write a three pages paper (see below) discussing the articles or book’s main points and critiquing them.


1. write a three pages paper (see below) discussing the articles or book’s main points and critiquing them.  

2. Find 1-3 additional newspaper or research articles about the topic to see if there are other ways of looking at the issue. 

Yan, Lianke.   Dream of Ding Village . New York, Grove Press, 2011.  (Dream)

If you do not have this book I could offer my E-book. And My work only need second half of the book. start  volume 4 chapter 3. 

CHAPTER THREE

1

It happened just like Jia Genzhu said it would: Uncle’s marriage was ruined, his wife and child gone, his family destroyed. It was the latest in a series of calamities to hit Ding Village.

Ruin had come early this year, with the spring.

The plain was a thick carpet of green. In the fields, the new crop of wheat was raising its head, and the soil, which had lain dormant all winter, now turned its energy to growth. Rich or poor soil alike was fertile enough at this time of year to nourish the young wheat and allow it to thrive. It would be at least another fortnight, or perhaps another month, before the relative wealth or paucity of the soil began to show. By mid-spring, when the nutrients in the sandy topsoil had been exhausted, some of the plants would become emaciated, thin and pale. But now, in the first few weeks of spring, everything was lush and green.

Grasses and wild flowers lined the roadsides, sproutingfrom gaps between fields and invading plots of untilledland. They grew madly, uncontrollably … blooms of red and white, yellow and purple, sandwiched between rectangles of green like a calico print. Red stood out bold and strong against a blur of pale yellow and smudges of green. The plain was a patchwork of colour, a world in disarray, growing free and wild. Even the solitary trees had burst into life: new leaves budded from their branches, gently swaying in the breeze. It was like the whole plain was bursting into song.

Beyond the fields was the ancient path of the Yellow River, a silted, sand-strewn channel that had lain dry for centuries, perhaps millennia. A thousand yards wide at its broadest point, a hundred at its narrowest, it snaked across the Central Plain for miles and miles. No one knew its exact length: to the villagers, it seemed as boundless as the sky. A sandy swathe that lay several feet below the level of the plain, it was like a broad grey belt pulled tight around the midriff of the earth, an enduring reminder of a river defeated by time. Now that spring had turned the sandy belt to green, filling it with vegetation, the channel was indistinguishable from the landscape around it. The plain had turned into a level playing field, a vast flatness of green.

Green earth. Green sky. Green villages. All the world had become lush and green.

The wheels of industry, too, had awakened with the spring. The residents of Ding Village elementary school bustled around as if they had miraculously returned to full health, carting items from the school back to their homes. Jia Genzhu and Ding Yuejin had divided the school property among the residents: desks and chairs and blackboards, chests and wash-stands, beds and bedding once used in the teachers’ quarters, crossbeams and rafters and scavenged planks of wood.

Uncle had returned to the village, to his own house. Tingting, who had gone back to her hometown to stay with her mother, sent word that she didn’t want to see Uncle again as long as she lived. Or as long as he lived. The next time they met, she said, she hoped he’d be lying in a coffin. Once he was dead, she would come back to the village to sell the house and collect the furniture. And so Uncle had no choice but to leave the school and move back into his house, to keep an eye on the property and possessions that would be sold or taken after his death.

Grandpa was no longer the caretaker of the school. No longer did anyone regard him as a caretaker, or treat him as a teacher. He was just an old man from the village who happened to live in the school. Disconnected from the residents, he took no part in their meals or medicines, conversations or chess games, or the ups and downs of their disease. Nor did anyone show him much respect. Although he still lived beside the main gate, few residents passing through gave him so much as a nod. If they did deign to greet him, it was only because he had greeted them first. If someone did nod his way, he returned the greeting eagerly. As for what was being said or done inside the classrooms, as for what the several dozen residents said or did in their spare time, it had absolutely nothing to do with him. He was lucky that they let him live in the school at all.

Once, as one of the residents, a spotty young man in his early twenties, was coming through the gate, Grandpa asked him: ‘Now that Genzhu’s little brother is married, did he ever return those desks he borrowed?’

‘You mean Chairman Jia? No one calls him Genzhu any more.’

Grandpa stared at the man, speechless.

‘Didn’t you know? Uncle Jia and Uncle Ding are our new chairmen.’

The young man continued into the schoolyard, leaving Grandpa speechless at the gate, gawping like a rejected traveller at a border crossing. The school was a different country, and Grandpa was no longer a citizen.

Then the next day, at dusk, as the sun faded from a brilliant yellow to a pale, washed-up pink, Zhao Xiuqin had returned from the village carrying a bamboo basket filled with cabbages, carrots, rice noodles, two fish, several pounds of meat and a bottle of liquor. The meat looked to be the freshest, finest cut of pork; the label on the bottle read ‘Song River Sorghum’, the best local sorghum whisky money could buy. Even unopened, the bottle gave off a powerful fragrance. As Zhao Xiuqin passed through the gate, Grandpa smiled benevolently and said: ‘Aha … we’re moving up in the world, I see.’

The cook beamed. ‘Yes, I’m making dinner for Chairman Jia and Chairman Ding tonight.’

Grandpa was confused. ‘So that meat isn’t for everyone?’

‘Chairman Jia and Chairman Ding managed to get us some government funding,’ the cook explained, ‘so we thought we’d all pitch in and make them a nice meal. You know, to thank them.’

It was only then that Grandpa realized Jia Genzhu and Ding Yuejin had been appointed co-chairmen of the Ding Village task torce on HIV and AIDS, thus the elevated titles. There was a new social order in the school, a new pecking order. It wasn’t so different from the periodic political reshufflings in village, county, district or provincial government; there had been a changing of the guard, and nothing would be the same. Grandpa couldn’t help but feel bitter, somehow impoverished. But since the lives of the sick villagers seemed to be less so, there was really nothing he could say. He had no authority, nothing to do and no one to lead.

He woke the next morning, still feeling useless and idle. After loitering at the gate for a while, he decided to take a walk around the outside of the school. He strolled along like a man making a circuit of his own property, admiring the early spring foliage that covered the exterior of the school wall. When he reached the gate again, Grandpa found a crowd of people busily carting things out of the school.

Some had two classroom desks hanging from either end of a shoulder pole, while others struggled under the weight of large blackboards. Some worked in pairs to carry away heavy crossbeams, while others worked in groups of three or four, pushing carts laden with beds taken from the teachers’ quarters. Sweating from their exertions, faces beaming with excitement, the residents of the school were carrying their trophies back to their homes in the village. It was just like Grandpa had imagined in his dream: a flower-filled early spring, gold growing from the soil, a village hurrying its treasure home …

As they bustled around, the residents eyed one another’s items and compared notes on who had got what:

‘Your desk is better than mine … the wood’s much thicker.’

‘If you sell that plank of elm, it’ll be worth a lot more than this paulownia.’

‘You got a bed made of chestnut? All I got was one made of toon.’

The metal gates of the school opened like a sluice, releasing a flood of villagers. Grandpa, wondering what had happened, quickened his pace and caught up with Jia Hongli, a younger cousin of Jia Genzhu. Despite his illness, the young man was carrying a shoulder pole laden with three shiny classroom desks.

‘What’s going on here?’ Grandpa demanded.

Jia Hongli gave Grandpa a sideways glance. ‘If you want to know what’s going on,’ he huffed, ‘why don’t you go and ask your son Ding Hui?’

The young man stalked off with his cargo of desks, like a tiny mountain goat trying to drag a mountain home to graze. Still confused, Grandpa stood at the gate until he saw another resident approaching, struggling under the weight of an enormous blackboard. Grandpa couldn’t see the man’s face, but he recognized the blackboard by the nail sticking out of one corner. It was a favourite from his substitute-teaching days: a large chalkboard set in a fine-grained elm-wood frame, with a smooth glossy surface that chalk seemed to glide across. For convenience, Grandpa had placed a nail in the lower right-hand corner so that he could hang a piece of cloth for wiping the board. Now the blackboard was inching across the schoolyard, covering the man’s back like the shell of a snail.

As the man reached the gate, Grandpa lifted the chalkboard from his back and forced it to the ground. Zhao Dequan emerged from underneath with a sheepish grin. ‘Oh, Professor Ding …’ he said nervously.

‘So it’s you!’ Grandpa shook his head. ‘Planning to teach classes in your house now, are you?’

Zhao Dequan glanced around in alarm to make sure no one was within earshot.

‘I had no choice but to take it,’ he explained. ‘Chairman Jia and Chairman Ding gave us these things, and everyone has collected theirs. If I refused, it would look bad, and everyone would be offended, including the chairmen.’

Zhao Dequan turned to look behind him. Seeing that the schoolyard was empty, he told Grandpa: ‘If you can’t bear to part with this blackboard, I’ll help you hide it in your room. Just don’t tell anyone I gave it you.’

‘What were you planning to do with it, anyway?’ asked Grandpa, stroking the blackboard.

‘Use it for my coffinof course,’ Zhao Dequan answered, a smile playing on his face. ‘Everyone says your son Ding Hui has been selling off the free government coffins that were supposed to go to all the villages in these parts. Now the chairmen are making it up to us by giving everyone enough wood to build a coffin.’

Grandpa stared at Zhao Dequan, dumbstruck. Beneath his faint smile, Grandpa could discern a greyish tinge, the pallor of a man who didn’t have much longer to live. If the colour of his skin were any indication, he’d probably be in need of the coffin very soon, maybe in a matter of days.

Zhao Dequan’s comment about Ding Hui made Grandpa realize that, outside of his dreams, he hadn’t seen his eldest son for more than two months. He remembered the dream he’d had of Ding Hui picking out caskets at the county coffin factory, and another one, just a few nights ago, about him travelling around the countryside, selling coffins …

2

At night, the moonlight shone as bright as the sun.

In the daytime, the sunlight was docile, as meek and mild as moonlight.

Spring began in earnest. The young wheat, having raised its head into the world, now stiffened and stood tall. The landscape was sprinkled with people weeding or watering the soil. Anyone well enough to work was out in the fields, even those with the fever. In Ding Village, Yellow Creek and Two-Li Village, and in the more distant hamlets of Summerlin, Junction, Old Riverton and Ming Village, the spring planting season had begun. As the villagers bustled around shouldering hoes and shovels, my father travelled from village to village, peddling his black coffins.

As soon as he arrived in a new place, my father would set up a table at the entrance to the village and place a stack of forms, stamped with the official county seal, on the table. Then he would announce to the villagers that anyone who had the fever was entitled to one black government-manufactured coffin. All you had to do was fill out a form with your name, age, medical history, present symptoms, etc., have it stamped by the village party committee, sign your name at the bottom and affix your thumbprint to certify that you really did have the fever and might keel over in your field any day now. Then you would be entitled to purchase one black coffin, at cost price. If you purchased such a casket at market price, it would set you back 400 or 500 yuan, but by filling out this one simple form, you could get the same casket for the manufacturer’s cost of only 200 yuan. Anyone who met the criteria, and had 200 in cash, was entitled to share in this generous government subsidy …

My father was a very welcome visitor, drawing queues of people everywhere he went. One day he was ‘serving the people’ in Old Riverton, the next he was doing his bit for the sick in Ming Village, a settlement on the east bank of the old Yellow River path, five or six miles from Ding Village. Ming Village had been hit hard by the fever, and its residents needed coffins as badly as they had needed grain during the famine years. After setting out from Ding Village early that morning, my father had made a stop in the county capital to turn in the forms he’d collected the day before, and had picked up two trucks carrying a consignment of eighty black coffins. Now he was on his way to Ming Village to sell them.

When the villagers saw the trucks rumbling up the road beside the old river path and coming to a stop at the gates of the village, they rushed in from the fields to greet them. The whole of Ming Village gleamed beneath a golden sun. Rays of sunlight shone on the tiled rooftops of the neighbourhood’s two-storey houses bought with blood. Light cascaded through glass doors and windows, and glinted from facades of spotless white porcelain tiles, making the village seem warm and bright. The large trucks, each with a cargo of forty black coffins, were parked outside the gates like two black mountain ranges. The overpowering stench of fresh black lacquer mingled with other odours: the soft perfume of wood shavings, sticky yellow glue and the metallic traces of coffin nails. The motley smell drifted into the fields, masking the scent of spring, and wafted through the lanes and alleyways, giving them a dark, funereal air.

No longer did my father have to do all the work himself. He had a crew of young men to unload coffins from the trucks and help villagers fill out their paperwork, while he sat at a separate table, sipping water and calling up the villagers one by one to collect their completed forms and payments. After he had counted the cash and stuffed it in his black leather case, he would issue a receipt and direct the person to the trucks to collect his or her coffin.

Ming Village was wealthier than Ding Village – at least as wealthy as Cottonwood, the model blood-selling village my father and the others had toured so many years ago. But it had a higher incidence of the fever, and many more people had taken ill than in Ding Village. There was hardly a family untouched by the fever, and households with several sick family members were commonplace. Because Ming Village was a model blood-selling village that had grown rich during the boom, the villagers no longer wrapped their dead in straw mats or buried them in simple graves outside the gates. Black coffins were the fashion. But, after so many deaths, wood for coffins was in short supply. The villagers had chopped down all the usable trees in and around the village. Even the trees along the main road and in nearby villages had been lopped, leaving the landscape bare.

Then my father arrived with his cargo of coffins, like a shipment of coal before a big snowstorm. A timely visitor in their hour of need.

The villagers rushed in from their fields and queued up at the village gate, eager for a chance to buy a discounted coffin. The enormous line of people stretched 200 yards down the lane. To prevent any family from buying more coffins than they were entitled to, my father enlisted the help of the village mayor.

Mr Mayor,’ my father said, ‘I wonder if you’d help me vet these application forms.’

The mayor thought it over. ‘I don’t know … if I don’t tend to my family’s land soon, our crops are going to die.’

‘Does anyone in your family have the fever?’ my father asked.

‘No. None of us sold blood.’

‘Do you have any elderly family members?’

‘My father’s eighty-four.’

‘How about I sell you a coffin now, so you’ll have it ready for him, just in case?’

After a long pause, the mayor asked: ‘Can you give me a discount?’

My father did a quick calculation. ‘I’ll give it to you for one-fifty. That’s fifty below cost.’

‘Will you make sure it’s a good one?’

‘I’ve got three Grade-A coffins. You can take your pick.’

And so the mayor, official village seal in hand, agreed to help my dad vet the applicants. The first thing he did was to scan the queue for villagers who had no sick family members, and yank them out of line. Then he sat down next to my dad and looked through the pile of forms, weeding out applicants who had claimed their fever was full-blown when in fact it was only mild. When this was done, he got down to the business of selling coffins.

By midday, the villagers had made their purchases and were carrying home their coffins. The streets of Ming Village were thronged with people carrying shiny black caskets, singing the praises of the local task force on HIV and AIDS and talking about how lucky they were that the government had been so good to them. Upon reaching home, some of the villagers discovered that they didn’t have room for a coffin, so they simply left them sitting in the middle of the courtyard or leaned them next to their doors, right on the street. Everywhere you looked there were shiny black caskets. Ming Village was a sea of coffins. The villagers were so thrilled by their cut-rate caskets that they forgot all about the fever, forgot all about their sick relatives lying on their deathbeds. Many walked around with cheerful, carefree smiles, while some shed actual tears of joy. Other families, whose sick relatives were not yet sick enough to merit a coffin, had managed to worm their way around the rules and purchase a casket anyway. Unable to flaunt their good fortune, they locked their casket inside the house where no one could see it, then stood outside exchanging pleasantries about the fine spring weather with passers-by.

The next day, my dad made a trip to Old Riverton, not far from Ming Village. This time, he brought three trucks filled with coffins. He instructed the drivers to stop the vehicles in a deserted area about a mile away, so that he could walk into the village alone and reconnoitre. As he strolled through Old Riverton, my dad noted the cement roads and multi-storey tiled houses, all built within the last decade. He could tell that the village was wealthy, and that the villagers must have sold a lot of blood back in the day. He knew they would now be suffering badly from the fever, but he also knew that most of them would have saved up enough money to afford a coffin. Having established these facts, my dad found his way to the home of the village party secretary, introduced himself as the vice-chairman of the county task force on HIV and AIDS, and produced a letter of introduction from the county government. As soon as the party secretary, a flustered young man, read the letter, he invited my dad to sit down for a glass of tea. After asking a few standard questions about the extent of the fever, village mortalityrates, etc., my dad decided that it was time to test the waters.

‘So, does anyone in your family have the fever?’ he asked casually, sipping his tea.

The young party secretary lowered his head, tears streaming down his cheeks.

‘How many?’ My dad was all sympathy.

‘My older brother died, my younger brother’s bedridden, and now it seems like I’ve got it, too.’

Silently, Dad handed the young man a handkerchief so he could wipe away his tears. After a moment, he said resolutely: ‘Mr Secretary, I probably shouldn’t do this, but I’m going to make an executive decision: I’m sending our next shipment of coffins right here to Old Riverton, to take care of our sick folks here. But I’ll need your help to keep an eye on things … we don’t want people who aren’t sick buying up all the cheap coffins and leaving none for the people who really need them, right? And because the government is selling them at cost, there won’t be enough to go around. At market prices, one of these coffins will set you back at least 500 yuan, as I’m sure you know. But since it’s up to me, no one in Old Riverton will pay a penny more than 200.’

