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The Winter of 2009

By Li Juan, translated by Lucy Johnston and first published in translation in Pathlight, 2011.

Read in Chinese here.

Whenever my friends and I talk about preserving vegetables in the winter, I can’t help but think of the turnips from the winter before last.

Two years ago, just before the winter began, my stepfather turned up unexpectedly at my house (he and my mother lived apart) carrying a large bag of turnips. He said to me: “Juan, they’ll have to be buried soon or they’ll go off.”

My house doesn’t have a cellar. To preserve vegetables in the winter we have to dig a hole in the vegetable patch in the back yard and bury them there. The ground temperature is just right for vegetables.

I said OK. He carried them outside to bury them. He did the whole thing on his own.

He came back and told me that he had buried them next to the aubergines, not far from the cucumbers.

Then my stepfather had a stroke.

Semi-paralysed, he couldn’t speak or take care of himself. He could just move his left hand very slightly—and cry and cry.

I teased him: “But you have to tell me—where are the turnips buried?”

He stammered and stuttered for a long time.

“Can you at least point to them?” I asked.

He pointed east, then north, and then pointed down.

I gave him a pen and paper: “Can you draw me a map?”

He held the pen unsteadily in his left hand and drew a circle, then another circle. I laughed. He laughed too.

By then, both the aubergines and the cucumbers had vanished without a trace. Even their withered stems had been gnawed clean away by two meticulous, wicked goats. They left no clues. Soon after, it snowed several times, and the surface of the backyard was left smooth and level, without even the tiniest of bumps.

As soon as I had time, I took a shovel out into the backyard to dig up the turnips. Easier said than done. The ground had already frozen solid. For every chunk of frozen soil I dug up I had to withdraw to the house two or three times to rest. It was freezing.

I guessed at the location of the aubergines and the cucumbers and expanded my search to a radius of two metres around that point.

The turnips had disappeared entirely.

Midwinter gradually approached and there were no vegetables left to eat. Even the pickles were finished. I even ate my mother’s spindle.

My mother’s spindle was made of a long chopstick stuck into a potato. After the wool was spun, the spindle had been thrown under the bed, where it stayed for four months. It had shrunk and was wrinkled like a walnut. Yet not only was it still alive—it had even sprouted all over. On a still, cold night, I remembered that it was there. I found it, felt moved by its spirit, and then ate it without mercy.

Allegedly, sprouted potatoes are poisonous, but I have carried on fine until now. It is probably because the dose of the poison was so small. The handful of food that I made from the shrivelled potato after I shredded and fried it only just covered the bottom of a bowl.

There was still some corn starch in the house, which I made into a paste. I fried the paste in a thin layer in a pan and cut it into strips after it had cooled. I fried the strips again in the pan like noodles.

They were soon finished as well.

Fortunately, I still had four bulbs of garlic. I kneaded some dough and rinsed out the gluten in water. After the liquid settled, I steamed it on a steel plate and then cut it into strips to make a kind of cold noodles. I poured some soy sauce, vinegar and chilli sauce onto the noodles and then cut up the precious garlic—the only sign of a plant that winter—and stirred it in. The four bulbs of garlic contained sixty cloves, so I ate sixty meals of cold noodles. They provided me with solace for two months!

I ate ten kilograms of flour just in cold noodles.

When the garlic was finished, I still had chilli sauce. That was my most abundant reserve. That autumn my mother had made twenty kilograms of chilli sauce!

But it isn’t good to eat chilli sauce every day. I ate so much that the word ‘chilli’ appeared on my face.

Worst of all, the chickens stopped laying eggs. The duck was still laying some, but those were rations for the dog, Saihu, and the two cats. I couldn’t bring myself to fight them for them.

So I continued to dig for the turnips.

The snow got deeper and deeper. It was a metre or two deep in the backyard and the backdoor was blocked solid. I only just managed to dig a path to the toilet wide enough to pass through sideways. Someone like my mother would never have gotten through a path so narrow.

I tried again to dig a path to the vegetable patch. Easier said than done.

