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Authors: Bi Feiyu

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BOOK: Three Sisters
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Yumi had lost a lot of weight by the time the second lunar month, solar March, rolled around, and she roamed the village with Wang Hongbing in her arms. She would never call him Little Eight in front of anyone but her family; she always called him Wang Hongbing in public. Village boys normally did not hear their given names except from their teachers. But Yumi called her toothless little baby brother by his full name, investing him with a serious, more formal aura, thus distinguishing him from the sons of other families and placing him above all others. With the baby in her arms, she talked and looked like a seasoned mother, something she had learned from the young mothers on the streets, in the fields, and on the threshing ground. It was not something she came to instinctively; being highly focused, she made sure she perfected anything new before actually putting it into practice. And though she was still young, she differed from the chatty, sometimes sloppy young mothers she met, and she always looked good with her little brother in her arms. She had her own style, her unique inventions. The way she cared for the baby impressed the village women. But what they focused on was not how capably she carried her brother; rather they talked about how precocious she was and what a good girl she'd turned out to be.

But then the village women detected something new as Yumi carried Wang Hongbing around the village. Something that went beyond just caring for the baby, something far more significant. As she chatted with the village women, she'd casually take Hongbing over to the houses of the women who had slept with her father. Once there, she'd stand outside the door for a long time. This was a way to win back her mother's dignity. But Fuguang's wife was oblivious to Yumi's hidden purpose when the girl showed up at her door one day. Without thinking, she reached out to take the baby from Yumi, even referring to herself as aunty.

"Here, let aunty hold you. How would that be?" she asked.

Yumi kept chatting with the others, treating Fuguang's wife as if she weren't there, all the while tightening her grip on her brother. After two failed attempts to take the baby, Fuguang's wife realized that Yumi would not loosen her hold. But with all those people standing around in front of her house, the humiliation was intolerable. So she brought little Hongbing's hand up to her lips as if it smelled wonderful and tasted even better. Snatching the little hand away from the woman, Yumi licked every finger clean and spat at Fuguang's door before turning to scold Hongbing: "How filthy!" Hongbing laughed so hard his gums showed. Fuguang's wife paled with shock. She could say nothing, nor could the other women, who all knew Yumi's intentions.

Yumi stood in front of one door after another, exposing and warning the women inside, sparing none of them. The mere sight of her threw a fright into anyone who had slept with Wang Lianfang, and her silent accusations were more terrifying than condemnations broadcast over a loudspeaker. Without saying a word, she exposed the women's transgressions little by little and subjected them to terrible humiliation. This proved to be a particularly satisfying and ambitious feat in the eyes of the guiltless women, who were now jealous of Shi Guifang for having such a remarkable daughter. Back home, they scolded their children with more severity than usual, railing against them for being "useless things."

"Just look at Yumi," they exclaimed.

They weren't worried that their children would overlook Yumi's qualities, but that they would never match up. Also implied in this simple comment was the serious and urgent business of setting up a model for proper living. The village women's admiration of Yumi grew and grew; on their way home from work or walking down to the pier, they would crowd around her to coddle Wang Hongbing. When they were done, they'd say, "I wonder which lucky woman will get Yumi for a daughter-in-law." Expressing envy of a nonexistent lucky woman was a roundabout way of flattering Yumi. Since modesty dictated that she not respond, Yumi merely sneaked a look up into the sky, the tip of her nose glowing.

But Yumi was about to be married, and the women were still in the dark. Where did her future in-laws live? As far away as the edge of the sky, yet right in front of their eyes. Peng Family Village, which was about seven
li
away. And what about "him"? That was just the reverse: right in front of their eyes, yet as far away as the edge of the sky. This was not something Yumi was going to make public.

