MY OLD HOME
Braving the bitter cold, I travelled more than seven hundred miles back to the old home I had left over twenty years before.
It was late winter. As we drew near my former home the day became overcast and a cold wind blew into the cabin of our boat, while all one could see through the chinks in our bamboo awning were a few desolate villages, void of any sign of life, scattered far and near under the sombre yellow sky. I could not help feeling depressed.
Ah! Surely this was not the old home I had remembered for the past twenty years?
The old home I remembered was nor in the least like this. My old home was much better. But if you asked me to recall its peculiar charm or describe its beauties, I had no clear impression, no words to describe it. And now it seemed this was all there was to it. Then I rationalized the matter to myself, saying: Home was always like this, and although it has not improved, still it is not so depressing as I imagine; it is only my mood that has changed, because I am coming back to the country this time with no illusions.
This time I had come with the sole object of saying goodbye. The old house our clan had lived in for so many years had already been sold to another family, and was to change hands before the end of the year. I had to hurry there before New Year’s Day to say goodbye for ever to the familiar old house, and to move my family to another place where I was working, far from my old home town.
At dawn on the second day I reached the gateway of my home. Broken stems of withered grass on the roof, trembling in the wind, made very clear the reason why this old house could not avoid changing hands. Several branches of our clan had probably already moved away, so it was unusually quiet. By the time I reached the house my mother was already at the door to welcome me, and my eight-year-old nephew, Hung-erh, rushed out after her.
Though mother was delighted, she was also trying to hide a certain feeling of sadness. She told me to sit down and rest and have some tea, letting the removal wait for the time being. Hung-erh, who had never seen me before, stood watching me at a distance.
But finally we had to talk about the removal. I said that rooms had already been rented elsewhere, and I had bought a little furniture; in addition it would be necessary to sell all the furniture in the house in order to buy more things. Mother agreed, saying that the luggage was nearly all packed, and about half the furniture that could not easily be moved had already been sold. Only it was difficult to get people to pay up.
“You must rest for a day or two, and call on our relatives, and then we can go,” said mother.
“Then there is Jun-tu. Each time he comes here he always asks after you, and wants very much to see you again. I told him the probable date of your return home, and he may be coming any time.”
At this point a strange picture suddenly flashed into my mind: a golden moon suspended in a deep blue sky and beneath it the seashore, planted as far as the eye could see with jade-green watermelons, while in their midst a boy of eleven or twelve, wearing a silver necklet and grasping a steel pitchfork in his hand, was thrusting with all his might at a zha which dodged the blow and escaped between his legs.
This boy was Jun-tu. When I first met him he was just over ten—that was thirty years ago, and at that time my father was still alive and the family well off, so I was really a spoilt child. That year it was our family’s turn to take charge of a big ancestral sacrifice, which came round only once in thirty years, and hence was an important one. In the first month the ancestral images were presented and offerings made, and since the sacrificial vessels were very fine and there was such a crowd of worshippers, it was necessary to guard against theft. Our family had only one part-time labourer. (In our district we divide labourers into three classes: those who work all the year for one family are called full-timers; those who are hired by the day are called dailies; and those who farm their own land and only work for one family at New Year, during festivals or when rents are being collected are called part-timers.) And since there was so much to be done, he told my father that he would send for his son Jun-tu to look after the sacrificial vessels.
When my father gave his consent I was overjoyed, because I had long since heard of Jun-tu and knew that he was about my own age, born in the intercalary month, and when his horoscope was told it was found that of the five elements that of earth was lacking, so his father called him Jun-tu (Intercalary Earth). He could set traps and catch small birds.
I looked forward every day to New Year, for New Year would bring Jun-tu. At last, when the end of the year came, one day mother told me that Jun-tu had come, and I flew to see him. He was standing in the kitchen. He had a round, crimson face and wore a small felt cap on his head and a gleaming silver necklet round his neck, showing that his father doted on him and, fearing he might die, had made a pledge with the gods and buddhas, using the necklet as a talisman. He was very shy, and I was the only person he was not afraid of. When there was no one else there, he would talk with me, so in a few hours we were fast friends.
