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Authors: Bi Feiyu

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Three Sisters (5 page)

BOOK: Three Sisters
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Yumi sneaked Yuye's
New China Dictionary
out of the room. But what good would that do, since she didn't know how to use it? All those unfamiliar words were like schooling fish—knowing they were just beneath the surface did not help her find the ones she wanted. It was hard, nerve-racking work. She rapped herself on the forehead.
What's the
word I want? Where do I find it?
All those missing words held her back. When they simply would not come, she stared at her paper and pen, and fell into despair. Everything she wanted to say turned to tears. With her hands clasped in front of her, she pleaded, "Why won't the heavens take pity on me? Please, please, take pity on me."

Yumi picked up Wang Hongbing and went for a walk, unable to abide another minute in the house, where she was tormented by the unrelenting thought of writing a letter. Her mind was in a fog, her energy depleted. Romance—just what is it? The concept evaded her, and all she could do was talk to Peng Guoliang in her heart. Even then, the finest words she could imagine could not be transferred onto paper. They clogged her heart, bringing only pain. She felt trapped, and there was nothing she could do about it. She was awash in a turmoil caused by sadness, anxiety, oppression, and exhaustion. Fortunately, Yumi was gifted with an extraordinary ability to hold things inside. No one knew what she was going through, even though she grew more gaunt every day.

With Hongbing in her arms, Yumi arrived at the home of Zhang Rujun, whose wife had given birth to a baby—a boy—the year before. They had much to talk about. Rujun's wife, who suffered from an eye problem, was not a pretty woman and thus held no attraction for Yumi's father, a Party secretary. Yumi was sure of that.

Which women her father was involved with, and when, never escaped Yumi's sharp eye. Any woman who treated her with uncommon courtesy immediately put her on alert. She'd had a lot of that. Behind it lay guilt and flattery, an appearance of warmth that masked a sense of dread. The courtesy would be accompanied by the nervous running of fingers through hair. But the real proof was in the eyes, which darted around as if wanting to take in everything while daring to look at nothing, like those of a cornered rat.
Go ahead, be as courteous as you like,
Yumi would think,
you shameless slut. All those nice manners do not alter the fact that you're a trollop, cheap goods.
No friendly look from Yumi ever greeted those women. The funny thing was, the more obvious Yumi's frosty look, the more polite the women became; that, in turn, only increased the intensity of Yumi's look.
You deserve nothing less, you stinking whore. All good-looking women are trash.
If Wang Lianfang hadn't emptied his virility into their bodies, Mama would not have had so many girls. As for Yuxiu, the pretty daughter, Yumi predicted that she'd one day be unable to keep her belt on snugly as well, even though she was Yumi's natural sister.

Rujun's wife was different. She was not pretty, but she was a person of substance; her every action befitted a true woman. She conducted herself in an appropriate, tasteful manner, and her eyes never betrayed a hint of evasiveness. She was not an ignorant woman, which was why Yumi found it so easy to talk to her. But there was another reason why Yumi treated her so well: Her husband was a Zhang, not a Wang. All the residents of Wang Family Village shared one of two surnames: Wang or Zhang. Yumi's grandfather had told her of the fierce enmity between the two clans, an entrenched hatred that had led to many fights and at least a few deaths. One evening, when Wang Lianfang was home drinking with some village cadres, the name Zhang came up, sparking him to pound the table. "Two surnames isn't the problem," he said. "We're talking about two distinct classes."

Yumi, who happened to be in the kitchen lighting a fire in the stove, heard every word. Currently the two clans lived in peace and enjoyed an atmosphere of relative tranquillity with no outward signs of discord. And yet people had died in the past, a fact that could not be brushed away. The dead had borne their rage into the grave, and one day it would sprout anew. However placid things seemed, however harmonious the surface or calm the winds, a powerful undercurrent of hostility lay hidden deep in the hearts of the Zhang clan. They always addressed Yumi's father as Secretary Wang, but just because the enmity was not in full view did not negate its existence. If every important matter were out in the open, people would not be people; they'd be more like pigs and dogs. And so Yumi used the more common forms of address with members of the Wang clan, reserving such intimate terms as "sister" and "aunty" for members of the Zhang clan. She kept outsiders close, like family, precisely because they couldn't be trusted like family.