‘As for your family …’ Dad paused, pretending to think. ‘Since your younger brother’s fever is already full-blown, I think I can manage to get him a coffin for 100 yuan, half the manufacturing cost.

The village party secretary gazed at my dad, tears of gratitude welling up in his eyes.

‘Now, the regulations say you’re not eligible for a coffin until you’ve been sick for at least three months, but you’re the village party secretary after all, one of our grassroots officials. That ought to count for something. Tell you what … when I’m finished distributing the coffins, why don’t you pick one out for yourself at the same price? Just don’t let the folks in the village find out.’

The party secretary disappeared into another room. He emerged a moment later with 100-yuan notes, which he handed to my dad. Then, smiling, he went out to ring the bell, summoning the villagers to gather in the square to buy their coffins.

By noontime, Old Riverton was filled with shiny black casketsLike its neighbour Ming Village, Old Riverton had become a coffin-town. The scent of wood and fresh lacquer rolled through the streets and alleyways, permeating every corner of the village. Now that they had their coffins, the inhabitants of Old Riverton, sick and well alike, could rest easy. At the very least, it was one less thing to worry about. Laughter and conversation, sounds that had all but died out over the last two years, were heard in the village once again.

3

Grandpa hadn’t seen his eldest son for more than two months. He wanted to see my dad, wanted to visit the house and tell him a few things, but if he went there and found my mother alone, it would be awkward. It wasn’t that Grandpa didn’t like his daughter-in-law, he just never knew what to say to her.

All day long, Grandpa thought about paying a visit to his son. Just before dusk, my uncle showed up at Grandpa’s door. The first words out of his mouth were: ‘Dad, Hui wants you to come over to the house for dinner. He has something to tell you.’

Without a moment’s hesitation, Grandpa accompanied Uncle to our family’s house. The gentle mid-spring sunshine cast a pleasant yellow glow on the white porcelain-tiled walls, reminding Grandpa of the homes and courtyards of Ming Village and Old Riverton, the places he had seen in his dream. The only difference was a patch of spicy mustard greens on the south end of our courtyard, where the chicken coop and the pig pen used to be. The plants were a deep, rich shade of green, each about as tall as a chopstick standing on end. Their leaves were the same shape as the leaves of the scholar tree, only thicker and less glossy, covered with a network of tender veins. The plants jostled for space, spilling luxuriantly into half the courtyard and filling the air with their pungent, intoxicating fragrance. Spicy mustard greens gave off a scent not unlike peppermint, but theirs was a cruder sort of smell, not as delicate or refined as peppermint. It was precisely this crudeness that made the county deputy governor love them so. They suited his taste. Naturally, it was for the deputy governor that my parents had planted them.

As Uncle led the way into the courtyard, the first thing that caught Grandpa’s eye was the enormous patch of spicy mustard greens. My mother, carrying a gourd filled with white flour, greeted Grandpa and Uncle on her way to the kitchen. ‘Hi, Dad,’ she said. ‘We’re having a treat for lunch today – noodles mixed with spicy mustard greens.’

My mother treated Grandpa as if nothing untoward had happened. It was just like it had been years ago, when she had first married into the family. My father also treated Grandpa as if there had never been any conflict between them. When he saw Grandpa at the door, he quickly composed his face into a smile, and pulled up a straight-backed chair with a comfortable cushion for Grandpa to sit on. The three men sat down together. Grandpa, Dad and Uncle: three corners of a triangle.

The kind reception unnerved Grandpa; he was uncomfortable at being treated so warmly by his son and daughter-in-law, when he felt so estranged from them. Flushing with embarrassment, he turned his head away and looked around the room. It was more or less as he remembered it. There were the same white-washed walls, a long red table along one wall, and a television and a sofa at opposite ends of the room. The television cabinet was red, its doors decorated with golden peonies.

Grandpa noticed a cobweb in one corner of the room. Usually my mother swept out cobwebs as soon as they appeared, but this one had fanned out from a corner of the ceiling to the top of the refrigerator. That one cobweb made the house seem different from before. For Grandpa, it was a sign that something had changed. Then he spied several large wooden trunks in a corner behind the door. He realized as soon as he saw them. His son really was moving away.

Grandpa couldn’t take his eyes off the wooden trunks.

‘I might as well tell you,’ said my dad, taking a drag of his cigarette, ‘we’re getting ready to move.’

Grandpa turned to stare. ‘Move where?’

Dad shifted his gaze uncomfortably. ‘First to the county capital. Then, when I’ve saved a little more money, to Kaifeng.’

‘Is it true you’re vice-chairman of the county task force on HIV and AIDS?’ Grandpa asked.

My dad looked pleased. ‘Oh, so you’ve heard?’

‘And is it true that you’ve been selling coffins in Ming Village and Old Riverton the last few days?’

Surprised, my dad removed the cigarette dangling from his mouth. ‘Where did you hear that?’

‘Never mind where I heard it. I’m asking you if it’s true.’

My dad’s expression hardened. He stared at Grandpa and said nothing.

‘Did you or didn’t you sell two truckloads of eighty coffins in Ming Village?’ Grandpa pressed. ‘And three truckloads of a hundred and ten coffins in Old Riverton?’

Astonishment was now thick upon my dad’s face, like a layer of dried mud that could crumble at any moment. His features had frozen into a look of shock, an expression that might never thaw. Father and sons sat stiffly, three points of a triangle. The sound of my mother making noodles in the kitchen drifted through the courtyard and into the house. The soft thud of dough sounded like someone thumping a beefy hand on the wall behind them. My dad abruptly stubbed out his cigarette, grinding the long stub beneath his shoe until all that was left were shards of tobacco and confetti bits of paper. He glanced at my uncle, then turned to Grandpa, moving his gaze from Grandpa’s face to his head of white hair.

‘Dad,’ he said. ‘Now that you know everything you need to, there’s no use talking about it any more. I just want to say one thing: no matter how badly you treat me, you’ll always be my father and I’ll always be your son. But there’s no way I can let my family go on living in this village. I’ve talked it over with my wife, and we’ve decided to give the house and everything in it to Liang. All we’re taking are our clothes. I know Liang hasn’t got much time left, but I think his wife will come back to him if she knows he’s got the house and the furniture. I can’t believe she’d pass up a chance to inherit all the family property. As for you …’ He paused. ‘You can move with us to the city if you like, or you can stay here and look after Liang. When he’s gone, you can join us in the city and I’ll support you in your old age.’

That was all Dad had to say.

My uncle’s face was wet with tears of gratitude.

4

Grandpa lay tossing and turning in his bed. Try as he might, he couldn’t sleep. Since he’d left our family’s house earlier that day, his mind had been overwhelmed by thoughts of my dad selling coffins and planning to move his wife and son out of the village. Just thinking about his son trading in coffins made Grandpa wish he’d killed his first-born when he’d had the chance. Better that he were dead was the thought that kept Grandpa awake, and made his head ache. He suddenly remembered how feuding families on the plain would bury sticks outside their enemies’ houses as a curse. They’d take a twig from a willow or peach tree, sharpen one end and carve on it the name of the person they wished to die. Then, after smashing it against their enemy’s door or the wall of their house, they’d bury it deep in the ground as a curse against that person. Even if they knew that the person wouldn’t actually die, they still went through the motions. It might result in an early death, or an accident in which the cursed individual would break an arm or a leg, or lose a finger or toe.

Grandpa got out of bed, turned on the light and searched around until he found a willow twig. He whittled one end to a sharp point, wrote on a piece of paper My son Ding Hui deserves to die, and wrapped the paper around the twig. Under cover of darkness, he snuck into the village and buried the twig behind our house.

After returning to his rooms, Grandpa quickly undressed, got back into bed and fell fast asleep.

Despite Grandpa’s willow-twig curse, my dad remained alive and well.

Zhao Dequan, however, was knocking on death’s door. He wouldn’t last the spring, the season when all living things prospered. Normally, if you had a serious illness, some life-threatening condition, all you had to do was make it through the cruel winter months and into spring. If you could hold out until then, you’d get a new lease of life, and maybe live to see another year.

But there wasn’t much hope for Zhao Dequan. The day he’d carried the old blackboard with the heavy elm frame from the school into the village, he’d had to stop many times along the road to rest. When he’d reached the village, he’d got a lot of teasing questions from the villagers: ‘Hey, Dequan, what’s with the blackboard? You teaching classes now?’ Some of them, like Grandpa, had been opposed to the sick removing the items from the school. ‘Who’d have thought when all you sick people moved into the school, you’d start divvying up public property?’ ‘Good heavens, you’re even taking the blackboards?’

Unable to answer these questions, Zhao Dequan increased his pace and hurried from the west end to the east end of the village without once stopping to rest. He turned into a narrow lane, entered his front gate, propped the blackboard up against a wall and collapsed right there in the middle of the courtyard.

Before Zhao Dequan got sick, he could easily lift 200lbs – a load of stones, say, or several sacks of rice – and carry it for miles without getting winded. But now, carrying a blackboard that couldn’t have weighed more than 100lbs, probably a lot less, for several hundred yards across the village, he was exhausted. Drenched in sweat, wheezing like the wind through cracks, he lay paralysed on the ground, unable to get back up.

Why on earth would you carry a blackboard all the way home?’ asked his wife.

‘Because they gave it to me … to make my coffin,’ Zhao Dequan gasped, his face deathly pale. He tried to say something more, but his throat seemed to be blocked: he could hardly breathe, much less speak. As he coughed and gasped and tried to spit something up, his face flushed beet red. The spots on his face seemed to bulge from his skin, dark purple lumps in a blaze of red. His wife rushed over in alarm and began thumping him on the back. Zhao Dequan managed to spit something out, a ball of phlegm mixed with blood, before keeling over on the ground.

Zhao Dequan had carried his blackboard all the way home, but he would never again return to the school.

Several days later, his wife went to the school to speak to Jia Genzhu and Ding Yuejin. ‘Chairman Jia. Chairman Ding. When my husband first came to this school, he was able to walk and move around without any trouble. Now he’s lying in bed at home, breathing his last! You know the poor man is dying … why on earth would you give him a big heavy blackboard, when everyone else got desks and chairs? I’ve been in this village a long time, and I’ve seen other men beat and curse their women. But in all the years we’ve been married, my husband never raised a hand to me, never spoke an unkind word. Now he’s dying, and I don’t even have a coffin to bury him in. He sold his blood to support his family, and to build a nice house for me and the kids … the least we can do is make sure he has a decent coffin.’

Jia Genzhu and Ding Yuejin told Zhao’s wife that she was free to go through the school and take any items she fancied, provided they could be used to make a coffin. Later, as they led her through the empty rooms and deserted classrooms, she saw that the school had been picked clean. All the desks and chairs were missing. The blackboards and blackboard stands, teachers’ beds, footlockers and storage chests were all gone. Even the mirrors had been stripped of their frames. The teachers’ quarters were empty. Ransacked. The floor was strewn with old exam papers, homework books and tattered socks. The classrooms, too, were bare, littered with scraps of paper, dust and broken bits of chalk. Other than the personal belongings of the residents and the bags of food in the kitchen, there was nothing left in the school.

They’d given everything away. They’d robbed the place clean.

The metal basketball frame stood desolate in the schoolyard, its wooden backboard missing. The residents now used it for drying their laundry. As the sun dipped towards the west, Zhao Dequan’s wife and the two chairmen stood forlorn in the schoolyard, trying to decide what to do. They had completed their tour of the school and come up empty-handed.

‘I’ll give you my chair, if you like,’ Ding Yuejin offered.

‘Forget it,’ said Jia Genzhu. ‘Let’s go and talk to that hound Ding Hui, and see if he’ll give her a coffin.’

Accompanied by a posse of other sick villagers, they paid a visit to my dad.

The scene at my family’s front gate was not a friendly one. The crowd buzzed with anger, accusations and hearsay about my dad selling coffins in other villages. They shouted that they knew he’d been selling coffins that were meant for them, coffins that the government had provided free for people dying of the fever. My dad let them shout and argue and work themselves into a frenzy, while he said nothing. Finally, Jia Genzhu raised his voice: ‘Would everyone shut up!’

As the villagers fell silent, Jia Genzhu pulled Ding Yuejin to the front of the crowd. ‘We’re the ones who helped you get those government coffins in the first place,’ Jia Genzhu told my dad. ‘So just answer us this: is it true you’ve been selling them?’

‘Yeah,’ Dad answered. ‘So what?’

‘Who have you been selling them to?’

‘To whoever wants them. If you want coffins, I’ll sell you some, too.’

Dad disappeared into the house and emerged with a brown paper envelope, from which he produced a small booklet identifying him as ‘Comrade Ding Hui, vice-chairman of the Wei county task force on HIV and AIDS.’ He then pulled out a sheaf of documents, all written on government letterhead and bearing official-looking red seals. There were letters from the party committees of Wei county and Henan province, as well as from various departments of city, county and provincial government. One document was titled ‘An Urgent Memo Regarding the Prevention of Dissemination of Information Regarding “Fever Villages” (or “AIDS villages”)’. It bore the large red seals of the provincial governor and the party committee of Henan province. Another, certified by the Henan Provincial Task Force on HIV and AIDS, read: ‘A Notice Regarding Funeral Arrangements and Subsidized Low-Price Coffins for Fever Patients’. The city and county documents, marked with the seals of the city and county task forces on HIV and AIDS, were mainly memos about memos, notices about notices, all sent down from higher levels of government.

After my dad had showed the documents to Jia Genzhu and Ding Yuejin, he asked: ‘Are you the co-chairmen of the Ding Village task force on HIV and AIDS?’

The two men stared at my dad and said nothing.

Taking their silence as an affirmative, my dad smiled and said: ‘Well, I’m the vice-chairman of the county task force, which means I’m in charge of coffin sales and government subsidies for fever patients in this whole county. I’m the one who approved your request for ten pounds of grain, ten pounds of rice and a cash subsidy for everyone in Ding Village with the fever … Didn’t you see my signature on the form?

‘Now,’ my dad continued. ‘The regulations say that these government-subsidized coffins can’t be sold for less than two hundred yuan each, but seeing as we’re all from Ding Village, I think I can pull a few strings and get you coffins for only a hundred and eighty each. If you submit your requests right now, I’ll have someone deliver the coffins tomorrow.’

As the sun sank in the west, a red glow settled over the village. The sweet scent of spring drifted in from the fields and dissipated through the village streets. Standing on the top step of his doorway like a political leader atop a rostrum, my dad scanned the crowd of villagers and addressed them in a loud voice:

‘These coffins are not very cheap, actually. It would cost about the same to make your own. If they were such a great bargain, don’t you think I’d have told you about it earlier?

‘Honestly, I wouldn’t sell one to my own brother, not if he asked. The wood is  not even dry yet … In a couple of days, these coffins are going to start showing cracks as wide as your finger.

‘You’d be better off buying wood and building a coffin yourself. Then you could make whatever kind you wanted.

‘We’re all friends and neighbours here … There’s no need to get all worked up, or turn this into some kind of confrontation. Because if it comes to that …’, pointing at Jia Genzhu and Ding Yuejin: ‘You two might be in charge of the village task force, but I’m the guy in charge of the county … and who do you think wins? Who has the final say? If this turned into a fight or got ugly, one word from me and the higher-ups would have the police and public security here so fast it would make your head spin. But nobody wants that, am I right? What kind of a neighbour would I be – what kind of a person would I be – to do something like that?’

After that, nothing more was said.

After that, there was nothing more to be said.

The crowd of villagers dispersed and began heading back to the school. The setting sun hung red and heavy in the sky, like a ball of glowing red-vermilion ink. Like lead. It slowly sank towards the horizon, dragged to earth under its own leaden weight. The western border of the central plain appeared to be a swathe of fire; you could almost hear the flames, popping and crackling like a wildfire raging through a grove of cypress trees.

CHAPTER FOUR

1

Ding Village elementary was silent, sleeping the sleep of the dead. That day, the sky had been so clear it was as if you could see right through it, to a deep and bottomless blue heaven. But now, in the middle of the night, the sky was overcast, as damp and dark as a freshly dug grave. In the silence of the school, a deep well of silence, you could almost hear the clouds bumping against each other. Everyone was asleep. Even Grandpa was asleep.

Thump. Thump. Someone was knocking at Grandpa’s window. The late-night visitor must have come in through the unlocked school gate. Since Genzhu and Yuejin had confiscated Grandpa’s keys, no one bothered to lock up at night. People came and went at all hours, so the gate was always open. Anyone could walk right in and creep up to Grandpa’s window, unheard. Thump, thump … The sound continued, steady as a drumbeat.

‘Who’s there?’ Grandpa called.

‘It’s me, Professor,’ the visitor wheezed. ‘Open up.’

