It was autumn, in the small hours of the morning. The moon had gone down, but the sun had not yet risen, and the sky appeared a sheet of darkling blue. Apart from night-prowlers, all was asleep. Old Chuan suddenly sat up in bed. He struck a match and lit the grease-covered oil lamp, which shed a ghostly light over the two rooms of the tea-house.
“Are you going now, dad?” queried an old woman’s voice. And from the small inner room a fit of coughing was heard.
Old Chuan listened as he fastened his clothes, then stretching out his hand said, “Let’s have it.”
After some fumbling under the pillow his wife produced a packet of silver dollars which she handed over. Old Chuan pocketed it nervously, patted his pocket twice, then lighting a paper lantern and blowing out the lamp went into the inner room. A rustling was heard, and then more coughing. When all was quiet again, Old Chuan called softly: “Son! . . Don’t you get up! . . . Your mother will see to the shop.”
Receiving no answer, Old Chuan assumed his son must be sound asleep again; so he went out into the street. In the darkness nothing could be seen but the grey roadway. The lantern light fell on his pacing feet. Here and there he came across dogs, but none of them barked. It was much colder than indoors, yet Old Chuan’s spirits rose, as if he had grown suddenly younger and possessed some miraculous life-giving power. He lengthened his stride. And the road became increasingly clear, the sky increasingly bright.
Absorbed in his walking, Old Chuan was startled when he saw distinctly the cross-road ahead of him. He walked back a few steps to stand under the eaves of a shop, in front of its closed door. After some time he began to feel chilly.
“Uh, an old chap.”
“Seems rather cheerful. . . .”
Old Chuan started again and, opening his eyes, saw several men passing. One of them even turned back to look at him, and although he could not see him clearly, the man’s eyes shone with a lustful light, like a famished person’s at the sight of food. Looking at his lantern, Old Chuan saw it had gone out. He patted his pocket—the hard packet was still there. Then he looked round and saw many strange people, in twos and threes, wandering about like lost souls. However, when he gazed steadily at them, he could not see anything else strange about them.
Presently he saw some soldiers strolling around. The large white circles on their uniforms, both in front and behind, were clear even at a distance; and as they drew nearer, he saw the dark red border too. The next second, with a trampling of feet, a crowd rushed past. Thereupon the small groups which had arrived earlier suddenly converged and surged forward. Just before the cross-road, they came to a sudden stop and grouped themselves in a semi-circle.
Old Chuan looked in that direction too, but could only see people’s backs. Craning their necks as far as they would go, they looked like so many ducks held and lifted by some invisible hand. For a moment all was still; then a sound was heard, and a stir swept through the on-lookers. There was a rumble as they pushed back, sweeping past Old Chuan and nearly knocking him down.
“Hey! Give me the cash, and I’ll give you the goods!” A man clad entirely in black stood before him, his eyes like daggers, making Old Chuan shrink to half his normal size. This man thrust one huge extended hand towards him, while in the other he held a roll of steamed bread, from which crimson drops were dripping to the ground.
Hurriedly Old Chuan fumbled for his dollars, and trembling he was about to hand them over, but he dared not take the object. The other grew impatient and shouted: “What are you afraid of? Why not take it?” When Old Chuan still hesitated, the man in black snatched his lantern and tore off its paper shade to wrap up the roll. This package he thrust into Old Chuan’s hand, at the same time seizing the silver and giving it a cursory feel. Then he turned away, muttering, “Old fool. . . .”
“Whose sickness is this for?” Old Chuan seemed to hear someone ask; but he made no reply. His whole mind was on the package, which he carried as carefully as if it were the sole heir to an ancient house. Nothing else mattered now. He was about to transplant this new life to his own home, and reap much happiness. The sun had risen, lighting up the broad highway before him, which led straight home, and the worn tablet behind him at the cross-road with its faded gold inscription: “Ancient Pavilion.”
When Old Chuan reached home, the shop had been cleaned, and the rows of tea-tables shone brightly; but no customers had arrived. Only his son sat eating at a table by the wall. Beads of sweat stood out on his forehead, his lined jacket clung to his spine, and his shoulder blades stuck out so sharply, an inverted V seemed stamped there. At this sight, Old Chuan’s brow, which had been clear, contracted again. His wife hurried in from the kitchen, with expectant eyes and a tremor to her lips:
They went together into the kitchen, and conferred for a time. Then the old woman went out, to return shortly with a dried lotus leaf which she spread on the table. Old Chuan unwrapped the crimson-stained roll from the lantern paper and transferred it to the lotus leaf. Little Chuan had finished his meal, but his mother exclaimed hastily:
“Sit still, Little Chuan! Don’t come over here.”
Mending the fire in the stove, Old Chuan put the green package and the red and white lantern paper into the stove together. A red-black flame flared up, and a strange odour permeated the shop.
