Translated by Wen Lingxia
My dear children, this was the first time I saw you in such loose pajamas, your clothes not quite fitting, and it was my first time, too, to tell you a story, though you two were already asleep.
How I wish I could have kept sitting with your mum by your bedside like this, safeguarding your sweet dreams, praying silently for you.
This tale hails from the big, ancient mountains, passed down from generation to generation. It is a primitive tale, untainted by the rush and tumble of our times.
My tale began, as ordinary tales do, with once upon a time. Once upon a very old time, far far away, there was a village. Outside the village, there was a field full of bottle gourds growing wild. No one ever planted them. It seemed that they were already growing there when the world came into being, and that they would continue to grow long after we were gone. In spring, the vines and branches twisted together with the lush, vibrant leaves, leaving a cool green shade on the ground, keeping it moist and nourishing even in the height of summer. When autumn arrived, golden gourds appeared among the vines, growing high and low, making the vines sag, as they popped up between the leaves like lanterns waiting to be lit. All the villagers loved these golden gourds, marking the passage of time by their shape and size. When a baby was born, its parents would go to the gourd field and claim one gourd for the baby. Taking a piece of paper, they would intricately cut out the name of their child, and tape the word to the gourd, letting it be known who the gourd belonged to. When the gourd was ripe, they would take it home and cut the small tail part off, making an opening so the plant could be dried out, turning it into a perfect container, to be kept within the household until it could serve no further purpose.
To claim a gourd for the babies had become a village tradition, revered alongside other traditions, like giving babies their first bath three days after their birth, the baby’s 100-day celebration to wish it 100 years of longevity, and a grabbing test to check a child’s vocal ability on the baby’s first birthday. Hence, every child in the village had a gourd hung by their bedside, and in some of the girls’ bedrooms, the gourds were carefully placed into delicately hand-knitted nests, with all their treasured belongings surrounding them.
Then, one autumn, a fierce enemy invaded the village. What enemies? No one ever knew for certain. All they knew was that these soldiers wore leather jackets, and carried sharp weapons with them, wherever they went. They burned and robbed, looted and massacred, stopping for nothing and nobody. Any survivors were forced into slave labour, made to do back-breaking work until they felt that they, themselves, might break. The enemies tore through the towns and villages, plundering valuables, taking anything they fancied. Then, they happened upon the field of gourds, and the names pinned to the plants. They asked what these names meant, but when they learned the story, they burst into cruel laughter. As a final act of vicious torment, they gathered all the children of the village together and killed them all, beheading them one by one.
After the deed was done, they picked all the gourds and tried to cut the tail parts, so they could use them as containers too, as they had been told to do by the surviving villagers. They chopped at the thick vines with their swords, as sparks flew around the blades. No matter how hard they hacked, the gourds weren’t even dented. They slashed, smashed, and crushed the plants, but to no avail – they couldn’t even make a crack in the gourds’ thick skins. Infuriated by the defiant gourds, the villains lit a huge fire, bigger than any the villagers had ever seen, and dumped all the gourds into the tall flames. Golden beams of light spiraled and sparked within the fire, brighter than the flames themselves. It kept burning all day and all night, but the gourds were still perfectly intact. The enemies panicked, believing the gourds to be possessed, and threw them into a stream, watching with relief as they floated away.
In the rapids, the gourds floated and sank, sank and floated, over and over again, bobbing up and down in the water. The stream was flooded with gourds, ducking and diving in the rapids. According to some witnesses, a piercing cry of fury was heard, erupting from the water, shaking the whole valley. Some said that the objects floating in the stream were not gourds after all, but the heads of those poor children.
With a piercing cry, the gourds floated away, disappearing into the distance.
The next spring, the vines and branches twisted together with the same lustrous leaves, as they always did, casting the same cool shade across the ground. It was the same when autumn arrived, the golden gourds appearing among the vines, just as they had always done, growing high and low, popping up among the leaves like lanterns waiting to be lit.
My dear May’s eyebrows furrowed tightly together, as if she was about to cry. I didn’t know if she was trying to figure out what dreams were put into the gourds, to make them grow the same, breathing fresh life into the lost children whose names had belonged to them?
Kiddo kicked his feet against the side of the bed, his face puzzled. You two were just like puppets, the taut strings of your fate grasped firmly in the iron grip of war. I found myself worrying about you and the future you deserved, which had become so unpredictable, snatched away without your say- so. I was worried about the millions of youngsters that made up this nation, with their youth set to be consumed by the vicious flames of war. I was worried about all the things yet to come for our country, and what that meant for us all.
Amid all the chaos and confusion, the word ‘motherland’, so noble and sacred, was engraved on the heart of many Chinese. It was hard to explain to you what that word meant, and in all honesty I didn’t understand it myself, yet I felt drawn by it – a magnetic attraction. It was not the government, nor the system. Both were replaceable. It was smaller than that, it was about your family, your hometown, your ‘Square Teakettle’ you loved so much, and my university, for which I had dedicated half of my life. It was at the epicentre of the history that bore witness to our nation’s struggles, and the splendour that rose from hardship like a phoenix spreading its wings, the rich and fertile earth still bearing fruit in a ravaged land. The word belonged to our time-honoured, glorious past and the terrible, uncertain present. Our motherland was irreplaceable. The thought of her brought a lump to the throat of any honest Chinese citizen, and warmed the blood that ran through one’s heart, spurring the nation on to protect mother China.
I was a coward, at the time, who never dared to indulge himself in the thought of fighting for that honour, or fighting for her, our motherland. I always wished I could do something truly good for my family, for others, and for society as a whole, but my attempts always fell short. I knew I might never be able to achieve this, and so I didn’t dare to try. My failings led me to admire all the kinds of loyalty and persistence that I could not find within myself, just like those wild gourds, growing amid adversity and suffering, year-in, year-out, yet never letting hardship break them.
I remember that the night was painfully quiet, with dull bursts of gunfire rumbling in the distance. Your mum came to me, her face ashen, and said in a soft, scared voice: “What will tomorrow bring?”
My dear children, I didn’t know then and I don’t know now – what tomorrow will bring…