Grandpa opened the door to find Zhao Dequan standing on the threshold. In the few days since Grandpa had last seen him, Dequan had changed beyond recognition. Where he had been skin-and-bone before, now he was just bone. What flesh he had left hung limp from his skeletal frame, dark and discoloured, a patchwork of dry, hardened scabs; the sockets of his eyes, two deep, dark pits. One look at him and Grandpa could see that death was dancing in Zhao Dequan’s body. His eyes were dull, bereft of light. He stood at Grandpa’s door like a cadaver in shabby clothes. Under the electric lights, his shadow seemed more lifelike than his person, a dark silhouette flickering on the wall like a funeral shroud ruffled by the breeze.

When Grandpa opened the door, Zhao Dequan broke into a smile, a sickly grin that seemed to cost him a good deal of effort.

‘Professor Ding,’ he said. ‘I’ve been thinking it over, and I decided that while I’m still well enough to walk, I ought to return the blackboard. I don’t want to end my life by doing something so low. It’s a blackboard, not a coffin. Once the fever is gone, the kids will be back in school, and their teachers will need something to write on. I’d rather be buried without a coffin,’ he sighed, ‘than leave those kids without a blackboard.’

Grandpa looked out and saw the blackboard loaded on a hand-cart parked beside the gate.

‘I can’t lift it myself,’ said Zhao Dequan. ‘Can you help me carry it inside?’

With a lot of clunking and clattering, Grandpa and Zhao Dequan managed to carry the blackboard into the room.

‘Careful you don’t hurt yourself,’ Grandpa said, as they leaned the blackboard up against a wall.

‘No matter. I’m going to be dead soon, anyway. If Genzhu and Yuejin see the blackboard, you can blame it on me … Tell them I’m the one who brought it back here.’

Zhao Dequan stood panting, trying to catch his breath. The same sickly smile was glued to his face like a sticking plaster. After he had helped Grandpa lean the blackboard against the wall and wiped the dust from his hands, Grandpa expected him to leave, but instead Dequan sat down on Grandpa’s bed, still smiling his silent, cardboard-cutout smile.

Grandpa waited for him to say something, but it seemed the man had nothing to say. When Grandpa offered him a drink of CHAPTER FOUR

1

Ding Village elementary was silent, sleeping the sleep of the dead. That day, the sky had been so clear it was as if you could see right through it, to a deep and bottomless blue heaven. But now, in the middle of the night, the sky was overcast, as damp and dark as a freshly dug grave. In the silence of the school, a deep well of silence, you could almost hear the clouds bumping against each other. Everyone was asleep. Even Grandpa was asleep.

Thump. Thump. Someone was knocking at Grandpa’s window. The late-night visitor must have come in through the unlocked school gate. Since Genzhu and Yuejin had confiscated Grandpa’s keys, no one bothered to lock up at night. People came and went at all hours, so the gate was always open. Anyone could walk right in and creep up to Grandpa’s window, unheard. Thump, thump … The sound continued, steady as a drumbeat.

‘Who’s there?’ Grandpa called.

‘It’s me, Professor,’ the visitor wheezed. ‘Open up.’

Grandpa opened the door to find Zhao Dequan standing on the threshold. In the few days since Grandpa had last seen him, Dequan had changed beyond recognition. Where he had been skin-and-bone before, now he was just bone. What flesh he had left hung limp from his skeletal frame, dark and discoloured, a patchwork of dry, hardened scabs; the sockets of his eyes, two deep, dark pits. One look at him and Grandpa could see that death was dancing in Zhao Dequan’s body. His eyes were dull, bereft of light. He stood at Grandpa’s door like a cadaver in shabby clothes. Under the electric lights, his shadow seemed more lifelike than his person, a dark silhouette flickering on the wall like a funeral shroud ruffled by the breeze.

When Grandpa opened the door, Zhao Dequan broke into a smile, a sickly grin that seemed to cost him a good deal of effort.

‘Professor Ding,’ he said. ‘I’ve been thinking it over, and I decided that while I’m still well enough to walk, I ought to return the blackboard. I don’t want to end my life by doing something so low. It’s a blackboard, not a coffin. Once the fever is gone, the kids will be back in school, and their teachers will need something to write on. I’d rather be buried without a coffin,’ he sighed, ‘than leave those kids without a blackboard.’

Grandpa looked out and saw the blackboard loaded on a hand-cart parked beside the gate.

‘I can’t lift it myself,’ said Zhao Dequan. ‘Can you help me carry it inside?’

With a lot of clunking and clattering, Grandpa and Zhao Dequan managed to carry the blackboard into the room.

‘Careful you don’t hurt yourself,’ Grandpa said, as they leaned the blackboard up against a wall.

‘No matter. I’m going to be dead soon, anyway. If Genzhu and Yuejin see the blackboard, you can blame it on me … Tell them I’m the one who brought it back here.’

Zhao Dequan stood panting, trying to catch his breath. The same sickly smile was glued to his face like a sticking plaster. After he had helped Grandpa lean the blackboard against the wall and wiped the dust from his hands, Grandpa expected him to leave, but instead Dequan sat down on Grandpa’s bed, still smiling his silent, cardboard-cutout smile.

Grandpa waited for him to say something, but it seemed the man had nothing to say. When Grandpa offered him a drink of 2

Grandpa stepped out of the school gate, hesitated for a moment, and began walking towards the village. Darkness blanketed the plain like a vast black lake. There was no moon or stars, only vague, flickering shadows. The road to the village was swallowed up by the darkness, making it easy to stumble over its uneven surface or stray into the fields on either side. Grandpa had to tread carefully, using the patches and points of light in the distance to gauge his direction. As he drew closer to the village, the dark night air was filled with the fresh scent of sawdust. At first, it was just a faint whiff coming from the direction of the light. Then the smell seemed to coalesce into something more solid: waves of it sweeping in from the west end of the village, rolling in from the north and south, washing in from the alleyways to the east. With it came a tide of sound: the buzz of saws slicing timber, the thud of axes chopping trees, the babble of human conversation. It reminded Grandpa of years long ago, when everyone in the village had laboured day and night smelting steel in backyard furnaces or constructing massive irrigation works.

Quickening his step, Grandpa walked in the direction of the nearest lights. He found Ding Sanzi and his father working at the edge of their wheat field, digging up the roots of a large cottonwood tree. By the light of their lanterns, Grandpa could see that they’d dug an enormous room-sized pit, exposing the root system of the tree. Ding Sanzi’s father, stripped down to his underpants and covered in sweat, was using an axe to sever the last two connected roots, each the circumference of a large bowl. As he swung his axe, bits of dirt and wood flew through the air and stuck to his sweaty skin, making it look as if he’d been splattered in mud. Some distance away in the middle of the field, Ding Sanzi was trying to pull down the cottonwood by tugging on a heavy rope tied to a fork of the tree. Using all his strength, he yanked the rope, causing the tree to sway. There was a tremendous snapping and creaking of roots, and for a moment it seemed that the huge cottonwood might topple. When it refused to fall, Ding Sanzi shouted: ‘Dad … come over here and help me pull!’

‘Wait until I chop this last root, then it’ll fall!’

As the older man raised his axe, Grandpa hurried over to block his way. ‘Hey, who said you could chop down this tree?’

His axe frozen in mid-swing, Sanzi’s father stared at Grandpa. After a moment, he laid down the axe and called to his son. Sanzi came in from the field, took one look at Grandpa and snorted. Then he went over to a pile of clothes lying on the ground, took a folded letter from one of the pockets, and showed it to Grandpa.

The letter, written on Ding Village party committee stationery, was brief: ‘Ding Sanzi has permission to cut down the big cottonwood next to his field west of the village.’ Below this were the official village seal and the signatures of Jia Genzhu and Ding Yuejin.

Reading the letter in the light of the lanterns, Grandpa realized exactly what it meant: permission to fell the trees of Ding Village. He clutched the letter and stared at the two men, wondering whether or not he ought to stop them from cutting down the tree. As Grandpa was trying to make up his mind, Ding Sanzi snatched the letter from his hand and walked away. After he had folded the letter and put it back into the pocket of his clothes, he said calmly: ‘Your son Ding Hui sold off our coffins, and now you won’t even let us cut down a tree to make our own.’

Ding Sanzi, still strong despite being infected with the fever, walked back into his field, picked up the rope and continued trying to pull down the big cottonwood. Grandpa stood by helplessly for a while, then decided to go into the village and see what was happening there. He had not gone far when he heard a loud crack behind him, the splintering of wood. The sound reverberated through his chest, as if there were some acute ache in his heart. In that moment, Grandpa was once again consumed with the desire to strangle his eldest son with his bare hands. He could almost feel his palms sweating, and the ageing tendons in his hands flexing.

Grandpa entered the village and followed the glow of lanterns to a large willow tree. Plastered to the tree trunk was a notice nearly identical to the one Ding Sanzi had shown him. It was written on the same letterhead, and had the same two signatures and village seal. It read: ‘Jia Hongli has permission to cut down the old willow tree at the northwest corner of the intersection on the west end of the village.’

Grandpa scrutinized the paper pasted to the tree trunk as if it were an official government poster on a bulletin board. He was speechless. Apparently, the chopping down of trees was now perfectly legal and above-board. Grandpa stood in a daze, staring up at the lantern hanging from a branch of the willow tree. In the pool of light, he could make out Jia Hongli perched high in the tree, hacking at the branches. After pondering for a few seconds, Grandpa shouted up at him.

‘That looks dangerous, Hongli! Aren’t you afraid you’ll fall?’

Hongli paused and shouted back, ‘So what? I won’t live long, anyway.’

Grandpa tried appealing to Hongli’s father, who was standing below the tree. ‘Jia Jun, you’re not going to let your son risk his life over a tree, are you?’

The older man smiled and pointed to the notice stuck to the tree trunk. ‘It’s all right. We’ve got permission to cut it down, see?’

Grandpa shook his head and continued on his way. As he walked through the village, he saw that every tree large enough to be used as timber had been marked for demolition: there were notices pasted to every elm, honey locust, paulownia, toon and scholar tree he passed. In every lane and alleyway, in every corner of the village, he found people chopping down trees by the light of lanterns, kerosene lamps or candles. Some of the trees and exterior walls were strung with electric lights connected to long grey extension leads (known in the village as ‘rat-tail cords’) that snaked into nearby houses. Nearly every other house was brightly lit, turning Ding Village into a blaze of light, as dazzling as the daytime sun. It looked as if every tree in the village had been served with an execution order. The night air filled with the ceaseless clamour of chopping and sawing, and the pungent scent of fresh-cut wood mingled with tree sap.

Ding Village seemed revived: the residents prowled the streets with hatchets and saws, searching for the trees they’d been given permission to chop down. The sick villagers had, of course, been given the trees most suitable for making coffins: the willows, cottonwoods and paulownia. But because the trees were public property and everyone was entitled to his or her share, even the healthy villagers were allowed to chop down trees. They had been given the toons, chinaberries and scholar trees, whose timber was prone to rot and insects, and so ill-suited for making coffins. But they were fine for making furniture, beds and tables and chairs that could be given to sons and daughters as wedding gifts.

Each family in the village, with the exception of ours, had been given one tree to use as timber. So it was that on this spring night, the whole of Ding Village was hard at work chopping down trees and dragging them back to their homes.

God only knows where they got so many hatchets and saws. It was as if the whole village had known in advance about the great tree-felling, and had bought in supplies of tools beforehand. The clash of metal rang through the night, punctuated by the snapping and cracking of tree branches. Sounds from the east end of the village could be heard on the distant western plain, and noise from the west end of the village carried to the alleyways in the east. Ding Village was a hive of noise and activity, seething with rare excitement. There was the constant thud of footsteps, carts rumbling through the streets and the sound of voices, as villagers compared the quality of their timber with that of their neighbours. Looks of envy swirled around every pool of dazzling light, and followed in the wake of every glowing lantern being carried down the street.

Even the faces of villagers too sick to work glowed with the excitement of cutting down trees. The healthy villagers worked with enthusiasm, as if it were the big planting or harvest season. All night long, the village was filled with the sound of people working and the sweet scent of timber and sawdust. The conversation that accompanied all this coming and going and hustle and bustle followed more or less the same basic pattern:

‘Wow, you got an elm!’

‘Well, we needed a beam for the roof, so we asked for an elm.’

‘Those pieces of wood look pretty short. What are you going to use them for?’

‘Can’t you tell? They’re the perfect size for shelves.’

Another conversation went like this: ‘Did you hear? Li Wang’s family got the big toon tree at the west end of the village.’

‘Li Wang? I can’t believe it.’

‘Would I lie? It’s because his daughter’s engaged to Ding Yuejin’s cousin, that’s why.’

And so it went. The speaker would whisper some mysterious bit of information, the listener would ‘ooh’ or ‘aah’ in understanding and the two would go their separate ways, eager to pass on the gossip to others.

Grandpa walked the streets dejectedly, pausing before this tree and that, as if paying his last respects before they were all chopped down. He couldn’t help but be reminded of his dream of Ding Village: flowers on the surface, and gold beneath the soil. He wandered the village in a daze, peering around him in confusion. When he reached the village centre, he was surprised to see that even the venerable old scholar tree – so large that it would take three or four people to encircle its trunk – was also marked for demolition. Zhao Xiuqin and her husband Wang Baoshan stood by as her brothers, two stout young men from another village, removed the heavy bell that hung from one of the branches. After they had taken it down and hung it from a smaller tree nearby, one of the brothers scaled a ladder and began sawing at the branches, while the other began digging up the roots.

The last time Grandpa had passed the old scholar tree, it had been safe and sound. Now, in the short time it had taken him to make one circuit around the village, it was besieged by people hacking and sawing and trying to chop it down. Moving closer, Grandpa passed under an extension lead that stretched from a nearby house into the branches of the old tree. In the glow of a 200-watt light bulb, the area around the tree, once the site of village meetings, was as bright as day.

‘Xiuqin, are they really letting you cut down this tree?’ Grandpa called out.

Zhao Xiuqin, sitting in the circle of light beneath the scholar tree, raised her head and blushed uncomfortably. She seemed quite embarrassed that her family had been caught chopping down the oldest, largest and most venerable tree in the village.

‘I never expected Chairman Jia and Chairman Ding to be so grateful,’ she answered with a nervous laugh. ‘I was just doing my job, cooking their favourite meals and making sure they had whatever food or liquor they wanted. But when I mentioned that all the big trees had already been cut down and that this was the only one left, they told me I could have it!’

Amidst the cacophony of trees being felled, Grandpa stood forlornly, remembering his dream of flowers on the plain and gold beneath the surface.

3

It happened just like Zhao Dequan said it would.

The trees of Ding Village disappeared overnight.

All the mature trees were gone. At first, it seems, there had been some discussion about only felling trees of a certain size, those with trunks as broad as a bucket, say. But when morning came, the villagers woke to find that even the smaller trees in and around the village were gone. Anything that had a trunk the size of the circumference of a bowl had been chopped down for timber. Discarded notices from the village party committee littered the streets like fallen leaves after a windy evening. The spring sun shone warm as usual, but without foliage or the shade of trees, the village felt scorching and unpleasant.

All the mature elms, scholar trees, paulownia, chinaberries, toons, cottonwoods and persimmon trees had been felled, leaving only saplings with trunks barely as thick as a man’s arm. Even these were scarce, as rare as wheat seedlings in an abandoned field. From the moment the sun rose, it began beating down upon the village, scorching people’s flesh.

In the days to come, the villagers would wake from their beds, stand at their doors and gaze with blank surprise at the world outside. They would gaze at the barren landscape and wonder what had happened.

‘Good heavens, would you look at this place?’

‘How did it come to this?’

‘So it’s finally come to this …’

4

The trees were gone. So was Zhao Dequan.

He passed away at about noon, on the day after the big tree-felling. The evening before he died, Grandpa asked Uncle: ‘Do you think you could go to Lingling’s parents’ house and get her red silk jacket? I want to give it to Zhao Dequan.’

Uncle agreed to travel to Lingling’s hometown, a distance of six or seven miles from Ding Village. He could have made the round trip that same evening, but he decided to stay overnight, and didn’t return until the next day. When he got back to Ding Village at around noon, Zhao Dequan was still alive. As he watched Uncle hand his wife Lingling’s red silk bridal jacket, Zhao Dequan smiled, closed his eyes, and quietly passed from this life.

He was still smiling when they put him in the coffin.

Zhao Dequan was buried with his red silken-jacket smile.

Volume 5

CHAPTER ONE

1

Uncle and Lingling moved in together. They lived as husband and wife, brazenly, in plain sight of everyone in the village.

They were like water and sand, seed and soil, yin and yang; like positive and negative magnetic poles. They were water flowing, being absorbed by sand; seed scattered by the wind, taking root in soil; yin and yang coming together as one; two magnets clinging to each other, unable to deny their attraction.

After the incident at the school, Lingling got a beating from her husband, a cursing from her in-laws, and was sent packing back to her mother’s house. As soon as she was gone, Ding Xiaoming’s family set about finding him a replacement wife. Everyone felt that the beating was justified, and that Lingling had deserved it: not only had she brought the fever into her husband’s household, she had cheated on him with his own cousin. It was only fitting that Xiaoming, still in his mid-twenties and uninfected, should kick her out and start looking for a new wife. If he could find a suitable match, he could remarry after Lingling died, or ask her for a divorce and remarry even earlier. Lingling’s parents were sensible people; when they came to Ding Village to pick up their daughter, they apologized to Xiaoming’s parents: ‘We’re sorry we didn’t do a better job of raising our daughter. It’s probably best for everyone if Ding Xiaoming gets remarried. And if you need help paying for the dowry, we’ll give back Lingling’s wedding gifts.’

