By Lu Yao, translated by Zhang Min, first published in English in Old Land, New Tales: Twenty Short Stories by Writers of the Shaanxi Region in China (edited by Chen Zhongshi, and Jia Pingwa, Amazon Crossing).
Read in Chinese here.
My twenty-seven-year-old sister should have been married a long time ago. In rural areas, it is a disgrace for a girl of that age to continue her unmarried life in her parents’ home. Embarrassing rumors have been circulating in the village, which sting more than the severest slap to our faces.
Papa has become a man of few words. Ever since Mama died, he has simply kept his mouth shut, busying himself with all sorts of farmwork. Neither Sister’s marital prospects nor other family affairs can arouse his slightest interest.
I love my sister. Pure, tender, and kind, she is a white cloud in the azure sky. Villagers say she is good-looking, and what they say is true. Every village here, no matter how remote or backward, boasts at least a few stunningly beautiful young ladies who, like the local produce—dates and daylilies—are known across the region, from the provincial capital to the neighboring towns and villages. Why, don’t you believe it? Go and ask whoever is on the road.
I am not bragging when I tell you that my sister is one of these beautiful women. She has been my idol since childhood, when I developed a love for art and a taste for beauty. Mama once told me that a provincial singing and dancing troupe had intended to recruit Sister as an actress when she was still a little girl; however, Mama and Papa refused, on the grounds that she was too small and that they would not like to be parted from her.
Several years have passed since Sister graduated from high school. She took entrance examinations for higher education but failed each time, only a few points short of the admissions criteria. Sister went to high school in a time when the Cultural Revolution was seething with enthusiasm—so she didn’t learn much. On the foreign-language section of the entrance exam, she didn’t even know the twenty-six letters of the alphabet; it seems that her hopes of becoming a college student are gone forever.
There’s no way for her to become a worker, either, for the security of that kind of career can be had only through a back door. And even when a back door is opened for her, there’s never a current vacancy to be filled. It seems she is destined to labor her whole life away in the fields. However, Sister doesn’t seem to mind at all being a farmer. Since she was brought up in this barren area, not even the toughest farm tasks deter her. Everyone in the village says she equals a man in doing farmwork.
The feet of matchmakers have worn thin the threshold of our house over the years. Among the candidates they sought for my sister, most were cadres or workers from bigger cities, but none has ever struck her fancy. Villagers feel sorry for her to have missed so many golden chances; they wonder why a twenty-seven-year-old girl is not the least bit worried about an event as important as her own marriage.
But in fact, Sister has had a sweetheart. This is a secret kept from everyone in the whole world but me. The boy Sister loved was Gao Limin, an educated young man from the provincial capital. People say his father was a deputy governor of our province, his mother the director of a certain bureau. Accused of heading a spy organization, they were arrested and imprisoned soon after the Cultural Revolution broke out.
Of the dozen young people who came to our village with Gao Limin, some were recommended to study in universities and others were taken on as workers. All of them returned to the cities eventually—except for Gao Limin. He was detained because of his parents’ case. Not only couldn’t he get away from our village, he couldn’t even lead an easy life as a farmer; wherever he went, from the commune to the county, he’d be given a dressing-down.
Those years found him a most wretched dog, for in the eyes of the masses, being the son of spies was worse than being a reactionary. Most villagers dared not associate with him for fear of courting unexpected disasters. So Gao Limin, like a lamb alienated from the herd, could keep only his own company. His clothes were too shabby even for a beggar; he ate only raw food, as he didn’t know how to cook, and as a result he often suffered from stomachaches that would send him rolling about on the muddy ground.
My sister couldn’t bear to see him suffering like that, so she often went to help him with cooking, sewing and mending, and washing. On holidays, Sister would bring him home and give him the best food we could offer. Sometimes I doubted I was her younger brother, because she seemed to care more for Limin than she did for me.
My parents never uttered a word against Sister for doing it. They were both kindhearted farmers just like her. However, some folks in the village began making up stories; they said my sister and Gao Limin had an improper relationship. They didn’t dare spread such rumors in the presence of my sister or my parents, but they often repeated them to me when I was a little boy. And each time I would protest.
“Sister’s just being kind to Limin,” I’d say furiously. “How can you guys ruin their good names?”
They would always burst out laughing.
Everyone knew that Gao Limin was the son of spies. Why should Sister treat him so kindly? I kept turning this question over in my mind.
