat’s got something stuck in his throat and he’s choking. Why didn’t you say so earlier? said Blogs. Because I’ve only just seen, said Mrs Blogs. It’s because you beat him black and blue this morning, that’s why he can’t breathe properly, said Blogs. Mrs Blogs was going to argue but Blogs had already gone to the other room, where he found Brat purple in the face and his belly swollen like a football. He undid Brat’s clothes and up-ended him, telling Mrs Blogs to hold him firm round the middle. Brat hung with his feet in the air and his head dangling, like an onion flowerette. Blogs thumped him on the back as hard as he could and Brat puked a gobful of mud. Then he breathed more easily. When he could talk again, he said, I lost that ox.

Now Fullbarn’s mother was dead, entangled in the air above Stone Horse Pasture. Everyone was gossiping about it. His mother had died several sudden deaths in the air above Stone Horse Pasture. Blogs remembered the afternoon when the skies wrinkled and the earth grew cold, and Stone Horse River suddenly bulged with ice. The snow fell and, in no time at all, the earth was buried under a white, frosty blanket. Only a trace of the river’s course could still be seen. The snowstorm buried the rumours too. Blogs started picking out the words one by one, but he was restless and had to go outside.

Drops of water fell from the eaves and spattered Mrs Blogs’s face. She opened her mouth and gulped some down, then went home. Blogs was not in bed. She hurried to the other room but Brat was not there either. The lamp on the table was lit. Mrs Blogs sat by the bed until she finally nodded off. Some hours later, the lamp was burning low but still no one had come home. She muttered to herself irresolutely, then tidied the bed, opened the door and went out. A crescent moon was slowly emerging into the vast night sky. Mrs Blogs hurried along the muddy lanes and went several times around the village without finding a trace of her husband or son. The sky was heavy with clouds. When she reached the poplar thicket on the other side of the village, she took a few tumbles but struggled on, puffing and panting, as far as the next village. Her socks and shoes were soaked in mud. She took them off and, barefoot, climbed upwards. In the sloping field, some old trees along the edges cast deep, deep shadows. She went into the sugar cane but could not find Brat. The moon made everything clear as day and, despite the deep shadows, she could see an ox lying low in their field, munching away at the remaining wheat. Without giving herself time to think, she broke off a piece of cane, leapt out and ran toward it. When she got close, she realized that what she had taken for a dumb ox was actually a fine big horse. Clutching the cane, she rained blow after blow right in the middle of the horse’s head. Finally, the horse gave a mournful whinny, and galloped away. Mrs Blogs raced after it around the sugar cane, and beat it again. This time, the beast had had enough and fought back. A blow landed on the top of her head and bowled her right over, but she refused to let go of the stick, and slashed its ear. The horse neighed and bucked, then galloped away in the direction of Stone Horse River. When it got there, it took a flying leap into the mighty waters and was never seen again. Mrs Blogs stood on the bank, puffing and panting, then threw the cane down and headed home. At the homestead, she saw a gleaming scar across their great expanse of wheat field. The moon was sinking in the sky and its cold light was dimming. Blogs was still asleep. His wife stripped off and dived under the covers. Blogs turned over and put out the light. The moonlight came in through the window and he reached out his hand to touch his wife’s shoulder. She was thoroughly chilled. The moon’s beams sliced across her body, and Mrs Blogs said, I can’t find Brat. He’s asleep in the other room, said Blogs. His wife said, You need to go and borrow some grain. Go to sleep, said Blogs.

The next evening, Blogs was home, sitting at his window. Outside the snow shook from the branches of the trees. His face was covered in cuts and bruises. Did you borrow some grain? asked his wife. Blogs said, I only managed to beg a few aduki beans to keep us from starving. So what are we going to do? asked his wife. Blogs said, We’ll have to sell the ox. What ox? said his wife. Hush, said Blogs. Didn’t you tell me last night that the beast had turned into a stone ox? said Mrs Blogs. And didn’t you tell me you’d knocked an ear off a horse? asked Blogs. It’s true, I did, said Mrs Blogs. I don’t know why I couldn’t find it after that. You take care of Brat and I’ll be back soon, said Blogs.

Blogs crossed Stone Horse River, stole the ox and led it away. It was a freezing cold night and a north wind was howling. The moon spilled its beams like a mist over the ground. The distant mountains stretched away in serried ranks. The snow kept on falling. A steep path snaked up the mountainside. Blogs had walked no more than a mile when he sat down on a pile of snow for a rest. The ox munched away at the snowdrifts by the side of the road. Over the top they went, scrambling over great piles of rocks, and the ground gradually leveled out. The moon hung in the sky, throwing long shadows before them. My feet are killing me, said Blogs. The ox paid no attention and just kept trudging on. They got to a river valley, and Blogs finally climbed on the ox’s back. The riverbed abruptly narrowed here, but the water was shallow, only covering the ox’s hooves. They clambered up the other side and went on their way at a leisurely pace. They got to a wood where moonbeams shone through the gaps between the trees. Suddenly they heard a shout behind them, I am the Lord of the mountain! If you want to pass by here, you must pay a toll. Coming towards them was a man with a gleaming dagger in his hand. Blogs gave a shout of dismay and threw himself to the ground. I have no money! he protested. The man answered, if you have no money then leave me your life. Blogs shook with terror. We’re dirt poor already, said Blogs. I’m off to sell this ox so we can buy a bit of grain. Why don’t I give you the ox, so I can keep my life? The ox bellowed when it heard this, but the man agreed. Blogs passed him the rope and he turned to lead it away, but the ox refused to budge no matter how hard he tugged. This is strange, thought the man, and after some reflection, he said, You go on, and leave the ox here. Blogs wasted no time in making a quick getaway, and was soon out of sight. Up and down the river valleys he raced, without pausing for a moment’s rest. At the top of a mountain pass, the wind was gusting so strongly that Blogs sat under a rock to rest and wait for it to die down. The time dragged by and he was tired. He shut his eyes and fell asleep. From time to time, loud bellowing sounds carried by the wind made him jerk awake. It was the ox. The bellowing ricocheted between the mountain peaks. The wind was still strong and the snow fell heavily, filling the valleys. Blogs retrieved his ox and set off again, trudging along an overgrown track through the snow drifts. It was hard-going. The gale hurled clumps of snow in their faces, and it gradually began to bury them. When the snow had reached head-height, Blogs and his ox were well and truly stuck. By evening, the valleys between the peaks were filled with snow as far as the eye could see.