And so Xiaoming’s parents began trying to find a new match for their son.

Lingling’s parents, grumbling and cursing, brought their daughter home.

But spring had come early that year, and summer was right on its heels. The weather grew warm, then hot; padded winter coats were replaced by spring jackets, then by shirtsleeves. By the time it was warm enough for a single layer, Lingling returned to her husband’s home in Ding Village to fetch her summer clothes. As she was walking out of the door with her bundle of belongings, her mother-in-law eyed the bulging bundle and asked: ‘Are you sure you haven’t taken anything that doesn’t belong to you?’

‘I’m sure,’ Lingling answered.

‘It’s only a matter of time before Xiaoming finds a new wife,’ her mother-in-law continued. ‘If you’re still alive when he does, you must come back and give him a divorce.’

Lingling said nothing. Once she was through the door, she turned back to gaze at the house, with its gleaming white porcelain-tiled walls. The seams between the tiles were as straight and black as if they’d been painted on with ink. After a few moments, she left the house and began walking out of the village.

She came to the concrete road outside the village. A straight line cutting through the fields, it was raised about half a foot above the surrounding soil, with drainage ditches on either side. The rows of cottonwood trees that had once lined the ditches were gone, chopped down by the villagers. The ditches were now filled with weeds and wild grass that rustled in the wind. At this time of year, the wheat plants – having raised their heads and steeled their spines – stood tall, and the fields were filled with people irrigating their plots.

Walking down the treeless main road under the blazing midday sun was like passing through a corridor of fire. The spots on Lingling’s face started to itch in the heat, but she didn’t want to scratch them, for fear of breaking the skin. She stroked her face with the tips of her fingers, softly, as if she were caressing the face of a newborn child. She walked along slowly, aimlessly, stroking her face, her eyes fixed on the pavement in front of her. Suddenly she heard her name being called: not loudly, not softly. The sound seemed to fall from up above.

‘Lingling …’ It was Uncle’s voice.

She stopped and raised her head. Uncle was standing by the side of the road, only a few steps away. He looked just the same as she remembered. Slightly paler, perhaps; a bit closer to death. For a moment, they just stared at each other. Then Lingling, remembering where she was, looked behind her nervously.

‘We’re alone,’ said Uncle. ‘But even if we weren’t, there’s nothing to be scared of.’

‘What are you doing here?’ she asked.

Uncle sat down at the side of the road. ‘I heard you were back, so I waited for you here.’

‘What do you want?’

‘Sit by me.’

Lingling seemed to hesitate.

‘Tingting left me and went back to her hometown,’ Uncle explained.

Lingling sat down beside him, shoulder to shoulder.

After an awkward silence, Uncle spoke. ‘So you came back for your summer clothes?’

‘Um-hum,’ Lingling murmured, jiggling the bundle in her arms.

‘How are you feeling?’

‘About the same.’

‘Me, too,’ said Uncle. ‘I made it through the winter and most of the spring, so I think I should be able to live through summer, maybe longer.’

Their conversation exhausted, the two were silent for a while. Then Uncle smiled and took Lingling’s hand in his. It was not long after Zhao Dequan’s death, not long after Uncle had visited Lingling at her parents’ house to pick up her red silk jacket, but they acted like two people who hadn’t met in years: hand in hand, gazing into one another’s eyes, their silent thoughts unspoken. Uncle turned over Lingling’s hand, examined the dried scabs on her wrists and hands, and then lightly, tenderly, scratched them. Lingling shrank back. Her eyes filled with tears and she pulled her hand away.

‘Don’t leave,’ Uncle said. Linging looked up in surprise. ‘Tingting wants a divorce, and so does Xiaoming. That means we can be together.’

Lingling was silent.

‘Neither of us has much time left.’ Uncle’s eyes were moist. ‘Everyone says that after this winter, the fever’s going to explode. No matter what happens in this life, at least we can be together in death. They can bury us side by side, and we’ll keep each other company.’

Lingling raised her head again, teardrops glistening in her eyes like big bright pearls.

‘What is there to cry about?’ Uncle asked, wiping away her tears. ‘We’re going to die anyway, so who gives a damn what other people say? We should move in together. I’d like to see them try to stop us. Let’s move in together and show them all. Tingting, Xiaoming. The whole village … we’ll show the lot of them.’

Uncle smiled through his tears. ‘So Tingting and Xiaoming want to divorce us? Let’s move in together and sue them for divorce.

‘If you go back home, your parents and brother will feel sorry for you, but what about your sister-in-law? She knows you’ve got the fever, so you know she’s going to give you the cold shoulder.

‘You can move into my house. Or if you don’t want to be around Tingting’s stuff, we can live outside the village, in the building beside the threshing grounds. I’ll bring some pots and pans and cookware, and it’ll be just like home.’

And so Uncle and Lingling moved in together.

They lived together brazenly, like husband and wife. Like a pair of young lovers. Like a couple of fools.

*

Uncle and Lingling set about making the two-room building of mud brick and tile into a home. Uncle brought bowls, woks, sheets and blankets from his house so they could live in comfort. The fields around the village were divided into private plots, but the threshing grounds were communal, usually shared by about a dozen households. After the Communist government was established in 1949, the threshing grounds had been divided among ‘mutual-aid teams’. Later, when the People’s Communes were formed, they were shared by ‘production brigades’. Now that the communes had been disbanded and the villagers had returned to farming private plots, the threshing grounds were divided informally among groups of households. When the thatched hut next to this threshing ground had collapsed, the villagers had pitched in to build a two-room building of mud brick and tile. During the busy harvest season, when the villagers took turns threshing wheat, the building was used as a place to rest or nap. During the rest of the year, it was used for storing farm equipment

And now it was Uncle and Lingling’s new home.

They set up a makeshift stove, and the outer room became a kitchen. They made a bed from planks of wood, and the inner room was transformed into a bedroom. They mounted shelves on the walls and heaped them with basins and bowls; they nailed baskets to the walls and filled them with chopsticks; they arranged the pots and pans and woks and crocks. When there was a place for everything and everything was in its place, the little mud-brick building felt just like home. A house that they could call a home, a place that made them feel at home.

At first, Uncle tried to be discreet about the move, waiting until it was dark to sneak back to his house and collect his things. But after a few days, when he realized that no amount of discretion could keep the villagers from finding out, he threw caution to the wind and ventured out in broad daylight. If the cat was already out of the bag, the water over the dam, the soy sauce spilled and the vase broken, what the hell did it matter, anyway? He was comfortable with his transgressions, resigned to his fate. And so he made no secret of the fact that he was carting food, fuel and furniture, the necessities of daily life, from his house to the threshing ground. If, on his way, he happened to run into one of the villagers, he was as guileless as glass.

Hey, Ding Liang!’ shouted one of the village men. ‘Where are you going with that load of stuff?’

Ding Liang stopped in his tracks. ‘It’s not your stuff. Why should you care?’

That shut the man up. After a while, he mumbled: ‘What the hell … I was just trying to be helpful.’

‘If you want to be helpful, why not trade places? You take my fever, and I’ll take your health in exchange. That will really lighten my load.’

‘You’re unbelievable.’

‘Oh, yes? How so?’

‘Just go, leave.’

But Ding Liang stood his ground. ‘Why should I be the one to go? It’s not like I’m standing in your living room.’

Seeing that Ding Liang wasn’t going to budge, nor answer any questions about his relationship with Lingling, the other man left. But he didn’t go directly home. Instead, he paid a visit to Lingling’s husband and in-laws. Moments later, Lingling’s mother-in-law emerged from the house, her face angry and her hair dishevelled. She stormed through the village, heading straight for the threshing ground. Clutching a stout wooden stick she had picked up somewhere along the way, she looked like a soldier armed for battle. A crowd of curiosity-seekers, women and children mostly, trailed along behind her.

As she reached the threshing ground, she let loose a torrent of abuse: ‘Lingling, you slut! You’re so loose you could drive a truck between your open legs! Come out here and face me, you whore!’

But it was Uncle, not Lingling, who emerged from the mud-brick house to face the angry mother-in-law. When he was standing a few metres away from her, he stopped, tucked his hands into his pockets, and took up a defiant posture: one foot forward, one foot behind, so that his upper body slouched backwards. ‘If you’re going to curse anyone, Auntie,’ he drawled, a smirk playing at the corners of his mouth, ‘if you’re going to beat anyone, it ought to be me. I’m the one who seduced Lingling, and talked her into moving in with me.’

The woman fixed Ding Liang with a stare. ‘No, you tell her to come out here this instant!’

‘She’s my wife now, so if you’ve got a problem with her, you can take it up with me.’

‘Your wife, you say?’ Her eyes widened in disbelief. ‘Until she and Xiaoming are divorced, she’s still his wife, and my daughter-in-law! Look at you, you’re a disgrace! Your cousin is a respectable man, and your father was a teacher … I honestly don’t know how he ended up with sons like you. You boys are a disgrace to the family name.’

Uncle laughed. ‘Call me a disgrace if you like, Auntie. You can call me names, beat me and curse me all you want, but it’s not going to change the fact that Lingling belongs to me. She’s mine.’

Lingling’s mother-in-law was no longer angry – she was livid. Her face swept through the whole spectrum of anger: shocked white, thunderous grey, furious red, seething purple. It was as if Uncle had delivered her a personal humiliation, or spat right in her face. Her lips and hands trembled with rage. At this point, there was nothing for it but violence and curses. Nothing short of a good, round beating and tongue-lashing could set this straight. The scream that issued from Lingling’s mother-in-law’s lips was incomprehensible, but there was no mistaking her gesture: an arm raised high in the air, brandishing a big stick.

Uncle removed his hands from his pockets, took a few steps forward and squatted on the ground in front of her, penitent.

‘Go ahead, Auntie. Hit me. Beat me to death, if that’s what you want.’

Her arm remained raised, the stick frozen in mid-air. If she wanted to beat him, here he was, squatting on the ground in front of her. But was that really what she wanted, to beat her own nephew? Maybe her curses were just for show, a way to vent her anger and save face in front of the other villagers. If she hadn’t cursed him out, she’d never be able to face people or hold her head high, at least not in this village. But no, she couldn’t bring herself to beat her nephew, not after he’d squatted on the ground, offered himself up like that, and even called her ‘auntie’.

The spring sun flooded the threshing ground with pale translucent light. All around, the wheat was moist and green. In someone’s field, a lonely goat – goats were such a luxury these days, who had the energy or the means to raise them? – nibbled at the tender stalks of wheat.

Baaaaa … The goat’s thin bleating floated through the air like a ribbon of sound.

Uncle crouched on the ground, arms crossed over his chest, waiting for the blow to fall. But the blow never came. Lingling’s mother-in-law lowered her stick and turned to the villagers. ‘You see that? I don’t know how Ding Liang can still call himself a man, when he’ll squat down in the dirt and take a beating for some filthy whore.’

Then, raising her voice: ‘You saw it, didn’t you? We all saw it. We ought to go to the school right now and bring them down here so they can see what kind of son Ding Shuiyang raised. The kind of man who would humiliate himself for a common slut.’

Still shouting and cursing, Lingling’s mother-in-law turned and began walking towards the village. The crowd of onlookers followed her, throwing backward glances at my uncle, like a lynch mob going back to the village to fetch reinforcements. Uncle slowly rose to his feet and watched them leave.

When they were some distance away, he shouted: ‘All right, Aunt! So you cursed me and made me lose face. But Lingling and I are going to live together, whether you like it or not. If you keep on like this, I won’t be so nice next time!’

From then on, Lingling and Uncle didn’t care what anyone said. Now and then, humming a happy tune, uncle returned to his house to cart odds and ends back to his love nest.

The older villagers, with an insight born of long experience, were openly sympathetic to the young couple. If they happened to meet Uncle on the road, they would gaze at him for a while, and then inquire how they might help. ‘Liang,’ said one elderly man. ‘Is there anything you kids need? If so, I can lend you something from my house.’

Uncle, moved by this kindness, stopped and thanked him for his concern. ‘That’s kind of you, Uncle,’ he said, tears welling up in his eyes. ‘But we have everything we need. Besides, if you helped us, you’d be the laughingstock of the village.’

‘Let them laugh. A lifetime is a lifetime, whether it’s a long one or a short one. When you’re this close to death, I say live and let live.’

Uncle, unable to hold back his tears, began to cry.

If one of the younger villagers happened to see Uncle on his way to the threshing ground, perspiring and struggling under a heavy load of food or furnishings, he would take the pole from Uncle’s shoulders and transfer it to his own. ‘You’re not strong enough to be carting all these things around,’ one young man chided him. ‘If you need something carried, you just give me a shout.’

Uncle laughed. ‘I can handle it. I’m not worthless yet.’

The man smiled and edged a bit closer. ‘So, brother, be honest … has the fever stopped you and Lingling from, you know, doing it?’

‘Not at all,’ Uncle bragged. ‘We do it twice a night.’ The man carrying the shoulder pole halted in surprise. ‘Seriously?’

‘Of course. Why else would Lingling be willing to ruin her reputation by moving in with me?’

The young man, taking Uncle at his word, shook his head in amazement.

The conversation ended when they reached the threshing ground, but the young man couldn’t keep himself from staring at Lingling, eyeing her from behind when she wasn’t looking. Sure enough, Lingling had a fantastic figure: narrow waist, shapely behind, a broad back and shiny jet-black hair that flowed over her shoulders like water. Noticing that his visitor was staring at Lingling’s hair, Uncle sidled over and whispered in his ear: ‘She lets me brush it.’

The young man took a deep breath and turned to stare at Uncle. ‘You dog, you …’

Uncle laughed. Lingling heard the sound behind her, but continued bustling around hanging laundry and doing chores, her movements allowing the visitor to fully appreciate her beauty. In every way, Lingling was more than a match for Song Tingting, uncle’s wife. Maybe her rounded face wasn’t quite as easy on the eye as Tingting’s slightly more oval face, but she was young, barely into her twenties, and nubile from head to toe. She had an irrepressible youthful energy that Tingting lacked. The youthful visitor stared at Lingling, lovestruck.

Uncle gave him a swift kick in the behind. The young man blushed, and so did Lingling. Then, remembering the shoulder pole he was carrying, he went into the house to unload Uncle’s things. Lingling poured the visitor a glass of water, but after being caught staring so blatantly, he was too embarrassed to sit down for a drink. He made an excuse about having something to do, and with one last glance at Lingling, took his leave. Lingling escorted him as far as the door, and Uncle accompanied him to the edge of the threshing ground.

‘You’ve got it good here, brother,’ said the young man as they reached the edge of the threshing ground. ‘If I had a woman like Lingling, I wouldn’t care if I got the fever twice.’

‘When you know you’re going to die soon, you grab love while you can, right?’ Uncle smiled.

‘You ought to marry her,’ said the young man earnestly. ‘That way, you can move back into your house and live together properly.’

As Uncle watched his visitor walk off, his smile faded. He seemed lost in thought.

2

One day, as Grandpa was pottering around his rooms, Uncle came to visit. He had some news: he and Lingling wanted to get married. Uncle planned to divorce his wife, and Lingling planned to divorce her husband: two more bits of news. He had also come to ask a favour.

Uncle and Grandpa, it seemed, had a lot to talk about.

‘Dad, I want to marry Lingling,’ Uncle announced, grinning.

Grandpa stared at him in shock. ‘You’ve got some nerve, coming here.’

It was the first time Uncle had visited Grandpa, or held a proper conversation with him, since he’d moved in with Lingling a fortnight earlier. Although he’d come to discuss a serious matter, Uncle wore the same lazy grin he always had. Even Grandpa’s angry reaction wasn’t enough to wipe the smile off his face.

‘I want to marry Lingling,’ Uncle repeated, leaning casually against the table.

‘You’re just like your brother.’ Grandpa looked askance at his youngest son. ‘You’d both be better off dead.’

Uncle straightened up, the smile fading from his face. ‘Dad, I’m serious. We’re going to get married.’

Grandpa stared in disbelief. After a few moments, he said through gritted teeth: ‘Are you insane? How much time do you think you have left? Or Lingling, for that matter?’

‘What’s so insane about it? And who gives a damn how much time we have left?’

‘You think you’ll live through next winter?’

‘Probably not. That’s why I’m in a hurry to marry her. Every day counts.’

Grandpa’s silence seemed to stretch for an eternity.

‘How can you possibly marry her?’ he asked, after a while.

I’m going to go and see Tingting and ask her for a divorce.’ As Uncle spoke, his face lit up with a smug grin, as if he’d just done something very clever or scored some sort of victory.

‘This time it’s me asking her for a divorce.’ His grin widened. ‘And not the other way around.’

Uncle’s face grew serious. ‘But Lingling’s afraid to set foot in her in-laws’ house, so you’ve got to talk Xiaoming and his parents into granting her a divorce.’