“Smells good! What are you eating?” The hunchback had arrived. He was one of those who spend all their time in tea-shops, the first to come in the morning and the last to leave. Now he had just stumbled to a corner table facing the street, and sat down. But no one answered his question.
“Puffed rice gruel?”
Still no reply. Old Chuan hurried out to brew tea for him.
“Come here, Little Chuan!” His mother called him into the inner room, set a stool in the middle, and sat the child down. Then, bringing him a round black object on a plate, she said gently:
“Eat it up . . . then you’ll be better.”
Little Chuan picked up the black object and looked at it. He had the oddest feeling, as if he were holding his own life in his hands. Presently he split it carefully open. From within the charred crust a jet of white vapour escaped, then scattered, leaving only two halves of a steamed white flour roll. Soon it was all eaten, the flavour completely forgotten, only the empty plate being left. His father and mother were standing one on each side of him, their eyes apparently pouring something into him and at the same time extracting something. His small heart began to beat faster, and, putting his hands to his chest, he began to cough again.
“Have a sleep; then you’ll be all right,” said his mother.
Obediently, Little Chuan coughed himself to sleep. The woman waited till his breathing was regular, then covered him lightly with a much patched quilt.
The shop was crowded, and Old Chuan was busy, carrying a big copper kettle to make tea for one customer after another. There were dark circles under his eyes.
“Aren’t you well, Old Chuan? . . . What’s wrong with you?” asked one greybeard.
“Nothing? . . . No, I suppose from your smile, there couldn’t be . . .” the old man corrected himself.
“It’s just that Old Chuan’s busy,” said the hunchback. “If his son. . . .” But before he could finish, a heavy-jowled man burst in. Over his shoulders he had a dark brown shirt, unbuttoned and fastened carelessly by a broad dark brown girdle at his waist. As soon as he entered, he shouted to Old Chuan:
“Has he eaten it? Any better? Luck’s with you, Old Chuan. What luck! If not for my hearing of things so quickly. . . .”
Holding the kettle in one hand, the other straight by his side in an attitude of respect, Old Chuan listened with a smile. In fact, all present were listening respectfully. The old woman, dark circles under her eyes too, came out smiling with a bowl containing tea-leaves and an added olive, over which Old Chuan poured boiling water for the newcomer.
“This is a guaranteed cure! Not like other things!” declared the heavy-jowled man. “Just think, brought back warm, and eaten warm!”
“Yes indeed, we couldn’t have managed it without Uncle Kang’s help.” The old woman thanked him very warmly.
“A guaranteed cure! Eaten warm like this. A roll dipped in human blood like this can cure any consumption!”
The old woman seemed a little disconcerted by the word “consumption,” and turned a shade paler; however, she forced a smile again at once and found some pretext to leave. Meanwhile the man in brown was indiscreet enough to go on talking at the top of his voice until the child in the inner room was woken and started coughing.
“So you’ve had a great stroke of luck for your Little Chuan! Of course his sickness will be cured completely. No wonder Old Chuan keeps smiling.” As he spoke, the greybeard walked up to the man in brown, and lowered his voice to ask:
“Mr. Kang, I heard the criminal executed today came from the Hsia family. Who was it? And why was he executed?”
“Who? Son of Widow Hsia, of course! Young rascal!”
Seeing how they all hung on his words, Mr. Kang’s spirits rose even higher. His jowls quivered, and he made his voice as loud as he could.
“The rogue didn’t want to live, simply didn’t want to! There was nothing in it for me this time. Even the clothes stripped from him were taken by Red-eye, the jailer. Our Old Chuan was luckiest, and after him Third Uncle Hsia. He pocketed the whole reward—twenty-five taels of bright silver—and didn’t have to spend a cent!”
Little Chuan walked slowly out of the inner room, his hands to his chest, coughing repeatedly. He went to the kitchen, filled a bowl with cold rice, added hot water to it, and sitting down started to eat. His mother, hovering over him, asked softly:
“Do you feel better, son? Still as hungry as ever?”
“A guaranteed cure!” Kang glanced at the child, then turned back to address the company. “Third Uncle Hsia is really smart. If he hadn’t informed, even his family would have been executed, and their property confiscated. But instead? Silver! That young rogue was a real scoundrel! He even tried to incite the jailer to revolt!”
“No! The idea of it!” A man in his twenties, sitting in the back row, expressed indignation.
“You know, Red-eye went to sound him out, but he started chatting with him. He said the great Ching empire belongs to us. Just think: is that kind of talk rational? Red-eye knew he had only an old mother at home, but had never imagined he was so poor. He couldn’t squeeze anything out of him; he was already good and angry, and then the young fool would ‘scratch the tiger’s head,’ so he gave him a couple of slaps.”
