Translated by Helen Wang, and published here by kind permission of the author and translator.
Read in Chinese here.
The school bell had already sounded. Jingjing, who was sitting by the window, had turned his head very slightly, and was watching students head for the school gates, their schoolbags on their backs. All the other classes had been dismissed. Their teacher liked to keep them a few minutes longer, as though this would get the whole class perfect grades.
“Li Jingjing, concentrate!”
Jingjing woke up, and quickly looked round. The teacher was glaring at him.
Ms Cheng was in her twenties, had a short hair-cut, thick black eyebrows, and a sharply defined mouth. Even the way she talked, moved her hands, and walked, conveyed a decisiveness, and it was immediately apparent that she was a diligent, competitive and rather confident person.
“Listen, everyone, this is important.” Ms Cheng tapped on the podium with her curled index finger. “The regional education authority is organising its first open day, and this is an honour for the whole school. Have you all read the hand-out from yesterday?”
The hand-out was a short story – Vanka, by the Russian author Chekhov. Jingjing liked it so much, he’d read it several times. Poor little Vanka had somehow got inside his head, and he’d spent the whole day in something of a trance.
Ms Cheng’s eyes scanned the whole class: “We have to read aloud with expression. Take out your hand-outs.”
There was squeaking and rustling as everyone took out their hand-outs, and placed them solemnly in front of them.
“A few of you will be reading aloud. Lin Rong will read the first part. Zhao Xiaozhen will read from Dear Grandfather… to as though it had been washed and scrubbed with snow for a festival. Zhou Hai, you’ll read from…” Ms Cheng said six students’ names, and told them, “During the class, when I say ‘read the text aloud with expression’ you are to put up your hands. Then you’ll read in turn. Everyone else is to sit up straight and listen.”
Jingjing squirmed in his seat, and stared at the teacher, as though he had something to say.
“Li Jingjing, please, pull yourself together, ” the teacher frowned.
Jingjing blushed, and looked down. Then immediately looked up again, and raised his hand.
“What is it now?”
Jingjing stood up, and stuttered: “Teacher, can I… can I read a part?”
“No.” Ms Cheng answered brusquely, “your voice is too hoarse to read well.”
Jingjing hung his head. He loved this story! He wanted to read a part of it, even a short passage with only a few lines. He’d make sure he read it well. It wasn’t as if you needed a singing voice to read aloud, was it?
On the way home, he passed a small wood. It was quiet, and there was no one about for as far as he could see. His heart started pounding, and he couldn’t resist leaning against a tree, and taking the hand-out from his bookbag. It was newly printed, and still had that strong, sweet smell of ink. He chose a passage, and softly read it out:
Dear Grandfather Konstantin Makaritch,” he wrote, “I am writing a letter to you. I wish you a Happy Christmas, may God bless you. I have no father or mother, and you are the only family I have left…”
Jingjing sighed, his mind wandering. The hand-out slipped from his fingers and floated to the ground, but he didn’t notice and didn’t move. He had a grandfather in the countryside too. He’d grown up with his grandfather. Yeye had a very shiny water-pipe, and when he wanted to smoke, he’d call for a light. Jingjing would hurry to fetch a paper taper, light it, and hand it to him. There’d be a Puff! as Yeye lit the pipe, and a gurgling as he took a few breaths, inhaling deeply, then he’d let it out slowly, as though savouring the moment. His addiction fed, he’d put down his pipe, pull Jingjing to his chest, and start talking: “In the past there was a rich man, who employed two brothers…” On summer nights, Yeye moved a bamboo chair to the threshing ground to enjoy the cool air, and Jingjing would curl up beside him like a little dog. Yeye would point to the sky and say: “Can you see? That bright stretch is the Milky Way. The Queen Mother of the West didn’t want the cowherd and the weaver-girl to see each other, so she pulled out her hairpin and, with a sneer, created the Milky Way, so wide you cannot see from one side to the other…”
When he was older, Mama said he had to come to the city and go to school, and he hadn’t seen Yeye since. His parents argued and fought all the time. And when they argued, Mama would hit him – she’d cry while she was hitting him. He was scared. He didn’t like being there, he missed Yeye in the countryside. Just like poor little Vanka wishing his grandfather would come and take him home, Jinjing hoped Yeye would come to see him one day. Vanka’s letter was wonderful! Jingjing had never written a letter to Yeye – he didn’t know what kind of letter he could write.