For a long time, a very long time, Grandpa said nothing. After a lifetime of silence, a lifetime and then some, Grandpa spoke again through gritted teeth. His words were cold and hard.

‘I won’t do it. I’m too ashamed.’

Uncle left Grandpa’s rooms. On his way out, with a wink and a smile, he said: ‘If you won’t do it, I’ll send Lingling to get down on her knees and beg you.’

3

Which is exactly what Lingling did.

She came to Grandpa’s rooms and knelt on the ground in front of him.

‘Please, Uncle,’ she said. ‘I’m begging you to help us. I don’t think Ding Liang is going to live through the summer. Even if he does, I doubt he’ll last the autumn or winter. He’s got pus-filled sores all over his crotch. They’re so infected, I have to spend hours every day wiping them down with a hot towel.

‘I doubt I’ll make it through the year, either. Xiaoming and his parents don’t want me, and neither does my family. When I went home, my brother and his wife, even my own parents, avoided me like the plague. But until I’m dead, I have to go on living, right? Wouldn’t you agree? Until the day I die, I have to find a reason to go on living.

‘Tingting wants a divorce, and so does Xiaoming. Even Xiaoming’s parents agree. Since that’s what everybody wants, why not go ahead and do it? Then your son and I can get married. Even if it’s only for a few months, at least we’ll be legally married, and when we die, we can be buried together like decent, respectable people.

‘Uncle, just once before I’m gone, I want to be able to call you “Dad”. And when I’m dead, I want you to bury me next to your son. We love each other, and we should be buried as husband and wife, as family. With me to keep him company, you’ll never have to worry. And if someday you pass away, after living to be a hundred years old, I promise to be a filial daughter-in-law in the afterlife, and take good care of you and your wife.

‘Uncle, please … Talk to Xiaoming and his parents. As someone who loves your son, as your future daughter-in-law, I’m begging you … I’m willing to go down on my hands and knees, to kowtow as many times as I have to, if only you’ll help us …’

With this, Lingling struck her head against the ground, in the ritual kowtow.

Once. Twice. A third time.

She wouldn’t stop until Grandpa agreed to help.

CHAPTER TWO

1

A summer’s evening, cool and pleasant. All across the plain, no one wanted to sleep. It seemed a pity to stay indoors and sleep away such a fine evening. In Ding Village, Willow Hamlet, Ferry Crossing and other villages on the plain, sick and well alike sat in doorways or outside, chatting about things past and present, gossiping about other people’s lives, and generally rambling about this and that as they enjoyed the cool night air.

Uncle and Lingling, too, were enjoying the fine evening. They sat together outside their little mud-brick house on the threshing ground. The village lay in one direction; in the other, the school. The wheat-threshing ground was located about halfway between the two. Separated by less than a mile in either direction, it occupied the tranquil mid-point.

Distant lights in both directions gave off a faint yellow glow, a dusky gleam that seemed brighter, somehow, than the moon or stars. It was only during the wheat harvest that the threshing ground lived up to its name. The rest of the year, it was nothing more than a flat stretch of dirt, an empty yard that no one used.

That night, the moon appeared to be floating right overhead. To the villagers, it seemed to hang directly over their houses. But out on the threshing ground it hung above the plain, flooding the landscape with water-coloured light. Beneath that pale moon, the plain was a vast lake of invisible shores. Flat, tranquil and reflective. When a dog barked in the village, the noise rippled the silence of the plain like a fish leaping from the surface. From the surrounding fields came a faint rustling of wheat, like water trickling through sandy soil.

Uncle and Lingling sat outside enjoying the pleasant evening, the soft breeze and, even more, their own pleasant company.

‘Come and sit over here, by me,’ said Uncle.

Lingling moved her chair closer, so that she was sitting in front of him.

There, outside their little house in the centre of the threshing ground, they sat face to face, gazing at one another. They leaned forward in their chairs, so that their faces were almost touching. Their features were clearly visible; in the moonlight, their noses cast a faint shadow on their faces. Had either of them exhaled a long breath, the other would have felt it on his or her face.

‘Did you like the noodles I made?’ Lingling asked.

‘They were great,’ Uncle answered. ‘A hundred times better than Tingting’s.’

As he spoke, Uncle took off his shoes and rested his feet on Lingling’s thighs. Sighing with pleasure, he tipped his head back and gazed up at the vast, starry sky. Playfully, flirtatiously, he began rubbing his feet over Lingling’s body, pinching her skin between his toes. Then, with another sigh of pleasure he said: ‘It would have been better if you and I had got married years ago.’

‘Better how?’

‘Better in every way.’

Uncle sat up straight and stared into Lingling’s eyes, looking deeply into them, like a man searching for something at the bottom of a shadowy well. She sat very still, allowing him to gaze at her. With the moonlight illuminating her from one side, she looked like a woman posing for a portrait. Her features were composed, but her hands were busy massaging Uncle’s legs, kneading his skin, giving him all the comfort she had to offer. Everything she had to offer. Although it was hard to tell in the moonlight, her face had a slight pink flush. She seemed bashful, as if she had been stripped naked by Uncle’s gaze.

‘It’s lucky we both got the fever,’ said Lingling.

‘How so?’

‘Otherwise, I’d still be married to Xiaoming and you’d be with Tingting. We’d never have had a chance to be together.’

Uncle pondered this. ‘I suppose not.’

For a moment, both felt almost grateful for the fever that had brought them together. They pushed their chairs even closer, and Lingling continued massaging Uncle’s feet and legs.

After she had finished, Lingling removed Uncle’s feet from her lap and helped him put his shoes back on. Then she kicked off her shoes and swung her legs on to his lap, primly and properly, without any naughty games of footsie. He began to vigorously massage her calves, moving down to her ankles before slowly working his way back up again over her calves, knees and thighs.

Each time he increased the pressure, he would ask, ‘Is that too hard?’

‘A little,’ she would answer.

‘How’s this?’

‘Too soft.’

Gradually, Uncle got a feel for what Lingling meant by ‘not too hard and not too soft’, and a sense of where to apply more pressure and where to apply less. When he rolled up the legs of her trousers, her calves gleamed in the moonlight like two smooth, bright pillars of jade. Her legs were pale and supple, soft and moist, free of sores or any other marks of the fever. Ardently, clumsily, Uncle kneaded and stroked her legs, all the while inhaling the alluring perfume of her flesh.

‘Does that feel good?’ he asked.

Lingling smiled. ‘Very good.’

Uncle’s expression turned solemn. ‘Lingling, I want to ask you something serious.’

Lingling raised her head. ‘Go ahead,’ she said, as their eyes met.

‘But you have to tell the truth,’ Uncle added.

‘So ask me.’

Uncle thought for a moment. ‘Do you think I’ll live through the summer?’

Lingling gave a little start. ‘What kind of a question is that?’

‘I’m just asking.’

‘But don’t people in the village say that if you live through the winter, you can live through another year?’

Uncle resumed massaging her legs. ‘The last few days, I’ve had dreams where I hear my mother calling me.’

Surprised, Lingling sat up a little straighter in her chair. She swung her legs off Uncle’s lap, slipped on her shoes and peered at him intently, as if she were searching his face for clues. ‘What did she say?’

‘She said even though it’s summer, she gets cold when she sleeps. She said since it’s not my father’s time yet, she wants me to come and sit by her bed and warm her feet.’

Lingling was silent, thinking about what Uncle had said.

Uncle was silent, thinking about what his mother had said to him in his dream.

The lonely silence seemed to stretch on and on. After a while, Lingling raised her eyes to look at Uncle.

‘When did your mother die?’

‘The year the blood-selling started.’

‘Same as my father-in-law.’

‘What did he die of?’

‘Hepatitis.’

‘Did he get it from selling blood?’

‘I’m not sure.’

The two fell silent. It was a deathly silence, a silence of the dead. As if there were not a human being left on earth, not even themselves. As if everyone were dead and buried. As if all that remained were sand and soil, crops and trees, the chirping of insects on a summer’s evening, and the moon that shone above. In the silvery light, the faint chirping of insects carried from the fields. The movement of worms and insects could be heard from underground, as if burrowing through the cracks in a coffin. It was a standing-at-a-graveside sound, a noise that sent a chill up your spine and seeped into your bones. Like a trickle of ice-cold wind, it got between the cracks and joints, worming its way into your bone marrow. Most people would have shivered at the sound, but Lingling and Uncle barely quivered: they had talked about death so much, they were no longer afraid of it.

They looked at one another.

‘It’s getting late.’

‘Let’s go to bed.’

They went into the house, into the bedroom, and closed the door.

Soon, the bedroom was warm with their scent. As cosy as starched, freshly washed sheets; as joyous as the bed of newlyweds.

It had been a pleasant early summer evening, crisp and cool. Lingling and Uncle had enjoyed the evening as much as anyone else in the village. As they were making love in the candlelit room, Lingling suddenly asked: ‘Liang, am I the only person you’re thinking of right now, the only one in your heart?’

‘Of course you are.’

‘I don’t think I am.’

‘I’d be a fool to think of anyone else.’

‘I think I know a way to get your mind off your mother and your dreams of dying, so that you only think of me.’

‘What is it?’

‘Think of me as your mother, not as Lingling. If you call me “Mother”, maybe you’ll stop dreaming about her, and stop worrying about dying.’

Uncle stopped what he was doing and stared at her.

Lingling extricated her body from beneath his and sat up in bed.

‘My dad died ten years ago,’ she said, looking into his eyes, ‘just like your mum. Both of us lost our parents. From now on, you be my daddy, and I’ll be your mummy.’ Lingling blushed a deep red. She wasn’t bashful about what they’d been doing, but because she’d finally spoken her mind. It wasn’t a blush of embarrassment, but of earnestness. Although Lingling was shy around other people and often spoke with lowered head, Uncle knew that her true character was different. When they were alone, her shyness disappeared, and was replaced by a wild, adventurous streak. At times, she was even wilder than Uncle.

Because she was still young, barely in her twenties.

Because she was going to die soon.

Because every day, every second, every bit of happiness mattered.

Lingling threw off the covers, exposing Uncle’s naked body. She sat at the edge of the bed, smiling mischievously, like a child playing a game. ‘From now on, Liang, you can call me “Mummy”. I’ll love you like a mummy would, and do anything you ask me to, even wash your feet. And I’ll call you “Daddy”, and you have to love me like a daddy and do anything I ask you, just like my daddy did when he was alive.’

Lingling leaned into Uncle and gazed up at him, like a pampered child begging for attention. There was a shade of a smile on her face, a hint of anticipation, as if she couldn’t wait to call him ‘Daddy’, or for him to call her ‘Mummy’. She began stroking his skin with her fingertips, licking his flesh with her tongue. Her touch was a moist wind blowing over his skin: tickling, tantalizing, tingling. Uncle squirmed, unable to endure the sensation. He was caught between wanting to laugh and wanting to pin her body beneath his.

‘You temptress.’

‘You demon.’

‘Witch.’

‘Warlock.’

‘Mummy … I want to do it.’

Lingling froze, as if she hadn’t expected Uncle to really use that word. Mummy. She seemed shocked that he’d said it, and maybe a little frightened. She raised her head to look at him, searching his face to see if he’d really meant it, or if his words were false. But Uncle wore the same easy smile he always had. The same lazy, foolish grin. Rascally, but with a touch of sincerity. Lingling wasn’t certain she liked what she saw there; when Uncle reached out to touch her, she gently moved his hand away. Uncle couldn’t stand it – he had to have her. His smile faded, and his expression grew serious. He gazed at her for a while, then opened his mouth and said it again.

‘Mummy …’

At first, Lingling didn’t respond. Her eyes filled with tears, but she wouldn’t allow herself to cry. After a few moments, she reached silently for Uncle’s hand, the hand she had just pushed away, and placed it softly on her breast. It was a reward of sorts.

For a long time after that, the room was silent, but for the sounds they made. Sighs and moans. The rhythmic creaking of the bed, and the wood groaning under their weight, as if the bed had broken a leg, or was about to collapse. Neither worried about the bed collapsing. They were each immersed in their own mad passion. Making love with abandon.

Covers got kicked off the bed; clothes got scattered to the floor. They didn’t care, or even notice. By the time it was over, everything was on the floor.

When Lingling awoke, the sun was already high in the sky. It took her a moment to realize she hadn’t died during the previous night’s exertions, a frenzy that had driven her to the brink of exhaustion. It was like dying in a dream and waking up the next morning, shocked to find oneself still alive.

Lingling was awake before Uncle, who was still filling the room with his ragged snores. Thinking about the frenzied madness of the night before – how he had called her ‘Mummy’, and she had called him ‘Daddy’, and all the things they had done, the things they had shouted at each other – Lingling blushed a deep crimson. Lying next to Uncle’s sleeping form, thinking back to the night before, Lingling blushed and smiled. She rose from the bed silently, tiptoed to the door and threw it open. The full force of sunlight hit her head-on, sent her reeling, so that she had to grab the door-frame for support. When she had regained her balance, she saw from the position of the sun in the sky that it must be nearly noon. In the surrounding fields, the wheat was growing tall and lush, filling the air with its rich golden scent.

As usual, Ding Village seemed silent and still. Lingling noticed a knot of people approaching from the opposite direction, a group of villagers carrying shovels, ropes and wooden poles. They seemed to be passing by the threshing ground on their way back to the village. Some were dressed in funeral caps or mourning clothes, their silent, wooden expressions betraying neither grief nor joy. Only a couple of the men laughed and chattered as they walked. Lingling could hear snippets of their conversation, carried on the wind: Don’t be fooled by the nice weather. Sure, the wheat is growing well now, but come autumn, there’s going to be a drought … What makes you say that? … It’s in the almanac. It says come the sixth lunar month, there’s going to be a drought …

As the group of villagers rounded the corner of the threshing ground, Lingling recognized some of them as Ding Xiaoming’s neighbours. They had been her friends and neighbours, too, when she and Xiaoming had lived together. Standing at the door of the little mud-brick house, she hailed one of the older men.

‘Hey, uncle!’ she shouted. ‘Who died?’

‘Zhao Xiuqin,’ the man answered.

Lingling was shocked. ‘But I saw her just a few days ago, carrying a bag of rice from the school into the village!’

‘Well, she got the fever more than a year ago, so she was lucky to make it this far. But that’s why she died, you know, because she brought home that bag of rice. She set it outside the door, and the minute her back was turned, one of the family’s pigs got into the bag and ate it all. You know Xiuqin’s temper … she got so mad at that pig, she started chasing it around the yard and hitting it, beating it so bad she broke its spine. But it wore her out, it did. She started bleeding inside, coughing up a lot of blood, and the night before last, she died.’

Lingling turned a sickly shade of grey. She could almost feel herself bleeding internally, her own stomach filling with blood. Cautiously, tentatively, she ran her tongue over her lips and found no taste of blood. That was reassuring. But her heart was still racing, pounding in her chest, and she had to grab the wall for support.

‘You haven’t started making lunch yet?’ the man asked her.

‘I was just about to.’

The funeral procession continued on its way. Lingling was just about to turn and go back into the house when she spied her husband, Ding Xiaoming, at the back of the crowd. He carried a shovel, and seemed to be deliberately lagging behind the others. She wanted to rush indoors, but it was too late: he’d already seen her. She would have to say something.

‘Did you come to help with the burial?’ she called out.

Ding Xiaoming stared at her. ‘Xiuqin’s dead, and she had family and friends and people that cared about her. But you’ve got no one, you’re living out here like an outcast. It should have been you!’ He raised his voice. ‘You should have been dead a long time ago!’

Xiaoming’s angry words hit Lingling like a burst of gunfire. Before she could muster an answer, he had passed her and was rushing to catch up with the others.

Lingling stood in shock, watching him disappear in the direction of the village. After a few moments, she turned and slowly walked back into the house. She found Uncle awake, sitting on the edge of the bed getting dressed.

Lingling’s eyes filled with tears. ‘Let’s really do it,’ she said, a sob in her voice. ‘Let’s get married as soon as we can. And let’s move back to the village, okay? Just once before we die, I want us to be a respectable couple. You have to promise me, Daddy.’

CHAPTER THREE

1

Not long after that, Uncle went to ask his wife for a divorce. Tingting was living in her hometown of Song Village, located five or six miles from Ding Village. Uncle and Lingling made the trip on foot, and brought with them a bag of snacks for Uncle’s son, Little Jun. Uncle went into Song Village alone, while Lingling waited for him beneath a shady tree on the outskirts of the village.

When Uncle and his estranged wife were seated comfortably in the living room of her parents’ house, he told her: ‘I think we should get a divorce. To tell you the truth, I’d like to marry Lingling before I die. I just want to spend a few happy days with her before we’re gone.’

Tingting paled. She seemed to be thinking something over. ‘All right,’ she answered after a moment. ‘I’ll give you a divorce if you ask your brother to get me two good coffins. But make sure they’re good ones … I want the very best caskets, the kind with carvings all over the sides.’

‘Who are they for?’

‘That’s none of your business.’

‘I can guess who one of them is for,’ said Uncle with a roguish grin. ‘He’s got the fever too, hasn’t he?’

