Over the River

The river was as wide as a lake, a sea, or a plain. The village at the foot of distant mountains over the river would have seemed more illusory had it not been for a few green dots on the bank—lonely willow trees that brought the distant village nearer.

Water as smooth as brocade flowed with boundless dignity toward somewhere over the horizon.

The poor village on this side of the river had seventy-odd households, their shabby stone houses scattered along the slope. Yak dung cakes for fuel were drying on walls; roosters perched on the roofs crowing. A brook of meltwater from a nearby mountain wound its way through the village. At the entrance to the village was a huge pipal tree, probably planted by the first settler here. Villagers made occasional trips across the river to the co-op for a few daily goods: sugar, tea, white cotton, needles and thread.

Morning on the bank. A young man and a little girl were pushing a yak-skin raft into the water. He was her senior by more than ten years.

"Will you take me along, Brother Danzeng?" the girl demanded habitually, as she had done many times before.

"You're too young, " he replied in the same manner. Besides, she had to tend the goats.

"What's the village across the river like? Is it big?" "Yeah. "

"Do they have headscarves in the co-op?"

"Yeah."

"Brother Danzeng?"

"What?"

"Will you bring me a green one?"

"Yes."

"Don't forget."

By then villagers had gathered on the shore, waiting to cross the river either to visit relatives or barter.

The raft was sliding away.

The little girl was still shouting, her foot in the water.

Danzeng smiled, his muscular arms and chest plying the oars strenuously—the very picture of a dauntless raftsman.

Swinging a branch, the girl slowly drove her goats up the barren hill, from where the raft seemed no bigger than a beetle. She waved to it, then sat down on a stone to muse on the green scarf—it would be eye-catching in these drab parts.

She was a lonely, quiet shepherdess, who had been orphaned when she was very young and brought up by a one-eyed old storekeeper. Like the other girls in the village, she had spent her sixteen years among livestock.

Danzeng was an orphan too, and probably for this reason he treated her like an elder brother. She often rested her chin on his knees in the evening inside his low, shabby hut by the river, and listened to the same monotonous and age-old story by the dim castor-oil light:

"... Fairy Lamu waited and waited in the forest, until one sunny day he arrived in a red cloak on a white steed—"

She would soon fall asleep. At midnight he would gently carry her back to the store.

The villagers had to rush their suppers in the those days, for at the sound of the summoning gong, they would gather in a big, smoke-filled room to listen to the Party secretary dwell on politics deep into the night, their backs and legs aching from a day's labor.

The little girl would pillow her head on his shoulder and sleep, and when they were dismissed, he would take her to the store.

Life in the village was as monotonous as Danzeng's story and as tedious as the meetings, punctuated only by love and youth. Young people sometimes hid in haystacks or fields for fun, or dallied in the sunshine. . . .

They held the young raftsman by the arm, asking,

"When will you have a gentle girl serve you buttered tea in your low hut?"

"My girl is too young, like an unfledged bird, " he would answer.

But who is she? And when will my sweetheart be fledged?

Before the raftsman was even aware, his sweetheart's eyes had begun to shine, her breasts to swell and her complexion to become ruddy. One day the storekeeper brought his raft from across the river. He was excited; the pocket of his yak-wool sweater bulged and his eyes were glazed with drink.

"Great! Everything is set." The old man laughed heartily.

"I haven't seen you so happy for ages, Uncle."

"It's a good family. All able-bodied. And they want to marry Dolma. Even I can move in with them. What else could I want?"

"Dolma is going to marry?"

"Yes, of course—Why's this raft going round?"

She cried for no reason the day she married, doing exactly as girls were required to on such an occasion. However, when she had done, her face revealed her excitement, for across the river was her holy place. She had lived seventeen years, long enough, in this poor village, and best of all, the one-eyed old man had found her an affluent family.Probably he should have taken her to have a look across the river, the young raftsman thought, and now she was leaving forever.

She was not the only girl taking his raft to marry across the river. They had had several that year. And each time a girl married across the river, lads from the village would stand under the pipal tree in twos and threes hopelessly looking at the departing raft, their eyes dark with melancholy.