He picked up the hand-out, and read out another passage:
“Dear Grandfather, when the big house decorates the Christmas tree with little gifts, pick a gold-coloured walnut for me and keep it safe in my little silk box. Ask for Miss Olga Ignatyevna, tell her it’s for Vanka…”
Olga must have been friends with Vanka? He’d had a good friend who was a girl back then too, Ni’er, who lived opposite Yeye. She had dark black eyes – when she smiled, they narrowed into a slit, and gave her a sly look. She used to take him to pick mulberries. She used to climb the tree and pick them with both hands. She climbed quickly, like a monkey. She’d have him hold the basket below, and would sit in the tree, throwing handfuls of mulberries into it. Then they’d sit together on the pier by the river, eating mulberries, which stained their lips and teeth a violet-black.
Oh, he had many good memories, just like those Vanka had written about in his letter. He could imagine Vanka’s feeling when he wrote the letter: his anticipation, his hope, his eagerness. If only the teacher would let him to read a passage, he knew he would read it well, he just knew. It was such a wonderful story! He wanted so much to read it out loud, to read it with all his feeling.
He looked up, and glanced all around. It was quiet in the wood, just a couple of bees buzzing nearby. He swallowed, held the hand-out in front of him, and in a loud voice started to read:
“Three months before, nine-year-old Vanka Zhukov had been sent as an apprentice to Alyakhin the shoemaker…”
His voice didn’t sound very good, it was a bit hoarse, and kept catching in his throat. But was reading aloud in class really like performing on stage? So much so that people with hoarse voices had to hide in the wood to read their favourite passages? That really upset him.
The next day, Ms Cheng had the six students stay behind after school to practise their reading. She had to go to the office, to prepare for the next day, and told them she’d be back soon, to “go through” it with them.
Jingjing had just left the classroom, when he caught the sound of reading aloud. He couldn’t let it go. He couldn’t resist turning back, and looking and listening through the classroom window.
Chubby Zhao Xiaozhen read the second passage. She had a nice voice usually, clear and sweet. But when she started to read, her tone went all cloying and twee, as though it wasn’t poor Vanka who’d written the letter, but a spoilt little girl.
“Dear Grandfather Konstantin Makarich… I have no father or mother, you are the only family I have.”
No, it’s not like that, Jingjing said to himself as he listened. It wasn’t like that at all. Vanka wasn’t a spoilt little girl, he was a nine-year-old boy, alone in the city as an apprentice, he was hungry, he got beaten, he was upset, he hoped his grandfather could come and rescue him, he was begging him, he was in tears. That girly tone was all wrong.
Zhao Xiaozhen continued reading, in that same cloying, twee way.
“It’s not like that!” Jingjing shouted, eventually.
The reading stopped, and the six of them looked at him in shock.
“What do you mean?” asked Zhao Xiaozhen, surprised.
Jingjing was a little embarrassed. What if he’d misunderstood? “You’re not reading it right,” he mumbled.
“What!” Zhao Xiaozhen’s lip curled. “You’re not the teacher. How do you know I’m not reading it right?”
She was right, only the teacher was qualified to say that. If Ms Cheng had said “It’s not right,” then it would have been wrong. Nothing Jingjing said would count.
He went red, and mumbled stubbornly, “It’s not right. It’s not right.”
The kids in the classroom roared with laughter. Zhao Xiaozhen cleared her throat, “Stop it. You’re only saying that because the teacher won’t let you read. You’re jealous.”
Jingjing was furious. How could she say that? He might be upset, but he wasn’t the slightest bit jealous. He wasn’t petty-minded like that.
“All right,” he thought, “let them do it their way, I don’t care.”
He left the classroom, aggrieved. He could hear Zhao Xiaozhen’s silver-bell laugh behind him for quite a long way.
