Shifu, You'll Do Anything For A Laugh Part 10

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Rain had washed the government compound until everything was clean and fresh. Red bricks and green tiles, and the surrounding thickets of green bamboo, sparkled wetly. There were no human sounds in the compound. A pointy-eared mongrel watchdog with a missing tail lay on the concrete steps staring at me warily, before narrowing its eyes. A check of wooden signs above a series of doors led me to the office I was looking for. I knocked - three times. Suddenly I heard a rustling behind me, just before I felt a sharp pain in my leg. I looked down, but by then the d.a.m.ned watchdog, which had just bitten me on the calf, had already returned to the step and was sprawled out lazily. It didn't make a sound as it lay there licking its chops; it even flashed me a friendly smile. How could I help but feel a fondness for a dog like that, even though it had just bitten me? You might think I'd hate it, but I didn't hate it. In my view, it was one terrific dog. But why had it bitten me? It was not a random act, so there must have been a reason. In this world, there is no love without reason or cause; nor, for that matter, hatred. Most likely the bite was intended for me to reach a sudden awakening through pain. True danger never comes from the front, always from the rear; true danger is not embodied in a mad dog with bared fangs, but in the sweet smile of, say, a Mona Lisa. I'd have missed that fact if I'd not been forced to think about it; once the thought struck me, I was startled into awareness. Thank you, dog, you with the pointy snout and a face drenched in artistic colors!

My pant leg felt sticky, and hot. That must have meant blood. Anytime I bled for someone, the person who'd drunk my blood would curse me, "Your blood is rancid! Get the h.e.l.l out of here!" I wondered if this abandoned child I'd rescued might also curse me for having rancid blood.

The door, whose green paint had begun to peel and chip, was flung open, and there in front of me stood a dark-skinned mountain of a man. After sizing me up, he demanded, "Who are you looking for?"

"The Township Head," I said.

"That's me. Come in, have a seat. Hey, your leg's bleeding. How'd that happen?" "Your dog bit me."

The dark-skinned man's face twisted into anger. "d.a.m.n! Would you look at that! I'm sorry. It's all Scarface Su's fault. The People's Compound isn't some landlord's mansion, so why keep a watchdog around? Is that a hint that the People's Government is afraid of the people? Or that we're in favor of having vicious dogs rupture the flesh-and-blood ties with the people?"

"That doesn't rupture ties," I said, pointing to my injured leg, "it molds them."

By then the blood had dripped from my calf down to the heel of my shoe, and from there to the brick floor, where it was soaked up by a long cigarette b.u.t.t. I saw the brand name - it was Front Gate, the tobacco strips the color of yellow chrysanthemums.

"Little w.a.n.g!" the dark-skinned man shouted. "Come in here!" The man rushed into the room and stood with his arms at his sides, waiting for instructions. "Take this comrade soldier over to the clinic for treatment," the dark-skinned man said. "And bring a receipt back for reimburs.e.m.e.nt. Then go borrow a rifle from Supply Department Head Xia, and shoot that d.a.m.ned dog!"

I stood up. "Chief, that's not why I'm here to see you," I said. "I want to report something important. I can take care of the injury to my leg myself, and I'd rather you let the dog live. He's quite a dog, and I'm in his debt."

"I don't care. We were going to have to shoot that dog sooner or later anyway! It's a menace! You couldn't know, but it's already bitten twenty people! You're the twenty-first. If we don't put the thing down now, it might really hurt somebody someday. There's enough chaos around here already. We don't need any more."

"Please don't kill it, Chief," I said. "It's got its reasons for biting people."

"All right," the dark-skinned man said with a wave of his hand, "all right. What is it you want to see me about?"

I fumbled in my pocket for a cigarette, which I handed to him. "I don't smoke," he said with an emphatic wave.

Somewhat embarra.s.sed, I lit one for myself and stammered, "Chief, I found an abandoned girl."

His eyes lit up like torches; he snorted.

"It was yesterday, about noon, in the sunflower field east of Three Willows. A girl, wrapped in red satin, along with twenty-one yuan."

"Here we go again!" he blurted out, annoyed. "I couldn't just let her die!" I said.

"Did I say you should have? What I said was, here we go again! Here we go again! You have no idea of the pressure I'm under. Once the peasants got their land, they saw themselves as free men, who were also free to have as many kids as they wanted. One after another, that's all they did, at least until they got the sons they wanted."

"Don't we have a one-child policy?"

