By Xue Mo, translated by Nicky Harman.
Read in Chinese here.
The scene that greeted Snow when she came down from the mountain was a familiar one, a recurring nightmare from which starving humans could not escape.
There had been big changes, she could see that. The gullies were littered with sinister piles of bones. A pack of wolves was gnawing at any that still had shreds of flesh on them. They stood their ground as she approached, and snarled. Snow got out her lasso, a two-pound weight tied into a nylon rope twenty feet long. She had adapted it from the weapon the villagers used to control dogs. The wolves were the dogs of the mountain god. They were afraid of ropes and when they saw the rope in her hand, their snarls turned to whimpers.
There was a smell in the air, the kind her mother used to call ‘cold ash stove’. It was a smell heavy with death. There was not a spark of life, not a sign of human beings to be seen anywhere. Even the rays from old man sun were wan and colourless, lacking in any vigour.
She did a quick calculation. She hadn’t been in the mountains many days, but it felt like years. As if she were a Rip van Winkle.
For this trip into the mountains, grandpa Jiu had given her the Mahamudra yoga classic, ‘Following the Way of Transformation’. He had said to her: ‘All phenomena are the manifestation of one’s own nature, and transformation happens in ones own heart. By day you should transform your body, and by night, your dreams. Study your own nature. It belongs to the nature of emptiness, which has no nature. Everything is an illusion, and there is no place for obsession or attachment. In that way, you may enter a deeper meditative state.’ Snow had followed the dharma and practiced austerity. As she walked down the mountain, she felt as if she were in a dream.
Even after she was out of the mountains, it was still a long way to Vajra Village, but all the settlements along the road seemed deserted. Everywhere were the remnants of corpses that dogs and wolves had torn apart. There was a stench in the air. The hills were full of spirits emitting vengeful, hungry wails. Snow chanted her mantras over them, but the spirits clung to the corpses lying exposed in the wilderness. There was nothing she could do to help the dead. Fine, she thought, if you want to stand guard over the souls of the dead, you go ahead.
Then she saw someone peeling the fine bark off an elm. On the main trunk, the bark had almost been stripped bare, leaving the white pith exposed. Only the branches still had bark on, and this he was scraping carefully into a dish. He looked terribly emaciated, and trembled so badly that he surely could not last much longer. Snow cut off a piece of wolf meat and gave it to him. His eyes glistened with joy, he grabbed the meat and sank his teeth into it. He shook it violently from side to side, like a wild dog wrestling with the flesh of an ox.
“What’s happened to you?” asked Snow.
The man ignored her, giving all his attention to chewing. Finally, he said: “Dead, dead, almost all dead and gone.” What’s happened at Vajra Village?’ asked Snow. “I don’t know. I’ve heard they’re all right, but people have gone in and no one’s come out of there. I’ve heard that the people who went in were cooked and eaten.” “What nonsense,” said Snow, dismissively. “Vajra Village people aren’t cannibals.”
She gave a long sigh. She knew that the desolation she had passed on the way was bound to be just as bad at Vajra Village.
At noon, she was finally within sight of Vajra Village. As she drew nearer, she saw Kuan San and his friends beating someone up. The man was wailing: “I was only running away to survive! What’s wrong with that?” “Oh no, you don’t!” said Kuan San. “If we’re going to die, we’ll die together.” And they dragged him back into the village.
Snow took a side street and walked up House Screen Hill. From her vantage point, the deserted village was just as desolate as she had guessed. The gully was full of stinking corpses. The north-facing hillside swarmed with black dots, either wolves or wild dogs.
She followed the crest of the hill down. Her uncle’s house stood at the foot of the mountain, so far from the other houses that they hardly ever had visitors. Her impression of her uncle was that he was dishonest and heartless. Although he was supposed to be an well-educated man, he was actually as quarrelsome as a fighting cock. There was a time when he used to come to Snow’s house when there was not enough to eat at home. He loved vinegar-soused mountain yam noodles. Her mother would let the noodles cool and dress them in vinegar sauce. Her uncle would slurp them down. But then he would put down his chopsticks and curse his sister in front of all the villagers, accusing her of letting the side down and giving the family a bad reputation. Her mother always humoured him, because he was all the family she had, and blood was thicker than water. When she, Snow, got angry with her uncle, her mother told her that he was head of the family on her side, and without him, where would Snow be? Actually, her uncle spoilt his niece and used to promise her all sorts of treats.