The open-day came, the seats were arranged in the classroom, and twenty to thirty teachers and students packed into the room. Many of the students were nervous, they daren’t even look at the blackboard. But Ms Cheng wasn’t perturbed; she opened the textbook and started to teach. She talked about Chekhov’s life, his achievements, picked out some new vocabulary, and went over the new words, then said, “Now I’ll invite students to read aloud from the book…”
As arranged, only Lin Rong raised her hand. The other students kept perfectly still. Her posture alone was shocking! Who would dare put themselves forward like that?
Lin Rong read out the first passage calmly, without hurrying. She read very fluently and clearly, and Ms Cheng was delighted, nodding her head, and smiling with her eyes.
When she finished reading, the teacher gestured for her to sit down. Zhao Xiaozhen should have been next.
For a few seconds no one moved. Jingjing thought it strange, and looked up and over at Zhao Xiaozhen. She was bright red, and staring at the hand-out in panic. The child next to her nudged her with their crutch, but she still wouldn’t look up. She must be terrified, thought Jingjing. And with so many teachers watching, if you panicked, you’d trip over the words, and that would be embarrassing! Jingjing felt sorry for her.
The colour drained from Ms Cheng’s face. She coughed sternly, but Zhao Xiaozhen still didn’t raise her hand. No one in the class raised their hand. That’s what had been arranged.
Jingjing couldn’t keep still. He wanted to stand up. But, if he put up his hand, would Ms Cheng tell him off? Would Zhao Xiaozhen laugh at him afterwards? He really wanted to read. He wasn’t seeking attention, he’d bottled his feelings for so long and he wanted to let them out in that reading.
He bit his lip, solemnly raised his hand, and, without blinking, looked at Ms Cheng.
Ms Cheng was flustered. She scanned the faces of the entire class, hoping to encourage others to raise their hands. But there was still only Jingjing, with his hoarse voice. She had no choice, “Li Jingjing, would you read on, please.”
“Dear Grandfather Konstantin Makarich!” Jingjing read out loud and with feeling, “I am writing a letter to you. I wish you a happy Christmas, and may God bless you…”
If he was to write to his own grandfather, he’d be thrilled, wouldn’t he? Was his water pipe still as shiny as ever? Who was he telling his “rich man and the two brothers stories” to now? And what about Ni’er? Ni’er, with her black eyes, who could climb trees. Who was she sitting with, eating mulberries? He missed them so much, he wanted to leave this place in the city, and go back to Yeye’s house in the countryside, and never come back, for as long as he lived!
“…dear Grandfather, have mercy on me, please, take me away from here, take me back to our village, I can’t bear any more… I’ll pray on my knees for you, pray to God for you forever more, if you’ll take me away from here…” Vanka’s lip trembled, he wiped his eyes with the back of his dirty hand, and sobbed.”
Two crystal clear tear drops burst from his eyes and “plopped” onto the paper in his hand so loudly that he shocked even himself. He immediately stopped reading, and looked around in a daze. It was fine, no one was laughing at him, everyone was concentrating, listening carefully. He breathed out, and discovered that he’d read beyond Zhao Xiaozhen’s passage, and had almost finished Zhou Hai’s piece. He wanted to apologise to Ms Cheng, and ask the other teachers to forgive him, but he felt so terrible inside that he couldn’t get the words out. This poor little Vanka had somehow stolen his soul. Oh Lord, the writer of the story was so skilled!
He sighed, and quietly sat down. The classroom was quiet, quiet enough to hear Zhao Xiaozhen sobbing softly. After a while, Ms Cheng stepped down from the podium, walked up to him, and said, her voice trembling: “Li Jingjing, please… would you read to the end of the piece.”
He stood up again, and in his hoarse voice read this moving story, putting all his feelings into every word, every sentence. In his mind he was thinking, after school, I must go, I must go and hide in the wood, and write a letter to Yeye in the countryside, a very long letter, like Vanka’s. And when I’ve finished, I’ll write out Yeye’s address, which I know.”
Translated by Helen Wang, November 2019
Original Chinese © 1984
This English translation © Helen Wang