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Authors: Bi Feiyu

Tags: #Historical

Three Sisters (7 page)

BOOK: Three Sisters
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But Yumi wound up going over to her house anyway.
You can't have children,
she said to herself,
and that is your weakness. I'll hit you where it hurts.
So, with little Hongbing in her arms, Yumi strolled casually up to Fenxiang's door, followed by a crowd of women, some with motives, others merely curious. There was tension in the air mixed with excitement. Rather than shut the door and cower inside when she saw Yumi coming, Youqing's wife strode out confidently. She did not have to try to look calm—she was truly unruffled. The first thing she did was come up and begin talking to some of her visitors. Yumi avoided looking at her, and Fenxiang returned the favor—not even sneaking a glance at the girl. In fact, the first stolen glance came from Yumi. Before Yumi had a chance to say a word, Youqing's wife was already talking to the other women about Hongbing—mainly about his appearance. She was saying that he had his mother's mouth and would be better looking if he had his father's.

It was a provocative move, heaping excessive praise on Wang Lianfang's mouth. "But he'll get better looking as he grows up," she continued. "Boys always take after their mothers when they're small. Then, after they start to fill out and head toward manhood, they more and more closely resemble their fathers."

Fenxiang kept talking. "And Hongbing's ears stick out a little too much." Yumi did not want to hear any more of that. Actually, if anything, Youqing's wife's ears protruded more than the boy's did, so Yumi turned and said rudely: "Why don't you go take a look in the mirror."

It was a comment that would have put another woman to shame, producing an embarrassed look worse than tears. Youqing's wife acted as if she hadn't heard. The minute the words were out of her mouth, Yumi knew she'd fallen into the woman's trap by speaking first.

Youqing's wife kept talking to the other women and not looking Yumi's way. "Yumi is such a pretty girl," she was saying. "Too bad she has such a sharp tongue."

She hadn't said that Yumi was a "pretty little thing" or a "pretty youngster." No, she'd used the slightly more refined "pretty girl," as if Yumi were a virtual phoenix that had flown out of a chicken coop. She then changed the direction of the conversation by speaking up for Yumi. "If I were Yumi, I'd be the same way." In the face of such a sincere comment Yumi could say nothing. She already felt like an unmannered shrew. By calling Yumi pretty, Fenxiang settled the matter. Youqing's wife and one of the other women then turned to an appraisal of Yumi's sister, Yuxiu, ending with a comment by Youqing's wife: "Yumi is the graceful sister. Her looks grow on you." That gave the discussion a note of finality.

Yumi knew that the woman was playing up to her, though Fenxiang's expression didn't show it. Not once did she look at Yumi as she spoke, which gave the impression that she was voicing her true feelings. This actually pleased Yumi, but the woman's tone of voice angered her. She spoke as if she and she alone were the voice of authority, that whatever she said was true and therefore not open to discussion. How could something like that not make Yumi angry? Who did she think she was? She was a rotten plaything, and that was all. With a grunt of disapproval, Yumi asked sarcastically, "Pretty?" She attacked the word with ferocity, investing it with a richness of possibilities yet turning it into a dirty word at the same time and all but exterminating it.

That done, she turned and walked off, leaving a clutch of frustrated women in her wake. This first duel with Youqing's wife had ended inconclusively with neither emerging as the victor. But, Yumi thought,
Time is on my side. You came to the village as a bride, so I've got your number. Your pinkie is stuck in the Wang Family Village door, and that is where it'll stay.

Peng Guoliang had originally planned to return to his ancestral home during the busy summer months. But his grandfather could not wait that long—he stopped breathing shortly after the arrival of spring. As they say, "The road down to Yellow Springs waits for no one." After receiving a telegram, Peng returned to his village earlier than he'd anticipated. But after he had returned to Peng Family Village, Yumi heard nothing from him. Then, four days after the body had been placed in the coffin and the first seven-day rites were completed, Peng Guoliang removed his mourning garments and sent word that he was coming to meet Yumi. The news threw her into a panic, but it wasn't Peng's fault that the visit was unplanned. The problem was, Yumi did not have anything decent to wear. With few choices, she settled on her New Year's dress. But she'd worn that over a padded jacket, and when she tried it on without the jacket, the dress was much too big and made her look ludicrous and ugly. There was no time to make a new one, for that would require a trip into town to buy fabric. Disconsolate, she was on the verge of tears, but her happiness over the impending visit prevented the tears from flowing—and that depressed her even more.