Tingting turned her head away and said nothing. There were tears in her eyes.

Uncle couldn’t bring himself to say anything more, so he let the subject drop.

2

Grandpa went to talk to Xiaoming about the divorce.

When he arrived at the house and found no one home, he went out to the family’s field. Along the way, he ran into his sister-in-law, Xiaoming’s mother. Like a man asking a stranger for directions, he shouted brusquely: ‘Hey, you there! Are you off to water the fields?’

It turns out she was on her way to water the wheat crop. Her family’s field was located east of the village, near the ancient Yellow River path. While she was out there, it had occurred to her that if she mixed some chemical fertilizer into the irrigation water, it would save her the trouble of fertilizing the field by hand. She was just on her way home to fetch a bag of fertilizer when she’d run into Grandpa along the old river path. At first, she had no idea who he was shouting at. She glanced around to see who else was there, but seeing only the waist-high grass that grew along the roadside, realized that his question must have been meant for her.

‘Yes,’ she answered simply. ‘It’s that time again.’

Grandpa planted himself in the middle of the road, blocking her way. ‘I tell you, I could just kill that son of mine.’

‘I was afraid you were here as his matchmaker,’ she said with an icy smile. ‘To talk Xiaoming into giving that slut a divorce.’

Grandpa coloured slightly. ‘The pair of them are a disgrace.’

Xiaoming’s mother gave a snort of disbelief. For a few moments, she stared at Grandpa with disdain, her lip curled in a sneer. Then her expression softened. ‘I’ll tell you what,’ she said, more kindly. ‘Since you and I are in-laws, let me be honest with you. A divorce isn’t out of the question. Xiaoming’s got a fiancée now, a nice little girl – a virgin – never been married. But she’s asked for five thousand yuan to buy bridal gifts. If we can come up with the five thousand, she’ll agree to go ahead with the wedding.’

Xiaoming’s mother glanced around, as if to confirm that no one was lurking in the tall grass, eavesdropping on their conversation. When she was certain they weren’t being overheard, she continued. ‘Your son is in a hurry to get married and make an honest woman of Lingling before he dies, right? So why not ask the two of them to come up with the five thousand yuan? Then Xiaoming can afford to get married, and those two can make it official, and be buried together when they die.’

Grandpa stood dumbstruck. A gust of wind rushed by, leaving his face and clothes smelling strongly of mugwort. The wheat was high, the fields needed water, and the mugwort was in bloom. It was that time again.

‘The thing is, my son and his girl are both healthy,’ Xiaoming’s mother continued. ‘She even showed him a slip from the hospital proving she doesn’t have the fever. But your son and that slut of his don’t have much time left. There’s no way they can out-wait Xiaoming. But if they can get their hands on five thousand yuan, he’ll agree to the divorce in a heartbeat. Then your son can marry the slut, my boy can marry his girl, and everyone will be happy.’

Grandpa remained rooted to his spot. Xiaoming’s mother brushed past him and continued on her way, hobbling off in the direction of the village. As he watched her leave, Grandpa shouted after her: ‘All the books say it’s a bad idea to put fertilizer in the irrigation water. Half of it evaporates, or ends up fertilizing the weeds, or flows into someone else’s field!’

Xiaoming’s mother walked a bit further before she turned and shouted back. ‘Brother-in-law, you used to be a teacher! You ought to be ashamed of yourself, acting as a matchmaker for those two!’

Grandpa stood tethered to the ground, like a useless wooden signpost along an ancient, dried-up river. A gnarled and withered stump surrounded by lush new fields of green.

It was nearly dusk by the time Grandpa located his nephew. Ding Xiaoming had finished irrigating his fields and was lounging along the old river path, relaxing after a hard day’s work. His mother had gone home to make dinner. The sunset stained the plain a deep violet, the colour that happens when red sun, blue sky and green fields collide. A hazy violet light hung over the landscape like steam rising from the soil. When Grandpa arrived, he found his nephew smoking a cigarette beneath a scholar tree on the embankment, exhaling plumes of smoke that turned golden in the rays of the setting sun.

‘Where did you pick up that nasty habit, Xiaoming?’ Grandpa chided. ‘You never used to smoke.’

Xiaoming threw Grandpa a look and turned away his head.

Ignoring the insult, Grandpa squatted down on his heels. ‘Don’t you know that smoking is bad for you?’

Xiaoming took another long drag from his cigarette, as if to prove he knew smoking was bad for him but didn’t care less. ‘Too bad I’m not a bigwig county cadre like your son Ding Hui,’ he said. ‘I bet people give him all kinds of fancy liquor and cigarettes, more than he could ever drink or smoke. So I enjoy a pack of cheap smokes now and then. What do you care?’

Grandpa laughed and sat down next to Xiaoming. ‘I know my boys are good-for-nothings,’ he said with a rueful smile. ‘They’d be better off if someone ran them down with a car. But since that doesn’t seem likely, what can you do? It’s not like I’m allowed to strangle them. Besides, I’m too old for that. I haven’t got the strength.’

Xiaoming smiled. A mocking, thin-lipped smile that seemed tethered to the corners of his mouth by two golden threads. ‘So you just let them go on living the good life, huh? Ding Hui’s life is paradise, and he’s not even sick. Ding Liang’s got his paradise, too, at least until he croaks.’

Grandpa gazed at his nephew in silence. His cheeks were flushed, as if Xiaoming had slapped his face and left two angry red marks. Grandpa lowered his head for a moment, then raised it again, offering it up for another slap.

‘Xiaoming, if you want to take out your anger on someone, take it out on me. Go ahead, hit me. Slap me on both cheeks.’

Xiaoming laughed bitterly. ‘That’s very noble of you, Uncle Ding. Professor Ding. But if I ever laid a finger on you, Ding Hui would probably send his cronies to arrest me, and Ding Liang would pour his blood into my family’s rice cooker and give us all AIDS.’

‘I’d sooner kill myself than let Hui lay a hand on you,’ Grandpa vowed. ‘And if Liang ever dared raise his voice in your presence, I’d chop his head off.’

This time, Xiaoming didn’t laugh or smile. His face was no longer mocking or bitter, but hard and angry, flushed as dark as congealed blood. ‘You certainly know how to talk, Uncle,’ he said quietly. ‘I suppose it comes from all those years of reading books and being a teacher. I always thought you were a reasonable man. But when Liang stole my woman, why didn’t you say something? Why didn’t you try to stop him? You should have given him a good thrashing, or at least a good cursing, instead of letting them move in together like that.’

‘Xiaoming. Be honest with your old uncle.’ Grandpa’s tone was gentle. ‘Deep in your heart, do you really want Lingling back? Do you want to spend the rest of your life with her?’

Xiaoming snorted. ‘I wouldn’t touch that piece of trash again, no matter how desperate I was.’

‘Then why not divorce her and let them be together?’

‘Uncle, since you asked me to be honest, I might as well tell you the truth. I’m engaged to someone. She’s younger than Lingling, prettier and taller, and with lighter skin. She’s educated and classy, and she doesn’t want a penny of my money. All she wants me to do is go to the hospital and take an AIDS test to prove I don’t have the fever, to prove I never sold my blood. She’s going to take one, too. That’s our wedding present to each other. Blood tests. We were supposed to get married this month, but now Lingling and Ding Liang are shacked up together, and everyone in the village knows about it. I even hear they want to get married, make it official and all that, so they can be buried together when they die. Now I don’t feel like getting married right away, because I don’t want to give Lingling a divorce. If she and Ding Liang want to get married, they can wait – they can wait until they’re dead!’

Listening to Xiaoming’s angry, wounded talk, his smug and vengeful words, Grandpa realized that the situation was hopeless. When Xiaoming had finished speaking, Grandpa clambered down the embankment and began walking back towards the school.

The sunset reflected off the sandy soil, flooding the landscape with red. The cries of the season’s first cicadas rose from the plain, a collective buzzing like a chorus of tiny cracked bells off somewhere in the distance. After Grandpa had taken a few slow steps, he turned around and saw Xiaoming rise from the embankment as if he, too, were heading home. Their eyes met, and Grandpa halted. From the way Xiaoming was staring at him, it seemed the young man had something left to say. Grandpa stood and waited for him to speak.

‘Let Liang and Lingling wait,’ Xiaoming shouted. ‘Let them wait until they’re dead! Because that’s the day I’ll get married. When they’re both good and dead!’

Grandpa turned and continued on his way.

Further along, on a sandy shoal that had once been surrounded by water, a stand of mugwort grew as tall as pines. Grandpa was reminded of the pagoda pines and cypresses he’d seen in the city of Kaifeng. Mugwort grew wild all across the plain. In some of the other villages, they called it wormwood. Here was a small forest of it, a cluster of wormwood pagodas covered in a profusion of pale green and yellow leaves.

Grandpa followed the narrow path through the mugwort, displacing clouds of grasshoppers that clung to his shoes, trousers and shirt. He walked slowly, silently, through the last rays of the setting sun. The light had nearly faded, and he was about to turn from the path in the direction of the school, when he heard footsteps behind him. He turned to see Xiaoming a few dozen paces away, running to catch up. Xiaoming was sweating and gasping for breath, his face streaked with sand and dirt that he’d kicked up along the way. When he saw Grandpa turn around, he stopped in his tracks.

‘Hey there, Uncle!’ he shouted.

‘Xiaoming? What are you doing here?’

‘I came to say I’ll give her a divorce. I’ll let them be together, on one condition. You have to agree to it, and so does Ding Liang.’

‘What is it?’

‘First you have to promise.’

‘First tell me what it is.’

Well, I’ve thought it over, and I’m willing to give Lingling a divorce, right now, and let her marry Ding Liang. They want to make it official before they’re dead, right? Well, I can agree to that if Liang promises to write a will saying I’ll get the house and all his property when he’s dead. Once your other son leaves the village, he won’t be coming back, and his house will be empty. His house is nicer than Liang’s, anyway. You can stay in Hui’s house, so you’ll have a place to live in your old age, and Liang can leave his house and property to me.’

On one side of the path was a clump of mugwort; on the other, a deep ditch. Grandpa stood between the two, staring at his nephew, his eyes narrowed to a squint.

‘So what do you say, Uncle? If you agree, I’ll go into town tomorrow and file the divorce papers, and they can go into town the day after and apply for a marriage licence.’

Caught between a ditch and the wormwood, Grandpa continued squinting at his nephew.

‘Did you hear what I said, Uncle? You know the old saying: don’t let your fertilizer flow into a stranger’s field. Keep the wealth in the family, right? It’s better for Ding Liang to will his property to me, his own cousin, than let it go to an outsider like Song Tingting. Or worse, let the government get their hands on it.’

Ditch. Wormwood. Nephew. Grandpa caught between them, squinting.

‘When you think about it, Uncle, it makes perfect sense. What does Hui need with his stuff once he’s dead? He can’t take it with him. That’s what you should tell him. Besides, it’s not like I’m going to be using it while he’s still alive. I won’t move into the house until he and Lingling are both gone. But he’s got to promise to put it in his will. Otherwise, I won’t give Lingling a divorce, and they’ll never be able to get married. If he dies without making an honest woman of her, that’s something he’s going to take to his grave.’

In that moment, Grandpa’s vision blurred, turning what was left of the sunset – a sheet of red and gold – into a haze of blood and fog. Grass and trees, wormwood and brush, mugwort and sedge swam before his eyes, swirled around his feet and spun off into the distance. Even his nephew seemed to have receded, and was now a tiny spinning blur …

‘I’ve got to go.’ The voice sounded far away. ‘But you tell Liang about what I said, and tell him to think it over. After all, how many happy days do any of us have? You come into this world with nothing, and you leave the same way. You can’t take it with you. All you can do is enjoy it while you can. Happiness … that’s the only thing that’s real.’

With these words of wisdom, Xiaoming took his leave. He sauntered down the road and disappeared into the setting sun, leaving the wormwood and the ditch far behind him.

3

On the far reaches of the plain, along the western horizon, trees and villages seemed immobilized against the sunset, as static as drawings on a sheet of paper. The banks of the ancient Yellow River, now just worn-down sand dunes, were covered with patchy vegetation. Where they faced the sun, the grass grew tall, but where they lay in shadow, the surface was bare, the sandy soil encrusted like a scab over an old wound. The tops of the embankments were uniformly bald, their sand-strewn pates reflecting sunlight like gold. The thick, sweet stench of sun-baked soil and wild grass spread like molasses over the plain. At dusk, the plain was like a vast lake of salt-sweet warmth, a body of water stretching endlessly and giving off a moist, sweet stink.

A lonely goat wandered towards the village from the direction of the school, its thin bleating causing ripples in the silence like a reed floating on the surface of a lake. A man led his cattle in single file back to the village after having taken them out to graze. Their mooing echoed through the fields, their bodies like a field of mud advancing slowly across the plain and into the dusk.

A man stood on the outskirts of the village and shouted to his neighbour working in the fields.

‘Hey there! Are you busy tomorrow?’

‘Not really. Why?’

‘My dad died, and I was hoping you could help me bury him.’

There was a moment of silence. Then the man in the fields asked: ‘When did he die?’

‘Earlier today.’

‘Have you got a coffin?’

‘Yes, Yuejin and Genzhu gave us one of the willow trees.’

‘What about the funeral clothes?’

‘My mother has had them ready for a while.’

‘All right, then. I’ll come over early tomorrow morning.’

And the plain fell silent again, as still as a lake on a windless day.

4

I, Ding Liang, being of sound mind and body, agree to give Ding Xiaoming all my property after Xia Lingling and I have passed away. Ding Xiaoming is to inherit the house, courtyard, trees and all the items in the house, as well as the half-acre of irrigated farmland located north of the old river path between the Zhang and Wang family fields. The main property consists of one three-room house of brick and tile, two adjacent buildings (a kitchen and a storeroom), and a courtyard with three paulownia trees and two cottonwoods, which Xia Lingling and I promise not to cut down or sell during our lifetimes. Household items and furnishings include one standing wardrobe, one long table, two wooden trunks, one coat rack, one washstand, four red-lacquered chairs, five stools, two benches, one double bed, one single bed, two large water vats and four clay storage jars. Xia Lingling and I pledge not to sell, give away, destroy, damage or remove any of these items from the premises.

As my verbal agreement with Ding Xiaoming is not legally binding, I have written down the terms of our agreement in this letter, which should be considered my last will and testament. I entrust this document to my younger cousin Ding Xiaoming, until such time as it becomes effective after my and Lingling’s deaths. My father, Ding Shuiyang, is not to contest this will or otherwise lay claim to any of my property.

Signed: Ding Liang On the *th day of the *th month of the year 19**

5

When Uncle went to Ding Xiaoming’s house to deliver the letter, his last will and testament, they met at the courtyard gate. Uncle stood outside, unwilling to set foot in an enemy courtyard; his cousin stood just inside the gate, unwilling to step outside, into unprotected territory.

‘There! Take it!’ said Uncle, flinging the letter in Xiaoming’s face.

It fluttered to the ground and Xiaoming bent down to pick it up. After he had scanned the contents, he said: ‘Cousin, you’re the one who stole my wife.’ He sounded wounded. ‘You’ve got no call to treat me like this.’

CHAPTER FOUR

1

Uncle and Lingling got married. They had made it official: they were husband and wife. Now, finally, they could move into Uncle’s house.

On the day of the move, they borrowed a cart, and in two trips, managed to move everything from the threshing ground back to the village. By the time they arrived at Uncle’s house, Lingling was perspiring heavily. But there was still work to be done: there were quilts and kitchenware and furniture and boxes to be unloaded and arranged in the house. By the time they had put everything in order, Lingling was drenched in sweat. She stripped off some of her clothes and went outside to take the air. Her sweating subsided, but by evening she began to feel parched and feverish again, as if her whole body were burning up. Thinking she was coming down with a cold, Lingling took some medicine and a draught of ginger tea, but neither brought down her fever.

A fortnight later, she realized what was happening.

It wasn’t a fever, but the fever. Her disease was full-blown. She was dying.

She hadn’t a bit of strength left in her body. She didn’t have the energy to eat, or even to lift a bowl. One day, Uncle made her some ginger tea to help bring down her fever, but when he raised the bowl to her lips, she refused to drink it. She stared in alarm at his gaunt face and the several new spots that had appeared on his forehead.

‘When did you get those spots on your face?’ she asked.

‘Don’t worry, I’m fine.’

‘Take off your clothes.’

‘I’m fine,’ said Uncle, with his usual careless grin.

‘If that’s true,’ Lingling raised her voice, ‘then take off your clothes and show me!’

As Uncle removed his shirt and loosened his trousers, Lingling saw the angry rash of red bumps that stretched around his midriff. The blisters were fierce and shiny, as if they were bursting with blood. Uncle had stopped wearing his leather belt because it chafed the rash, and had instead replaced it with a long, cloth sash threaded through the belt loops of his trousers. Lingling hadn’t noticed the sash before, because Uncle had always been careful to cover it with his shirt. Now, with the ends of the sash dangling from his waist, Uncle looked like one of those old-time peasant-farmers who tied their trousers with whatever bit of cloth they could find.

