By: Na Zhangyuan
Translated by: Nick Admussen
Na Zhangyuan is a member of the Yi minority, a diverse group of people who live in Vietnam, Thailand and China’s Yunnan province, and speak languages related most closely to Burmese. The Yi have their own script that dates back over a thousand years, and Na’s story reflects some of their incredibly rich and diverse traditions and beliefs. Na grew up in Yi culture but was trained in the Han tradition as a young adult, just like his main character: accordingly, this piece shows us lives lived amidst real magic, the shifting of consciousness that happens when one civilization meets another, the trauma of the discovery of alternate worldviews, and the quiet community of those who still bear the marks of the old ways.
In ancient times, the sky wound around the earth and the earth was tangled up in the sky. Then Gezi (the supreme god told of in the legends of the Yi people) let out a mighty bellow: the sky rose, the earth fell, the chaos began to separate, and the myriad things came into the world Cuo’ai Ayu (the legendary progenitor of all humanity in Yi legend) kneaded mud into people and placed them into the hole of a hollowed-out tree. After a month} impatient wait, out climbed a chicken; after two months, a mouse came forth; after three months, a Pig; after four, a dog … In the ninth month it was a human being who emerged, and what followed in the tenth month gave birth to the beasts of burden. On the day that people climbed out of the tree, there hung seven suns, high in the sky ….
from Palisade Village’s Genesis
This essay first appeared in Chutzpah《天南》magazine and is reproduced by kind permission of Ou Ning.
IN THE HISTORY of Palisade Village, the winter of 1938 was an exceptional one. In front of the glazed-over eyes of the village’s residents, events of lasting importance fell neatly into place, as if somewhere in the shadows an invisible, omnipotent director was manipulating their fate. Afterwards, they would remember the events of that winter and shrug their shoulders at their own stupidity. What’s done is done.
To the people of the ancient village, the Winter Solstice isn’t really a festival. Each year they celebrate only three: the Mountain Circling Festival on the eighth of February, the Torch Festival on the twenty-fourth of June, and the New Year on the thirtieth day of the twelfth month. It’s necessary to explain this because of its bearing on the events that followed. Early in the morning of the Winter Solstice, when the Han people on the other side of the mountains were all asleep in bed or hanging around in their homes waiting to celebrate with honey-dipped ciba cakes, the people of Palisade Village were feeling no holiday cheer. For them, it was a standard, do-what-you-have-to-do day like any of the others. The old insomniac rooster hadn’t yet crowed when my grandfather Namu rubbed the sleep from his eyes and let out a sonorous fart. While I’m on the subject, the people of Palisade Village grow coarse buckwheat as their staple grain, so men and women, young and old alike, all fart a great deal. This is why my grandfather didn’t feel the least embarrassment. He just humphed contentedly, hitched up his low-crotched pants and let another one rip.
My grandmother, woken by the noise, whined and squirmed like a maggot in bed, hitching the coarse hemp blanket tight around her voluptuous nude body as she murmured: “Where are you going so early?” Without a word, Grandfather swept out the door, taking with him the fishy stink that had been accumulating all night in the stuffy bedroom. Grandmother slipped again into a deep, intoxicated dream, letting out gentle, almost coy snores, while at the same time emitting a constant whickering sound like a feasting pig. Probably she was eating something good in her dream.
Grandfather picked up a ladle made of winter gourd and mounted the wooden stepladder, climbing to the second floor amid the groaning of the rungs. The second floor was pitch dark: the roof was thatched, so Grandfather didn’t dare bring fire upstairs. Once there had been a couple in the village who had thoughtlessly brought a torch up to their attic, and the resulting fire had nearly wiped out the whole village. Grandfather carefully felt his way towards the carved cabinet where they kept buckwheat flour. There was a bang and a welt rose on his forehead – he’d struck it on his black lacquer casket. This was upsetting. I’m not dead yet, he thought, but already I’m face-first into my own coffin.
He circled the coffin, filled the dipper with flour, and even more carefully felt his way back. Bang! He felt around again, and it was the same coffin. “Motherfuck!” Grandfather muttered venomously, at the same time trying to gauge whether he’d spilled the flour or not. He squinted until his eyeballs were about to squeeze loose, but he still couldn’t see anything in the gloom. Blind and weary, he could only go back downstairs.
Over his hearth, which the generations before him had kept continuously lit for hundreds of years, there hung a swinging pot, and inside the pot boiled buckwheat cakes, which he could see churning, appearing and disappearing. Grandfather remembered seeing Han people from the other side of the mountains mixing their buckwheat flour with broth and frying it in a flat pan — didn’t they know that boiled buckwheat cakes lasted much longer without going bad? Plus, once you boiled them, you could roast them over hot coals and they’d be soft and savory, with the clean, faint fragrance of fresh grain. Fry buckwheat cakes? Pfft! Those squinty-eyed thieves were nothing but fools.