He smiled a wry smile. "One child? Two kids, three kids, four, even five, I've seen it all. One-point-one billion people? That's a laugh. I'll bet we're up to one-point-two by now. There isn't a township anywhere that doesn't have at least two or three hundred unregistered kids. And they'll all rot right here in China!"

"I thought they could be fined."

"That's right. Two thousand for the second child, four thousand for the third, and eight thousand for the fourth. And so what? People with money don't care if you fine them. You're from East Village, aren't you? Do you know Two-Toothed Wu? He's got four kids. No land, a run-down three-room house, one big cook pot, a water jug, and a rickety three-legged table. So we fine him, and he says, 'I don't have any money, so I'll give you kids instead. You want one? Take one. You want two? Take two. They're all girls anyway' So tell me, what are we supposed to do?"

"Forced sterilizations ... hasn't that been done?" I asked cautiously "It sure has. It's the hottest policy these days. But those people can smell us out better than a hound dog. As soon as they're tipped off, they light out for the northeast, where they cool their heels for a year. By the time they're back in the spring, they've got another kid to raise. If I had access to reinforcements, s.h.i.t, I'd be in fine shape! p.r.i.c.ks that'll do stuff like that aren't human. I don't dare go out walking at night anymore. I'm afraid of getting mugged."

My dog-bit leg twitched.

He laughed contemptuously.

I could see the hound dog through the open door; it was sprawled comfortably and, apparently, safely on the steps. Department Head Xia of the Supply Department probably didn't have a gun at his house.

"What about the girl I found?"

"There's nothing I can do," the dark-skinned man said. "You found her, so she's yours. Take her home and raise her."

"What kind of att.i.tude is that, Chief? She's not mine, so why should I raise her?"

"You don't expect me to raise her, do you? The Township Government isn't an orphanage."

"Not me, I can't raise her."

"Then what do you suggest? The government didn't force you to take the kid home."

"Then ITI put her back where I found her."

"That's up to you. But if she starves to death in the sunflower field, or is torn apart by dogs, you'll be charged with infanticide."

I choked, then coughed as tears welled up in my eyes.

He looked at me sympathetically and poured some tea in a gla.s.s coated with half an inch of crud. I sipped the tea and gazed at him.

"Go ask around," he said. "Maybe there's a widow or widower somewhere who's willing to take in a child. If not, then just take her home and raise her yourself. Do you have family in the village? Including a child? If so, and you take this one into your home, that'll make two kids. We'll have to fine you two thousand."

"d.a.m.n you!" I jerked my gla.s.s of tea up into the air, but then laid it down gently. With tears clouding my eyes, I said, "Tell me, Chief, does justice exist anywhere in this world?"

He just grinned, showing his strong, yellow front teeth.

My leg itched terribly, and when I saw drops of liquid on the floor, I shuddered. I figured it had to be rabies. Even my gums began to itch, and I had a powerful urge to bite somebody. From behind me, the dark-skinned man said, "Don't worry, somebody will take her. And we'll help any way we can."

All I wanted to do was take a bite out of him!

Six days pa.s.sed. The baby went through the sack of powdered milk, had six healthy bowel movements, and peed a dozen or more times into four diapers I'd begged from my wife, changing them as often as necessary. I must say that she was reluctant to "lend" me the diapers, since she was saving them for our future son. After washing and folding them neatly, she'd stacked them in a chest like handkerchiefs. She did not hide the look of deep disapproval when she handed them to me.

The baby had an enviable appet.i.te and a strong pair of lungs, as her cries proved. She didn't seem at all like a newborn baby. I hunkered down next to her as she lay in the winnowing basket and fed her from the bottle, gripped by a gray chill as I watched her swallow the nipple and observed the fierce look on her face when she gulped the milk down in a frenzy. She frightened me, for I sensed that she presented a constellation of calamities for me. I often asked myself why I'd picked her up in the first place. My wife took pleasure in reminding me that her own parents hadn't given a d.a.m.n about her, so why should I be the do-gooder? Squatting down beside the winnowing basket, I was often taken back to that sun-drenched field of sunflowers, where flowery heads drooped of their own weight to roll mechanically and clumsily around the stalks, sending so much fine golden pollen raining to the ground like teardrops that it even swamped anthills.