As she gazed at the rash on Uncle’s waist, Lingling’s eyes filled with tears. Then, despite her tears, she began to laugh.

‘It’s probably better this way,’ she said, chuckling. ‘That both of our fevers have flared up at the same time. Just a few days ago, I was worried that I’d die first, and you’d end up getting back together with Tingting.’

Uncle, too, began to laugh. ‘I was afraid to tell you, but my fever flared up first. The day I stopped wearing my belt, I thought, “Oh God, please let Lingling’s fever get worse, too. Don’t let me drop dead and leave her here, alive and well.”’

Uncle smiled, a wicked smile. Lingling reached out and gave him a little pinch.

‘I haven’t touched you in weeks,’ said Uncle, setting the bowl of ginger tea on the bedside table. ‘It’s been weeks since we did anything in bed. Didn’t you notice, and think my fever was getting worse?’

Lingling shook her head and smiled. After thatthey had a lot to talk about.

‘Well, isn’t this great?’ said Lingling. ‘The minute we move into the house, we both get sick.’

‘If we have to die soon, at least we’ll die together.’

‘I hope I’m the first to go, so you can give me a nice funeral. But you have to promise to buy me some decent clothes. I don’t want to be buried in one of those horrible black funeral outfits. I want a dress – no, two dresses, one bright red. Ever since I was small, I’ve loved bright red. As for the other one – something plain, a lighter colour. That way, I’ll have a change of clothes in the afterlife.’

‘And I’ll buy you a pair of red high heels, the sexy kind, like the ones city girls wear.’

For a long time, Lingling was silent. She scrutinized Uncle’s face, as if she were unsure about something.

‘Forget it. It’s better if you die first. Otherwise, I’d worry too much,’ said Lingling.

‘But I’d give you a great funeral. I’ve got my dad and brother to take care of mine. But if I’m not around when you die, who’s going to make sure you get a proper burial?’

‘You say that now,’ said Lingling, with tears in her eyes, ‘but I’d still worry about you.’

‘What, don’t you trust me?’

‘That’s not what I meant.’

After a few more complaints about what Uncle might do if left to his own devices, Lingling said: ‘I think it’s best if we die together.’

‘No, let’s not. If I die first, you should be free to enjoy the time you have left. And if you die first, I should be able to do the same.’

‘You’re not thinking about me, you’re thinking about yourself.’ Lingling pouted. ‘What you really mean is that you should be free to enjoy the time you have left.’

‘That’s not what I meant.’

‘That’s exactly what you meant.’

They continued to argue, like two children playing at being angry, until Uncle turned around and accidentally knocked the bowl of ginger tea from the bedside table. It fell to the floor with a crack and shattered into pieces.

The fighting stopped.

Lingling and Uncle stared at the broken bowl. Both knew that breaking a bowl of medicine was a bad omen. It meant that a person was going to die soon – so taking medicine was pointless. They stared at each other in silence. The room grew still, the atmosphere oppressive. They could feel themselves beginning to sweat, like buns in a bamboo steamer, or peas boiling in a pot. Both of them had grown thin, so very gaunt and thin. Lingling’s once-voluptuous bosom seemed to have collapsed. The breasts that Uncle had adored now hung from her chest like two sacks of withered flesh. Her moist and rosy skin, which had maintained its glow despite the many rashes and spots, had turned ashen, marred with discolouration like patches of rust.

Her eyes were sunken, the hollows as large as hen’s eggs. Her cheekbones jutted out like the poles of a funeral tent. Her person was so shrunken, so diminished, that she seemed hardly a person at all. Her dry, dull hair, which hadn’t been combed in days, lay on her pillowcase like a tangle of rust, a clump of wormwood that had sprouted from the pillow. As for Uncle, he still managed to put away as much food as ever, but Lord only knows where it went. His square face had become hatchet-like, his cheekbones sharp as knife-blades. His eyes held none of their former light: the pupils had shrunken, leaving too much white.

After breaking the bowl, he stared for a long time at the ceramic shards that littered the floor.

‘Lingling, when I said I wanted you to die first, I wasn’t being selfish. I was only thinking of what’s best for you. If you don’t believe me, I’ll kill myself right now.’

‘Kill yourself how?’

‘I’ll hang myself.’

‘Go ahead, then.’ Lingling sat up in bed and ran her fingers through her tangled hair. Her expression was calm and composed. ‘We’re both going to die soon, anyway. Go get some rope. When I see you stand on a stool and put your head in the noose, I’ll put my head in another noose and we’ll both kick the stools away at the same time. If we can’t live together, at least we can die together.’

Uncle stared at Lingling, unsure if she was serious.

‘Go get some rope,’ she repeated.

Uncle didn’t move.

‘Go on. I think there’s some under the bed.’

Backed into a corner, Uncle stared at Lingling for a long time before he bent down and began rummaging under the bed. He found the rope, fashioned two nooses, stood on a bench and hung them from the rafter above. When he had finished this task, he turned to look at Lingling. It was as if he were sizing her up, testing to see who was more courageous. It was a tender look, a teasing challenge. Uncle was surprised to find that Lingling – so gentle in life, so wild in bed – would be so steadfast in the face of death. After Uncle had secured the nooses, Lingling stood up calmly, washed her face, ran a comb through her hair and went out to lock the courtyard gate. When she returned, she stepped up on to the wooden stool and looked at Uncle.

‘If we die together,’ she declared, ‘it will prove that our love was not in vain. That we have no regrets.’

It was barely noon, and the sun hung in the eastern sky, its fiery rays streaming through the window and on to the bed. The quilt was neatly folded, the clothes in their cupboards, and the chairs and tables lined up against the walls. Everything they had moved from the threshing ground had been unpacked, and the room was in perfect order. Lingling had even laundered the curtain that hung from the door, washing it until it was sparkling clean. She had made this house her own, washing and scrubbing until every last trace of Song Tingting was gone. It was her house now. She had even removed Tingting’s mattress and replaced it with one that she and Uncle had slept on. Time and again, she had wiped down the boxes and trunks that Tingting had used, to rid them of the other woman’s smell. She had collected the bowls that Tingting had eaten from and taken them out to the coop to use for chicken feed. This was her and Uncle’s home now, and Lingling would die happier knowing that her house was in perfect order. She had even taken the shovels and hoes from behind the doors and stored them beneath the eaves of the courtyard. Lingling glanced around the four corners of the room and saw that everything was neat and tidy. Four square walls of a tomb. There was nothing left to unpack, nothing to tidy up, nothing left to do but die. Satisfied that the room was perfect, Lingling picked up a damp towel from the washstand and wiped her face. Then she stepped calmly on to the stool that Uncle had prepared for her, grasped the noose dangling  from the rafters and turned to look at him.

At this point, there was no retreat. No moving forward and no turning back. The only choice was to stick one’s neck into the noose. Uncle took the circle of rope in both hands. Lingling did the same. She stared hard at Uncle, her gaze compelling him to put his head into the noose, so that she could follow suit. They were boxed into a corner now, at a dead end, and the only thing left to do was die. But at that moment, Uncle broke into a grin, a wicked, devil-may-care sort of grin, and said: ‘Still, I’ll take every day I can. If you want to die, you go ahead, but I want to go on living.’

With this, Uncle stepped off the stool, sat down on the bed and looked up at his wife, still clutching the noose in her hands.

‘Lingling, come down from there. If you do, I promise to be your servant, and wait on you hand and foot.’

Uncle stood up, took Lingling in his arms and lifted her down from the stool, then laid her gently on the bed and began removing her clothes. He gazed at her nude body, at the skin that had once been so fair but was now as dry and dull as withered grass after a long winter. Her face was pitiful to look at, wretched and gaunt, streaked with resentful tears.

‘Let’s do it,’ she begged. ‘Let’s just hang ourselves.’

‘No, let’s not. Each day we’re alive is better than being dead. And just think about how much we have to live for. We’ve got food to eat, a place to live, and we’ve got each other. If we’re hungry, we can fry up some cakes in the kitchen. If we’re thirsty, we can drink sugar-water. And if we get lonely, we can go out into the street and talk to people. I want you so much, Lingling. I want to stroke your face and kiss your lips … the only thing I worry about is not being able to make love to you.’

But that is exactly what Uncle did, summon all of his strength and make love to his wife.

Uncle always was a rascal.

Afterwards, Lingling thought of something. ‘Liang, we didn’t even apply in person. Do you think your brother will come through with our official marriage licence?’

‘Don’t worry about that,’ Uncle answered smugly. ‘I hear they’re promoting him to head of the county AIDS task force. Getting a marriage licence should be a piece of cake.’

2

As it happened, my father did take care of everything. He handled two divorces and one marriage without Tingting, Lingling, Xiaoming or Uncle ever having to set foot in a government office. Uncle and his wife got a divorce, Lingling and her husband got a divorce, and Uncle and Lingling got two bright-red booklets embossed with an official seal from the civil-affairs department of the local district government.

When my father went to the house to give Uncle and Lingling their little red marriage certificates, most of the villagers were taking their midday nap. The sun was a bright poison hanging overhead, the air was filled with the buzzing of cicadas, and summer heat flowed through the streets like scalding water. The village was very, very still. Trampling the silence, my father left his house and walked through the village. He had some business to attend to in the county, but first he made a stop at my uncle’s house.

Uncle’s courtyard gate was unlatched, but instead of walking in or shouting to see if anyone was home, my father pounded on the wooden gate with his fist. When no one answered, he knocked more loudly.

‘Who’s there?’ my uncle called from inside the house.

‘Liang, it’s me. Come outside for a minute.’

Dressed in a pair of white cotton underpants, Uncle went out and opened the gate. He seemed surprised to find his brother standing there. ‘Oh, it’s you,’ he mumbled groggily.

‘I got those coffins Tingting asked for,’ my father said coldly. ‘Two Grade-A coffins with carvings of houses, buildings and appliances. I’ll wager no one in her family has ever had such a fancy, expensive casket.’

Still only half-awake, Uncle stared at his brother in silence.

‘Is it true what I’m hearing? That you willed this house and courtyard to Ding Xiaoming?’

Uncle was suddenly wide awake. Without answering, he turned his head away, darting sideways glances at his brother and at the courtyard.

From his pocket, my father produced the marriage certificates, printed on shiny red paper. He flung them at my uncle through the open courtyard gate. They hit Uncle in the chest, clinging to his naked skin for just a moment before fluttering to the ground like falling leaves.

‘You ought to be ashamed of yourself,’ my father hissed. ‘You could die any day now, and here you are, signing away the family property and raising all kinds of hell over a woman. You’re going to die without descendants, and there’ll be no one to make offerings at your grave. You’ve got nothing to live for, so why don’t you just die now?’

My father spun on his heel and began to walk away. After he had taken a few steps, he glanced back at Uncle. ‘Four divorce certificates plus two marriage licences. Do you know what those six pieces of paper cost me? I had to promise the official one of my most expensive coffins, for free!’

This time the words were not hissed, but shouted. My father stalked off without looking back. He was the same father I’d always known, a skinny man, lean as a sheet, but now that he could afford to buy his clothes in the city, he dressed a little better. He wore an unlined blue jacket with upturned collar and contrasting red stitching, and a pair of grey cotton trousers, neatly creased. My mother must have laid out the jacket and folded the trousers very carefully to get them to look like that, because she didn’t own an iron.

My father’s clothes set him apart from the other villagers. He looked like a city man now, a county cadre who worked in the city. Then there were his shoes, his shiny black leather shoes. A lot of the village men wore shiny black shoes, but they were mostly imitation leather. If they were real leather, they were probably pigskin. But my father’s shoes were made from real cowhide, the genuine article. They were a gift from someone for whom he’d helped procure coffins. The black patent leather had been polished until it shone like a mirror. As my father strode through the streets, the trees and houses of Ding Village were reflected in his shoes. Although, of course by then, there weren’t many trees left, so the trees reflected in his shoes were mostly tiny ones.

After he had watched my father turn the corner, Uncle seemed to regain his senses. He bent down and picked up the marriage booklets. Flipping through their pages, he found nothing new. They were nearly identical to the ones he and Song Tingting had received so many years ago. Only the date and one of the names had changed. The differences were so minor that Uncle began to feel like remarriage was a bit of an anti-climax, a futile exercise. For a few moments, he stood in the courtyard, feeling disappointed. When he turned around, he saw Lingling standing behind him, looking very pale. Uncle realized that she must have heard everything his brother had said, and seen him throw the marriage certificates. She looked like she’d been slapped across the face.

‘If I’d known it was such a hassle, I wouldn’t have bothered,’ Uncle groused.

Lingling stared at him but said nothing.

‘I mean, fucking hell, who cares if we shack up or get buried together without a marriage licence? What are they going to do, chop our heads off? Dig up our graves?’

‘You think they’d bury us together if we weren’t married?’ Lingling asked. ‘Your dad and brother would never allow it.’

Lingling took the booklets from Uncle’s hand and scrutinized them closely. After she had looked through all of the words and pictures, she wiped the dirt off carefully, as if she were washing her own face.

3

Oddly enough, as soon as she and Uncle had their marriage certificates in hand, Lingling’s temperature retreated. Her fever went down and her strength returned. It was as if she were cured, as if she were well again. Although she was still far too thin, she had regained her spirit, and some of her former glow.

After my father left, Lingling and Uncle went in for a nap. Uncle fell asleep quickly, and awoke to find Lingling sitting on the edge of the bed, waiting for him to wake up. While he had been napping, she had wiped down the furniture, laundered their clothes and given the floor another sweeping. She had even found time to go out into the village and buy a few packets of cigarettes and several pounds of festively wrapped fruit candy.

When Uncle saw Lingling sitting on the edge of the bed and smiling, he asked: ‘What’s with you?’

Lingling laughed. ‘I’m better. My fever’s gone.’ She took his hand and placed it on her forehead so he could feel. ‘Now I want to go out and tell everyone in the village we’re married!’

Uncle put his hand to her forehead again, wondering if she was delirious.

Lingling grabbed the bag of candy and plopped it down on the bed.

‘Liang, Daddy, I swear I’m much better. Let’s go into the village and tell everyone we’re married. Because of the fever, I know we can’t have a big celebration, but the least we can do is pass out candy and cigarettes and tell everyone the good news!

‘Even though it’s a second marriage for both of us, I’m only twenty-four, so it’s kind of like a first marriage for me,’ she enthused. ‘Come on, let’s make the rounds and tell everyone! When we come back, I promise to call you Daddy a hundred times, as many times as you want.

‘Hurry up, Daddy,’ she tugged at his hand. ‘Don’t you want to come back home tonight and hear me call you Daddy again?’

Taking Uncle by the hand, she led him to the washstand, moistened a towel and began washing his face. She was careful to wipe the corners of his eyes and the sides of his nose, and to scrub the palms and backs of his hands. When this was finished, she picked out a pair of trousers and a shirt and helped him to get dressed. After she had buttoned Uncle’s shirt, she grabbed the bag of candies, took him by the hand and led him out of the door, like a mother taking her child out to play.

Uncle and Lingling went from house to house, announcing their marriage and showing their certificates. They were husband and wife now, and had the booklets to prove it. From house to house they went, spreading the joyous news and passing out candy and cigarettes. At the first house they visited, a woman in her late sixties opened the door, their elderly neighbour. Lingling thrust a handful of festively wrapped candies at the woman, saying: ‘Hello granny, we brought you some wedding candy. Ding Liang and I are married – we just got the certificates. With everyone so sick these days, we can’t have a banquet, but we wanted to come over and tell you the good news.’

At the second house, a middle-aged woman in her forties opened the door. ‘Hello, auntie,’ Lingling greeted her. ‘Liang and I just got married! Because of the fever, we’re not having a banquet, but we wanted to come and tell you the news, and bring you some wedding candy.’ After she had stuffed the woman’s pockets full of candies, Lingling pulled out her marriage certificate and held it up for the woman’s approval.

At the fifth house, a young woman known around the village as Little Green came to greet them. Little Green was a newlywed herself, but she had recently moved back in with her mother. She and her husband, a man from another village, seemed to have had some sort of falling-out, but the details were sketchy. Almost as soon as she opened the door, Lingling handed her one of the red booklets and said: ‘Little Green, can you take a look at this and tell me if it looks the same as yours? I don’t know why, but it looks fake to me, like the red’s too red or something.’

‘Isn’t it just like the one you and Ding Xiaoming got?’ Little Green asked.

Lingling blushed. ‘I’ve compared them a hundred times, but they still look different. It’s like the red on this one is brighter.’

Little Green stood in the doorway, turning over the booklet in her hands and examining it from every angle. She even held it up to the sunlight, as if it were a suspected counterfeit bill. Unable to find anything wrong with it, she said as much to Lingling. ‘I can’t see anything different. It’s the same size as mine, the same colour, with the same words and the same seal.’

‘Well, that’s a relief.’ Her worries laid to rest, Lingling turned and began to walk away. Then, realizing that she had forgotten to give Little Green any wedding candy, she raced back to the house and stuffed several handfuls of sweets into Little Green’s cupped hands.