Cradling her baby brother, Yumi had a casual conversation with Sister Zhang just inside the gate. Rujun's wife, who had been holding her own son when she spotted Yumi, quickly carried the boy inside and returned with a stool. She reached out to take Hongbing. "A change will do you good," she said when Yumi held back. "Food from a neighbor's pot always tastes better."

Yumi sat down and glanced at the end of the lane. That glance did not escape Rujun's wife, who knew that the visit, like others in recent days, had more to do with where she lived than who she was, for her house was an ideal vantage point to spot the arrival of the postman. She did not, however, let on and chose instead to sing the praises of little Wang Hongbing. There are countless ways to make a mistake; heaping praise on someone's child is not one of them. She and her visitor had been chatting about a variety of things for a while, when Rujun's wife saw Yumi sit up tall and peer over her head. Knowing that someone was coming their way, Rujun's wife lowered her head and listened carefully.

When the familiar sound of a bicycle chain did not materialize, she knew it wasn't the postman. No need to be concerned. Suddenly laughter erupted behind her, so Rujun's wife turned to see who was coming. It was a clutch of youngsters, their heads bunched together as they fought to peek at something. They were as excited as if they'd seen a table groaning with food. Slowly they approached Rujun's house as Jianguo, called Little Five, looked up and spotted Yumi. He waved and shouted, "Come here, Yumi, it's a letter from Peng Guoliang."

Not sure if she should believe him, Yumi went up to Little Five. Excitedly, he held an envelope out to her with one hand and a letter with the other. A quick glance satisfied her that it was Peng Guoliang's handwriting. It was her letter, a letter from her aviator. The blood rushed to her head. Beside herself with embarrassment, she felt as if she were being paraded through town naked. "I don't want it," she shouted. As soon as Little Five saw the look on her face, he folded the letter, stuffed it into the envelope, and licked the flap closed before holding it out to her. She knocked it out of his hand. He bent down, picked it up, and said, "It's yours, honest. It's to you from Peng Guoliang."

This time Yumi snatched it out of his hand and flung it to the ground. "You and your whole family can drop dead," she said, stunning everyone standing in the lane. This was not the Yumi they knew. They had never seen her blow up like this. It was serious. Uncle Pockface, who lived in the lane, heard the disturbance and came over, holding one finger in the air. With an angry look, he walked up to Little Five, bent down, and picked up the letter.

"Spit's no good. See, it's open again."

He sealed the envelope with pasty kernels of rice and held it out to Yumi. "Now that's taken care of," he said.

"But they all read it!"

Uncle Pockface laughed. "My son Xingwang is in the army, and when he writes home, I have to ask someone to read his letter for me."

Speechless, Yumi just trembled.

"You can have the nicest clothes in the world, but when you put them on, people will see them," Uncle Pockface said. Somehow that made perfect sense. He smiled, his eyes turned to slits, and the pockmarks on his face went from round to oval. But Yumi's heart was in shreds. Gao Suqin had opened two of Yumi's letters, so Yumi had asked Peng Guoliang to stop writing to her care of her teacher. What good had that done? In recent days people had mentioned all kinds of peculiar things to her, some of which sounded suspiciously like what had been in his letters. At first, she'd thought she was being overly sensitive, but not now. The whole village was reading his letters before they reached her. Why wear clothes if people's eyes seemed to be growing out of her navel? Everything about her, it seemed, was an open secret. After his attempt to make her feel better, Uncle Pockface went home. But by then, Yumi's face was drained of color and two lines of tears glistened in the sunlight like long, shiny scars. Rujun's wife, who had witnessed it all, did not know what to do and was suddenly fearful. For some strange reason, she opened her blouse, freed one of her breasts, and stuck the nipple in Wang Hongbing's mouth.

Youqing's wife had come from Li Ming Village, once known as Willow River Village. The government had renamed it in honor of Li Ming, a villager who had been martyred in 1948. Prior to her arrival in Wang Family Village, Youqing's wife, whose maiden name was Liu Fenxiang, had earned a reputation as a singer who could reach even the highest notes. The natural charm and appeal of her smile allowed her to win over every listener. Her appearance, too, was special. Dark skin enhanced her beauty, which had none of the contrived qualities of city girls. A cleft chin and a perfectly round mole below her mouth and to the right gave her a slightly seductive look. But the real standouts were her eyes. Free of the sluggish, dull look of a country girl, they were lively and expressive, capable of sending suggestive messages as she gazed from side to side.