After the Spring Festival, Wang Lianfang had one more thing to do, and he sought help every time he went to a meeting—Yumi needed a husband. As the girl got older, it became less and less feasible for her to stay in the village. Though anxiety weighed on him, Wang told himself that his daughter must not become just anyone's wife. Marrying beneath her station would not serve her well; but more important, this would make her parents lose face. Wang hoped to find a match with a young man from an official's family, one that was naturally powerful and influential. Each time he found a suitable match in a neighboring village, he told Guifang to talk to Yumi, who reacted with bland indifference. Wang could sense that with a father like him, Yumi, a proud and clever girl, had little faith in any man from an official's family. In the end, it was Secretary Peng from Peng Family Village who suggested the third son of a barrel maker in his village, which nearly ended the conversation, for Wang knew that the "third son" of a "barrel maker" could not possibly amount to much.

"He's the young man who qualified as an aviator a couple of years ago. There are only four in the county," Secretary Peng explained. Wang bit down on his lip and made a sucking sound, for that changed everything. With an aviator for a son-in-law it would be as if he himself had flown in an airplane, and whenever he took a piss it would be like a day's rain. So he handed Yumi's picture to Peng, who took one look and said, "She's a real beauty."

"Actually, the prettiest one is my third daughter," Wang replied, which elicited a silent laugh from Peng.

"Your third daughter is too young."

The barrel maker's third son sent a response, along with his photo, to Secretary Peng, who forwarded them to Wang Lianfang, who then passed them on to his wife; and they ultimately came to rest snugly under Yumi's pillow. The young man was called Peng Guoliang, a name that made him a true standout. Why? Because Guoliang, which means "pillar of the state," was appropriate for an aviator. Like a pillar, he was anchored to the ground, but his head was in the sky. An uncommon name. He was not particularly good-looking, at least not in the photo. On the skinny side, he seemed older than his age. He had single-fold eyes with heavy lids and a pronounced squint. They did not appear to be eyes that could find their way home from up in the clouds. His lips were pressed tightly together, too tightly, in fact, for that highlighted his overbite, which was clearly visible even in the frontal shot. But he had posed for the photograph in full uniform at the airfield, which gave him a military air that the average person could not easily envision. The Silver Hawk airplane beside him stirred the imagination further. Despite the deficiencies in Peng Guoliang's looks, Yumi suffered a loss of pride; her self-esteem tumbled for no obvious reason as she sensed her own inadequacy. The man was, after all, someone who traveled between heaven and earth.

Yumi wished the match could be settled right away.

In his letter Peng Guoliang gave his address, including his unit, a clear indication to Yumi that her response would determine the future course of her life. This was important, and she knew she had to proceed with care. Her first thought was to have a few more photographs taken in town, but she changed her mind when she realized that he must have been happy enough with her looks to send a letter to Secretary Peng. There was no need to do anything more.

The issue now was her letter. Peng Guoliang had been somewhat vague in his, not boastful but certainly not modest. He emphasized only that he "had strong feelings" for his "hometown" and that when he was in his airplane all he wanted to do was "fly back home to be with the people there." The most revealing line was his positive reaction to Uncle Peng's suggestion. He wrote that he "would place absolute trust" in "any person Uncle Peng liked." But he hadn't stated outright that Yumi was the woman for him. Which meant that she had to skirt the issue as well; being too obvious indicated a lack of class, and that would never do. On the other hand, it would be worse to be overly vague; if he felt she was uninterested, the match would be lost and unsalvageable. Peng Guoliang seemed to be right in front of her eyes, yet truly he was as far away as the edge of the sky. The distance satisfied Yumi's ego, and yet it brought her sorrow as well.

After much thought, Yumi decided to write a restrained letter. Following a brief and properly worded introduction, she altered her tone.

I definitely am no match [for you]. You fly high in the sky and only a fair[y] woman could be a match [for you]. I am not as good as the fair[y] women, nor am I as good-looking.

Her dignity remained intact, since it was natural for a girl to say she was not as pretty as a fairy. She ended the letter.

Now I look up into the sky every day and every night. The sky is always the same, with only the sun during the day and only the moon at night.