After they had rounded the corner and were about to knock at the first door on the next street, Lingling suddenly realized that, so far, she was the one doing all the work. While she had been knocking on doors, delivering the happy news, passing out cigarettes and sweets, accepting congratulations and trading small talk, Uncle had been standing behind her, grinning his lazy grin and chomping on wedding candy. She paused at the door, lowered her hand and turned to Uncle. ‘It’s your turn,’ she told him. ‘This family’s mostly men, so it’ll probably be a man who comes to the door. You should be the one to knock.’

Uncle tried to shrink away, but Lingling grabbed his hand and dragged him to the door.

‘All right,’ he said. ‘But remember what you promised. You have to call me Daddy at least a hundred times tonight.’

Lingling’s cheeks coloured, but she nodded her head.

Uncle grinned. ‘Maybe just once, right now.’

‘Daddy.’

‘Say it louder.’

‘Daddy!’

Smiling, Uncle stepped forward and knocked on the door.

‘Who is it?’ A man’s voice rang out from the courtyard.

‘It’s me, Uncle. I wonder if I might borrow something of yours.’

When the door swung open, Uncle grinned, passed the man a cigarette and lit it for him. ‘So, what did you want to borrow?’ the man asked.

‘I was just joking. Actually, Lingling and I are married. We just got the papers today, and she insisted we come over and give you some cigarettes and wedding candy.’

At this, the man broke into a broad smile. ‘Congratulations, kids. That’s great news. I’m really happy for you.’

After Uncle and Lingling had said goodbye, they moved on to the next house, which was Ding Xiaoming’s. Having mustered up his courage, Uncle was about to knock on the door when Lingling grabbed him by the arm and dragged him away.

After Uncle and Lingling had made the rounds of the village and handed out all their candy and cigarettes, they went home to get some money so they could buy more candy and cigarettes for the residents of the school. They planned to visit the school to tell Grandpa and the others their good news. But along the way something happened: a minor incident that would have major consequences.

As Uncle was walking into his own courtyard, he stumbled over the wooden threshold and took a tumble. His thin summer clothes were torn, his elbows and knees scraped and bloodied. It was nothing serious, some minor scrapes and a bit of blood, but the pain from his injuries was nothing compared to the pain Uncle felt in the rest of his body. The fall triggered a cold, piercing pain that radiated from his spine and caused him to break out into a sweat. Uncle felt it as soon as he sat up from the ground and began wiping the blood from his hands.

‘Lingling,’ he moaned. ‘It hurts all over.’

Lingling hurried him into bed and helped him get cleaned up, mopping the sweat and blood from his face, arms and legs. Uncle knelt on the bed, shrimp-like, his head bowed and his body curled up into a ball. Beads of sweat dripped from his forehead on to the bedclothes. His lips were pale and contorted, his whole body shivering with pain. He clutched Lingling’s hand so tightly that his fingernails dug into her flesh. ‘Mummy,’ he said. ‘I’m scared that I won’t have the strength to get past this.’

‘You’ll be fine, Daddy. Just think of all the other people who got the fever when you did. They’re all dead now, but you’re still alive, right? You always make it through.’

Uncle’s eyes filled with tears. ‘Not this time. It’s like the pain’s tearing through my bones.’

Lingling gave him an herbal pain remedy and fed him half a bowl of soup. When the pain had subsided a bit, she sat beside him and they talked for a long time, about many things.

‘Do you really think you won’t get past this?’ she asked.

‘I don’t think I can,’ Uncle answered grimly.

‘What am I going to do if you die?’

‘Go on living. Take every day you can get. And keep an eye on my dad and brother to make sure they dig us a big grave, roomy enough for both of us. I want it to be big and deep and wide, like a house or a courtyard.’

‘What about the coffin?’

‘My brother promised to get nice coffins for us. The good kind, made of cedar or tung, at least three inches thick.’

‘What if he doesn’t?’

‘He’s still my brother. No matter what, he and I are family. Why wouldn’t he?’

‘Didn’t you see the way he threw our marriage licences on the ground? And then he yelled that you were raising all kinds of hell and signing away the family property on my account. He hates that you married me. If you die first and he doesn’t give me a coffin, or dig a big enough grave for both of us, what am I supposed to do?

‘And another thing, coffin prices have skyrocketed. You used to be able to get a decent coffin for four or five hundred yuan, but now they sell for seven or eight. If your brother were to give us both nice coffins, it would come to about one thousand five hundred yuan. Do you really think he’s willing to part with that kind of money?

‘Seriously Liang, if your brother decides not to give me a coffin, there’s not a thing I can do about it. If anyone has to die first, it should be me. That way, you can make sure they dig the grave big enough for both of us, and give us two fancy coffins, as nice as houses. So you’ve got to go on living, Daddy, okay? If one of us has to go first, let it be me.’

They talked without stopping, hardly pausing for breath. They talked long into the night, until the pain was nearly forgotten. Tonight was supposed to be the night when Lingling called him Daddy, again and again, a hundred times over. She’d promised to wait on him, to serve him any way he liked, to let him sit back and enjoy. But now the fever had taken hold of him. Pain had grown roots. If it weren’t for Lingling’s voice, he wouldn’t have been able to stand it. What had begun as a flesh wound, just broken skin, now went deeper, because of his body’s inability to fight back. Having lost his ability to resist pain, the tiniest twinge became an agony in his joints and in his bones. A pain that seeped into the marrow like hot knives plunging into his joints, digging and gouging. Like metal rods prying his bones apart, or a rusty needle, threaded with twine, passing up through his spine. The pain was inhuman. Uncle clenched his jaw until his teeth ached and sweat poured down his face like rivulets.

The night was as endless as a path across the plain. Pale, milky moonlight seeped through the curtains; crickets chirped outside the window. It was stifling. The pain made Uncle feel as if his soul were on fire, a heap of burning coals. Like an iron forge, hot enough to smelt metal. It was impossible to find a comfortable position. First he knelt, shrimp-like, in the middle of the bed, with his backside 

sticking up into the air. Then he tumbled sideways on to the sheets and lay in a foetal position, like a dead shrimp curled up into a ball. Or he tried lying prostrate, hugging his knees to his chest, like a dead shrimp lying on its back. Like a shrimp that had been dead for some time. It was the only position that took away some of the pain. Some of the pain, but not all of it. Not enough to stop him from crying out.

‘God, I can’t stand it any more. Lingling, I’m dying. Mummy, give me something to stop the pain.’

He screamed and cried and clutched the sheets until they were wadded up into a ball. He was drenched in perspiration, sticking to the sheets. Lingling tried to wipe away his sweat, keeping up a steady stream of conversation, a collection of things she knew he loved to hear. Anything to try to ease his pain; anything that might get through to him. If he didn’t like what he was hearing, he would beat the pillow with his fists and cry: ‘The pain is killing me, and you say that to me?’

And Lingling would mop up his sweat with a damp towel and change the subject.

‘Daddy, don’t get mad, but I want to ask you something.’

Uncle turned his head to look at her. Sweat glistened on his forehead.

‘Who would you guess Tingting’s new boyfriend is, back in her hometown?’

‘Come on, Mummy, aren’t I in enough pain already?’

Lingling smiled. ‘Well, no matter who he is, there’s no way they’re happier than us.’

Uncle’s gaze softened.

‘I’ll bet Tingting doesn’t call her man Daddy, like I do. And I’m sure he’s never once called her Mummy.

‘I’m your real wife now, Daddy. But even before that, I was your wife anytime you wanted. In and out of the school, out in the wheat fields or in our little house at the threshing ground. Anytime, day or night, whenever you wanted. All you had to do was ask, and I never once told you no. I always gave you what you wanted.

‘If you wanted something sweet, I made you something sweet. If you wanted something salty, I made you something salty. I never let you near the stove, and never made you get your hands wet doing laundry. I’ve been good to you, haven’t I?’

Before he could answer, Lingling said: ‘Yes, I did all those things as your wife.’

It was as if she had not expected him to answer, as if she had posed the question to herself. ‘But when you wanted me to be your mummy, I hugged you and rocked you, put my breast in your mouth and patted you on the back, like putting a little baby to sleep. And when you wanted me to be your daughter, I called you Daddy at least ten times a day, just like you were my real dad. I didn’t tell you, but one day I counted how many times I called you Daddy, and it was at least fifty times. But you only called me Mummy once that day, and that was just because you wanted me to wash your feet. But that was enough for me. I was happy to wash your feet and empty out the water afterwards. And once you even woke me up in the middle of the night to give you a bath. So you tell me, Liang, was I really good to you, or was it all fake?’

Lingling stared at Uncle as if he’d wronged her somehow.

‘You tell me, Daddy … was I really good to you, or was I faking it?’

Uncle knew she’d been good to him. He thought he’d been good to her as well, but from the way she talked, he could tell that he must have done something to upset her, or to hurt her in some way. He couldn’t think what it might be. Or maybe it was several things. All he could do was try to look apologetic, like a man facing an angry wife, a complaining mother or a grumbling sister.

Lingling, wearing only shorts and a thin cotton gown, sat on the edge of the bed, holding Uncle’s hand. She spread his fingers apart, pinching them one by one as if she were counting. She seemed almost unaware of what she was doing. As she gazed at him, colour flooded into her cheeks. Although she had grown very thin, a rosy glow was thick upon her skin. She looked like a bashful young girl, sitting close to a boy for the very first time, sharing her first intimate conversation. The lights were low, giving the room a soft, gentle glow. Earlier that evening, mosquitoes had buzzed around the room, but now they were perched, invisible, listening to the sound of Lingling’s voice. Their absence made the room feel soft and quiet.

A gentle stillness, warm and soft, had settled over them.

Uncle was no longer huddled, foetal or curled up like a shrimp. He lay on his side, legs outstretched, head resting on his pillow, not complaining about the pain or about the room being too hot, but listening to Lingling talk. He was like a child listening to his mother tell a story, or a boy hearing tales about things he had done long ago and forgotten.

‘I’ve been so good to you, Daddy. So why do you keep saying you’re not going to make it? Why do you keep telling me you’re not going to survive? Of course you’re going to survive. Think about all the people who’ve died from the fever. It’s always the ones with liver problems who die first, then the ones with bad lungs or stomach trouble. If all you have is a fever, it takes a long time to die, and with bone pain, it takes even longer. Your lungs and stomach are fine, and I’ve never heard you complain about your liver. So what makes you think you’re going to die soon?

‘I know you’re in pain, but everyone says bone pain takes the longest to kill you. So when you yell that you’re dying, does that mean you don’t want to live? I mean, isn’t that just asking for death, hurrying it along? You shouldn’t call death to your bedside. Why would you do that? Is it because I haven’t been good enough, is that why you want to leave me so soon? Or do you just think that since you have the fever, living is pointless?

‘Just look at me, Daddy. The minute we got our marriage licences, the fever I’d had for two weeks disappeared. It went away, and now I’m as good as new. And do you know why? Because I love you. I love being married to you. It’s like we’re on our honeymoon. I mean, we just got our licences, so this is our first day of really being married. We haven’t even slept together yet, at least not officially. So how can you talk to me about dying?

‘Liang, don’t you love me any more? Because if you do, Daddy, if you still care about me like you used to, please stop talking about dying. Stop saying you’re not going to make it. Just keep thinking about me, and calling me your mummy, and letting me take care of you. I’ll do anything you want – feed you and dress you, and even help you in bed.

Now that we’re married, we’re officially a family. I’ve called you Daddy so many times, but I still haven’t had the chance to call my own father-in-law Dad. Professor Ding is my dad now, too. Tomorrow, I want to go to the school and invite him to live with us. I can take care of you both. I’ll cook and clean and wash your clothes, and when I’ve got my strength back, I’ll knit sweaters and woollen pants for both of you. You’ve never seen how well I can knit. Back home, all the neighbours used to come and ask me to make them sweaters.’

Lingling noticed that Uncle’s eyes were closed.

‘Did you doze off, Daddy?’

‘My eyelids feel heavy.’

‘Is the pain any better?’

‘Yes, it’s like it’s gone. Doesn’t hurt at all.’

‘Then close your eyes again and go to sleep, and everything will be better in the morning. Tomorrow we’ll have a lie-in, maybe stay in bed all day. We’ll sleep until the sun is shining on our backs, and then we’ll have breakfast for lunch.’

As she was talking, Uncle’s eyes fell shut again, as if they were weighted down with bricks. She thought he might be asleep, until he mumbled: ‘It doesn’t hurt, but I feel hot all over, like my chest is on fire.’

‘What should I do?’

‘Maybe you could wipe me down with a wet towel.’

Lingling dipped a towel in a basin of tepid water and used it to wipe Uncle’s chest and back. ‘Is that any better?’ she asked when she was finished.

‘My chest is still burning,’ Uncle answered, without opening his eyes. ‘Maybe you could get me some icicles.’

Although it was the middle of the night, Lingling went out to the village well and drew some icy cold water. When she came back, she soaked the towel in the cold water and used it to moisten Uncle’s skin. ‘Feeling any better?’ she asked.

‘A little,’ answered Uncle, opening his eyes. But soon the towel grew warm, heated by the contact with his skin. Uncle rolled over peevishly and curled up into a ball again.

‘I’m burning up. Please, get me some icicles.’

Lingling thought for a moment, then stripped off her light summer clothes, hung them from the bedpost and went outside with the damp towel. It was well after midnight, and the chill was rising from the ground, seeping in from the fields. A bitter wind swirled through the courtyard, turning it as cold as a deep, dark well. The moon was nowhere to be seen, leaving only the stars overhead and a distant haze that hung over the western plain. The chill silence of the village seeped into the courtyard, piling up against the walls. Standing stark naked in the centre of the courtyard next to the bucket of water, Lingling began to ladle water over her body. Again and again, she poured the cool water over her skin, until she was drenched and shivering with cold. Shaking uncontrollably, she towelled herself dry, stepped back into her slippers and raced into the house. She got into bed next to Uncle and pressed her cold flesh to his burning flesh, like a human icicle.

Does this feel better, Daddy?’

‘You’re so nice and cool.’

Lingling held Uncle as he slept, allowing his heat to be absorbed into her cool flesh, siphoning away his fever. When the heat from his body had been transferred to hers, he began to complain that he was burning up again. Lingling ran into the courtyard, doused herself with cold water until she was coughing and shivering, towelled off and rushed back to the bedroom to press her body against Uncle, taking in all his heat and fire. Again and again, she hopped out of bed, raced into the courtyard, doused herself with water and got back into bed, shivering and coughing. By the sixth time, the fever seemed to have left Uncle’s body and he fell into a peaceful slumber, snoring loudly.

4

Uncle was snoring like a bellows. His snores muddied the room like run-off from a farmer’s field. It was late morning, and the sun had been up for hours. When Uncle awoke from his dreams, his fever was gone and his body felt limp and tender, as if he’d just emerged from a hot shower after a long day’s work in the fields. He opened his eyes and saw that Lingling was not sleeping next to him. The last thing he remembered, she’d been lying close to him, her nude body as smooth and pleasantly cool as a pillar of jade. He’d fallen asleep embracing her coolness, but when he awoke, she wasn’t in bed.

She wasn’t in bed because she hadn’t slept in the bed. She was lying, fully dressed, on a straw mat on the floor.

The night before, after Uncle had dozed off, Lingling had spread a brand-new straw mat on the floor and selected a nice outfit to wear: a pale blue skirt, a light pink cotton blouse and, although it was midsummer, a pair of silk stockings. She had got dressed and combed her hair neatly, as if she were getting ready to go out. The flesh-coloured stockings, moon-coloured skirt, and her blouse the shade of a winter sunset were well-chosen and well-matched, fresh and cool and pleasing to the eye. Pleasing to Uncle’s eyes, which is why she had chosen them.

Fully dressed, Lingling had lay down on the straw mat and fallen asleep. She had died in her sleep. Even in death, she looked as if she were sleeping. Her features were contorted, but only slightly, as if she’d suffered only a little bit. For the most part, her face looked serene and peaceful.

When Uncle sat up in bed and saw Lingling lying on the floor, he called her name. When she didn’t respond, he called her ‘Mummy’. When she still didn’t respond, he leaped out of bed, kneeled beside her and began shouting for her to wake up. His heart skipped a beat when he realized she couldn’t hear him. Fearing that she was already dead, he tugged at her hand, cradled her head in his arms and howled. ‘Mummy … Mummy …’

When Uncle took Lingling in his arms, she did not stir. Her head remained slumped against his chest. She was like a girl who couldn’t wake up. Although there was still a bit of pink in her cheeks, her lips were dry and cracked, as scaly as the wings of a dragonfly. He realized that she must have been running a very high fever when she died, a fever brought on by dousing herself in freezing water so many times the night before.

As one fever raged, another even worse fever had rushed in and claimed her, taken her from this world against her will. Taken her from Ding Village and from Uncle. Knowing she was going to die, but not wanting to disturb Uncle from his sleep, she’d got out of bed, put on her nicest clothes, lain down on the floor and let the fever claim her.

The fever had burned her alive. Her parched lips looked as if they’d been charred. And yet they were frozen in a faint smile, one of satisfaction for what she’d done for Uncle, and for what she’d done in life. A smile with no regrets.

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