“Not a sound—what’s wrong with the kid?”
A bowl of yellow wine in his hands, Red-nosed Kung jerked his head towards the next house as he spoke. Blue-skinned Ah-wu set down his own bowl and punched the other hard in the back.
“Bah …” he growled thickly. “Going sentimental again!”
Being so out-of-the-way, Luchen was rather old-fashioned. Folk closed their doors and went to bed before the first watch sounded. By midnight there were only two households awake. Prosperity Tavern where a few gluttons guzzled merrily round the bar, and the house next door where Fourth Shan’s Wife lived. Left a widow two years earlier, she had nothing but the cotton-yarn she spun to support herself and her threeyear-old boy; this is why she also slept late.
It was a fact that for several days now there had been no sound of spinning. But since only two households were awake at midnight, Old Kung and the others were naturally the only ones who would notice if there were any sound from Fourth Shan’s Wife’s house, and the only ones to notice if there were no sound.
After being punched, Old Kung—looking quite at his ease—took a great swig at his wine and piped up a folk tune.
Meanwhile Fourth Shan’s Wife was sitting on the edge of her bed, Pao-erh—her treasure—in her arms, while her loom stood silent on the floor. The murky lamplight fell on Paoerh’s face, which showed livid beneath a feverish flush.
“I’ve drawn lots before the shrine,” she was thinking. “I’ve made a vow to the gods, he’s taken the guaranteed cure. If he still doesn’t get better, what can I do? I shall have to take him to Dr. Ho Hsiao-hsien. But maybe Pao-erh’s only bad at night; when the sun comes out tomorrow his fever may go and he may breathe more easily again. A lot of illnesses are like that.”
Fourth Shan’s Wife was a simple woman, who did not know what a fearful word “but” is. Thanks to this “but,” many bad things turn out well, many good things turn out badly. A summer night is short. Soon after Old Kung and the others stopped singing the sky grew bright in the east; and presently through the cracks in the window filtered the silvery light of dawn.
Waiting for the dawn was not such a simple matter for Fourth Shan’s Wife as for other people. The time dragged terribly slowly: each breath Pao-erh took seemed to last at least a year. But now at last it was bright. Clear daylight swallowed up the lamplight. Pao-erh’s nostrils quivered as he gasped for breath.
Fourth Shan’s Wife smothered a cry, for she knew that this boded ill. But what could she do? she wondered. Her only hope was to take him to Dr. Ho. She might be a simple woman, but she had a will of her own. She stood up, went to the cupboard, and took out her entire savings—thirteen small silver dollars and a hundred and eighty coppers in all. Having put the whole lot in her pocket, she locked the door and carried Pao-erh as fast as she could to Dr. Ho’s house.
Early as it was, there were already four patients sitting there. She produced forty silver cents for a registration slip, and Pao-erh was the fifth to be seen. Dr. Ho stretched out two fingers to feel the child’s pulses. His nails were a good four inches long, and Fourth Shan’s Wife marvelled inwardly, thinking: “Surely my Pao-erh must be fated to live!” She could not help feeling anxious all the same, and could not stop herself asking nervously:
“What’s wrong with my Pao-erh, doctor?”
“An obstruction of the digestive tract.”
“Is it serious? Will he . . .?”
“Take these two prescriptions to start with.”
“He can’t breathe, his nostrils are twitching.”
“The element of fire overpowers that of metal. . . .”
Leaving this sentence unfinished, Dr. Ho closed his eyes; and Fourth Shan’s Wife did not like to say any more. Opposire the doctor sat a man in his thirties, who had now finished making out the prescription.
“The first is Infant Preserver Pills,” he told her, pointing to the characters in one corner of the paper. “You can get those only at the Chin family’s Salvation Shop.”
Fourth Shan’s Wife took the paper, and walked out thinking as she went. She might he a simple woman, but she knew Dr. Ho’s house, Salvation Shop and her own home formed a triangle; so of course it would he simpler to buy the medicine first before going back. She hurried as fast as she could to Salvation Shop. The assistant raised his long finger-nails too as he slowly read the prescription, then slowly wrapped up the medicine. With Pao-erh in her arms, Fourth Shan’s Wife waited. Suddenly Pao-erh stretched up a little hand and tugged at his loose tuft of hair. He had never done this before, and his mother was terrified.