The worst thing was that Saihu refused to help. It really should have been payback time. In the summer he was so obsessed with digging for mice that he’d lose sleep and wouldn’t come home no matter how much I called for him—but digging for turnips was non-negotiable.

I was the only person at home that winter. My mother was away taking my stepfather all over the place for treatment. She only came back once, when she helped me to dig out the coal from the snowdrift and carry it into the house. Then she left again.

Of course, my mother had a much harder time than I did. But she really shouldn’t have broken the television in a rage before she left. It was distressing enough having nothing to eat, but no entertainment on top of that…

That winter was unusually long—five whole months!

I started to read the Bible. It was the only book in the house I hadn’t read. I was forced to learn all about the genealogy of Jesus.

I started to knit. There was a lot of wool in the house.

I started to dye my clothes. There were a few large boxes of dye in the house.

I started….There wasn’t anything else left to start. I knitted, dyed clothes, shovelled snow, cooked, fed the chickens, the ducks, the rabbits, the cats and the dogs, lit the stove, broke up the coal, slept, and wrote. My entire life that winter was filled up by those nine activities. Five whole months…

Everything else was fine, but the reality of having nothing to eat was tough. These were all the things I had to eat: flour, rice, sunflower oil, chilli sauce, the first eggs, pickles, garlic and the spindle. Oh, yes, there were sunflower seeds. We grew sunflowers at home. I ate so many sunflower seeds that winter, the corners of my mouth cracked.

Fortunately, although there wasn’t much, I had enough of the basics, like flour and rice. At least I wouldn’t run out of food altogether. During that time there was heavy snow and the roads in the village were always blocked. If I had run out of food, I would have had to live on sunflower seeds! If that had happened, my tonsils and pituitary gland would have cracked just like my lips did.

Looking at it this way, I feel lucky I didn’t have a television! If a grand banquet had appeared on screen I would have been devastated.

In any case, the winter passed. It was only when the snow melted that things got chaotic. During the few days the temperature was at its highest, great waves of water surged up to my door, as if all of the snowmelt of the Akehara had arrived. I was besieged daily, and entered into a fierce battle with the elements; my greatest wish at the time was to have a pair of rain boots.

Clearly, obstruction and interception alone were not nearly enough. I started to overhaul the irrigation system and dug a channel in the hope it would direct the water that had accumulated in the backyard outside (it was about 20 centimetres deep at the base of the wall!). But I miscalculated, and it directed all of the water back into the yard (where it rose to about 40 centimetres deep at the base of the wall).

As a result, Doudou, the big dog, hated my guts. I had flooded his kennel. He scratched at the door every day and squeezed his way into the house at night.

I take my hat off to Li Bing and his son, who constructed the Dujiang Dam without even a level!

The thaw also presented the perfect opportunity to clear away the snow that had piled up during the winter. My top priority was to dig out my mother’s motorbike; otherwise as soon as the snow melted it would be ruined. So I spent the greater part of a day shovelling in the snow, and the motorbike emerged gleaming, without even a speck of rust. But when my mother came home I was not commended for my work, because I had smashed the rear-view mirror, the dashboard, and the wheel guard of her motorbike with my shovel.

Then the road opened again and it was possible to buy some vegetables at the shops in the village.

In short, the winter passed. But my stepfather’s condition never improved (and still hasn’t to this day). My mother took him back to Akehala, and when the weather is nice he hobbles out to sit in front of the door and enjoy the sunshine.

Oh, yes, the turnips. The turnips had disappeared for a whole winter. It was as if they had drilled themselves deeper into the ground when the temperature got too cold to bear. Then, when it got warmer, they began to work their way back upwards. In May, when all of the snow had melted, I levelled the ground to sow seeds. Digging in one part of the yard, I discovered it was the very place I had searched for high and low all winter! As the shovel went into the ground, it cut through one turnip, and then another….They had already disintegrated into a kind of paste. I had no choice but to mix and beat the turnip paste into the soil to make a good fertiliser.

I went back to the house and asked my stepfather again: “What about the turnips?”

As before, he stammered and stuttered for a while.

I asked him again: “Are you saying that they’ve sprouted?”

This time, he said loudly and clearly: “No!”