My nose told me that the skin around the dog bite had begun to rot; flies were already circling the infected area, their bellies packed with microscopic maggots, like a fully loaded bomber. I figured the infection would probably spread until the whole rotten limb was stiff as a frozen gourd. I wondered what this little girl would think of me after the leg was amputated and I had to walk with crutches, lurching back and forth like the pendulum of a clock. Would she be as grateful to me as ever? No way. Not on your life. Any time I made a major sacrifice for anyone, all I ever got in return was deep-seated loathing and vicious curses, unparalleled in their savagery. My heart was deeply scarred, pierced all the way through. And whenever I offered it to someone, fully marinated in soy sauce, all they ever did was p.i.s.s on it. I loathed humanity, in all its hideousness, from the depths of my soul, and that included this gluttonous baby girl. Why had I rescued her in the first place? I could hear her reproachful voice: Why did you rescue me? Did you expect grat.i.tude? If not for you, I'd have long since departed this filthy world, you perverse blundering fool! What you deserve is another dog bite.

As my thoughts ran wild, my attention was caught by a mature smile creasing the baby's face, sweet as beet sugar. She had a tiny dimple, the skin between her eyebrows had begun to flake, and her elongated head had gotten rounder. No matter how you looked at it, she was a lovely, healthy baby. In the face of this warm, sincere life, splendid as a sunflower - there I was, thinking about sunflowers again - I refuted all my absurd thoughts. Maybe I was wrong to loathe people, and now it was time to love them. The philosophy teacher reminded me that pure hate and pure love are both ephemeral and should coexist. So be it: I would loathe and love people at the same time.

The twenty-one yuan I'd found in the swaddling clothes had barely paid for one sack of milk powder, and I'd made no progress in my search for a new home. My wife's constant mutterings rang in my ears. And my parents, well, they were like marionettes, often going the whole day without saying a word, a perfect complement to my gabby wife. Our daughter was fascinated by the new baby, often sitting beside me as I squatted by the winnowing basket and stared at the little girl lying inside it. Anyone seeing us might have thought we were captivated by some strange tropical fish.

If I couldn't find somewhere to dispose of the baby very soon, and if she ate up the twenty-one yuan her parents had left with her, I knew what was in store for me. So off I went, dragging my injured leg behind me as I visited every one of the dozen or more villages in the township, begging for help from every childless family. The answer was virtually the same every time: We want a son, not a daughter. Up till then, I had always considered my township to be a special place with upstanding people, but a few days of traveling from one end to the other quickly changed that opinion. The place was teeming with ugly little boys, all of whom stared at me with eyes like dead fish, deep wrinkles creasing their foreheads, the expressions on their faces those of long-suffering, hateful impoverished peasants. They shuffled along when they walked, their backs were already stooped, and they coughed like old men. The sight intensified my sense that mankind was in worse shape than ever. To me, they were living proof that the villages in my township were filled with "little treasures" who should never have been born in the first place. Despairing for the future of my hometown, I forced myself not to think of the posterity these males who were old before their time might produce.

One day, while I was out on the road trying to unload the baby, I ran into an old friend from elementary school. He couldn't have been more than twenty-two or twenty-three, but he looked fifty. When the conversation turned to families, he said sadly, "I'm still a bachelor, and I guess that's how I'll stay."

"I thought you were well off financially."

"I'm doing all right, but there just aren't enough women to go around. If I had sisters, I could work a swap for a wife. Unfortunately, I don't."

"I thought township regulations outlawed that kind of marriage arrangement."

He gave me a puzzled look. "Just what do those township regulations mean?"

I nodded. When I told him about the baby I'd found and all the trouble that had caused me, he listened in stony silence, without a trace of sympathy in his eyes. He just puffed on the cigarette I'd given him. The tip of the cigarette sizzled, but not a wisp of smoke emerged from his mouth or nose. As far as I could tell, it all disappeared deep down in his stomach.

Five days later he came to see me. With obvious embarra.s.sment, he said, "Why not... why not give me the baby? I'll raise her till she's eighteen. ..."

I looked agonizingly into his face, which showed even greater agony, waiting for him to continue.

"When she's eighteen ... I'll only be fifty ... and who says I can't..."

"Old friend," I interrupted, "don't say any more, please."

I bought two more sacks of powdered milk with my own money, to which my wife responded by smashing one of our chipped bowls. Through tears of genuine sorrow, she said, "I've had it! I can't take it anymore! You obviously don't care what happens to us anyway... . I've scrimped on food till I don't need to go to the toilet anymore, just to save money. And for what? So you can buy milk for somebody else's kid?"

"You're my wife," I said, "so please don't take your unhappiness out on me. You see me go out every day to find a home for her, don't you?"

"You should never have brought her home in the first place."