Once, out of earshot of my parents, I asked her. “Sister, Limin is the son of spies; why don’t you just steer clear of him like everybody else does? Aren’t you afraid people will say you’re politically naive and can’t tell a friend from an enemy?”
My sister smiled, pressing her finger on my nose. “Baowa, you are more radical than Secretary Liu of the commune. Limin’s only fallen on bad days. He is no class enemy, so we need not make a clean break with him. Don’t you remember Grandma’s instructions? Grandma—may she rest in peace—used to say we should try our best to help those who are down. She said that if we do something evil, we’ll be struck dead by lightning. Look, here in our village he has no friends, no family to depend on. Can we bear to see him suffer to death? Let them talk bullshit—there is nothing to be afraid of!”
All of a sudden I was enlightened.
To rumors and slander Sister just turned a deaf ear, and when all the other educated youths left the village, she cared for Limin more tenderly than ever.
I still remember the day Limin fell sick. Sister spent a whole day looking after him. She took flour, sesame, and pickled leek flowers from home and made him a meal of noodles. Noodles! What a rare meal! Keep in mind, we were rationed to no more than fifteen jin of wheat per head per year.
It was late afternoon. My sister remained in Limin’s cave dwelling because a high fever had beset him. By the time it was dark enough to light a lamp, Mama grew worried and went over to have a look. Instead of bringing Sister back, she herself stayed and joined in the watch for the whole night.
How nice the relationship between Sister and Limin! Who could say their relationship was improper?
However, it was not long before I came to understand what the gossipers actually meant by “improper.”
One late summer afternoon, the clouds in the western sky burned crimson like fire for a moment before they changed into ash gray. As daylight lingered, I snatched a few clothes and went to the river in front of the village. The clothes to be washed were not so dirty, but I am a boy who greatly loves cleanliness and beauty.
As I walked along the path above the threshing ground, I suddenly heard two people talking behind a pile of wheat straw. They were the voices of a man and a woman.
Driven by childish curiosity, I stooped down and sneaked to the back of the wheat stack. My goodness! The sight almost scared me out of my wits. The man and woman were none other than Limin and my sister. Limin was holding my sister in his arms and kissing her madly on the cheek! I shivered, stumbling and scrambling all the way back to the path.
I stood there, my heart beating violently as if it would leap out of my mouth. I wanted to run away at once—but then their voices came again, and I had to hear what they were saying.
“You’re a kind person, Xing’er. I love you. I’ll never leave you. I can’t live without you. Tell me that you love me, too. Promise to love me, OK? But no, for what . . . My parents have been in prison for six or seven years. It seems I’ll be marked as the son of spies for the rest of my life. Of course you’ll be afraid . . .”
“No, I’m not afraid. I can wait, even if you are jailed.”
Limin wept. Soon he spoke to my sister again.
“Xing’er, I’ll give you all I have! I’ll never forget it’s your love that comes to my rescue under these circumstances. But I lived in clover as a child; I am not sure I’ll make a good farmer in the future. You’ll be implicated . . .”
“I’m not afraid, Limin! I love you. You’ll always find me at your side—even if you become a beggar.”
Limin wept again, sobbing like a baby. My sister joined him—and obviously not out of sadness.
Oddly enough, tears welled up in my own eyes, and I wept too.
I fumbled my tearful way to the quiet riverside. In the dusk I stood motionless, eyes gazing at the distant, somber outline of mountains. Ages passed before I could really figure out what had moved me to tears. My dear sister! Limin was such a rotten piece of meat that even a fly wouldn’t take a second look. While everyone shunned him like a plague, you fell in love with him! Despite my vague understanding of the love between man and woman, my innocent, childish heart told me that my sister had done something right.
That evening, Sister invited Limin home and took the liberty of making jiaozi dumplings for supper. My parents, always thrifty, kept asking my sister: why eat such good food when it’s neither a festival nor a New Year’s Day?
Sister and Limin might have been laughing up their sleeves. Yet they did not know there was still another who was just like them, laughing up his own little sleeve.
Years later, great changes took place. After the downfall of the Gang of Four—Jiang Qing, Zhang Chunqiao, Wang Hongwen, and Yao Wenyuan, the leaders of the sect of ultraleftists during the Cultural Revolution—Limin’s parents were set free, their unjust cases having been redressed. The following year, my sister encouraged Limin to register for the college entrance examination. They both took the exam, but with utterly different results. Limin was enrolled in a university in Beijing. My sister, a few points short of the admissions criteria, failed again.
