By Su Wei 苏炜, translated by Austin Woerner, published by Small Beer Press, April 2018.
Lu Beiping is one of 20 million young adults the Chinese government uproots and sends far from their homes for agricultural re-education. And Lu is bored and exhausted. While he pines for romance, instead he’s caught up in a forbidden religious tradition and married off to the foreman’s long-dead daughter so that her soul may rest. The foreman then sends him off to cattle duty up on Mudkettle Mountain, far away from everyone else.
On the mountain, Lu meets an outcast polyamorous family led by a matriarch, Jade, and one of her lovers, Kingfisher. They are woodcutters and practice their own idiosyncratic faith by which they claim to placate the serpent-demon sleeping in the belly of the mountains. Just as the village authorities get wind of Lu’s dalliances with the woodcutters, a typhoon rips through the valley. And deep in the jungle, a giant serpent may be stirring.
From Chapter 3: Pa
月光清冷。黑黑的山碗里，这里那里，泛溅着银光。三面碗口对出去，是巴灶背面一片开阔的山原，像深海里的八爪大章鱼似的，脉脉络络，一总都在银水中舒坦着筋骨。山风沁 凉，他第一脚踩回溪水里甚至轻轻哎哟了一声——其实他是套着雨靴的，阿秋反而赤着脚。 牛们却踢踢踏踏走得轻快——比他更归心似箭吧。
The cattle rested on the slope. They’d grazed their fill, and now sat huddled together in the grass waiting for their master. As Lu Beiping approached, a few steps behind Autumn, the animals raised their voices in warm, baritone greeting.
Lu Beiping hollered to Alyosha, and as the herd assembled and began trooping down the hillside he heaved a huge sigh of relief.
Strange place. Strange people. Nothing he’d experienced in his life up to this point had prepared him to understand this kind of strangeness.
The chilly moonlight refreshed him. Splashes of silver shone on the dark bluffs to either side, and framed in the hollow’s mouth lay the sprawling form of the mountain, like an octopus easing its tentacles in deep, moonlit waters. There was a cold breeze, and when Lu Beiping stepped into the creek he gasped despite his rubber boots. Autumn was barefoot. The cattle sloshed along happily, hastening homeward with an eagerness that Lu Beiping didn’t share.
Once again the jungle’s fermented odor filled his nostrils. Amid the familiar night noises he searched for something to say to Autumn, something to break the silence. He felt a sudden need for talk.
—The dog’s not barking, he said finally. When I came up he was making quite a scene.
—It was me that tied him up then, Autumn said, opening his mouth to speak for the first time since Lu Beiping laid eyes on him that afternoon. You scared him good, marching up there with your thunderous army.
They both laughed quietly. After walking in silence for a while, Autumn spoke again.
—How old are you? When’d you come to the country?
—I can’t tell. City people’s features all look alike to me.
—City people’s features? Lu Beiping repeated, chuckling.
—I’d say you’re younger than me, Autumn said. I graduated from junior high in sixty-five. You?
—I would’ve graduated in sixty-nine. But I actually never went to junior high, at least not to class. They closed the schools right after I finished sixth grade. Three years later I got downcountried.
—But you know Jesus, Peter, Judas. Where I come from, even high schoolers don’t know those names.
Lu Beiping glanced at Autumn. He knew them, obviously.
—Yeah, but there are a lot of things I never learned. Like, Rectify Ideological Outlook. Never Forget Class Struggle. Venerate, Emulate, Integrate, Participate, Evaluate, Interrogate, Repudiate, Annihilate. That stuff gave me a headache. I failed every current events test.
Lu Beiping laughed and slashed with his machete at the grass that grew alongside the creek. Autumn smiled tensely.
—Let’s not talk about that stuff.
Lu Beiping wanted to ask Autumn where exactly he came from, and how long he’d been in Hainan. But he felt that he shouldn’t press a “driftperson” for these details, so he bit his tongue, trying to think of something else to say. The two young men waded on down the creek. Up ahead Lu Beiping heard a quiet swishing noise in the water, probably some creeping night creature, and was about to fling his machete in order to scare it off when Autumn laid a hand gently on his arm.
—Don’t. It’s a snake, crossing the water. Don’t rile the snakes, don’t wake the spirits. That’s one of Kingfisher’s laws. I should’ve told you.
That was something to talk about.
—So, what law of Kingfisher’s did I break, back there?
Autumn was quiet for a moment. Then he said:
—Kingfisher has lots of laws . . . lots of sins. I’m one.
Lu Beiping turned and gazed at him. In the branch-filtered moonlight his expression looked even more somber and remote than usual.