"Yes, I know that. But I did, and we can't let her starve."

"What does that make you, a man with a good heart?"

"Good people don't get what they deserve, do they? After all these years we've been together, I wish you wouldn't nag me. If you've got a solution, tell me, what is it? We can work together to place this child somewhere, what do you say?"

"Yes," she said, flashing her most fetching pout. "Once we get rid of this child, we can have another one of our own."

"Have another one?"

"Yes, a son!"

"Another one!"

"Twins would be best."

"Yes. Yes."

"Go to the hospital and talk to our aunt. Maybe she can come up with something. Widows and widowers from the city are always asking her to help them find children."

The final battle. If my aunt, who worked in the hospital's obstetrics ward, couldn't help me find a home, the chances were 80 or 90 percent that I was fated to be the baby's adoptive father. If that's how this all wound up, it would be an unending calamity both for her and for me. I lay in bed that night, oblivious to the onslaught of bedbugs, listening to my wife grind her teeth, smack her lips, and breathe heavily as she dreamt; my heart felt as if it had turned to ice. Finally, I crawled quietly out of bed and went outside, where I looked up at the desolate stars in the sky and felt I had, at last, found a bit of understanding. The damp night air wet my back, and my nose ached from sadness. All of a sudden I knew the importance of treasuring my own life; for too long I'd lived for other people, and vowed to reserve some of the love in my soul for myself. Back inside, I heard the gentle, even breathing of the baby in her winnowing basket. Picking up a flashlight, I shone it down on her. She'd wet herself again, and the liquid had seeped through the slats of the basket onto the floor. I changed her diaper. With Heaven's help, this would be the last time I had to do that!

My aunt, who had just finished delivering a baby, was sprawled in a chair in her white uniform, which was covered with sweat and drops of blood, trying to catch her breath. She'd gotten a lot older in the year since I'd last seen her. She bent forward in greeting when she saw me walk in. Her nurse was in the delivery room cleaning up; a newborn infant in its cradle was bawling.

I sat down in the same nurse's chair I'd sat in the year before, directly across from my aunt. A plastic-covered obstetrics textbook for nurses lay on the table.

"What are you doing back here?" she asked lazily. "After you were here last year, you went back and wrote a book that made me look like some kind of demon!"

"It wasn't well written," I said with an embarra.s.sed smile.

"Want to hear a story about a fox fairy?" she asked. "If I'd known that even a fox fairy tale could wind up in a book, I'd have given you a whole trainful of them."

Without any encouragement from me, and no regard for how exhausted she was after having delivered a baby, she told me a story. During the previous winter, she began, an old man out gathering manure early one morning encountered a fox with a broken leg. He picked it up and carried it home on his back as a pet. The fox's injured leg was nearly healed when the old man's son came to visit. This son, an impetuous young fellow, was a battalion commander. The moment he laid eyes on the fox, he took out his revolver and, without a word, shot it dead. As if that weren't enough, he skinned the animal and nailed its hide to the wall to dry out. The old man nearly died of fright, but his son merely hummed a little tune, unfazed by what he'd done.

At noon the next day, the old man's son made fox dumplings for lunch: he sliced the meat; chopped up coriander, leeks, and onions; and added sesame oil, soy sauce, pepper, and MSG - a cornucopia of flavors. The skins he fashioned out of turnip flour - white and shiny, like pieces of fine ceramic. When they were all wrapped, he dumped them into a pot of boiling water - once, twice, three times, until they were ready to eat. But when he scooped them out, all that came up were little donkey t.u.r.ds. He scooped up some more. More donkey t.u.r.ds. And again, with the same result. The son's hair stood on end. That night, when every door and window in the house began to rattle, the son took out his revolver; but nothing happened when he pulled the trigger. Finally, they had no choice but to perform funeral rites for the fox.

My aunt knew so many fox and ghost stories it would have taken her three days and nights to tell them all, and since the time, place, and other details were based on fact, you had to believe them. Her talents were wasted, I was thinking. She should have been busying herself editing a New Tales of Strange Events.

Relating all those ghost stories invigorated my aunt. The newborn baby in the delivery room was still wailing when the nurse flung open the door, fuming mad, and said, "What kind of mother is that? She has her baby, dusts herself off, and runs away."

I cast a questioning glance at my aunt.

"She's the wife of a man from Black Water Village who's already had three children, all girls. She was hoping for a boy, but no such luck. And when her husband heard she'd had another girl, he simply drove off in his horse cart. Not the sort of father you see every day. Well, when she saw him run off like that, she jumped down off the delivery table, pulled up her pants, and ran out crying, leaving her new baby behind."