The stench was getting worse, and Snow held her nose as she walked. She could not help remembering everything the villagers had done wrong. She wanted nothing to do with them, didn’t even want to think about them. Grandpa Jiu used to say she should try to be more compassionate. But in her daily devotions, even though she offered up prayers for all living things, these villagers didn’t seem to feature among them. She felt only anger towards these people who had put her mother through such torment. Get rid of your anger, Grandpa Jiu used to tell her. Remember, rage leads to hell.
The gate to her uncle’s smallholding was shut tight. Snow did not need to knock. She slipped the latch and went in. San Zhuan was sunning himself in the courtyard and greeted her with a smile. His flesh hung loose on him, but his smile was still brilliant. “Mum!” he shouted joyfully. “Cousin’s here!” In a little while, her aunt came out of the house. Her face was so swollen that her eyes were just narrow slits. She greeted Snow with a grunt and invited her indoors. The house was covered in several days’ worth of dust. Her uncle had been lying on the kang bed but struggled to raise himself when he saw her. He didn’t ask her anything, although his silence spoke volumes. She wondered if the trouble she had got into had had repercussions for her uncle. He might have been educated, but he was poor, and no one in the village respected him. Her aunt, if the rumours were true, would drop her trousers for any man in the village, and when the village men had nothing better to do, they would screw her at the corner of the south wall. She was said to beat her skinny runt of a husband, push him to the ground and sit on him with her big heavy arse until he howled in agony. She had her good points though. She was a ferociously hard worker. At harvest time, everyone was told if they cut one mu of grain, they’d get paid for three days’ work. But her aunt could scythe from the afternoon right through until the next morning. She could cut one and a half mu of wheat in twenty-four hours, which meant she earned four and a half days’ wages in a day’s work. She was the biggest earner in the whole village, and when the wages were calculated each autumn, her uncle brought home enough wheat to keep them going for at least six months.
Uncle dragged himself upright, still saying nothing. Snow thought this was for the best, as she did not want to tell him where she had been. She got out the wolf meat and the three children threw themselves on her. Auntie slapped them away, and they howled in protest. But they were so weak with hunger that the wails came out as faint gasps. They’re really starving, thought Snow, and she cut some slices of wolf meat and divided it between them. San Zhuan swallowed his own portion, grabbed his elder brother’s piece and rushed away. The older boy bawled and Snow gave him another bit.
“You’re a disgrace!” shouted auntie.
Snow said nothing. She did not like her aunt, in fact she was disgusted not just by her swollen face, but by her behaviour when her uncle was away from home: she brought thieves into the house. Once, at New Year, Snow’s mother made her go and see her uncle, and Snow found her aunt too busy feeding a bunch of men sitting on the kang to pay any attention to Snow. After that, Snow hardly ever went there again.
“Why have so many people died in the village?” Snow asked her uncle. “Is the granary really empty?”
“They’re keeping the grain for war-time,” said her uncle. “And it’s being watched. People have died in almost every family in the village. A lot of families have had every member die. If it goes on like this, the village will be gone completely.
“If we’re going to die, we might as well all die together,” said her aunt. Her eyes gleamed with hatred, and Snow shivered. Her aunt had changed. She had never had any morals, true, but the menacing air about her was new. Hatred changes people, she felt.
Snow gave her uncle a piece of meat, and he gobbled it up. His eyes were glazed, and sunk deep in their sockets. “This is the end,” he said. “We won’t last till winter.”
“The wheat’s not ready to harvest yet,” said Snow, “but there are ears on it. We can steal some to eat.”
“Don’t talk nonsense,” her aunt said, looking around in alarm. “You could get beaten to death for it. Some of corpses in the gully starved to death, but some got beaten to death.”