These kinds of thoughts inevitably brought my grandfather some satisfaction; the recent displeasure of bumping into the same coffin twice had completely vanished from his mind. Grandfather dropped the finished cakes into his deer-leather pouch, then took a quiver down from the soot-blackened wall. First he counted the arrows, then leaned in toward the firelight to gauge how much serum remained in the quiver. This serum was made from Yunnan salvia, hornet urine, snake venom, huntsman’s toxin, and flower pollen — a fierce poison! An arrowhead steeped in this poison was far more vicious than the wood of the poison arrow tree.
Grandfather shouldered his quiver and took down the crossbow hanging beside it. Grandfather’s bow was special: the stock was made of’ red tong, the bow of tough bamboo, and the string of deer tendon. If you couldn’t muster three hundred pounds of force, then you couldn’t pull it.
At the very moment Grandfather took the bow down, something else happened that flustered and irritated him. Around his bow coiled a white-spotted, red-bodied kukri snake, and the minute it saw Grandfather’s hand, it raised its head and gave a rude hiss of protest. Grandfather cursed it: “Fuck your grandma, you beast!” He grabbed a stick of kindling and rained blows on the thing until it dropped to the ground, but the reckless beast wanted revenge, lying on the ground puffing itself up with long breaths, looking like it was about to burst into flight. Enraged, Grandfather strode forward and, lightning-quick, grabbed the snake well behind its head, then tossed it deftly into the old fireplace. The snake expelled the air it had labored so hard to accumulate, and returned to its original size, wriggling and rolling, twisting and struggling in pain. Then abruptly it went rigid, sticking right up off the bottom of the pit, and with a loud popping sound out burst two rows of centipede feet.
Now, seeing a snake’s feet is as unlucky as staring down a dragon’s horn. This lousy beast, Grandfather thought, what’s he doing showing off his feet to me? His eyes bulging like bull testicles, Grandfather stared dumbly at the firepit, and even after the snake had burned to a crisp and filled the room with its last whiff of repellent stench, he stood there stock-still and dumb. Running into the coffins before had been too small a thing to worry about, but this time a feeling of foreboding flooded over him. From bed, his wife groaned blearily, “You bag of bones, the meat’s burning,” and he jumped as if he’d been set on fire. He carried the scorched and stinking snake out the front door on a long stick, and his hunting mutt Old Blackie loped over to gulp it down with relish. Grandfather didn’t have the slightest idea that his acts were going to bring calamity down on him and the residents of the village.
Grandfather picked up his crossbow, shouldered his quiver and tied on his sack of buckwheat cakes, then led Old Blackie out the door, still struggling with his heavy load of doubt and worry. This deep into winter, how could a gaudy-looking snake like that appear out of nowhere? And why would it slither into his house, near the ancient fireplace, to pose like a conquering general on his wall? The bow and the quiver hung together: when he took down the quiver there was nothing, but when he reached for the crossbow, suddenly the snake was hanging there. ‘What was even more vile — he thought — was that it showed him its disgusting feet, the bastard! Incensed, Grandfather ground his teeth so hard you could hear them scrape.
The azure sky was as cold and hard as a piece of crystal. At its peak, a smattering of stars twinkled, now visible, now dark, and on the earth the distant hills and the nearby trees were all ashen with mist, just barely distinguishable. There was a whish! — a frightened black cat scrambled up into the eaves, and after a couple of leaps it sat on the rooftop, looking for all the world like a monkey as it watched Grandfather vigilantly. Old Blackie fixed the cat with a hostile gaze, rising repeatedly to tiptoe on his front paws and issuing short threatening barks. The black cat cocked its head and wrinkled its nose in contempt, licking its front paw and scraping it over and over across its face — shaming Old Blackie’s ancestors hundreds of generations into the past. The dog turned its head as if looking for help from its master, wagging its tail, but its master had departed without paying the least bit of attention. Actually, my grandfather should have taken this cat seriously. Black cats of this kind had never been seen in Palisade Village, and if this unusually large black cat hadn’t been leaving suspicious tracks everywhere, soft-hearted Old Blackie wouldn’t have reacted to it so angrily. But my grandfather, carelessly compounding his mistakes, lightly dismissed yet another clear sign from unseen spirits about the immediate fate of the people of the village. Old Blackie was unhappy, but there was nothing he could do but shoot the black cat a look and turn to hustle after his master.
Grandfather, meanwhile, noticed a dishevelled woman walking up ahead. At first he thought it was a young wife from one of the village families, up in the middle of the night to relieve herself. He slowed down out of a desire to make things easy on her. The people of the ancient village had no toilets: after they ate they went out alone into the landscape for a crap in the wild, and if you were about thirty feet away from anyone else and squatted down, you could take care of any size of problem. The strange thing was, when Grandfather slowed down, the dishevelled woman slowed down as well but didn’t stop, so Grandfather sped his pace to catch her and walk alongside her, at which point the lady sped up, maintaining the same distance in front of him at all times and refusing to let him catch up. When they had almost arrived at the village gate, the woman suddenly melted into a shadow and disappeared. Grandfather walked to the shadow’s edge. It was a dead end surrounded on three sides by houses, and there was no sign of the dishevelled woman. The hair stood up on the back of Grandfather’s neck. He waited for Old Blackie, and when the dog arrived at his side they heard a windy chuff sound as a huge raven slowly and awkwardly took wing not far above Grandfather’s head. It gave a mournful, bleak caw, filling the ancient village with a horrible foreboding, like a harbinger of the end of the world. Grandfather felt icy cold along his spine. The crotch of his trousers was damp with sweat.