At that point the letter took on a sentimental tone. Somehow, an emotional attachment was building inside her, concrete but hard to pinpoint, persistent and tormenting. As she read what she had written, she began to weep silently; she couldn't help it, for she felt deeply aggrieved, since none of this was what she really wanted to say. She desperately wanted to tell Peng how happy she was about the match. How wonderful it would be if someone could say that to him for her, to let him know how she felt. She sealed and posted the letter, though she was careful to give the return address as: "Wang Family Village Elementary School, care of Miss Gao Suqin." Yumi was visibly thinner by the time the letter was on its way.

With the arrival of his son, Wang Lianfang felt more at ease with himself. Obviously, he would not be touching Guifang again, so all of his pent-up energy could be devoted to Youqing's wife. Wang's extramarital affairs had a long and complicated history that began when Guifang was pregnant with Yumi. Having a pregnant wife is not an easy thing for a man. During the first few weeks of marriage, he and his wife were insatiable and could not wait to turn off the light and jump into bed. But the good times came to an end when she missed her period the second month. She was enormously pleased with herself; lying in bed with her hands clasped over her belly, she announced proudly, "I got pregnant the very first night. It had to be, I just know it. I know I got pregnant our first night."

Proud, yes, but not so proud that she forgot to announce the implementation of "martial law": "No more, starting today." Wang Lianfang frowned in the dark, for he thought getting married meant that he could enjoy sex anytime he wanted. It had never dawned on him that marriage led only to a pregnant wife. When he laid his hand on her belly, he sighed silently, but then his fingers took over and his hand began to move lower and lower. At the last moment, she clutched his hand and squeezed it viciously, a wanton, audacious gesture that signaled her pride of accomplishment. He had a desperate need, but he found no outlet; it was an irrepressible need that grew more urgent the more he tried to suppress it. That went on for more than a week.

Wang never imagined that he would have the audacity to do what he did then. At the brigade office one day, he pushed the bookkeeper to the floor, spread her out, and took her. His eyes must have been red from the urgent need that had been building inside him, although his mind was a total blank at the time. He recalled the details only after the fact, when he picked up a copy of
Red Flag
and was hit by a shuddering fear. How, in the middle of the day, had he suddenly become possessed by that thought? The bookkeeper, more than ten years his senior, belonged to an older generation, and he was expected to call her aunty. When it was over, she got up, wiped herself off with a rag, pulled up her pants, tied the waistband, straightened her hair, brushed herself off front and back, locked the rag in a drawer, and walked out. Wang found her nonchalance perplexing. He worried that she might kill herself because of what he'd done. If she did, he would definitely lose his job as the commune's youngest branch secretary. That night he roamed the village till eleven o'clock, keeping his eyes peeled as he searched every corner, his ears pricked for any unexpected sounds. The next day he went to the brigade office at the crack of dawn, where he checked the rafters. Finding no hanging corpse was not reassuring enough. People began to stream in, and when nine o'clock rolled around, in strolled the bookkeeper, polite and cordial as always. Her eyes were not red and puffy, which put Wang enough at ease that he could pass out cigarettes and engage in casual bantering. After a while, she walked up with an account book and a note beneath her finger that said, "Come outside. I want to talk to you." Since it was a written communication, there was no way to gauge her emotion, and the anxiety that had melted away a short time before came rushing back. His heart was pounding as he watched her walk outside and, looking through the slats in the window, saw her return to her house. Agitated though he was, Wang managed to stay put for ten or fifteen minutes. Then, looking appropriately serious, he took out the
Red Flag
magazine, rapped the desktop with his finger as a signal for the others to keep at their studies, and walked out the door. He arrived at the bookkeeper's house alone, where his life as a man truly began. He was not quite a man when he walked through the door, and it was she who taught and guided him to the best times of his life. What kind of husband had he been? There was so much to learn. A battle between the two of them began, one that was drawn-out, difficult, and exhausting, a danger-ridden fight to the bitter end. But they ultimately pulled back from the precipice. He matured quickly, and before long she had nothing more to teach him. Then she looked and sounded terrible; he could even hear her insides collapse and break apart.

BOOK: Three Sisters
6.96Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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