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Authors: Bi Feiyu

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BOOK: Three Sisters
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Wang Lianfang decided to learn a trade. After all, he had a family of ten to feed, and from now on, at the end of fall, no more perks would come his way. He lacked the constitution to farm alongside the commune members; but mainly it was a matter of face. He had no illusions about himself. He considered the loss of his position as Party secretary an acceptable price to pay for having slept with so many women. But to start hauling manure with men who had been his underlings—or digging ditches, or planting and harvesting—would have been a crippling disgrace. Learning a trade was the way to go. He gave the matter serious thought. Standing in front of his maps of the world and the People's Republic of China, a cigarette in one hand, the other resting on his hip, he narrowed his choices to: cooper, butcher, shoemaker, bamboo weaver, blacksmith, painter, coppersmith, tinsmith, carpenter, or mason.

Now it was time to synthesize, compare, analyze, study, choose the refined over the coarse, the honest over the fraudulent, examine things inside and out, and study appearance versus essence. Given his age, his strength, and the prestige factor, he settled on painter. He made a list of the qualities of the trade he found appealing.

1. It's not a very taxing job, certainly one he could manage.

2. It's relatively easy to master—how hard can slapping on enough reds and greens to cover wood be?

3. Hardly any capital is involved—all you need is a brush. A carpenter, on the other hand, needs a saw, a plane, an axe, a chisel, a hammer, and dozens of different tools.

4. Once he started work, he'd spend his time outside instead of hanging around the village all day. What he didn't see couldn't hurt him, and that would improve his mood.

5. Painting is viewed as a respectable profession. For someone with his background, the villagers would look at him with a jaundiced eye if his job was slaughtering pigs. But not painting houses. Some red here, some green there, and from a distance it might look like he was engaged in propaganda work.

Once he'd made up his mind, he couldn't help feeling that his plans could properly be classified as being in line with the concept of materialism.

Wang Lianfang hadn't visited Youqing's wife for many days—not a long time, but dramatic changes in the situation had occurred. One day, after drowning his sorrows from noon until three in the afternoon, he stood up and decided to get a little exercise on Youqing's wife's body before leaving home. He could not be sure if he was still welcome in the beds of the other women, but Youqing's wife was his private plot, a place where he could always enjoy some of her husband's dumb luck.

Wang opened the door and walked in as Youqing's wife was snacking on dried radishes, her back to him. She immediately smelled the liquor on his breath. "Fenxiang," he said in full voice, "you're all I have." However bleak that sounded, she could not help but be moved by it; it had a warm quality. "Fenxiang," he went on, "the next time I come over you can call me painter Wang."

She turned to face him and saw that he was not only drunk but also apparently in a terrible mood. She wanted to say something to make him feel better. But what? The incident with Qin Hongxia had cut deeply, yet she could not bear to see Lianfang in such a depressed emotional state. She knew what he'd come for and, if she hadn't been pregnant, would have been happy to oblige. But not this time. No, not this time. With a stern look, she said, "Lianfang, let's not do it anymore. I think you'd better go."

He didn't hear a word she said. Instead, he went into the bedroom, undressed, and climbed into bed. He waited. "Hey!" he shouted impatiently. He waited a while longer. "Hey!"

Not a sound came from outside the room, and so, holding up his trousers, he went to see what was wrong. Youqing's wife was long gone. This was not how he'd expected things to turn out.

As he stood there holding his trousers with both hands, cord in place, suddenly sober, he realized how quickly human relations can change.
All right,
he said to himself,
I see you've decided to erect a chastity archway for yourself at this particular moment, not a day earlier or a day later. Well, that's fine with me.

"Shit!" he cursed with a sneer as he walked back into the bedroom.

He stripped again and climbed into bed, where he began singing a revolutionary opera at the top of his lungs. It was
Shajiabang.
He sang all the parts—Aunty A-qing, Hu Chuankui, and Diao Deyi. His voice was rough and loud until he came to Aunty A-qing's part, which he sang in a tinny falsetto. Unable to hit the high notes, he switched to Hu Chuankui's male role. The entire village could hear Wang's operatic offerings, but no one came over; instead they acted as if they hadn't heard a thing. Wang transported an entire act to Youqing's bed, every word of it, with no mistakes. After the final scene, he imitated the sounds of drums and gongs, put on his clothes, and left.

