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Authors: Bi Feiyu

Tags: #Historical

Three Sisters (14 page)

BOOK: Three Sisters
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On-screen, American bombers flew overhead and dropped their bombs on the Yalu River, making muffled sounds like those of a mother urging her child to pee. Pillars of water rose from the Yalu River; a major assault was on its way, and the movie was starting to get interesting. Then without warning, a pair of hands covered Yuxiu's eyes from behind. This was a favorite prank among local residents, and in the past, if someone had done that to Yuxiu in the middle of a movie, the prankster's lineage would have been the target of one of her withering curses. But not this time. "Hey! Whose cold claws are those?" she said with a laugh. But this time it didn't seem like a prank; the hands were pressing too hard.

Clearly upset, she was about to complain, when someone stuffed straw into her mouth. She was then hauled away and immediately set upon by many hands, which lifted her off the ground. She heard rapid footsteps. She fought, using all her strength; it was, however, a silent struggle.

The sound of exploding bombs and gunfire from the film retreated into the distance as Yuxiu was flung down onto a haystack and blindfolded; then someone pulled her pants down, exposing the lower half of her body to the night winds. She shuddered and was shocked when her bladder betrayed her. The noise around her stopped abruptly, except for the raspy sounds of heavy breathing. All thoughts left her, everything but the will to save face. She tried to stop the flow of urine, but could not. She heard a hissing sound as it escaped. As soon as she finished, the racket around her started up again, and she heard the muted voice of a woman growl, "Don't go crazy. One at a time, one at a time." It sounded like Caiguang's wife, but Yuxiu couldn't be sure. Young as she was, she knew that her lower body was in danger, so she closed her legs as tightly as she could. Four hands pulled them apart again and held them. Then something hard pressed down on her thigh, and then it was inside her.

In the end, Yuxiu, who was crumpled up like a pile of rotting straw, was helped home by Yumi, joined by Yuye. The younger girl cried and said it hurt, but after she was cleaned up, she fell asleep. Not Yuxiu. Seventeen years old that year, she knew what had happened. She lay in bed in the arms of her older sister all night without shutting her eyes. The tears never stopped flowing, and before the night was over, her eyes were so swollen from crying she could barely open them. Yumi never left her side, drying her tears and shedding her own. They had never been so close; it was as if their mutual survival depended on it. Yuxiu spent the entire next day in bed, neither eating nor drinking, and tormented by nightmares. Yumi brought food and then took it away, over and over. Yuxiu refused to eat.

Finally, on the fourth day, she opened her mouth; her lips were flaked with dead skin. Holding a bowl of sticky rice porridge in her hand, Yumi fed her sister one slow spoonful at a time, and as Yuxiu looked up at Yumi, she abruptly wrapped her arms around her sister's waist. Weak though she was, she held on with all her might, her hands like those of a corpse. Instead of trying to pry them apart, Yumi ran her fingers through Yuxiu's hair, then combed and braided it. Finally, she told Yuyang to fetch a basin of water to wash Yuxiu's face.

When that was done, she took her sister's hand and said, "Get up and come with me." She said it softly but with authority.

Blurry-eyed, Yuxiu looked up at her sister and shook her head.

"Are you just going to hole up here? How long do you expect to do that? Our family has never been afraid of anyone, don't you know that?" Yumi said.

She opened a drawer, took out a pair of scissors, and handed them to Yuxiu. "Cut off your braids and then come with me," she said.

Yuxiu shook her head again, but the meaning behind it was different this time. Then she was afraid to go outside; now it was the refusal to part with her braids.

"What do you want to keep them for? It was your seductive manner that got you into this trouble in the first place," Yumi said, as she snatched the scissors out of her sister's hand and—
snip
—one of Yuxiu's braids fell to the floor—
snip
—then the other braid joined it. She picked the braids up off the floor and tossed them into the commode, then tucked the scissors into her waistband, took Yuxiu by the hand, and started out the door.

"Come with me," she said. "I'll cut the tongue out of anyone who says a word."

So Yumi strolled through the village with Yuxiu, who shuffled along, her limp body seemingly weightless and quite ugly. Her hair, now minus the braids, looked like a nest of straw and chicken feathers. Yumi, armed with the scissors, was her protector. One look was all it took anyone to figure out her intentions, and they dared not meet that glare; they either turned away or walked off.