It was at this point that Grandfather realized that things were not going his way, and he hesitantly decided to go back home, at least after he stopped in to ask Elder Baimu what was going on. So he and Old Blackie tramped through the sickly gray frost out of the village. Not far away was an old tree in the shape of an open umbrella, so big that even from a great distance you could see the broad shade that it provided. As soon as Grandfather and Old Blackie passed into its shadow, a bone-piercing wind kicked up in their faces, and a hoarse, grim voice followed it, floating up from the base of the tree. After the third watch, the laogua bird cries; after seven days, a man will die. Grandfather, shaken to the core, stopped immediately, respectfully waiting for more instructions. But the voice at the foot of the tree had fallen silent. With the help of the weak starlight, which barely filtered through the night’s mist, he made out the old man, thin and dry as a stick of kindling, sitting on a large oval stone. Elder Baimu was deeply venerated by the people of the village; half-sage, half-spirit, he knew the past and the future and could read portents in the stars. Nobody knew how old he was. Eighty-year-old men of the village claimed that decades ago when they still wore short pants, the Elder looked exactly as he did now. The villagers had never seen him move from atop his stone, whether it was day or night, in rain or wind. He neither ate nor drank, but lived in perfect health, without hunger, thirst, or sickness. The mystery of his magical abilities was something the villagers were endlessly curious about, but never able to explain. Nowadays, when I read thrillers by Jin Yong and Liang Yusheng, and they tell of martial arts masters who live in mountain caves and practice kung fu for decades without eating or drinking, I believe them wholeheartedly. Whenever the people of Palisade Village put livestock to pasture, planted crops, set out on journeys, or hunted they always passed by the old tree and under the gaze of the Elder. A lot of folks who were travelling under a bad star found out about it from him, and he instructed them how to get back on the right path, helped them turn bad luck into good fortune. Many had narrowly escaped calamity thanks to the Elder’s predictions, and the events he foretold invariably took place, one by one, without exception. As time passed the people of the village acquired the custom of asking the Elder every time they left town; if you had a problem, he’d let you know about it, even if you didn’t ask.
Grandfather Namu stood stiffly and silently, listening for Elder Baimu’s instruction. Surprisingly, the Elder remained mute, leaving Grandfather to his own wild imaginings. Although Grandfather couldn’t see Elder Baimu clearly, he knew the Elder’s gray face never showed any kind of expression, The stone upon which he sat was warm in all four seasons: in the winter months when the wind blew and the snow fell, it would give off a light steam, Grandfather couldn’t help but ask:
“Elder, near Bearbow Village they’ve seen a wild boar as big as a water buffalo, and I’d like to go hunt it. Is that the right thing to do?”
As he asked, Grandfather felt the shadow beneath the tree grow darker and thicker, and he started trembling uncontrollably, as if it were going to swallow him whole.
Grandfather’s fear wasn’t irrational in the least. This wasn’t a normal tree; according to the old songs, it was the tree where humans, pigs, horses and cows had crawled up out of the earth on the day that seven suns had hung high in the sky. A lot of trees had burned to death under those suns; only this tree remained as green as before, providing shade that kept the humans and beasts safe from all harm.
Thousands of years later, the ancient tree stayed green all year, and never dropped a single leaf. I once described it in a story-essay that resembled neither a story nor an essay, which I called Ancient Tree. Now Grandfather was standing underneath this ancient tree, unable to imagine that fifty years later, the village walls encircle it, that a snake as thick around as a cooking pot would be concealed in this ancient tree, slithering up and down it when nobody was looking, and going to and fro inside the village. He was also unable to imagine that a great-grandson of his named Na Zhangyuan would leave Palisade Village, leave the endless mountains of the Yi people and attend a third-rate university in a medium-sized town. Later, Na Zhangyuan would scratch an odd story out in awkward sentences, introducing Palisade Village to the Han Chinese people, from the ancient tree, to the Elder, to Grandfather Namu himself. This great-grandson — the little bastard — wouldn’t conceal any of it: he would write the naked truth about the people, about the confusion of the ancestors, he would blaspheme the greater spirits and the lesser spirits of the old village with a lack of guilt heretofore unprecedented in the annals of history. Unfortunately, at the time Grandfather stood under the tree he knew nothing of this, and even the sage-god Elder Baimu was ignorant about what would take place fifty years in the future. Grandfather was waiting with trepidation for Elder Baimu to tell him how to return to the straight path, and soon the Elder’s hoarse voice penetrated the foggy dark:
“Your black lacquer coffin was the start of the matter. The red snake’s omen will soon come true. The black cat will roam and a plague will come after. A girl’s lonely ghost will go walking with you.”