The sun was fairly high now. With the child in her arms and the package of medicine to carry, the further she walked the heavier she found her load. The child kept struggling too, which made the way seem even longer. She had to sit down on the door-step of a big house by the roadside to rest for a while; and presently her clothes lay so clammy against her skin that she realized she had been swearing. But Pao-erh seemed fast asleep. When she stood up again to walk slowly on, she still found him too heavy. A voice beside her said:
“Let me take him for you, Fourth Shan’s Wife!” It sounded like Blue-skinned Ah-wu.
When she looked up, sure enough it was Ah-wu, who was following her with eyes still heavy from sleep.
Though Fourth Shan’s Wife had been longing for an angel to come to her rescue, she had not wanted her champion to be Ah-wu. But there was something of the gallant about Ah-wu, for he absolutely insisted on helping her; and at last, after several refusals, she gave way. As he stretched his arm between her breast and the child, then thrust it down to take over Pao-erh, she felt a wave of heat along her breast. She flushed right up to her ears.
They walked along, two and a half feet apart. Ah-wu made some remarks, most of which Fourth Shan’s Wife left unanswered. They had not gone far when he gave the child back to her, saying he had arranged yesterday to have a meal at this time with a friend. Fourth Shan’s Wife took Pao-erh back. Luckily it wasn’t far now: already she could see Ninth Aunt Wang sitting at the side of the street. She called out:
“Fourth Shan’s Wife, how’s the child?
Did you get to see the doctor?”
“We saw him . . . Ninth Aunt Wang, you’re old and you’ve seen a lot. Will you look him over for me, and say what you think,?”
“Well. . .?”
“Ummm. . . .” .
When Ninth Aunt Wang had examined Pao-erh, she nodded her head twice, then shook it twice.
By the time Pao-erh had taken his medicine it was after noon. Fourth Shan’s Wife watched him closely, and he did seem a good deal quieter. In the afternoon he suddenly opened his eyes and called: “Ma!” Then he closed his eyes again and seemed to be sleeping. He had not slept long before his forehead and the tip of his nose were beaded with sweat, which, when his mother felt it, stuck to her fingers like glue. In a panic she felt his chest, then burst out sobbing.
After quieting down, his breathing had stopped completely. After sobbing, she started wailing. Soon groups of people gathered: inside the room Ninth Aunt Wang, Blue-skinned Ah-wu and the like; outside others like the landlord of Prosperity Tavern and Red-nosed Kong. Ninth Aunt Wang decreed that a string of paper coins should be burned; then, taking two stools and five articles of clothing as security, she borrowed two dollars for Fourth Shan’s Wife to prepare a meal for all those who were helping.
The first problem was the coffin. Fourth Shan’s Wife still had a pair of silver ear-rings and a silver hair-pin plated with gold, which she gave to the landlord of Prosperity Tavern so that he would go surety for her and buy a coffin half for cash, half on credit. Blue-skinned Ah-wu raised his hand to volunteer to help, but Ninth Aunt Wang would not hear of it. All she would let him do was carry the coffin the next day. “Old bitch!” he cursed, and stood there grumpily pursing his lips. The landlord left, coming back that evening to report that the coffin would have to be specially made, and would nor be ready till nearly morning.
By the time the landlord came back the other helpers had finished their meal. And Luchen being rather old-fashioned, they all went home to sleep before the first watch. Only Ah-wu leaned on the bar of Prosperity Tavern drinking, while Old Kong croaked a song.
Meanwhile Fourth Shan’s Wife sat on the edge of the bed crying. Pao-erh lay on the bed, and the loom stood silent on the floor. After a long time, when Fourth Shan’s Wife had no more tears to shed, she opened her eyes wide, and looked around in amazement. All this was impossible! “This is only a dream,” she thought. “It’s all a dream. I shall wake up tomorrow lying snug in bed, with Pao-erh sleeping snugly beside me. Then he’ll wake and call: ‘Ma!’ and jump down like a young tiger to play.”
Old Kong had long since stopped singing, and the light had gone Out in Prosperity Tavern. Fourth Shan’s Wife sat staring, but could not believe all that had happened. A cock crowed, the sky grew bright in the east, and through the cracks in the window filtered the silvery light of dawn.