She kept telling her sister, who trailed behind her, to hold her head up. Yuxiu did as she was told. Though she was drawing strength from her sister's fierce demeanor—the fox parading along behind the tiger—at least she was out in public.

Unspoken feelings of gratitude toward Yumi rose up inside her, tempered by an inexpressible sense of loathing. It was an unfounded loathing, utterly unreasonable, and yet there it was, deep in the marrow of her bones. They had fought for years, but in the end, she had no choice but to rely on Yumi's authority and her sympathy.

Why had Yumi been born a girl?
she wondered.
How wonderful it would have been if she were a boy, my older brother.

But she wasn't; Yumi was her older sister, and now she was getting married and moving away. The wedding boat was tied up at the pier, and Yuxiu had not gone to see her off. Yuxiu was afraid to. She might hate her sister, but she wished that Yumi didn't have to leave Wang Family Village. Yuxiu the fox was lost without Yumi the tiger. No longer would she find the courage to mix with people, to be in a crowd. She slipped over to the concrete bridge to the east, where she leaned against the railing and waited, looking far off in the distance. Her lovely eyes, now filled with melancholy and anxiety, were trained on the jubilant scene at the distant pier; none of that joy reached far down the river to Yuxiu. Sunlight danced crazily on the surface of the river, fragmented and blinding. The boat was coming her way, and as it neared the bridge, Yumi spotted Yuxiu. The sisters, one in a boat, the other on a bridge, exchanged gazes as the distance closed and they could see each other more clearly. The boat sped under the bridge, and both girls spun around to keep looking at each other, although now the distance increased and their figures grew more indistinct. Then Yuxiu saw Yumi stand up in the boat and shout something. The wind carried it up to her. She heard every word:
Don't forget to carry a knife when you go out.

The roar of the motor faded as the boat turned at a bend in the river and disappeared from view. The waves it had created had smoothed out, and now only a bright scar was left on the surface. Yuxiu was still on the bridge, still looking down the river, seemingly focused but actually in a daze. The sun had migrated to the western sky, casting a red patina over the river and elongating Yuxiu's shadow on its surface, at once docile and quivering. She looked down at that shadow, staring at it so long that it turned into an optical illusion, looking as if it were being carried along by the ripples on the water. But by regaining her focus, she saw that it had stayed put and was not going anywhere.
If only my shadow could transform itself into a speedboat
, she was thinking,
I could leave Wang Family Village and go anywhere I wanted.

Yuxiu was surprised to see a dozen or more little girls standing in a circle in front of her door when she turned into the lane. She walked up to see what they were doing and spotted her second sister, Yusui, in the middle, showing offa spring-and-autumn blouse Yumi had left behind, the one Liu Fenxiang had worn as the propaganda troupe's program announcer; it had a decidedly urban look—a turned-down collar and a narrow waist. Yumi would never have considered wearing any of that woman's clothes, but she hadn't the heart to throw anything that pretty away.

Yuxiu was a different matter altogether. She had kept her eye on the blouse for some time. There is a popular saying that goes "Men never turn down a drink, and women never say no to clothes." Who cares whom it belonged to? A pretty blouse is a pretty blouse was how Yuxiu looked at it. But she hadn't worn it yet, out of a fear of Yumi. Imagine her surprise when Yusui claimed it the minute Yumi was out the door. Something that nice on Yusui was like a hungry dog with a turd in its mouth—it cannot be pried out.

Yuxiu stopped at the lane entrance to observe Yusui with a squint. How could something that nice lose its charm as soon as Yusui put it on? The look on Yuxiu's face was not pretty. Obviously, now that Yumi was gone, Yusui was setting herself up as the new head of household. An ordinary girl like her ought at least to take a good look at herself. The longer Yuxiu stood there, the dumber her sister appeared, especially now that she'd ruined a perfectly good blouse. Yuxiu elbowed her way up next to Yusui and demanded, "Take it off"

"Says who?" Yusui replied, still caught up in the excitement.

"I said take it off," Yuxiu said in a tone that left no room for bargaining.

Apparently softening a bit, but not ready to give in, Yusui repeated, "Says who?"