I don’t know what we talked of then, but I remember that Jun-tu was in high spirits, saying that since he had come to town he had seen many new things.
The next day I wanted him to catch birds.
“Can’t be done,” he said. “It’s only possible after a heavy snowfall. On our sands, after it snows, I sweep clear a patch of ground, prop up a big threshing basket with a short stick, and scatter husks of grain beneath. When the birds come there to eat, I tug a string tied to the stick, and the birds are caught in the basket. There are all kinds: wild pheasants,. woodcocks, wood-pigeons, ‘blue-backs’. . . .”
Accordingly I looked forward very eagerly to snow.
“Just now it is too cold,” said Jun-tu another time, “but you must come to our place in summer. In the daytime we’ll go to the seashore to look for shells, there are green ones and red ones, besides ‘scare-devil’ shells and ‘buddha’s hands.’ In the evening when dad and I go to see to the watermelons, you shall come too.”
“Is it to look out for thieves?”
“No. If passers-by are thirsty and pick a watermelon, folk down our way don’t consider it as stealing. What we have to look out for are badgers, hedgehogs and zha. When under the moonlight you hear the crunching sound made by the zha when it bites the melons, then you take your pitchfork and creep stealthily over. . . .”
I had no idea then what this thing called zha was—and I am not much clearer now for that matter—but somehow I felt it was something like a small dog, and very fierce.
“Don’t they bite people?”
“You have a pitchfork. You go across, and when you see it you strike. It’s a very cunning creature and will rush towards you and get away between your legs. Its fur is as slippery as oil. . . .”
I had never known that all these strange things existed: at the seashore there were shells all colours of the rainbow; watermelons were exposed to such danger, yet all I had known of them before was that they were sold in the greengrocer’s.
“On our shore, when the tide comes in, there are lots of jumping fish, each with two legs like a frog. . . .”
Jun-tu’s mind was a treasure-house of such strange lore, all of it outside the ken of my former friends. They were ignorant of all these things and, while Jun-tu lived by the sea, they like me could see only the four corners of the sky above the high courtyard wall.
Unfortunately, a month after New Year Jun-tu had to go home. I burst into teats and he took refuge in the kitchen, crying and refusing to come out, until finally his father carried him off. Later he sent me by his father a packet of shells and a few very beautiful feathers, and I sent him presents once or twice, but we never saw each other again.
Now that my mother mentioned him, this childhood memory sprang into life like a flash of lightning, and I seemed to see my beautiful old home. So I answered:
“Fine! And he—how is he?”
He’s not at all well off either,” said mother. And then, looking out of the door: “Here come those people again. They say they want to buy our furniture; but actually they just want to see what they can pick up. I must go and watch them.”
Mother stood up and went out. The voices of several women could he heard outside. I called Hung-erh to me and started talking to him, asking him whether he could write, and whether he would be glad to leave.
“Shall we be going by train?”
“Yes, we shall go by train.”
“We shall take a boat first.”
“Oh! Like this! With such a long moustache!” A strange shrill voice suddenly rang out.
I looked up with a start, and saw a woman of about fifty with prominent cheekbones and thin lips. With her hands on her hips, not wearing a skirt but with her trousered legs apart, she stood in front of me just like the compass in a box of geometrical instruments.
I was flabbergasted.
“Don’t you know me? Why, I have held you in my arms!”
I felt even more flabbergasted. Fortunately my mother came in just then and said:
“He has been away so long, you must excuse him for forgetting. You should remember,” she said to me, “this is Mrs. Yang from across the road. . . . She has a beancurd shop.”
Then, to be sure, I remembered. When I was a child there was a Mrs. Yang who used to sit nearly all day long in the beancurd shop across the road, and everybody used to call her Beancurd Beauty. She used to powder herself, and her cheekbones were not so prominent then nor her lips so thin; moreover she remained seated all the time, so that I had never noticed this resemblance to a compass. In those days people said that, thanks to her, that beancurd shop did very good business. But, probably on account of my age, she had made no impression on me, so that later I forgot her entirely. However, the Compass was extremely indignant and looked at me most contemptuously, just as one might look at a Frenchman who had never heard of Napoleon or an American who had never heard of Washington, and smiling sarcastically she said:
“You had forgotten? Naturally I am beneath your notice. . . .”