Youqing's wife had been hiding behind the kitchen door the whole time, so amazed and frightened by what Wang Lianfang was doing that she could hardly breathe. Once she'd managed to calm down, she was struck by a bone-chilling sadness, overcome by feelings that for the past six months she'd lived the life of a lowly dog. Her fingers and toes felt uncommonly cold as she rested her hands on her belly, wishing she could somehow dig what was in there out with her fingers.

No, she'd never do that. She shivered and looked down at her belly. "You bastard," she said, "you mangy bastard, mangy bastard, lousy mangy bastard!"

At the age of forty-two, Wang Lianfang left home to learn a trade, leaving the family in the hands of Yumi. It was a daunting responsibility, and she suddenly understood the saying that "Only the head of a household realizes the true cost of rice and kindling." The large issues are hard on the head of the household, of course, but so are the small ones, which can be trivial, bothersome, fragmentary, and piddling, but cannot be avoided and must be met head-on. Dismissing them with a pat on the behind simply won't cut it. Take Yuye, for instance, a girl not yet eleven, who only days before had broken a window at school. The teacher demanded to speak with the head of the household. Then on the heels of that incident, Yuye knocked over a classmate's inkwell and splashed ink all over the girl's face; again the call went out to the head of the household. None of this seemed like a big deal to Yuye, who wasn't much of a talker, but thanks to busy hands and feet, frequently got mixed up in all sorts of trouble. In the past, the teachers might have given Yuye the benefit of the doubt, since there are two sides to every issue. But now her teacher was caught in a bind. Yumi was summoned to school as head of the household. She didn't say much after the first incident, just nodded when she heard the story, then went home and got ten eggs, which she took back and placed on the teacher's desk. The second time she was sent for, she grabbed Yuye by the ear when she heard what had happened and dragged her over to the office, where she gave her sister a resounding slap in front of all the teachers. Yuye's cheek swelled up and twisted her face out of shape. This time, instead of eggs, Yumi went into the sty, selected a white Yorkshire hog, and took it to school. With this escalation, the principal now got involved.

The principal, who was an old friend of Wang Lianfang, looked first at the teacher and then at Yumi, and did not know what to say to keep from offending either one. So he looked down at the hog and laughed. "Yumi," he said, "what's this all about? Are you enrolling him in gym class?" Then he turned to the janitor and gestured for him to take the animal back to where it belonged.

The principal's genial attitude put Yumi on her best behavior. "When we slaughter the pig," she said, "we'll save the liver for you, Uncle."

"I can't let you do that," he said.

"Why not? If Yuye's teacher can eat the eggs, what's to keep the principal from eating a pig's liver?" The words were barely out of her mouth before the teacher's eyes grew to the size of a hen's eggs and her face the color of a pig's liver.

Back home, Yumi took out her forty-weight stationery to write a letter to Peng Guoliang, intending to tell him how hard things had gotten for her. At this point she pinned all her hopes on him, but she stopped short of telling him what had happened at home, since she did not want him to think badly of the family. She had to tread very carefully. If Guoliang moved up through the ranks in the military, her family was assured of a second chance. "Guoliang," she wrote, "you must set your sights on getting regular promotions." But then she reread what she had written and felt it was too direct. So she tore up the letter and, after wrestling with her thoughts, wrote: "Guoliang, listen to your superiors and keep making progress."

The commune's movie team returned to the village. For days Shi Guifang had been complaining of heartburn, so Yumi chose not to go see the movie, even though it was one of her favorite pastimes; her mother never went to a movie and that always made Yumi grumble.
How come, when someone gets to a certain age, they lose interest in everything, even movies?
But now she understood that her mother simply wanted to avoid crowds. Besides, movies are so phony, nothing but groups of people passing their days on a white sheet. What does a white sheet know about keeping warm or getting cold? Such thoughts had Yumi wondering if she too was getting old and if her heart was turning cold. When that happens, age is obviously creeping up. People get old gradually, step by step, a slow death of the heart. Aging has little to do with the calendar.