Used to having her way, Yuxiu got in her sister's face and said icily, "Are you going to take it off or aren't you?"

Yusui knew that she was no match for Yuxiu, but one glance at the other girls told her that she'd lose face if she gave in meekly. In the end, she took off the blouse, held it for a moment by the collar, then dropped it on the ground and stomped all over it.

"Take it," she screamed. "You act so high and mighty, even after all those men have had you. You piss pot! You shit can!"

Before eight o'clock in the morning, the main street of Broken Bridge is, in essence, an open-air market that sends a jumble of smells from one end to the other. But after eight, the street undergoes a transformation, becoming clean and orderly. This comes about not by fiat but by the demands of daily life, which are strictly followed and unchanging. The middle-school PA system crackles to life, heralding a solemn moment: "Beijing time—8:00
A.M.
" Beijing time: distant, intimate, sacred, a symbol of unity, a sign that all China's citizens live planned, disciplined lives—not only the residents of Beijing, but everyone in the country. The beloved Chairman Mao is already attending to state affairs at Tiananmen, and it is time for womenfolk in towns everywhere to stop haggling over prices. The morning sun's slanting rays light up the street and are reflected off of the cobblestones, turning them red. Small pockets of quiet, bordering on total stillness, settle over the street, belying the preparations already under way. And then the general store opens its door, and the purchasing co-op opens its door. The post office, the credit union, the commune offices, the hospital, the farm-tools factory, the blacksmith and carpentry shops, the provisions branch, the grain-purchasing station, the transport office, the culture station, and the livestock-purchasing station—every unit subsumed under the nation slowly opens its big iron door for business. No longer an open-air market, the street has become an integral part of the "nation," involved in the functions and powers of "state." As these doors open one by one, a ceremonial aura quietly infuses the street, even though, not surprisingly, the townsfolk are unaware of it; it is an aura of willful indolence with a hint of solemnity. It is the moment when the new day officially begins.

Guo Jiaxing arrived at his office every day at eight. Eight o'clock on the dot. Sitting at his desk, he steeped a cup of tea, crossed his legs, and started his day with two newspapers and one magazine, carefully reading every word. This could almost be mistaken for a form of study. Guo sat at his desk in town all day long, but for all practical purposes, he spent every day in Beijing, following with interest everything that happened in the nation's capital. He would never overlook who among the leading comrades moved up in the hierarchy and who moved down. The year before, for instance, seven members of the leadership had greeted Prince Norodom Sihanouk, but this year three of them had been replaced. Over the past few days, newspapers had reported that one of the three had been sent to Tanzania and a second was in Inner Mongolia, involved in "cordial discussions with herdsmen." There was no news of the third. This name, the status of which was unclear, was one that Guo would keep in mind for weeks afterward, and if too much time passed with no subsequent mention, he would bring it up with commune leaders, keeping his tone as somber as possible: "So and so" has not been heard from for quite some time, he'd say. Eventually, when "so and so" resurfaced in the papers—his name or his photograph—Guo, now relieved, would pass the news on to his comrades. He was given to equating the names in his two newspapers and one magazine with the nation. Concern for them was the equivalent of being concerned for his country. He paid attention to them not because he was ambitious and wanted to move up the ladder. He wasn't the type. He had gotten to where he was by toeing the Party line and wanted to keep it that way. Spending the rest of his career as a commune official was what he desired, for he was a man perfectly content with what he had. His routine had become an ingrained habit formed over many years until it was part of his nature. One day was just like every other one.

Guo Jiaxing was not concerned about individual people, not even himself. In his rigid approach to life, he kept the motherland in mind and the world in view, as Chairman Mao had once said. The concepts of birth, old age, sickness, and death bored him, as did thoughts about the daily necessities—the oil, salt, vinegar, and soy sauce—of life. To him those were trivial, vulgar, insipid, meaningless things. And yet, it was trivia that in recent days had him in its grip, and he was having trouble freeing himself from it. This situation had its origins in one of the revolutionary committee's deputy chairmen. "Three flames burn in the bellies of middle-aged men," this comrade had joked when he saw Yumi. "Promotion, riches, and the death of a wife. Deputy Chairman Guo has now managed one of them."

BOOK: Three Sisters
4.45Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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