Blogs was woken by a shout. An old hag, dressed in rags and tatters, stood at the door. In she came, added firewood to the fire, making the smoke billow upwards, and then bent and sat on the bed. She offered Blogs a bowl full of soupy rice. Presently, Blogs slept again. He was woken by the creaking of the door, but all was quiet outside. He threw on some clothes and went and pushed the door open. Outside it was a freezing cold night, with cirrus clouds floating across a full moon. A grey mist enveloped the thatched shack, and serried ranks of mountains, cloud-enshrouded, pressed down on them. In the yard was a pond which rippled with jade green water, still unfrozen. The pond was edged with paving. On its eastern edge, a small cave had been dug. The hag knelt before the opening, her hands neatly clasped, and muttered prayers to the cave in a low voice. Soon the cave spewed forth an offering of rice to the hag. When she had picked up the rice, she said to Blogs, You’ve woken up. Where am I? asked Blogs. Rice Mountain, said the hag, and this is Rice Pond. How did I get here? asked Blogs. You were buried in the snow, said the hag. My ox! Where’s my ox? asked Blogs. Stolen by robbers, said the hag. I know it was stolen, said Blogs, but I got it back again. Well, it was stolen by another bunch of robbers, said the hag. It was you who saved me, said Blogs to the hag. I bartered you for a handful of rice, said the hag. Why didn’t you barter some for the ox too? asked Blogs. I didn’t have enough rice, said the hag. How did you manage to dig me out of the snow? asked Blogs. I didn’t, she said. It was the robbers who dug you out. I want to go down the mountain, said Blogs. The snow’s too deep, said the hag. You won’t get far. That night, the hag cooked up a bowl of soupy rice and gave exactly half to Blogs. With a belly half-full, he went to sleep. The next night, the hag went again to the cave to pray and again it spewed an offering of rice. When Blogs had eaten his half-bowl, he said, My belly’s only half-full. Well, said the hag, the cave only gives me enough to feed one person, that’s why you only get half a bowl of rice, but it’s better than having no rice at all. On the third evening, Blogs hit the hag on the head and knocked her out. Then he went to the mouth of the cave and said his prayers, standing and kneeling, just as she had done. He even took an axe to make the cave mouth a bit bigger but when he peered inside he could see no rice. He found a great rock and gave it a good bash but all that happened was that the pond water began to gurgle away down the mountainside until there was none left. When the bed of the pond was quite dry, Blogs smashed up the paving stones but he only found one grain of rice. He put it his pocket and, lifting his head to the heavens, began to cry. Above him, the moon was like a white hole cut out of the darkness. He straightened up, breathed deeply and set off down the mountain. In the valley bottom, all the snow had thawed, and the tree branches were burning.

There was a great drought that year and even the wells caught fire and smoked. Locusts filled the sky and the earth and devoured the full ears of wheat. Many villagers died of starvation. The waters which had always lapped against the banks of Stone Horse River ran dry. Out of the multi-coloured mists of a ravaged world, the bent, disheveled figure of Blogs emerged. He hobbled along the dusty track to Stone Horse Pasture village. As he crossed Stone Horse Bridge, he looked down, and saw the recumbent statue of a stone horse with a broken ear. The stone ox was still lying on the bank among the withered weeds, its head blown off. Blogs arrived home, to find his wife bent over the bed being fucked. He hid under the window outside, listening to the bed creaking. When it was finished, Fullbarn dropped five pecks of grain on the floor and left. Blogs waited until his wife put her clothes back on, then went in. He fell on the bed, pushing his wife out of the way, and went to sleep. When he woke up, he found his wife asleep by the stove, a doll clasped in her arms. There was a smell of cooking meat, and the smoke from the fire stung his eyes. He shouted at his wife to wake her up: ‘Where’s Brat got to?’ But his wife just went back to sleep again.

The evening drew in, and masses of mackerel clouds cut the rosy sky to ribbons. Under cover of darkness, Blogs went to the family’s field and planted the single grain of rice he had brought back with him. As far as the eye could see was wasteland. But those villagers who survived the famine fucked and bred like rabbits. The seasons came and went, and at the height of the following summer, the wasteland suddenly burgeoned with lush rice seedlings. The seedlings came up in the cracks of the walls, between the tiles, even under the beds. If Blogs trampled a seedling, it sprang up again as strong as ever. Not only that, but water began to trickle from the rice plants. As the leaves grew, more water spurted from them, filling the paddy fields. Day by day, the water rose until one night a mighty flood swamped the entire village, drowning all its buildings and everyone who lived in them. Wave after wave of water pounded by, glittering silver under the moonlight.

Seven days and seven nights later, the clouds thinned and the skies brightened. The earth, with its mountains and rivers, lay beneath water which had a virginal calm and was smooth as a mirror. After a hundred years, Ten Thousand Li had reclaimed Stone Horse Pasture.

 

 

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