By degrees the silvery light of dawn turned copper, and the sun shone on the roof. Fourth Shan’s Wife sat there staring till someone knocked, when she gave a start and ran to open the door. A stranger was there with something on his back, and behind him stood Ninth Aunt Wang.
Oh, it was the coffin he’d brought!
Not till that afternoon was the lid of the coffin put on, because Fourth Shan’s Wife kept crying, then taking a look, and could nor bear to have the lid closed down. Luckily, Ninth Aunt Wang grew tired of waiting, hurried forward indignantly and pulled her aside. Then they hastily closed it.
Fourth Shan’s Wife had really done all she could for her Pao-erh—nothing had been forgotten. The previous day she had burned a string of paper coins, this morning she had burned the forty-nine books of the Incantation of Great Mercy, and before putting him in the coffin she had dressed him in his newest clothes and set by his pillow all the toys he liked best—a little clay figure, two small wooden bowls, two glass bottles. Though Ninth Aunt Wang reckoned carefully on her fingers, even then she could not think of anything they had forgotten.
Since Blue-skinned Ah-wu did not turn up all day, the landlord of Prosperity Tavern hired two porters for Fourth Shan’s Wife at 210 large coppers each, who carried the coffin to the public graveyard and dug a grave. Ninth Aunt Wang helped her prepare a meal to which everyone who had lifted a finger or opened his mouth was invited. Soon the sun made it clear that it was about to set, and the guests unwittingly made it clear that they were about to leave—home they all went.
Fourth Shan’s Wife felt dizzy at first, but after a little rest she quietened down. At once, though, she had the impression that things were rather strange. Something which had never happened to her before, and which she had thought never could happen, had happened. The more she thought, the
more surprised she felt, and another thing that struck her as rather strange was the fact that the room had suddenly grown too silent.
After she stood up and lit the lamp, the room seemed even more silent. She groped her way over to close the door, came back and sat on the bed, while the loom stood silent on the floor. She pulled herself together and looked around, feeling unable either to sit or stand. The room was not only too silent, it was far too big as well, and the things in it were far too empty. This overlarge room hemmed her in, and the emptiness all around bore hard on her, till she could hardly breathe.
She knew now her Pao-erh was really dead; and, nor wanting to see this room, she blew out the light and lay down to cry and think. She remembered how Pao-erh had sat by her side when she spun, eating peas flavoured with aniseed. He had watched her intently with his small black eyes and thought. “Ma!” he suddenly said. “Dad sold hun tun. When I’m big I’ll sell hun tun too, and make lots and lots of money—and I’ll give it all to you.”
At such times even every inch of yarn she spun seemed worthwhile and alive. But what now? Fourth Shan’s Wife had not considered the present at all—as I have said, she was only a simple woman. What solution could she think of? All she knew was that this room was too silent, too large, too empty.
But even though Fourth Shan’s Wife was a simple woman, she knew the dead cannot come to life again, and she would never see her Pao-erh any more. She sighed and said: “Paoerh, you must still be here. Let me see you in my dreams.” Then she closed her eyes, hoping to fall asleep at once so that she could see Pao-erh. She heard her own hard breathing clearly in the silence, the vastness and emptiness.
Ar last Fourth Shan’s Wife dozed off, and the whole room was very still. Red-nosed Kung’s folk song had long since ended, and he had staggered out of Prosperity Tavern to sing in a falsetto:
“I pity you—my darling—all alone. . . .”
Blue-skinned Ah-wu grabbed Old Kung’s shoulder, and laughing tipsily they reeled away together.
Fourth Shan’s Wife was asleep, Old Kung and the others had gone, the door of Prosperity Tavern was closed. Luchen was sunk in utter silence. Only the night, eager to change into the morrow, was journeying on in the silence; and, hidden in the darkness, a few dogs were barking.
[Note: element] The ancient Chinese believed that there were five elements: fire, wood, earth, metal and water. Fire could conquer metal. The traditional Chinese doctors also considered that the heart, lungs, liver, spleen and kidney corresponded to the five elements. Here, Dr. Ho is saying that heart trouble had affected the lungs.
[Note: Incantations] A Buddhist chant.
[Note: hun tun] Dumplings stuffed with meat and boiled in soup.