“Certainly not . . . I . . .” I answered nervously, getting to my feet.
“Then you listen to me, Master Hsun. You have grown rich, and they are too heavy to move, so you can’t possibly want these old pieces of furniture any more. You had better let me take them away. Poor people like us can do with them.”
“I haven’t grown rich. I must sell these in order to buy. . . .”
“Oh, come now, you have been made the intendant of a circuit, how can you still say you’re not rich? You have three concubines now, and whenever you go out it is in a big sedan-chair with eight bearers. Do you still say you’re not rich? Hah! You can’t hide anything from me.”
Knowing there was nothing I could say, I remained silent.
“Come now, really, the more money people have the more miserly they get, and the more miserly they are the more money they get . . .” remarked the Compass, turning indignantly away and walking slowly off, casually picking up a pair of mother’s gloves and stuffing them into her pocket as she went out.
After this a number of relatives in the neighbourhood came to call. In the intervals between entertaining them I did some packing, and so three or four days passed.
One very cold afternoon, I sat drinking tea after lunch when I was aware of someone coming in, and turned my head to see who it was. At the first glance I gave an involuntary start, hastily stood up and went over to welcome him.
The newcomer was Jun-tu. But although I knew at a glance that this was Jun-tu, it was not the Jun-tu I remembered. He had grown to twice his former size. His round face, once crimson, had become sallow, and acquired deep lines and wrinkles; his eyes too had become like his father’s, the rims swollen and red, a feature common to most peasants who work by the sea and are exposed all day to the wind from the ocean. He wore a shabby felt cap and just one very thin padded jacket, with the result that he was shivering from head to foot. He carried a paper package and a long pipe, nor was his hand the plump red hand I remembered, but coarse and clumsy and chapped, like the bark of a pine tree.
Delighted as I was, I did not know how to express myself, and could only say:
“Oh! Jun-tu—so it’s you? . . .”
After this there were so many things I wanted to talk about, they should have poured out like a string of beads: woodcocks, jumping fish, shells, zha. . . . But I was tongue-tied, unable to put all I was thinking into words.
He stood there, mixed joy and sadness showing on his face. His lips moved, but not a sound did he utter. Finally, assuming a respectful attitude, he said clearly:
“Master! . . .”
I felt a shiver run through me; for I knew then what a lamentably thick wall had grown up between us. Yet I could not say anything.
He turned his head to call:
“Shui-sheng, bow to the master.” Then he pulled forward a boy who had been hiding behind his back, and this was just the Jun-tu of twenty years before, only a little paler and thinner, and he had no silver necklet.
“This is my fifth,” he said. “He’s not used to company, so he’s shy and awkward.”
Mother came downstairs with Hung-erh, probably after hearing our voices.
“I got your letter some time ago, madam,” said Jun-tu. “I was really so pleased to know the master was coming back. . . .”
“Now, why are you so polite? Weren’t you playmates together in the past?” said mother gaily. “You had better still call him Brother Hsun as before.”
“Oh, you are really too. . . . What bad manners that would be. I was a child then and didn’t understand.” As he was speaking Jun-tu motioned Shui-sheng to come and bow, but the child was shy, and stood stock-still behind his father.
“So he is Shui-sheng? Your fifth?” asked mother. “We are all strangers, you can’t blame him for feeling shy. Hung-erh had better take him Out to play.”
When Hung-eth heard this he went over to Shui-sheng, and Shui-sheng went out with him, entirely at his ease. Mother asked Jun-tu to sir down, and after a little hesitation he did so; then leaning his long pipe against the table he handed over the paper package, saying:
“In winter there is nothing worth bringing; but these few beans we dried ourselves, if you will excuse the liberty, sir.”
When I asked him how things were with him, he just shook his head.
“In a very bad way. Even my sixth can do a little work, but still we haven’t enough to eat . . . and then there is no security . . . all sorts of people want money, there is no fixed rule . . . and the harvests are bad. You grow things, and when you take them to sell you always have to pay several taxes and lose money, while if you don’t try to sell, the things may go bad. . .”