But Grandfather could barely hear him over the loud buzzing in his ears as his head swelled to the size of a bushel basket.
Staggering, confused, Grandfather returned home as if sleepwalking; Old Blackie followed morosely and uncomprehendingly. One of the townspeople’s babies, no telling who, let out a little terrified cry in the midst of a fitful dream. The men of the village, having glutted themselves as usual on pig snout and pig neck, slept soundly, snoring in thunderous, rhythmic waves like feral pigs singing to one another in their burrows. From time to time, an owlet out an angry screech that was enough to give a person chills. On a distant mountain path floated the green glimmer of a will-o-the-wisp, winking in and out of sight as if playing a game of cat and mouse. Old Blackie, who had a high opinion of his own intelligence, decided that Grandfather was confused, or walking in a dream, and that he was returning the wrong way home, so he reached out, nipped the cuff of Grandfather’s pants, and tugged it. Grandfather, still processing what he’d heard, kicked the dog in anger and exasperation, and Blackie responded with a doleful whine. It was right then that Grandfather heard the very rare and much-dreaded call of the ghost bird. Ghost birds, also called spirit-following birds, are an unlucky animal to the people of the ancient village. None of them had ever actually seen the ghost bird: if you heard it call from an arrow’s flight away, and then walked toward it, you could walk for an hour and it would still sound as if it were calling from an arrow’s flight away. All you could do was flee. But no matter how many mountain ridges you crossed, or how many streams you forded, the ghost bird’s call would follow you, always calling from an arrow’s flight away. It was unsettling to hear, it sounded like: go hang, you, go hang! For generation upon generation, nobody in the village had seen the ghost bird, and nobody wanted to run into one. It wouldn’t cry out without reason, either, only in times of calamity.
Because of all this, as soon as he heard the ghost bird’s call, my grandfather Namu felt his body jerk and shiver, and his heart went cold as ice.
THE FACE OF the sun grew angry, going from soft yellow to withering white. The people of Palisade Village felt extraordinarily lethargic: they stayed in bed long after the sun baked their rumps, , snoring through their noses like lowing cattle. The Han Chinese on the other side of the mountains described the village’s residents as lazy. They said the reason they didn’t own anything was because they didn’t do anything. Because they didn’t do anything, they had no options; they ate snake and ate like snakes, gorging and then sleeping it off, completely motionless. They were so lazy they wouldn’t even roast their snakes, they’d dry them in the sun. What’s more, they wouldn’t turn them over, so their snakes were golden brown on one side and white on the other. This kind of talk was spun up out of spite, but the people of Palisade Village really were famous for their indolence. A person like Grandfather Namu, who got up in the dark of night to hunt wild pigs, was practically unique in town, to say nothing of somebody who could run around blindly all night, finally feeling his way back to his house where Grandmother had been sleeping the whole time.
It was nearly afternoon when the unkempt old housewife lifted her pleated skirt and scuttled hastily to the shadow of a bamboo fence to squat, grunting with pure satisfaction. From a rotting wooden house next door, a broken-down, middle-aged man raised his head and sniffed at the sun for a long time, then sneezed several times in quick succession. He wandered over towards the fence line, and stopped not far from the woman, hiking up the cuffs of his trousers and releasing a gurgling stream of piss. He turned his face, tear-streaked from sneezing, toward the woman, and greeted her courteously: “Morning, cousin-in-law.” The woman, still squatting, said: “What morning? You sure slept late.” After she had finished her necessities, she returned to her house and soon a puff of kitchen smoke emerged from the peak of its wood-block roof. The man held the waist of his sackcloth pants in his left hand and languidly wiped away the tears with his right. He walked to the edge of the village, chose a large rock facing the sun, and sat on it, squinting into the hot sun as it browned his skin. Before long, a stream of shabbily dressed men with sleep-gummed eyes, yawning enormously, flocked out of the village, and soon every stone had been. claimed, They all sat with an identical posture, happily squinting into the sun, Once they were fully baked, their lice grew lively, and the men clawed fumblingly at their backs and armpits, producing a collective scratching noise louder than that of the pigs rubbing their backs against the woodpile, Some men shucked off their clothes to pick out the lice, and as others imitated them there rose a continuous din of popping insects. When they had finished searching through their shirts, they turned to their pants, each one bowing his head deeply with wholehearted focus and devotion. Only after they had rummaged through their crotches and double-checked several times did they straighten up, sighing with heartfelt satisfaction.
Jili’s wife Re waddled like a mother goose towards a little river near the edge of the village, carrying an ancient wooden basin whose ridges had been rubbed shiny-smooth by the gentle, coarse hands of many generations of women, In the basin rolled a couple of withered potatoes. Re was shoeless, and her bare feet looked quite enticing as she walked down the path; the undulations of her supple waist were the stuff of wild fantasies. The men sat and stared like idiots. That’s my woman, Jili thought, watching the men’s slack-jawed attention. Secretly, he felt proud, but he maintained an expression of disinterest.