“Get some water, girl,” said her uncle. “We can’t eat the meat unless you cook it a bit.” Snow went outside for some straw, then took the lid off the cooking pot, and discovered there was something in it covered in green hairs. A familiar stink rushed up her nose. Her aunt gave her a sideways glance. Snow got the ladle and scraped the hairs off. Underneath, she found that the smell came from some bits of meat. Where had they got the meat from, she wondered? It was mutton a monk had brought, her uncle explained. Snow stifled her disgust and shovelled the stinking, sticky mess into a washbowl. Suddenly, she uncovered something that looked like a finger.
Auntie giggled. “You got to be canny to survive,” she said.
Snow suppressed her disgust, washed the pot out, added water and boiled the wolf meat. She felt her aunt’s eyes raking her hungrily and dared not look round. She went to get more straw. The children were watching the pot from a distance. They’re children, she thought. With a bit of food in their bellies, they’ll soon brighten up. Suddenly, she caught a glance from San Zhuan which was exactly like his mother’s expression. It silenced her.
Smoke from the stovepipe rose into the sky, hung there, then settled, misting up the courtyard. The smoke too had a conspiratorial smell, she felt, as if it was coiling around her. Things seemed ever more dreamlike.
With the bundle of wheat straw in her arms, Snow went back into the house. Her uncle asked how she was getting on. He meant her mother. He never called her sister, just ‘she’. Snow grunted. She stuffed the straw into the stove and the steam rose from the pot. Heat radiated from the fire. The firelight made Snow smile… she really was over-reacting. Now she only saw excitement in her aunt’s eyes, although the woman said nothing. She was a strong-minded woman. Of course, she would not want Snow to see her family in such distress. Snow wanted to say that everyone was in the same boat, these days, but she knew that would embarrass her aunt. Better to keep quiet.
When the wolf meat had cooked for a while, Snow poked it with the chopsticks. It was tender. She tore it into long shreds, added more water, and asked where the salt was. “We haven’t tasted salt for more than six months,” was her aunt’s reply. Snow ladled out a bowl for her uncle, because she saw the shadow of her mother’s face in his. She felt a rush of affection. She picked out some pieces of meat and served them to him. She heard a slurping, her aunt drinking some broth from the ladle. The children rushed at her, and her aunt pushed them away so hard they tumbled out of the door. But they did not cry. They just crawled to their feet and stared at their parents’ mouths. Snow felt her eyes smart with tears.
When the adults had had half a bowl each, Snow said they should not drink any more in case they swelled up. She took the bowl and called the children. They ran to her and she fed them a spoonful each at a time. She should have brought more wolf meat, she thought.
“Don’t go,” said her aunt. “Now it’s night, there’s something I want to tell you.”
Snow look at the dust-covered kang bed, and frowned. “Mum will be worried,” she said. In fact, when she had set off, her mother had told her to stay overnight if it was late, and on no account to walk home in the dark. Snow didn’t want to walk home in the dark either. Her skin crawled at the thought of the corpses along the way, but she was afraid of the kang bed in her uncle’s house too.
“Stay,” urged her uncle. “If you stay the night, I’ll tell you about your mum. I’m not long for this world.”
Fine, thought Snow, I’ll stick it for a night.
The wan moonlight crept in through the plastic-covered windows and shone on the heads crowded on the kang.
Her auntie had gone to sleep in the inner room with San Zhuan. The kang bed in there was covered in wheat straw, so that was their mattress. Snow felt bad for them.
Her uncle’s voice was hollow, as if he were sleep-talking. He began to tell her mother’s story. Some of it Snow had already heard, for instance, her mother had told her that so many people had died that their heads littered the river shore like boulders. Her mum had told her how the cavalry, who so enjoyed beheading people, had spurred their horses and thundered down on them, and she had run and run, hearing the pattering of hooves coming after her like fine rain. Heads flew, spinning through the air and landing with horrible thuds. Their mouths agape, they looked as if they wanted to bite the knife-wielders but only ended up with a mouthful of sand and grit. Then they were tied on the horses’ rumps as a trophy.
“Your mother ran and ran,” said uncle, “but she couldn’t outrun these ghouls. The knives swished and the heads of the men alongside her flew. The women were chased into a compound. One pursuer became your mother’s husband.”