They worked hard, but the village girls married across river. Why?

Although she was getting married, everything about her was simple, except for a new dress, the first she had ever had, and a hada attached to the raft. She and the one-eyed old man were the only passengers, and had their few belongings with them.

Nevertheless the green headscarf the young raftsman had given her a year before was still on her head, and still bright green.

She hummed as she played with the water. She was very innocent.

"Brother Danzeng," she asked, "what are those things that shine at night across the river? Are they electric lights?"

"Yeah.

"Do they hang inside rooms?"

"Yeah."

"Is it true that you can see a needle on the ground by them?"

"You button your lip!" the raftsman flared, his face distorted, grinding his teeth.

The one-eyed old man cast him a knowing glance.

She was scared. She couldn't work out why he was behaving so. She was very innocent.

When they drew alongside, several strangers were waiting on the otherwise deserted wharf to pick up the girl and the old man in a wagon. They had several miles to go, to a village over a ridge. With a crack of the whip, the wagon started, its wheels creaking in the sand, and now she cried, this time in earnest. She pulled the green scarf off her head and said between sobs, "Come and see me whenever you can, Brother Danzeng, please!"

The young raftsman remained by the willows, leaning on his oars. He shook his head and narrowed his eyes in agony.

"Don't forget." Her voice was as faint as a breeze.

After that he avoided the village. Whenever he went across the river he glanced sidelong at the distant ridge, then hoisted his gear on his back and walked upstream, leaving footprints in the sand, some deep, some shallow, so as to row back downstream.

One day several months later he found her waiting for him on the wharf.

"You're hateful," she accused him. "You never come to see me." Her hair danced in disarray before her face, her dress was untidy, and the green scarf was gone.

"You're his, each hair of your head. I can't come."

"But he's a drunkard, and he beats me dreadfully."

"The bastard!" he cursed between his teeth.

"Why didn't you marry me?" she murmured.

"Do I have livestock and money? Under these worn-out clothes there's only my skin." His lips tightened when he saw the passengers all aboard.

She drew from her bosom some soft, yellow butter wrapped in lettuce leaves and gave it to him. "You don't have much of this over there, and you're getting thin."

"Don't come again, Dolma."

"How I wish I could go back," she sighed.

She never again came to the bank.

When the villagers no longer had to labor on infertile mountain slopes two years later, they resumed their age-old trades of making exquisite pottery and collecting mushrooms and medicinal herbs in the scrub. Along with the booming handicraft industry and sideline production came more hustle and bustle in the village.

Young lovers gathered under the pipal tree at night and by the light of a bonfire danced the age-old duixie dance, which had long sunk into oblivion.

This was no longer a poor place.

The young raftsman shipped local products across the river every day and returned with ever more dazzling household goods. He often sat on the shore lost in thought, his eyes on the glimmering lights across the river. The dark water seemed congealed and stagnant but for the ripples whirling by the bank. They were the only sign of life and motion. He sat there in the pale moonlight, accompanied by his shadow.

Was anyone telling her a story? And where was she now?

Someone across the river said she had left for the county town on training leave, and that before she left she had sat alone by the willows all night long, holding her knees. Only the young raftsman knew the reason.

Another two years passed. As life got better his raft was replaced by a motor-boat. One winter's day he was shipping pottery packed in hay, and mushrooms and medicinal herbs in sacks. Ice at the bow broke into piece that stood on end along the sides of the boat and were tossed away by the churning water at the stern.

Dolma waited in a composed manner on a tractor, her eyes on the approaching boat.

They were alone at the wharf. They studied each other like strangers.

"You can handle tractors. Why is your hair so untidy?" he asked.

"And you've got a motor-boat," she replied. "Why is your beard so long?"

Their breath froze at their mouths. Both managed a bitter, dry smile.

"Let's get to work," she urged, raising her hands to her mouth for warmth. Neither of them spoke during the work. They felt they had so much to say and had said it all.

They often met in this way from then on.