Re didn’t turn to look, but she knew the men were watching her, so she exaggerated the switching of her plump hips, She knew this was what men were good for. “Pthht!” Somebody spat forcefully, drawing the other men’s attention, and their gazes turned on him, hateful and full of rebuke. How lowly!
Re walked through the men’s line of sight, savoring their attention, her gait fluid and full of implications. A lock of her long hair lifted in the mountain breeze, waved indecently, then slowly fell. Re’s figure bobbed, then bobbed again – she was rubbing her left leg against her right leg, then her right against her left. But she couldn’t reach the itch, so she put down her wooden basin and hitched her skirt up, scratching the top of her ample thigh in a way that was both licentious and lovely. The men stared dumbly, desire written on their faces. When Re bent down, her hair tumbled over her face like a waterfall, obstructing her view so that she could see nothing but her own two legs. If she hadn’t done so — if she had, at this moment, looked slightly to the left — she would have seen a spotted red snake slithering unhurriedly through the tall grass. The root of the disaster that my grandfather planted was growing inexorably toward the village.
The village people were still ignorant of the coming disaster. Some important events had taken place or were in the process of taking place, but had been carelessly overlooked. These events, well worth the people’s attention, were like a thin rivulet of water trickling away drop by drop before their very eyes, Many years later, after that winter had become old and unremarkable history, the people of the village would wring their hands as they told the story to their grandchildren, sighing with remorse over the ignorance they had showed again and again that year.
Just as Re was failing to notice the spotted red snake, my grandfather Namu was having a dream that also merited careful thought. The night before, he had tossed and turned till dawn, when he finally sank into a bewildered slumber. He slept fitfully, fleeing wildly in his dreams, always chased by malicious and persistent pursuers. Exhausted, he kept running as if his life depended on it, turning endlessly and aimlessly, threading his way through a ruined graveyard. As he ran, he caught the faint scent of food, heard the muffled yelling of people somewhere down below playing drinking games and wondering aloud who was running across their rooftops. He couldn’t stop. Terror, like a huge, magical hand, pushed him out of the gloomy, overgrown graveyard and into a wide wasteland sweeping out from an earthen embankment. To his surprise, he saw a young woman and a young man picking their way through the dry grass, heading toward the village. The man wore a navy blue student’s uniform and had a parting in his hair. His face radiated energy and strength. The woman wore a bright pink jacket over a short white skirt. She had a look of fatigue in her eyes, but it couldn’t cover her obvious intelligence and charm. They walked with great effort, shushing laboriously through the grass. The woman slipped on something underfoot and fell heavily forward, and the man rushed to pull her up. One of her shoes had disappeared and they crouched, feeling around in the grass until they found it. It was a milk-white plastic sandal, and it had broken in the fall. The woman smiled sweetly at the man: Can’t wear it. The man thought for a moment, then took the purple scarf from his neck and wrapped it around her bare foot. They didn’t throw away the broken shoe; the woman held it in her hand as the two continued on, supporting one another. It was at this moment that a great raven appeared, flapping awkwardly across the sky, his huge shadow making slow progress across the empty land. The shadow fell on the couple, hiding them from sight, but they seemed not to notice and continued to walk with singular purpose. The raven floated above them as if frozen, an ominous glint in its eye that told of brutality and greed, and Grandfather clearly heard its call: kua! Out of its belly reached a pair of withered human hands, one extended, one withdrawn, moving as if to seize something as the raven sailed slowly toward the ground, “Watch out!” Grandfather shouted. “Run!” But he couldn’t produce any sound, and in a fit of fright, he awoke. He was covered in sweat, and his heart was pounding, He sucked in a breath, stared blankly upwards as he reflected on his dream. He had never dreamed with such clarity. His dreams had always been vague and meaningless. The woman, he said to himself. There was somebody in the village who had dreamed of that woman many times — and that person was the mute.
The mute, feeling bored, wandered aimlessly past the ancient tree and was surprised to notice that its sun-dappled leaves were changing color. He also noticed that Elder Baimu’s brow had grown threateningly dark. So after he’d passed by, he turned to examine the ancient tree, and threw a glance at the Elder.
In truth, the mute was a profound thinker, but he had no words with which to convey the keenness and richness of his mind. This was a great misfortune for the people of Palisade Village, who were doomed to be unable to enter the mind of the mute. Only in dreams could the mute converse freely: in his dreams he remembered a beautiful woman who wore a pink jacket and a short white dress. He remembered this woman’s name, which she’d said was Mei. When she asked him his name, he was stumped for a moment, but quickly named himself in jest, saying: My name is Gu — Bull.