Limin left. All the villagers talked about him, their enthusiasm lasting several days. They said that now that everything had changed—now that he had turned from a blackbird to a phoenix—ten to one he would spread his wings and fly away.
My sister was feeling a most complicated mixture of happiness and sadness. She was pleased for Limin’s success on the entrance examination but upset because it would mean several years of separation from him.
I, an older boy by now—I’d be attending junior high school in two years—had learned something about the secret of love. I knew that my sister would feel sad and lonely. She loved Limin so much that even a moment’s separation would upset her. And when my sister was upset, I was upset.
Still, I didn’t expect there would be any solution.
I found that my sister had been regularly frequenting the road opposite the village. There she collected Limin’s letters from the hand of Uncle Li, the town postman, and in return gave him letters to be sent to Beijing. It looked as if my sister had reached some agreement with Uncle Li; perhaps she had asked him to keep the whole matter a secret. So far, no one in the village knew except me.
Sister was loath to let the cat out of the bag. The villagers’ tongues had finally stopped wagging; if they discovered this new secret, they would make bawdy jokes to embarrass a shy girl like my sister.
Papa appeared to be ignorant—or was he just pretending that he cared only about his land and crops? Sometimes I saw him gazing at Sister’s back in a pitiful, melancholy way. He said nothing, but he’d usually heave a deep sigh.
I always knew when Sister received a letter from Limin. She would hide herself and read it behind the wheat stack on the threshing ground (the thought of the place still makes my cheeks burn and my heart pound). Back home again, her face ablaze with joy, Sister would sing cheerful songs. She has a sweet voice, and she can sing as well as the people on the radio.
Seeing Sister in high spirits, Papa would knit his brows. Fretting, he’d interrupt her to plead in a mournful tone, “My dear child, please stop singing. It hurts my heart.”
Every time Papa said that, I would silently blame him for spoiling Sister’s good mood. Still, I loved him and sympathized with him. Look, his hair had turned gray after Mama passed away. What a pitiful man he was!
When my sister was happy, I felt lighthearted. Outwardly feigning ignorance, in private I was humming songs. I am not a good singer; to be frank, I’m more of a painter. However, under such circumstances I simply couldn’t help but sing to bless my sister. Any boy with a sister would agree: although to all appearances he has no interest in her marital state, at heart, how much loving care he harbors for her welfare!
It is New Year’s Day again.
We rural folks don’t normally celebrate New Year’s Day; we regard it as a city-dweller’s festival. We celebrate only the Spring Festival—a special day that we mark by eating special foods. Yet today, as other households in the village pay no attention and serve their simple, everyday food, our family, like a household of city dwellers, prepares for this foreign festival.
In fact, it is Sister who wanted to celebrate New Year’s Day. Sister has been in charge of the family affairs since Mama died. Papa never interferes. As usual, he said nothing and went to the mountain after daybreak to chop firewood.
I know Sister is happy. Yesterday she received a letter from Limin. However, I still silently wonder: Aren’t you making too much of this, Sister? Isn’t it going too far to feast on a meal of jiaozi? Just for receiving a letter from Limin? Don’t you know there isn’t much flour left in the vat?
But I don’t want to oppose Sister’s decision. I have always supported her in whatever she wanted to do.
Early in the morning, Sister goes to the vegetable cellar to dig carrots for the jiaozi fillings. She washes them clean and rubs them on an iron grater into shreds, which are later thrown into a boiling pot, scooped out, and kneaded into a ball. This she places in a white porcelain bowl. Then she begins to pound garlic and peppers, peel scallions, and get many other things ready. When all these preparations are finished, she gives me two yuan and sends me to town to buy two jin of mutton.
I am very glad to run this errand for her. With a plastic bag in my hand, I set out at once.
No sooner have I rushed out the door than Sister runs out after me. For some reason, she throws her arms around my shoulders, smiling. I can feel her arms tremble slightly.
My sister, cheeks red like a morning cloud, hesitates for a moment and then whispers in my ear: “Don’t play on the way. Buy the meat, and come back quickly. Sister needs the mutton for the jiaozi. Today we have an important guest coming from afar. Guess who? It’s Gao Limin, the cadre who once lived and worked in our village! He came back to our province last month and is now doing his internship in a local factory. He said in yesterday’s letter that he would return to our village.”