“And that was how your mother was taken captive,” her uncle sighed.
Her mother never talked about what happened to her next.
The villagers all knew though.
Snow did not want to re-open old wounds.
“That’s enough of that,” said her uncle, and silence fell.
The wan moonlight crept in through the plastic-covered windows and shone on the heads crowded on the kang.
Snow felt as if she was in a dream.
The sound of crunching on broad beans came from the inner room. It was a scary sound at dead of night. Snow was not sleepy. Her uncle’s words echoed in her head. The moonlight shone on her uncle’s face and his lips nibbled furiously, as though he was eating the rays. The glow, bathing his features, made him look happy, but his munching lips sounded very odd. The children had gone to asleep, but Snow still had the feeling they were watching her through half-open lids. From a distance came the yapping and barking of squabbling wolves and wild dogs. They were making a lot of noise.
Her aunt was still crunching the beans. Wherever had she got them from, wondered Snow? She hadn’t eaten beans in an age. The last time, she remembered, was when the clan distributed bonuses and she got some dried-fried beans. She remembered how delicious they were. The sound of her aunt crunching them made her mouth water.
She’s so greedy, she thought. She hasn’t even shared them with uncle.
Suddenly she heard a cry from the other room: “Snow! Snow!” Snow did not want her aunt to know that she had been listening, and did not answer.
Then she heard a rustling, and the sound of footsteps. Snow was curious enough to half-open her eyes. In the moonlight, she thought she saw her auntie put a finger in her mouth. Snow felt her heart miss a beat. Then her aunt tiptoed over to the sleeping children, opened her mouth and blew a long, slow breath in their faces. Snow knew what that was: it was called ‘spurting energy’. When the village children were too ill to eat, their mothers waited until they were asleep and did it to them, to pass some of their own energy to the sick child. People used it when they were trapped in the desert too; if two were together, they would breath into each other’s mouths. Doing that could keep them alive for a long time. So she really was a devoted mother after all, thought Snow.
Auntie breathed on her children some more, went back into her room, then came straight out again. In the moonlight, her face looked pale and strained, though it was less swollen. She was a good-looking woman, thought Snow. No wonder the village men were so keen on her. She was startled at the dark look her aunt gave her. The woman had a pestle for smashing ginger in her hand. The pestle had a pointed end and it gleamed blue like a will’o’the’wisp. Snow knew all about them. She had seen the way they licked the sky like feathered serpents. Her aunt moved slowly and silently across the room towards the kang. Her uncle’s lips were still now, as if he had had enough moonlight to eat. Its rays still stole through the window, as if bringing bad news. Her aunt’s eyes gleamed blue too. Snow was afraid of that gleam, though not of her aunt. She pulled herself together. She moved her fingers a little, and found she could move them quite easily. She was reassured.
Her aunt’s figure threw an enormous shadow. It was an illusion, of course. If Snow stood up, she knew her aunt would appear a normal size. She wondered what the woman was doing. Now the answer was becoming clear. She saw hesitation on her aunt’s face, and an inner struggle. She knew her aunt did not like her, but she had brought wolf meat for them, after all. Her uncle turned over and she knew he was awake. She heard him whisper: “What the hell are you doing?” There was no reply. Snow wished he had not woken up. Because he had woken up, she had lost her uncle forever. She heard him say he didn’t want her to suffer. Well, at least he remembered she was his niece, Snow thought. She wondered why it had not occurred to them that she might be awake. She suddenly felt a rope around her neck. The children held one end, her uncle the other. They were holding their breath, ready to pull hard if she woke up. If the three children were involved, there was no hope for her. She realized that her aunt had been breathing into their mouths to wake them up.
Her aunt raised the pestle high above her head, so she could strike as hard as possible. Her eyes were big and round. Snow remembered how they had been like slits. In the darkness, everyone’s faces seemed unfamiliar, as if they were sneering at her. Snow realised why other families had lost so many children, but her uncle and aunt, only one. It dawned on her that her aunt’s lovers were all dead men. The pestle had killed them all, she realized. She had lured them into bed, then dispatched them with a blow of the pestle. They were all ghosts now, and she seemed to see them peering at him, just waiting to take over her body when she died, or violate her when she joined them in the underworld. The room filled with people suddenly, all armed with pestles. She was surrounded.