Remembering this dream, the mute felt happy. He thought, I can’t let her know I’m a mute. The mute was quite perceptive, and saw that the Elder was unsettled; his old heart was racing. His ears rang with a sound like the pounding of hooves, scrambling his thoughts, He didn’t know where the sound was coming from, nor what kind of noise could take control over a person like this, but he was certain that the thing that made the noise was rushing towards him. Closer, closer…
When the sun sank behind the mountains, the thing arrived. It was a man and a woman, two young people. The village people came running to watch their approach. Grandfather cried aloud to himself, ‘‘It’s them!” They were the same as in his dream: even the off-white sandal in the woman’s hand was the same. They were exhausted, barely moving, and looked like statues in the blood-red light of the setting sun. The Elder watched them with a cold eye and a blank face. He was full of misgivings: why had their approach produced such an ominous thunder?
Although the man and the woman were dripping with sweat, a strange chill came over them, and they shivered. They knew right away where the chill came from: the huge tree, and the gaze of the old man beneath it. They faced him bravely.
Under the bloody sun, the little river next to the village swelled with a profusion of colored light, and an unruly mountain wind began to whistle, straight from the shadowy red village towards the two young people, where it lifted the woman’s white skirt to reveal her creamy thighs and crimson shorts. The blood-red light of the sun was especially glaring and blinding; Elder Baimu’s eyes throbbed as if they had been pierced, and a dark gray film rose up before his eyes. From this moment on, the Elder would never see anything clearly again. What was in front of him would always be vague and indistinct.
“Mei—!” The mute cried in surprise, and began to run towards them. The people were shocked: The mute could speak?
The man was taken aback as well. There were people here who knew Mei? The woman stared: The man from the dream!
The mute stopped. He had seen the decidedly unfriendly expression on the face of the man standing next to Mei.
Mei said, “This is Wen.” Wen bared his even, spotlessly white teeth in a grin. He’s exactly like the dream, Mei thought.
“This is the stranger that I see in my dreams,” Mei said, pressing herself against Wen’s side, which appeased Wen’s male vanity. He looped his arm around her shoulder.
Crestfallen and a bit embarrassed; the mute rubbed his hands together in silence. “He said his name is Gu.” Mei had remembered his name as well.
The mute warmed a bit, nodding.
Wen carried an instinctive hostility towards this young man called Gu. He shrugged, simultaneously forgiving and dismissing the man, and led Mei away. The mute watched guilelessly as their receding silhouettes melted into the dusky red village.
The men and women of the village stopped as if paralyzed; the dazzling red glow faded, and the dusk grew deeper and deeper. Finally, in groups of two or three, they dispersed, looking back over their shoulders. The mute couldn’t stop worrying about Mei: he did several circuits around the village looking for her before he found her and the man resting at the temple of the mountain god. Then he walked back, feeling empty. As he turned into his gloomy, mold-smelling alleyway, he saw the flicker of a shadow go from the public water pump right up to the rooftop, where it disappeared — that black cat again. This was the second time the mute had seen it; the first had been at the river. He knew in his bones that this cat was a bad omen.
That night, all the men of the village had the same dream: a hard wind blew, and the woman called Mei walked in the wind, her skirt fluttering. The men all felt powerful urges: rhythmic noises and the satisfied moans of women filled the village.
WHEN MEI CAME to the little stream, whose mossy bank undulated like a green snake, she felt giddy. She wondered whether it wouldn’t be better to stand further away from the water, but other than this stream, there was nowhere in the village to wash clothes. Her only choice was to brace herself, turn a blind eye, and wash. The men sat in their regular places, watching with the same stare as when Re walked by. As Mei shook out her red shirt and white skirt, the splashing water scattered the purple-red sunlight, casting a rainbow halo around her. She moved gracefully, as if dancing in a trance. The men watched her blankly, spittle dribbling from their mouths.
Kicking at a pebble, Wen walked towards the river. His mood was low. For the past few days, he and Mei had gone from door to door trying to spread their message: they weren’t bad people, they’d said, they were medical students from a nearby town, the Japanese had attacked, the school was disbanded, they wanted to come here and open a new school, please send your kids to come study, we’ll teach them things they need to know. They practically begged. The people, though, reacted with indifference. They didn’t know what a school was; there had never been a school in the village. Wen didn’t plan on staying there much longer. The love that Gu felt for Mei was a hidden threat. Several times, he’d heard Mei, in the haze of sleep, wriggle and murmur out to Gu. What’s more, Wen could feel that the village was cursed. It was an unlucky place.
While Wen made for the river, the mute stood on a far-off hill behind the red tableau and watched Mei, his eyes full of worry and gloom. For the past few days, one cold fact had completely perplexed him: he could only speak when he was with Mei; and when he left her he was as mute as before. He felt it was quite likely that the man wouldn’t let her stay in Palisade Village for too long.
The stone where Elder Baimu sat was growing colder and colder. This too was connected to the arrival of the two young people. The thundering noise was so ear-splittingly loud that the Elder wished it would go ahead and split him in two. Although he couldn’t see her, he could sense that woman splashing in the river water, Every time she splashed, he heard the noise, and his pulse quickened. Later, his ears would grow numb, and he wouldn’t be able to hear anything at all.