As soon as dinner was over, Yuxiu sneaked a handful of sunflower seeds and was on her way out when Yumi stopped her. She had good reason for not wanting her sister to get away so early because Yuxiu was in the habit of rushing over to get a good seat for the movie. Even before the white sheet had been hung up, Yuxiu would bring a stool up to a spot in front of the projector, one of the best seats available. In truth, ability had less to do with her success in getting a good seat than the willingness of the others to let her have it. But now it would be tactless for her to expect anyone to let her take the best seat, and it could easily lead to an argument. Yumi wasn't afraid of arguments, but given the current state of affairs, the fewer the squabbles the better. So she tried to keep her sister from leaving early, stressing the need for a little decorum.

But Yuxiu would have none of it. "Don't be such a nag. Do you see a stool anywhere?" Being no dummy, Yuxiu knew exactly what to do at times like this.

"Then take Yuye with you," Yumi said.

"Why should I? She's got legs; she can walk there by herself."

"Either you take her or you don't go." No doubt about it, Yumi was now the boss. Her word was law. This time Yuxiu did not talk back. Instead, she scooped up another handful of sunflower seeds. In the end, third daughter Yuxiu took fifth daughter Yuye, second daughter Yusui took sixth daughter Yumiao, fourth daughter Yuying went on her own, and seventh daughter Yuyang stayed home in bed. Now that this had been settled, Yumi lit a lantern and carried Hongbing into their mother's bedroom. Their mother had lost weight, which showed not in the outline of her face but in its many wrinkles, row upon row of them, like tracks of flowing water; it was a wrenching picture of sadness. Yumi held a plate of the newly roasted sunflower seeds out to her mother.

"Don't roast any more, Yumi."

"Why not?"

"It's disgraceful to be seen eating them."

"Ma," Yumi said, raising her voice, "you have to eat them."

"Why?"

"To show people."

Shi Guifang smiled. Instead of saying what was in her heart, she laid her hand on Yumi's and gave it a couple of pats. To Yumi it was clear that her mother was trying to pacify her and, more important, to remind her that people must accept their fate.

Yumi stood up. "Pretend they're medicine, Ma, for our sake."

Shi Guifang patted the side of her bed for Yumi to sit down. Although she spent all day every day in the same house as Yumi, a casual talk with her daughter was a rare treat. Whatever else might be going on, having a daughter like Yumi to talk to helped put her mind at ease and dissolve some of the bitterness inside. It was a quiet, peaceful night, the kind that keeps one's heart tranquil and dispels desire. After listening for a while, Shi Guifang detected the sort of quiet that belongs to widows and orphans. Wang Hongbing was asleep in Yumi's arms, looking as adorable as ever. She took him from Yumi and gazed into his face for a very long time. He was at peace with the world, worry free and innocent. Shi Guifang looked up at Yumi, half of whose face was framed in lamplight; she had a lovely profile that was enhanced by the light. The other half, bathed in darkness, was denied a fullness of expression, leaving her with an enigmatic, incomplete look. A burst of wind carried in the crackle of a cinematic gun battle. By leaning over and cocking an ear, Yumi could distinguish between the dive bombers and the ground fire. Shi Guifang could tell what Yumi was thinking. "Go on," she said, "go watch the movie."

But Yumi just stared dreamily at the glowing lamp wick. Shi Guifang sighed heavily, her breath bending the wick and making it seem as if it were trying to hide from her. Yumi's thoughts began to wander as if they were being transported away on an airplane. The room darkened slightly, and so did the illuminated half of Yumi's face. Her mother sat up abruptly and belched several times before smacking the bed with her open hand. "This is better," she said. "Yes, it's better this way." This abrupt outburst startled Yumi, who watched as her mother blew out the lamp.

"Time to sleep," she said.

By the time Yusui returned home with Yumiao, Yumi had dozed off. Yuying was the next to come home. Yumi woke up and sat on the edge of the bed to watch the girls wash up. The sister she was really waiting for was Yuye, a lazy little tomboy who would not wash up unless she was forced to. When she got into bed and her feet warmed up, the stench was nearly overpowering. Only Yumi was willing to sleep with her; the other girls all complained that she smelled bad.

BOOK: Three Sisters
5.64Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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