This, people said, was a bad habit she'd picked up performing in a propaganda troupe. Liu Fenxiang would shut her eyes before she laughed, causing her lashes to flutter briefly. Then she'd open her eyes, cock her head, and laugh. Li Ming villagers summed up her laughter by calling it "a wanton sound and a coquettish look, typical of a low-class woman." Thus there were two sides to Fenxiang's renown, one of them, obviously, not good. "She's a girl you want to avoid," people said in private. It was an ambiguous comment, with multiple interpretations, a case of "The mutt can't mount the bitch unless she offers herself up." In other words, once she got her claws into someone, she could do what she pleased.

There is plenty of talk like that. Everything is fine so long as it remains unspoken; but once it's out in the open, it gains credibility and can inflict mortal injury. All comments aside, Liu Fenxiang came to Wang Family Village as a bride with child; that was an indisputable fact. Some of the more perceptive women pointed out knowingly, "At least four months along. Just look at her buttocks." The father's identity was a mystery, and according to the least-generous view, even she could not be sure. It so happened that during those days Fenxiang had performed with the troupe at all the nearby communes, where men had taken turns pressing down on her body. All that flattening eventually had turned to swelling. That's a woman for you: Neither her belly nor her mouth can keep secrets. For Liu Fenxiang, her belly was her ruin—and cost her her good name; and Wang Youqing was the beneficiary. When this unexpected good fortune fell from the sky, he could not have been happier.

The wedding arrangements outpaced the swelling of Fenxiang's belly. They demanded both great speed and steely determination, and took less time to complete than it would to describe them. Word of Wang Youqing's betrothal didn't even make the rounds before Liu Fenxiang of Li Ming Village became a Wang Family Village housewife. She arrived without a trousseau; but even if Wang Youqing had been able to afford it, why waste rations on clothes that will fit only for a short while?

In the end, Youqing's new wife did not deliver the child. After a bad fall she began to bleed, and that night she miscarried. Suspicion—and nothing more concrete than that, since there were no witnesses—arose that her mother-in-law "accidentally bumped her from behind" and sent her tumbling off a footbridge. It happened soon after Fenxiang joined Youqing's family, on a day when she and her mother-in-law were walking across the bridge, chatting happily like mother and daughter. Just before they reached the riverbank, her mother-in-law stumbled and bumped into her from behind. While the older woman managed to keep her feet, her daughter-in-law landed hard on the riverbank.

Fenxiang spent the next month laid up in bed, lovingly attended by her mother-in-law, who saw to it that she ate a half
jin
of brown sugar and a whole chicken every day. "Our Fenxiang sprained her hip in the fall," she told people. She was clever to a fault, and clever people have a common failing: They are given to calling attention to things that are better kept under wraps. Everyone knew that Youqing's wife was laid up from a miscarriage.

So came the strange consequence that Fenxiang entered the marriage pregnant, but never carried Youqing's child. Two years had passed since then, and Youqing's wife's figure was, if anything, slimmer than ever. Distraught over the lack of a grandchild, Youqing's mother grumbled in front of her son: "Now I see. This girl does what she shouldn't do and does not do what she should. Productive outside, lazy at home."

Stung by the comment, Youqing had no idea how to respond. Basically a decent man, he decided his only recourse was to work harder in bed, giving it his all. His "all" fell short. But his biggest mistake was to repeat what his mother had said. His wife was livid and immediately attributed the comment to her gossipy mother-in-law. Youqing was too simple and too decent to come up with anything that evil, that hurtful. Deeply angered, Fenxiang flung curses at her husband, all indirectly aimed at his mother. And, never one to let a matter drop, she demanded that his mother move out: "It's her or it's me, you choose."

On the day she swept her mother-in-law out of the house, Fenxiang fired a ruthless parting shot: "You old cunt, you'll never again hold a man between your legs." Yet, if the truth be known, her mother-in-law's comment had not been altogether unreasonable. The longer the daughter-in-law went without having a child, the uglier the villagers' comments grew, many of them aimed at Youqing himself. All mothers come to the defense of their sons, which is why his had complained about her daughter-in-law. "Youqing doesn't appear to be a virile fellow," the villagers were saying.

BOOK: Three Sisters
2.25Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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