Yumi was caught off guard when Youqing's wife stopped her on the street, as if there were no bad blood between them, as if they were meeting for the first time in days and happy to do so.

"You must hate me, Yumi," she blurted out before Yumi could say a word.

Never expecting the woman to bring it up like that, Yumi was speechless.

What a shameless woman,
Yumi said to herself. No one but Fenxiang would say something like that even if they wore their pants over their face to cover their embarrassment.

"How can you dress like that when your aviator is on his way to meet you?" Youqing's wife asked.

Yumi stared at her, paused, and then said, "I'll never have to worry about getting married if men find someone like you attractive." This thoroughly shocked Youqing's wife. It was such a vicious slap in the face that even Yumi felt she might have gone too far. But how else could she even the score with so shameless a woman?

Youqing's wife took a cloth bundle out from under her arm and handed it to Yumi. She had, no doubt, prepared a little speech to go with the gift, but Yumi's comment had so unsettled her she momentarily forgot what she was going to say and she silently thrust the package into Yumi's hands.

"I wore this when I was with the propaganda troupe," she said at last. "I don't have any more use for it."

This was the last thing Yumi had expected, and it seemed somehow improper. But whatever the woman's motive, Yumi could not and would not accept the gift. She handed it back unopened. "A woman can be proud, Yumi," Youqing's wife said, "but not arrogant. The only opportunity for even the most talented woman lies in marriage. This is yours, so don't let the opportunity slip through your fingers. You don't want to wind up like me."

The reference to marriage as her only opportunity had the desired effect on Yumi. This time Youqing's wife pressed the bundle into Yumi's arms and walked off. But she'd only taken four or five steps when she turned and, with tears glistening in her eyes and looking quite heartbroken, smiled sadly. "Don't wind up like me," she repeated. This comment surprised Yumi. Suddenly the woman no longer seemed so overbearing. Who'd have thought that she could have such a low opinion of herself? Yumi found it hard to believe that the woman could feel such bitterness, and she nearly softened her attitude toward Fenxiang. The simple act of the woman's turning back had brought Yumi pain. She had to consider the encounter as a victory, but in a way it was a lackluster one, though she could not have said why. As Yumi stood in the street looking at the bundle in her hands, Youqing's wife's words swirled in her head.

Yumi felt like throwing the gift away, but its history as a propaganda troupe costume—even though it had been worn by Youqing's wife—held a special attraction for her. It was a spring-and-autumn blouse with a turned-down collar and a fitted waistline. Though she and Youqing's wife had similar figures, the blouse seemed a bit tight in the waist. But when she looked in the mirror, Yumi nearly jumped out of her skin. She'd never looked so good—as pretty as a city girl. Girls in the countryside tend to have bent backs, sunken chests, and prominent hip bones because of the years spent carrying heavy loads on their shoulders. But not Yumi.

Standing straight and tall and graced with a full figure, she was able to wear nice clothing as it was meant to be worn. Her figure and the blouse were complementary—they each improved the other. How does the saying go? "A woman needs her clothes; a horse needs its saddle."

But the most stunning effect came from the bustline, where the blouse made her natural curves seem more prominent—as if she were wearing nothing at all. Her breasts jutted out as if they were capable of suckling everyone in the village. Liu Fenxiang must have had a lovely figure back then. No matter how hard she tried, Yumi could not keep from imagining what Youqing's wife had looked like as a young woman. And the images she conjured up were replicated in herself—and that spelled danger. Reluctantly, she took off the blouse and looked at it from all angles as she held it up. She still felt like throwing it away, but she could not bring herself to do so. A sense of self-loathing began to creep in. How, she wondered, could she be so firm in other things, but see her resolve fail over a blouse? I'll put it aside, she said to herself, but I'll be damned if I'll wear it.