Re stood in her thatched house and watched Wen. He walked like a playful calf, his hands tucked in his pockets, his gleaming black hair a bit mussed in a way that added to his air of insouciance. Re found his coolness completely enchanting. She felt like he was ambling right into her heart.
Mei arranged the clothes on a streamside bush to dry. The lazing men became suddenly industrious, finding excuses to wash this or that, again and again walking past Mei’s white skirt. Each time they passed, their eyes would brighten as their fantasies about the white skirt gained new vividness. My grandfather also went to the river, but he didn’t come to see the white skirt: he came specifically to look at the pair of milk-white sandals that also dangled from the bush like an apparition.
Grandfather moved towards them slowly, with the vague sensation that he was also moving into the vivid dream he’d had. He walked in that dream, he floated, until there was a piercing pain in the sole of his foot. He cried out and looked — a spotted red snake slithered quickly away, exactly identical to the one he’d burned to death. He yelled out, “Snake!” startling Mei. Mei and Wen ran over, the snake now gone without a trace, leaving two fine purple tooth marks in Grandfather’s instep. This was heaven’s will. Grandfather took a shallow, cold breath. Elder Baimu’s prediction had finally come to pass.
Mei threw herself down to try to suck the venom from Grandfather’s bite, eliciting a dribble of red-black blood. Wen took out a white medicinal powder and smeared it over the wound. Then they took Grandfather home, they told him he would be fine, to stay quiet and convalesce. Grandfather was displeased: he could see as clear as day that he was bound for the gates of the underworld. Of all the people in the world, Grandfather hated liars the most. Still, because of their youth and naiveté, he forgave them for pretending that all would be well.
Grandfather waited at home to die, but even death wouldn’t come peacefully. A massive housefly buzzed back and forth in his room, loud enough to disturb any undertaking, “Fly!” he called out in distaste. Grandmother chased the fly with a whisk broom; in her awkward pursuit, she looked like a lumbering black bear. She missed the fly, but filled the air with dust. “Forget it!” Grandfather spat, “Help me with these funeral arrangements.” Grandmother waddled over. “Get someone to bring the black lacquer coffin down, sweep off the dust, and perfume it with burnt wood from the green incense tree.” Grandfather waited until dark, but he still hadn’t seen any signs of death, and he was unbearably hungry, He bent down and looked — the purple marks were already quite faint. Grandfather was astonished. The other people in the village who had been bitten by the snake had swollen up immediately, and it wasn’t long before they died. He felt invulnerable. Joyfully, he called for help, and moved the casket back upstairs.
Somebody called the mute out of his dream, There was a woman outside his door, calling, “Gu, Gu!” The voice was so soft and distant that the mute wasn’t sure he’d heard it. But the caller persisted, and when he looked out through a slit in the door, he saw a slender shadow pacing back and forth in the moonlight. He got out of bed in a hurry and opened the door, but there was nobody outside in the gray moonlight. Only Mei called him Gu—what had happened to her? The mute ran panting towards the temple., Wen was holding Mei sweetly as they slept, and the mute caught his breath, relieved. It was just then that he heard the sound of mud falling, and saw a spotted red snake slither down off the temple fence, It was that same snake that had bitten my grandfather; it arrowed aggressively towards Mei. The mute dashed over, seized the thing and flung it away. The snake glistened in the hazy moonlight. The mute hadn’t caught the snake far enough down its body, and as he’d thrown it, it had managed to give him a firm bite.
After the mute threw the snake out of the temple, it would never appear again, but it would stay hidden in the village. During a stormy autumn fifty years later, when the Thunder God blasted apart the ancient tree, the snake would be as thick around as a cooking pot.
The mute felt an aching numbness in his right hand. He couldn’t lift it. He heard the call of the ghost bird drawing near. He wanted to wake Mei up, but didn’t want her to hear the ghost bird. Besides, she was so beautiful. He sat at her side watching her sleep. Later, his vision began to blur, and in the haze he saw a woman with her hair down come to the door, stand a while, and leave. The mute tried to see who she was, but no matter how hard he tried, he couldn’t focus.
Mei and Wen slept deeply and rose at dawn. Their first sight of the mute scared them they thought he had some ill intent. But when they saw his purpled flesh they knew he’d been dead for quite a while.
Wen kept thinking about the young man named Gu and the way he died, but no matter how long he considered it, he still couldn’t understand. He’d already decided not to leave the village: he’d run across Jili’s wife Re in a narrow alleyway, and without a word wasted she’d drawn him into her embrace and nibbled at him. In Re’s warm, soft arms, Wen had the sensation of returning home.
After they buried the mute, my grandmother fell desperately ill: vomiting, diarrhoea, uncontrollable fever. That night, the ghost bird’s call sounded especially grave, and all the people of the village heard it as if it stood perched on their pillows. Nobody slept. The next day, a lot of people felt heavy-headed and out of sorts; then there was the vomiting and diarrhea, exactly like my grandmother. Grandfather got it, too.