—Smudge’s dad died, Autumn said slowly. Was smudged. We don’t say die, we say smudged. Smudge’s dad was smudged flat by a falling tree. When Smudge was born, his dad named him that, said mean folks need mean names, give a man a low name and death’ll pass over him. But death took him instead. Smudge crossed his own dad. So—Autumn lowered his voice—theydon’t like him.
They? Lu Beiping remembered the rude scene at the end of dinner and felt a chill.
—Is Jade Smudge’s mother? he asked.
—Yep. He’s her oldest. She mothered Tick and Roach too.
—By . . . Kingfisher? By Stump? Lu Beiping asked carefully.
—Yep, Autumn said. But it’s Smudge she cherishes most. She has him call her Pa in secret. Never when Kingfisher’s around.
—So, Lu Beiping said, now brimming with curiosity: What about snakes? Why can’t you rile them?
Autumn gazed at him for a moment, then said slowly:
—On account of what your people call Antiquated Thinking. Some folks hold that everything has a spirit. I believe that. The way Kingfisher says it, spirits of warm-blooded animals are good spirits, divines. But spirits of cold-blooded animals, snakes and insects and the like, are haunts. Weirds.
—What about dead people? Lu Beiping asked with a catch in his voice, thinking of Han. Are their spirits good or bad?
—Dead people’s spirits are cold-blooded. Warm blood turns cold, that makes shadow air, killing air. Kingfisher says Smudge has got the killing air about him.
—What about you? You said you’re . . . a sin?
—They say I’m cold-blooded. They’re right.
Lu Beiping shuddered. He thought of Han again, couldn’t bring himself to think further, and walked on in silence.
After a while he asked:
—Who do you all report to? Are you part of a unit? How do you get by, felling trees up here in the mountains?
—We belong to Whitesands County. This bluff here is the border between Tam-chow and Whitesands. Whitesands is afraid you down in Tam-chow are about to burn the mountain clean of wood, so they let us up here to log and ship timber down to sell. Kingfisher has papers.
He spoke reflexively, as if recounting a well-worn story. Sighing, he said:
—Logging’s hard work. Who to do it, but us driftfolk?
The cattle had stopped. They’d come to the clearing from which Lu Beiping and Jade had waded into the creek that evening. Lu Beiping hollered them onward, then turned to Autumn.
—You can go back now. I know the way.
—It’s early yet, Autumn said. I’ll walk with you a spell, take a look at your . . . abode.
Lu Beiping laughed inwardly to hear his hut described in such lofty terms.
—Sure. Actually, that’s a great idea. I can give you medicine for Smudge. That’s not . . . against your laws, is it?
Autumn smiled bitterly, and the two quickened their steps at the thought of Smudge’s illness. After skirting a ravine they emerged at the third bend of the creek, and the cattle celebrated their arrival with cheerful lows. Familiar smells filled the night air, and the beasts trumpeted and fussed eagerly. Before long they were shouldering at the corral gate, and managed to kick it open. Lu Beiping hollered sharply to Alyosha, raked down some of the hay that he kept piled near the corral and tossed a few armfuls through the fence slats, then as the cattle crowded round to feed he leapt up onto one of the shafts of the oxcart and counted them.
—Seventy-six, seventy-seven . . . Perfect! Seventy-eight.
Autumn watched him with a look of wonder, as if surprised to see Lu Beiping make these nimble, practiced motions.
—Soon there’ll be more than that, Lu Beiping said with a hint of pride. At least two of the cows are pregnant. The miracle of life, eh? Before long I’ll be looking after a whole new generation of mooing youngsters.
Autumn said nothing, and for a moment his expression darkened.
The hut smelled of damp air and sweat, of new thatch and the longstanding reek of his boots. Lu Beiping lit the lamp, glanced back and saw Autumn still standing outside, the same look of melancholy on his face that he’d worn at dinner up in the hollow. He called to Autumn, but the man didn’t move. Lu Beiping turned and fished hurriedly in his bag, found the pouch of pills he’d brought with him into the mountains. Crap, there was no quinine left—after moving to his jungle camp, he’d been so scared of catching that dreadful tropical disease that he’d swallowed a pill every night, not even knowing whether it could be taken prophylactically. Now he had nothing left but piddling things he’d loaded up on at the clinic, Silverwing Detoxifiers and Blue Licorice Extract and such. He grabbed the Silverwing bottle, handed it to Autumn.
—Here, this might help, till I can get some better stuff.
He turned and searched the hut for something fun to give Smudge, reached hesitantly for his harmonica. But when he looked back Autumn had slipped away without a sound.
He ran out, saw Autumn’s shadow vanish into the trees on the far side of the creek, leaving nothing but moonlight and murmuring water. Another strange one, Lu Beiping thought.