Peng Guoliang arrived at Yumi's door in the company of Party Secretary Peng. When Shi Guifang, who was standing in the doorway as usual, saw Secretary Peng walking up with a young man in uniform, she knew what was happening. Standing up straight after putting away her sunflower seeds, she welcomed them with a ready smile. "Sister-in-law," Secretary Peng addressed her when he reached the door. Peng Guoliang stood at attention and saluted stiffly. With a wave of her arm, Shi Guifang invited her guests in. Her prospective son-in-law had made a wonderful first impression despite the excessively formal salute. Initially tongue-tied, all Shi Guifang could do was smile. But fortunately for her, as the wife of a Party secretary, she was not easily flustered. She flipped on the PA system. "Wang Lianfang," she said into the microphone, "please return home at once. The People's Liberation Army is here." She repeated the announcement.

The broadcast was an announcement to the whole village. Within minutes, men and women—young and old, tall and short, fat and skinny—crowded around Shi Guifang's gate. No one needed to be told what she'd meant by announcing the People's Liberation Army. In time Wang Lianfang appeared, buttoning up his collar as the crowd made room for him to stride energetically up to Secretary Peng. They shook hands.

Peng Guoliang snapped to attention and saluted once again. Wang Lianfang reacted by taking out a pack of cigarettes and handing one to each of his visitors. With yet another snappy salute, the younger man said, "Sir, Peng Guoliang respectfully reports that he does not smoke."

Wang met the announcement with a laugh. "Good," he said, "that's good." With one courtesy on top of another, the atmosphere seemed formal, tense even. "So, you're back," Wang Lianfang said.

"Yes," Peng Guoliang replied. Even the crowd outside the door appeared affected by the mood inside, for no one said a word. Peng Guoliang had impressed them with his smart salutes, all perfectly executed, smooth but decisive and resolute.

The arrival of Yumi would bring the story to a climax. She was dragged along after the women had taken Wang Hongbing from her and opened a path to her home. This was a scene they had long anticipated, and once it was acted out they could breathe easier. So they walked her home, one step at a time; all she had to do was lean back and let the others do the work. But when she reached her gate, her courage abandoned her, and she refused to take another step. So a couple of the bolder unmarried girls pushed her up until she was standing in front of Peng Guoliang.

The crowd thought that he might actually salute her, but he didn't. There was total silence. He didn't salute, and he didn't snap to attention. He was, in fact, barely able to stand, and he kept opening and shutting his mouth. When Yumi stole a look at him, the expression on his face put her at ease, though she fidgeted bashfully. Beet-red cheeks made her eyes seem darker, highlighting their sparkle as her gaze darted here and there. To the villagers outside the door she was a pitiful sight, and they could hardly believe that the shy girl they were looking at was actually Yumi. In the end, it seemed, she was a girl like any other. So, with a few lusty shouts from the crowd, the climax passed and the tense mood dissipated. Of course they were happy for Peng Guoliang, but mostly they were happy for Yumi.

Wang Lianfang walked out to treat the men in the crowd to cigarettes and even offered one to the son of Zhang Rujun, who was cradled in his mother's arms, looking foolish as only a baby can. Wang tucked the cigarette behind the boy's ear. "Take it home and give it to your daddy," he said. The people had never seen Wang be so cordial; it was almost as if he were joking with them. A chorus of laughter made for a delightful atmosphere before Wang shooed the crowd away and, with a sigh of relief, shut the door behind him.

Shi Guifang sent Peng Guoliang and Yumi into the kitchen to boil some water. As an experienced housewife, she knew the importance of a kitchen to a young couple. First meetings always turned out the same, with a pair of timid, unfamiliar youngsters seated behind the stove, one pumping the bellows while the other added firewood until the heat turned their faces red and slowly loosened them up. So Guifang closed the kitchen door and told Yuying and Yuxiu to go outside. The last thing she wanted was for the other girls to hang around the house. Except for Yumi, not one of her daughters knew how to behave around people.

While Yumi was lighting the fire, Peng Guoliang gave her a second gift. The first gift, in accordance with age-old customs, had to be a bolt of fabric, some knitting yarn, or something along those lines. But he also presented her with a second set of gifts, proving that he was different from others. He gave her a red Hero fountain pen and a bottle of Hero blue-black ink, a pad of forty-weight letter paper, twenty-five envelopes, and a Chairman Mao pin that glowed in the dark. There was a hint of intimacy attached to all of the gifts, each of which also represented a cultured and progressive spirit.

BOOK: Three Sisters
9.06Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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