I followed my aunt into the delivery room to look at the newly abandoned baby. She was scrawny as a sickly kitten, nowhere as plump and healthy looking as the baby I'd found, and not nearly as cute; nor, for that matter, were her cries as robust. For some reason, that was a comforting thought.

My aunt poked her belly gently. "Slothful little thing," she said. "Why couldn't you grow one more little piece of meat? With it you'd have been the apple of their eye; without it you're nothing but an offensive little t.u.r.d."

"What do we do with her?" the nurse asked. "We can't just leave her here, can we?"

My aunt turned to me. "Why don't you take her home with you? I've seen her parents, and there's nothing wrong with them. Tall, st.u.r.dy peasants, both of them. So this one ought to turn out just fine, maybe even a real beauty."

I was on my way out of the room before she'd even finished.

I sat in the sunflower field transfixed, my rear end and legs turning numb from the damp ground. I had no desire to stand up. The petals of the dish-shaped sunflowers had curled up and turned black, like eyelashes. Countless black, seedy eyes were staring at me. Dark cottony clouds blocked out the sun. The floral heads hung down in a state of disorder, as if in sad stupefaction. Black ants were busy rebuilding their tiny fortresses on the flat, muddy ground, making them taller and st.u.r.dier than the last time I'd seen them, oblivious to the reality that they would be leveled yet again the next time it rained, in utter disregard of the architectural history of their splendid ant kingdom. Lacking even a breath of wind, the sunflower field was oppressive as a kitchen steamer, in which a meaty, delectable duck - me - was being prepared.

Sitting there, I was reminded of something beautiful that had occurred in a big city somewhere: A beautiful, genteel young woman was in the habit of killing and eating young men. She braised their thighs, steamed their hips, and cooked their shredded hearts and livers in vinegar and garlic. Having devoured quite a few young men, the young woman was the picture of good health. Then I recalled something that had happened in China's distant past, right here in my own hometown: A chef by the name of Yi Ya cooked his own son and presented it to Duke Huan of Qi. They say that Yi Ya's son was incomparably delicious, far tastier than the tenderest lamb.

Those thoughts fortified my belief that human nature was more fragile than the thinnest paper. Just then, gusts of wind made the coa.r.s.e sunflower leaves rustle coa.r.s.ely as they brushed my head and face and, at the same time, rubbed against my pitted heart like sandpaper. I don't think I'd ever felt quite so comfortable. When the gusty wind died down, insects all around me burst forth with wonderful sounds. A small locust was riding on the back of a larger one next to a sunflower stalk; they were mating. In at least one significant way, they and humans are alike; that is to say, they are no more lowly than we, and we are no more n.o.ble than they. Nonetheless, hope was plentiful there in the sunflower field. Those drooping flowers were like countless children's faces, gazing at me affectionately, consoling me, and instilling me with the strength to come to grips with the world around me, no matter how painful that knowledge and understanding might be.

Unexpectedly, I was reminded of the conclusion to "Dolls of Michinoku." Once the author of the story understood the custom of drowning babies and had returned to Tokyo, he happened to see a row of marionettes, their eyes closed, hanging in a department store, coated with dust. The sight reminded him of all those babies who were cast into raging waters before they could open their eyes or cry for the first time. But I could find no such symbol on which to pin my sorrow and bring this chapter to an end. The sunflowers? The locusts? The ants? Crickets? Worms? Absurd, all of them. None of them represented the true face of life. In the tunnel I had dug for myself, I kept b.u.mping into the white bones of abandoned children, and I told myself that these human beings who filled the air with sounds that might have been crying and might have been laughter could not be viewed as unvirtuous or dishonest or unlovely. Do the abandoned infants of Michinokou now belong to history? Condoms, IUDs, birth control pills, male and female sterilization, and abortions have combined to eliminate the cruel practice of drowning the infants of Michinokou.

And yet, here, in this place, where the land is blanketed with yellow flowers, the issue is much more complex than that. Doctors and the Township Government can work in concert to force sterilization upon men and women of child-bearing age, but where might we find a wonder drug capable of uprooting and eliminating the petrified notions that cleave to the brains of people in my hometown?

Also by Mo Yan.

Red Sorghum.

The Garlic Ballads.

The Republic of Wine.

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Shifu, You'll Do Anything For A Laugh Part 10 summary

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