“Red-eye is a good boxer. Those slaps must have hurt!” The hunchback in the corner by the wall exulted.
“The rotter was not afraid of being beaten. He even said how sorry he was.”
“Nothing to be sorry about in beating a wretch like that,” said Greybeard.
Kang looked at him superciliously and said disdainfully: “You misunderstood. The way he said it, he was sorry for Red-eye.”
His listeners’ eyes took on a glazed look, and no one spoke. Little Chuan had finished his rice and was perspiring profusely, his head steaming.
“Sorry for Red-eye—crazy! He must have been crazy!” said Greybeard, as if suddenly he saw light.
“He must have been crazy!” echoed the man in his twenties.
Once more the customers began to show animation, and conversation was resumed. Under cover of the noise, the child was seized by a paroxysm of coughing. Kang went up to him, clapped him on the shoulder, and said:
“A guaranteed cure! Don’t cough like that, Little Chuan! A guaranteed cure!”
“Crazy!” agreed the hunchback, nodding his head.
Originally, the land adjacent to the city wall outside the West Gate had been public land. The zigzag path running across it, trodden out by passers-by seeking a short cut, had become a natural boundary line. Left of the path were buried executed criminals or those who had died of neglect in prison. Right of the path were paupers’ graves. The serried ranks of grave mounds on both sides looked like the rolls laid out for a rich man’s birthday.
The Ching Ming Festival that year was unusually cold. Willows were only just beginning to put forth shoots no larger than grains. Shortly after daybreak, Old Chuan’s wife brought four dishes and a bowl of rice to set before a new grave in the right section, and wailed before it. When she had burned paper money she sat on the ground in a stupor as if waiting for something; but for what, she herself did not know. A breeze sprang up and stirred her short hair, which was certainly whiter than the previous year.
Another woman came down the path, grey-haired and in rags. Carrying an old, round, red-lacquered basket with a string of paper money hanging from it, she walked haltingly. When she saw Old Chuan’s wife sitting on the ground watching her, she hesitated, and a flush of shame spread over her pale face. However, she summoned up courage to cross over to a grave in the left section. where she set down her basket.
That grave was directly opposite Little Chuan’s, separated only by the path. As Old Chuan’s wife watched the other woman set Out four dishes of food and a bowl of rice, then stand up to wail and burn paper money, she thought: “It must be her son in that grave too.” The older woman took a few aimless steps and stared vacantly around, then suddenly she began to tremble and stagger backwards, as though giddy.
Fearing sorrow might send her out of her mind, Old Chuan’s wife got up and stepped across the path, to say quietly: “Don’t grieve, let’s go home.”
The other nodded, but she was still staring fixedly, and she muttered: “Look! What’s that?”
Looking where she pointed, Old Chuan’s wife saw that the grave in front had not yet been overgrown with grass. Ugly patches of soil still showed. But when she looked carefully, she was surprised to see at the top of the mound a wreath of red and white flowers.
Both of them suffered from failing eyesight, yet they could see these red and white flowers clearly. There were not many, but they were placed in a circle; and although not very fresh, were neatly set out. Little Chuan’s mother looked round and found her own son’s grave, like most of the rest, dotted with only a few little, pale flowers shivering in the cold. Suddenly she had a sense of futility and stopped feeling curious about the wreath.
In the meantime the old woman had gone up to the grave to look more closely. “They have no roots,” she said to herself. “They can’t have grown here. Who could have been here? Children don’t come here to play, and none of our relatives ever come. What could have happened?” She puzzled over it, until suddenly her tears began to fall, and she cried aloud:
“Son, they all wronged you, and you do not forget. Is your grief still so great that today you worked this wonder to let me know?”
She looked all around, but could see only a crow perched on a leafless bough. “I know,” she continued. “They murdered you. But a day of reckoning will come, Heaven will see to it. Close your eyes in peace. . . . If you are really here, and can hear me, make that crow fly on to your grave as a sign.”
The breeze had long since dropped, and the dry grass stood stiff and straight as copper wires. A faint, tremulous sound vibrated in the air, then faded and died away. All around was deathly still. They stood in the dry grass, looking up at the crow; and the crow, on the rigid bough of the tree, its head drawn in, perched immobile as iron.
Time passed. More people, young and old, came to visit the graves.
Old Chuan’s wife felt somehow as if a load had been lifted from her mind and, wanting to leave, she urged the other:
The old woman sighed, and listlessly picked up the rice and dishes. After a moment’s hesitation she started off slowly, still muttering to herself:
“What does it mean?”
They had not gone thirty paces when they heard a loud caw behind them. Startled, they looked round and saw the crow stretch its wings, brace itself to take off, then fly like an arrow towards the far horizon.