The pestle came down with a rush of air. Then it slowed, was suspended in mid-air. The men were all cheering it on, their teeth bared, their breath foul, blood- shot eyes glaring. They knew Snow was awake, and were making sure her aunt knew it too. Her aunt took no notice. Snow could have reached out and grasped her wrist. With a quick twist, she could have broken it. She imagined it snapping like firewood, the sound loud in the quiet room. The rope lay coiled on her neck, poised like a snake ready to strike. Snow felt a quiver of excitement run through the rope. They salivated for her young girl’s flesh. They had had enough of the coarse flesh of old men. They did not care that she was a cousin or a niece, to them she was a morsel of meat, from her tender breasts to the firm pads of her palms. Her muscles were as appetising as butter and as for her tongue.… Snow could almost see their mouths, dripping with oil, taking a bite of her flesh, and hear her aunt crunching on her finger, the way she had crunched on the broad beans. Her aunt looked so beautiful, her lips sensual as they nibbled. The attendant ghouls, fluttering and dancing around her, drooled at the sight.
The pestles continued to drop slowly, dragging through the air. Blue light darted everywhere, like swarms of rats grinding their teeth. As the pestle appeared about to kiss the top of Snow’s head, she heard her aunt mutter: “Die! Die!” her aunt was waiting for the sound of the impact. Just what kind of sound – dull or sharp, loud or quiet, high-pitched or low – depended on what the pestle was meeting. A splat, and you knew that the pestle had thumped a fat man, or a nose, splattering mucus in all directions. Disgusting. A crisp, cheerful sound and it was a skinny person, or a forehead. A hard blow to the forehead, and the brain matter spurted out, and would be wasted. Brains were the most nourishing part of the body. That, and the eyeballs, were the bits San Zhuan liked best. Whenever the steam rushed up from the pot, he got there first, and stuck his finger and thumb in, and pulled out the eyeball and the flesh that clung to it. The eyeballs were black, but the surrounding matter was greyish white. Delicious when you sank your teeth into it. So delicious that it even chased away the bitterness in brackish water. Her aunt was hoping for a sharp sound like this, because her old man had told her not to let the girl suffer. And she was a kind-hearted woman, she didn’t want to hurt her niece either; she hoped that the pestle would strike home to the temple, and the blow would knock the girl out and kill her. She was like an executioner, she knew all the tricks of the trade. She wanted to hear a clear, sharp sound.
To her surprise, what she heard was a dull thud, as if she had pounded the pestle into someone’s belly. Auntie was shocked to see that Snow was watching her. She did not know where the pestle had landed but thought it must be on the pillow, though that was under Snow’s head.
Auntie cried out, not caring whom she woke up. She whirled the pestle madly but every time it seemed to land on the pillow, even though the latter was obviously tucked underneath Snow’s head.
Auntie finally ran out of steam.
She threw down the pestle, went into the kitchen and rushed out again with a knife. “What are you waiting for?” she cried. “Do you think you’ll live if you let her go?” She was not just talking about her next meal, but about stopping the girl from blabbing.
There was a swish of the knife. It was hard to believe that her aunt, weakened by hunger, could handle it so skillfully. After her, all her practice had come from making dumplings. Yet, strangely, the sword still landed on the pillow. Straw from the pillow flew in all directions, like dragonflies filling the room.
“Pull the rope tight!” cried her aunt.
Snow felt the rope tighten around her neck. Afraid they might tie her down, she gave it a swift tug, and went out into the courtyard. She left her aunt behind, still slashing the pillow.
Her uncle and the children hung on and were in the courtyard with her. Snow had had enough of them. She threw off the rope and the children flew in all directions like shooting stars. Not very heavy, thought Snow. They really are starving.
Auntie flung down the knife and wailed: “We want to live too, girl!”
Snow’s uncle and the children let go of her, and scattered like black birds. The children cried too. A black shadow knelt before Snow. It was uncle.
Uncle burst into torrents of tears.