I feel a fiery passion transferred to my body from the arms of my sister. I look up and see shining tears in her eyes. Not until this moment do I notice that my sister has had her hair cut and that she is so beautiful, with her neck white as snow, her face pink as peach blossom, and her hair black as pitch—like a nymph who has just stepped down from a picture. I am so astounded that I’m unable to say a word. Nodding to her, I dart toward the town.
At last I understand why Sister wants to make jiaozi today. Once, on the Dragon Boat Festival, I saw her get out the dates and glutinous rice for making zongzi. And on the Double Sixth Festival, she prepared ground buckwheat to dry in the sun for making liangfen, and the shelled peanuts, sunflower seeds, and the like to winnow in the wind. She wouldn’t let me touch these precious treats in normal times. It turns out that she has kept them for Limin.
The sky is overcast, and there are snowflakes drifting in the air. The snow, which must have started some time ago, cascades down heavily as I head for the town. Silence reigns over the fields. Not a sound can be heard except for the quiet rustling of the snow. A few distant mountaintops looming in the mist begin to turn white.
In the snow, I run, dance, and shout like a little lunatic. I feel excited because the young man Sister has missed day and night will soon be back. He was looked down upon in the village, but this time he will come back as a proud college student. A college student from Beijing! Beijing . . . is it a place you can easily reach? I have been there, too—in dreams. I will ask Limin to tell me all about Beijing. My heart is filled with affection and longing for him because he is going to be my sister’s husband, my brother-in-law. I even imagine that he, like other brothers-in-law, will hold an engagement ceremony and entertain the whole village so that my twenty-seven-year-old sister will no longer be ridiculed for being single. An older, unmarried girl is often mercilessly belittled, and Sister has been suffering a lot for that.
Indulging in wild fancies as I run, I arrive at the town.
Mutton has been sold out in the state-owned meat shop, so I get it from the free market at the flood land outside of town. With meat in hand I turn around, stride onto the road, and make for home at once.
Someone calls me from behind.
I stop to look back. It is Uncle Li, the town postman. He knows everyone—far and near, young and old—for he has been carrying letters along the road in the vale for so long.
Uncle Li catches up with me, snow on his fur hat and shoulders. Passing a letter to me, he pats me on the shoulder, smiling. “Give it to your sister!”
Then he goes away.
I look at the words on the envelope. The letter is, indeed, addressed to Sister, from some chemical factory in the provincial capital. Sister said that Limin had come back for an internship in a local factory. Is this letter from him? But then more questions bewilder me: Isn’t Limin coming to visit us today? Didn’t Sister receive his announcement only yesterday? We have no acquaintances or relatives in the capital; who else can have sent this letter? No one but Limin! But why? Is something wrong?
Worried, I open the letter without further consideration. The salutation “Dear Xing’er” scares me into a shower of cold sweat. I dare not go on. Good heavens, what an absurd thing I have done! I can’t read my sister’s love letter without her permission!
But now that I’ve opened the letter, will Sister even believe me if I say I didn’t read it? Besides, it’s almost impossible for a little boy who has never read a love letter to withstand the temptation. I decide to read on, thinking Sister so dotes on me that she will certainly forgive me. Anyway, I am a tight-lipped boy. I won’t tell anybody—not even Papa. Sister doesn’t know how well I’ve kept her secret about what she and Limin did that day behind the wheat stack.
By the roadside I find a spot away from wind and people, and I start reading.
How are you? I think I’d better get straight to the point and get everything clarified.
Unfortunately, I can’t write you a longer letter. I suppose on the eve of the New Year you will have received the letter I sent you yesterday.
I intended to return on New Year’s Day. I would like to tell you the whole story in your presence, but I don’t think either of us could stand that face-to-face torture. Therefore, I’ve decided not to return. I think it might be easier to have things settled in a letter.
I have to tell you that my parents do not approve of our marriage. You may have seen in the provincial newspaper that my father has resumed his post as deputy governor. They disapprove mainly because you are a farmer; they say it would be impossible for us to ever live under the same roof. When I asked them to help find a job for you in the city, they refused, saying that they must not violate the Principles and abuse their power.
My parents have found me a girlfriend—a college student whose parents and mine, old comrades in arms, have been through thick and thin together.
Dear Xing’er, I love you as far as feelings are concerned, but since my parents suffered all kinds of hardships in the previous years and are now getting older, I cannot stand to see them continue to worry about me. Besides, a long-term view shows that our marriage involves not only the problem of separation, but also the practical disparities between job and occupation, commodity grain and rural grain—all of which would pose great difficulties in our life. Out of these reasons, dear Xing’er, I have yielded to my parents after a painful struggle—or rather, I have yielded to another side of myself. I am a selfish person. Forget me, please! Oh God! How terrible these words are.