They figured it out immediately: plague.
This chilled them to the core. The village had seen plague before, fifty years earlier. That winter, there had been a torrential rain. The little river surged up into flood, and then the plague came. The loss of life was severe, until finally the Elder painted a sigil that controlled the illness.
More people started seeing the woman with her hair unbound. She would only come out in the evening, sometimes swiftly, sometimes slowly, but always unaccompanied. Grandfather discovered that wherever the black cat went, the sickness spread. Grandfather was weak, and he wasn’t able to chase the cat himself, so he gave the task to Old Blackie. The people of the village all wanted the Elder to paint another sigil, and so he tried to draw a fierce tiger descending the mountains, but because his eyes were weak, the tiger looked more like an ordinary cat. The people of the village affixed copies of this not-cat-not-tiger to their foreheads, but the plague continued to spread. There were no toilets in the village. People vomited everywhere; the whole place stank, and soon was covered in a carpet of buzzing, green-headed flies. People took the paper sigil from their foreheads and burned it, dissolved the ash in water, and drank it, but to no effect. The village’s mood became one of helplessness and despair, and the girl with her hair down floated by day through the lifeless air, accompanied by the constant cry of the ghost bird.
For several evenings after that, nobody heard the black cat’s unearthly yowl — later, they found it dead next to Old Blackie at the riverside. The black cat had been ripped cleanly in two, and Old Blackie’s intestines had been pulled messily from his body. Mei and Wen set up a stall at the village gates, boiling a huge pot of medicine to treat the people’s illness, and the vapor from it permeated the whole village. When the medicine was ready, nobody dared drink it, until Grandfather said, “You’re not afraid of dying but you’re afraid of taking medicine?” He drank first, then so did Grandmother. Re took a long look into Wen’s eyes, and drank as well — after that, the whole village came to drink.
After the whole pot was empty, the plague began to recede with miraculous speed. Everybody was eager to thank Wen and Mei. They brought chickens, eggs, even young pigs, all of which the young couple refused. They said, this is nothing, all we want is for you to bring your children to school. After we teach them to read, they’ll all be able to cure diseases, People gasped at this. Really?
Over the course of the first night after the people decided to bring their children to school, the leaves of the ancient tree dried out and turned yellow.
On the morning of the second day, the people of Palisade Village woke early, and busied themselves bringing their children to study at the temple of the mountain god. Wen got twenty of the men of the village to fire their rifles into the sky, and immediately after the roar of the rifles a pleasing metal jangle answered from up in the ancient tree. Everybody looked. The yellow leaves were fluttering to the earth, flashing gold and silver in the sunlight, so bright they hurt the villagers’ eyes. As they fell they clinked against each other with a satisfying noise, like music.
Wen suddenly grew worried for the old man who sat beneath the tree, and ran to him as fast as he could. The others followed.
When he got to the tree, he saw the Elder was having a seizure, Wen hurried over to help him up, and the Elder grabbed on to his right hand. The power of that withered, matchstick-dry hand was incredible; Wen felt the sting of its grip penetrate all the way into his heart. The Elder took a single step and died, but his hand still gripped Wen’s, and he had to use all his strength to pry it loose, leaving his hand covered in bruises in the shape of the old man’s fingers.
Several months later, the finger marks were still clear as ever, with no indication that they would ever fade. And they began to ache. ‘When he had them examined, Wen learned that an illness had settled into the bones, but none of the respected doctors he travelled to see could do anything about it.
A year later, Mei gave birth to a plump, light-skinned baby boy. On his right hand he had a birthmark in the shape of fingers, identical to the mark on his father’s hand.
EIGHT YEARS LATER, there was another exceptionally harsh winter. Wen and Mei took their child and moved over the mountains, nobody knows where. Fifty years later during a rainy autumn, I became the first person from Palisade Village to go to college. I climbed the rugged gully road, crossed the endless mountains of the Yi people, and walked into a city that seemed like a legend come true. A bewitchingly pretty girl in my class attracted my attention, and I chanced to notice that she had light finger marks on her hand, and looked just like Mei from the old folks’ stories. Was it possible that they were related? She gave me a mysterious look, but didn’t say a word. I was disappointed, but I still followed her like a shadow: I had to ask her, I had to get out the plain facts. She said that she loathed me, and that if I wanted to act like a thug she’d call the police, I told her it was all the same to me.
One gloomy, windy morning, when I had miraculously failed to fall asleep during class and the old professor teaching pre-Qin literature was writing on the board, I suddenly realized that his wizened right hand had a light set of finger-marks on it as well. I was flummoxed, I knew that the professor and the student had no blood ties, and I lost interest in my pointless pursuit of the female student.
At the library, I rifled through the whole collection, old and new, domestic and foreign. There are a lot of things that are heritable or contagious, but there is no record of inheritance or contagion with respect to the marks left by gripping fingers.
To this day, I have yet to untangle the mystery of those marks.