As the weather got warmer the willows put out buds and new leaves. One morning early in summer the young man found no tractor at the wharf. He looked across the wilderness, seeing nothing except for some trees gently waving in the breeze.

He unloaded the cargo, which he stacked neatly on the ground, then sat down and began to scrawl with a branch. Dolma, Dolma, Dolma—nothing else on the golden sand but her name.

She appeared beyond the ridge like a drunkard, sand on her face and her dress torn open at the shoulder.

"The tractor turned over." She paused to get her breath a while, before heading for the water to wash her face.

He jumped up and followed her hurriedly to the scene of the accident, repair kit in hand.

Goats moved about far away on the mountainside. Their bleating could be heard. Where was the goatherd?

When he skirted the ridge he saw the tractor lying on its side in the sand like an injured bull, sacks scattered everywhere. He disengaged the tractor from the trailer and with the girl's help raised the tractor on to its wheels. Dolma started the engine. Nothing was wrong, except that the tank was empty. While the girl went to the river for water, Danzeng reloaded the tractor.

Both were exhausted when the work was finally done two hours later. He lay half asleep on the sand. A mysterious fragrant breeze rose. The girl knelt by him and wiped away his sweat with her green scarf. He fixed his eyes on the scarf, which, though faded and mended, was still bright against the drab sand.

"You should have got a new one long ago," he said, looking away.

"He gave me one, but I lost it."

"You're lying."

"No, you know nothing about it."

His chest began to heave. He held Dolma's shoulders, turned her around and said passionately, "Listen, you have ruined me."

"No. Don't be like this. We're not alone."

She jumped up, smoothed her hair and said, "Let's get going. We're behind time."

He sat beside her as she skillfully maneuvered the tractor along the bumpy road, their shoulders pressed against each other.

"How did you turn it over?" he asked.

"A pigeon was in the road. I didn't want to be late. No, I can't explain." Her anger suddenly rose. "What can I do? And I'm not to blame. You cared for me, so why didn't you say you wanted to marry me? And I was so innocent; all I wanted was to go and have a look at the co-op, the tractors and the electric lights. I came because all the other girls married across the river. You're callous! Callous! Callous!"

She turned around still sobbing and began to pound his chest.

"Look out!" he cried. The tractor almost turned over again.

Then a silence, during which he wondered to himself, "Am I to blame?"

She cast a sidelong glance at him, then handed him a towel from her neck. "Wipe your sweat."

He took the towel. It smelt of hay, gasoline and her warmth.

It was time to go, but neither of them wanted to be the first to start the engine.

"You go first," he urged her.

"No, you."

"No, you," he insisted. "Your family will be worried."

She opened her mouth but uttered no word. As her tractor throbbed she turned around and said dreamily with drooping eyelids, "He died of drink three years ago."

The tractor leaped forward like a drunkard.

He felt like crying but was choked by a lump in his throat. He felt like weeping, but no tears came. All he could do was wave shakily.

It was a gorgeous morning. There was no wind at all on the river. As his boat glided across with him at the tiller, his eyes strained to the far bank, and he murmured, "I'm coming for you, to marry you."

The tractor had long been waiting on the wharf. He jumped out of his boat impatiently before it was firmly moored, only to be greeted by a strange, pretty girl with an innocent face, who glanced at her watch and said, "She's gone. I came instead, and I've been waiting over two hours."

He stood there confused.

"What's the matter with you? Do you mind? She was taken to Lhasa by car."

"You're lying." He wouldn't believe her.

"I swear by my mother. Dolma is a model worker. Have you ever traveled by car?"

"No." He shook his head.

"Neither have I. You seem to be in love with her. Someone's in love with me too."

"Did she say anything before she left?"

"No. Oh, yes. She said she wanted to go back to her home village."

Her home village. He narrowed his eyes and looked back. His village against the mountain across the river was no more than a white dot dancing slightly in the heat haze like something out of a fairy tale. It was her home village too."What a wide river!" the girl exclaimed, her eyes following his.

The age-old river flowed on under the scorching sun.

Copyright Tashi Dawa. By arrangement with the author. Translation copyright Li Guoqing. All rights reserved.