This is nothing less than a thunderbolt from above!
Although some of the sentences in the letter are beyond my understanding, the main idea is clear enough: Limin wants my sister no more!
I feel a swarm of mosquitoes droning in my head, sky and earth revolving, snow falling the other way round. Tucking the letter into my pocket, I take to my heels.
Arriving home, I rush into the courtyard but stop momentarily.
A song seeps out from inside the room, hot as red pepper, melting away in the snow. It is Sister, singing, “Honey, do you know a heart is burning for you? This heart will follow you no matter where you go, rain or shine . . .”
It is one of Sister’s favorite movie songs. Tears flood down my face. Under a sky filled with whirling snowflakes, the earth keeps me still company and listens to Sister singing. I remain in the courtyard for a while. Then, wiping tears with my sleeves, I edge my way, step by step, into the room, my legs heavy, leaden.
Sister is frying shelled peanuts beside the kitchen range. Smoke rises. Peanuts crackle.
Perhaps the expression on my face betrays me. Sister comes out, casts a surprised glance at me, and asks me abruptly, “Baowa, where is the mutton?”
I look at my empty hands. A light dawns upon me: I left the meat back where I read the letter.
I make no reply, just take out the letter and hand it over. As I can bear it no longer, I throw myself onto the edge of the kang bed and cry out loud.
It must be a long time before I stop crying; when I raise my head to look for Sister, she is not in the room. Scattered on the ground are the leaves of the letter, and the whole room is permeated with the choking smell of burnt peanuts.
Where is Sister? My heart pounding, I rush out of the room in desperation.
Outside, the wind and the snow are coming even harder. There is already a thick blanket of snow on the ground. As far as the eye can reach, everything is white: mountains, valleys, frozen rivers, and all. Everything ugly on the ground is covered by the white snow.
Sister, where have you gone?
I try my luck along the path above the threshing ground, moving out of the village, across a vast, open vale, and, blindly, toward the riverside. In the teeth of wind and snow, I slip and fall from time to time, in search of my dear sister.
I’ve barely made it to the riverside when I spot a figure seated on a boulder; like a snowwoman, the figure is white from top to toe. Is that my sister?
It is. Knees wrapped in arms, she stares perplexedly into the blurry distance, her eyes devoid of their normal liveliness. It looks as if she has ceased breathing, lost vitality, and turned into a beautiful marble statue.
I sit quietly by her side, resting my head gently on her shoulder. I begin to sob again. As dusk closes in, the wind begins to ease off, while the snow, heavy as before, continues sending down its silent flakes. A flock of sheep streams down the slope opposite, moving slowly toward the village.
Sister extends a hand to caress my head. Her hand, ice-cold, is shaking slightly. I look up and see, faintly, a few fine wrinkles on her forehead and at the corners of her eyes. She seems to have aged many years all at once. Oh, my dear ill-fated sister!
Papa appears before us, as if from nowhere. There are lines of sweat on his face, snowflakes on his head, and dusty plateau mud on his clothes. His hair looks pure white.
Papa stoops down, brushes snowflakes off Sister’s and my clothes, and takes out from under his elbow a fur hat to put on my head and a red scarf for Sister’s neck. Then, with his big, callous palm, he begins to remove the snowflakes from Sister’s head—and in so doing he caresses Sister gently and affectionately. Now I know, Papa, that you love not only your land and crops, but also Sister and me so dearly as well.
Sister stands up, leans her head against Papa’s chest, and bursts into tears.
Papa heaves a deep sigh, saying, “Ah, I know, I know all . . . I knew it, I knew! Papa didn’t tell you because I was afraid you’d be upset. I knew he’d desert us someday. It’s getting dark; let’s go home . . .”
In the darkness, large snowflakes still soundlessly descend into this world.
As in the old days, Papa, with one hand taking Sister’s and the other mine, leads us through the fields and toward the village. Treading on the mat of soft, loose snow, he mumbles, “Good snow, what a good snow . . . Hope it can help grow good crops, then we’ll be better off next year . . . Ah, at least the land won’t desert us . . .”
Dear sister, did you hear that? Papa said the land won’t desert us. Yes, on this promised land, we will finally harvest our own happiness with toil and sweat.