He kept shaking his head; yet, although his face was lined with wrinkles, not one of them moved, just as if he were a stone statue. No doubt he felt intensely bitter, but could not express himself. After a pause he took up his pipe and began to smoke in silence.
From her chat with him, mother learned that he was busy at home and had to go back the next day; and since he had had no lunch, she told him to go to the kitchen and fry some rice for himself.
After he had gone out, mother and I both shook our heads over his hard life: many children, famines, taxes, soldiers, bandits, officials and landed gentry, all had squeezed him as dry as a mummy. Mother said that we should offer him all the things we were not going to take away, letting him choose for himself.
That afternoon he picked out a number of things: two long tables, four chairs, an incense burner and candlesticks, and one balance. He also asked for all the ashes from the stove (in our part we cook over straw, and the ashes can be used to fertilize sandy soil), saying that when we left he would come to take them away by boat.
That night we talked again, but not of anything serious; and the next morning he went away with Shui-sheng.
After another nine days it was time for us to leave. Jun-tu came in the morning. Shui-sheng did not come with him—he had just brought a little girl of five to watch the boat. We were very busy all day, and had no time to talk. We also had quite a number of visitors, some to see us off, some to fetch things, and some to do both. It was nearly evening when we left by boat, and by that time everything in the house, however old or shabby, large or small, fine or coarse, had been cleared away.
As we set off, in the dusk, the green mountains on either side of the river became deep blue, receding towards the stern of the boat.
Hung-erh and I, leaning against the cabin window, were looking out together at the indistinct scene outside, when suddenly he asked:
“Uncle, when shall we go back?”
“Go back? Do you mean that before you’ve left you want to go back?”
“Well, Shui-sheng has invited me to his home. . .”
He opened wide his black eyes in anxious thought.
Mother and I both felt rather sad, and so Jun-tu’s name came up again. Mother said that ever since our family started packing up, Mrs. Yang from the beancurd shop had come over every day, and the day before in the ash-heap she had unearthed a dozen bowls and plates, which after some discussion she insisted must have been buried there by Jun-tu, so that when he came to remove the ashes he could take them home at the same rime. After making this discovery Mrs. Yang was very pleased with herself, and flew off raking the dog-teaser with her. (The dog-teaser is used by poultry keepers in our parts. It is a wooden cage inside which food is put, so that hens can stretch their necks in to eat but dogs can only look on furiously.) And it was a marvel, considering the size of her feet, how fast she could run.
I was leaving the old house farther and farther behind, while the hills and rivers of my old home were also receding gradually ever farther in the distance. But I felt no regret. I only felt that all round me was an invisible high wall, cutting me off from my fellows, and this depressed me thoroughly. The vision of that small hero with the silver necklet among the watermelons had formerly been as clear as day, but now it suddenly blurred, adding to my depression.
Mother and Hung-erh fell asleep.
I lay down, listening to the water rippling beneath the boat, and knew that I was going my way. I thought: although there is such a barrier between Jun-tu and myself, the children still have much in common, for wasn’t Hung-erh thinking of Shui-sheng just now? I hope they will not he like us, that they will not allow a barrier to grow up between them. But again I would not like them, because they want to be akin, all to have a treadmill existence like mine, nor to suffer like Jun-ru until they become stupefied, nor yet, like others, to devote all their energies to dissipation. They should have a new life, a life we have never experienced.
The access of hope made me suddenly afraid. When Jun-tu asked for the incense burner and candlesticks I had laughed up my sleeve at him, to think that he still worshipped idols and could not put them out of his mind. Yet what I now called hope was no more than an idol I had created myself. The only difference was that what he desired was close at hand, while what I desired was less easily realized.
As I dozed, a stretch of jade-green seashore spread itself before my eyes, and above a round golden moon hung in a deep blue sky. I thought: hope cannot be said to exist, nor can it be said not to exist. It is just like roads across the earth. For actually the earth had no roads to begin with, but when many men pass one way, a road is made.
[Note: intercalary] The Chinese lunar calendar reckons 360 days to a year, and each month comprises 29 or 30 days, never 31. Hence every few years a 13th, or intercalary, month is inserted in the calendar.