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The Festival of Ghosts

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Just as it was about time for the Festival of the Ghosts, Mother drew my two sisters and me to her. A worried look on her face, she said, “I’m afraid I won’t live much longer.” She pulled up her pant-legs, revealing bruises the size of copper coins. “Last night, I dreamed I was fighting over hell money with dead people . . . See, Luo Xiao hit me here with his ritual implement, and Xiaoqing made this other bruise.”

Luo Xiao was a shaman in Qinghuatan who was known far and wide, and Xiaoqing was the Li family’s daughter-in-law who had hanged herself just a few days earlier.

My sisters were frowning. I couldn’t tell if they were scared or surprised. Second Sister Qiuxiang was the prettiest girl in town. Her skin was very pale, and after next spring, she would be of marriageable age. She gently touched the bruises on Mother’s calf and asked, “Should we ask Luo Xiao to do something about this?”

Mother sighed and said, “Each year during the Festival of the Ghosts, Luo Xiao runs around in circles, for he has to officiate at two yueban ceremonies a day.” These ceremonies are supposed to release from purgatory the souls of persons who have died in the last three years, and can only be held during the Festival of the Ghosts. Naturally, this was the busiest time for the shamans. “I dreamed last night that I pounced on the paper charm in the instant that it was burned. Xiaoqing threatened me, saying I was not allowed to take things that her family was burning for her. Her hair was disheveled, and her face pulpy from scratches. Yet for some reason, I still couldn’t restrain myself from taking a handful of her hell money. Then she poked me. Luckily, Luo Xiao intervened and separated us.” Mother gave us a heavy-hearted look.

After breakfast, Mother took Qiuxiang and me to the market. When we reached the courtyard gate and looked back, Older Sister Qiulei had already gone silently to the inner room. She walked lightly, as though on tiptoe. She never made a sound, even when she coughed. After we went out the gate, Mother locked it securely from the outside. For the time being, the small courtyard was absolutely quiet. As long as Qiulei didn’t make a sound, no one would know that anyone was inside.

Our home was a single-family dwelling. Father had built the small courtyard before his death. I often complained that it was too small: sitting in the courtyard was like looking at the sky from the bottom of a well. I couldn’t help but think of myself as a big frog. The only exit from the courtyard was the beat-up gate made of fir. Fir is strong and easy to use. But over time, it became so weather-beaten that it developed finger-sized gaps. When one looked through these gaps from outside the closed gate, the inner scenery of the courtyard changed into narrow strips, as if it had been chopped up. Some time after Qiulei came to live here—I don’t remember when—the gaps were stuffed up with rags.

It was probably the smallest courtyard in the neighborhood. You could take in everything at a glance. A banana tree and a peach tree were planted in one corner; there was also some bamboo. On the northeast side stood two wooden poles for drying clothes; they were Mother’s creations, of course. A variety of clothing was drying on them. A little farther away was a Chinese toon of indeterminate age which gave off a strange smell every spring. Stir-fried eggs with tender toon leaves was a unique dish here; I didn’t like it, though. And Mother always complained that bamboo and toon shouldn’t have been planted in the courtyard. She said bamboo could summon the souls of the dead, and toon wood was good for making coffins. Although she talked like this all the time, she never tried to get rid of them. But her words made such an impression on me that I didn’t dare linger alone in the courtyard after dark, let alone look at these blurry things.

At night, our old dog Brownie often snarled at these indescribable dark areas. People always said that dogs could see souls at night. They added that if you smeared dog’s tears in people’s eyes, people would also be able to see souls and would be scared to death. That’s what people said, but no one had ever experienced this.

 

It was almost time for the Festival of the Ghosts, so the market was crowded. All along the way, I wondered if Mother would buy me a slice of watermelon. This was the main reason I had come along. Ever since Father had fallen ill and died, things at home had become progressively bleaker. Mother earned a little money by toiling at the brickyard. She was in a lot of pain from rheumatism, and she didn’t have enough money for therapy. Of course I knew our family’s circumstances, but I still yearned for a slice of sweet watermelon.

On the eve of the Festival of the Ghosts, the market vendors doing the briskest business were those selling incense, hell money, candles, and firecrackers. People who were good at running their houses had already done their shopping much earlier. When the Festival of the Ghosts was approaching, these things always cost more than usual. And because there were so many buyers, it wasn’t easy to bargain.

Mother had long since purchased the things she needed for Father’s yueban ceremony. Last week, she had also sent me to the shaman’s home to ask him to come to our house the afternoon of the Ghost Festival to complete the final yueban ceremony for Father. Father had been dead for three years. During the Festival of the Ghosts, we had to have a yueban ceremony for him each of these three years. We always asked Luo Xiao to officiate.

Luo Xiao told me his schedule. He said he wouldn’t eat lunch at our home, but would arrive at one o’clock in the afternoon for the ceremony. Mother said, “Then lunch can be simple, but dinner has to be better.”

She looked a little depressed. At times like this, I knew that—no matter what—I mustn’t provoke her. I should stay as far away from her as possible. At such a time, I could turn only to Qiulei for comfort.

After Qiulei married a carpenter from Fengshu and went to live there, she had a baby girl very soon. That was three years ago.

“Giving birth to a girl is just like not giving birth at all.” After hearing this news, Mother was filled with anxiety. The young carpenter was a little humpbacked, but his temper was like a small ax. Like Father, Qiulei had a warm personality: she never argued with anyone. Later on, Mother said the carpenter’s mother was a mean old bitch.

“Qiulei’s life won’t be easy. I just know it.” Whenever she spoke of Qiulei, she sighed.

Qiuxiang said, “His family can’t act this way. Isn’t a girl also a human being? Isn’t a girl also their child?!”

Mother said, “What do you know about anything? Just wait until you’re married. Then you’ll understand what it’s all about.”

Qiuxiang was angry, but she said with a smile, “I’ll never get married!”

 

I was like a little loach in the throngs of people going to the market. As I darted in and out of the stream of people, Qiuxiang kept a tight grip on my hand and dragged me along. She was so tired that she was sweating all over. She was annoyed and said, “If you don’t stop running to and fro, I won’t buy anything for you!”

It was as though she had seen through to all of my desires.

Mother was taking us through the areas selling incense, hell money, and candles; occasionally she would ask the price. We already had enough things for Father’s ceremony; I had no idea what she was up to.

All of a sudden, Mother turned around and said to Qiuxiang, “The incense and hell money cost thirty cents more than the last time we bought them!” None of this interested me. Whenever we passed the watermelon booth, they didn’t even glance at the watermelon, and I felt cheated.

By noon, it was unbearably hot, and I begged Mother for a slice of watermelon. With a pitying look at me, she walked over to the watermelon booth and asked the price. Then she rapidly dragged me away. She kept rattling on in an irritated fashion: “It’s just a slice of watermelon, isn’t it? It shouldn’t be more than fifty cents, and yet she wants eighty cents. It’s highway robbery!”

At that, I was really upset. I was wondering if, in the end, she would buy watermelon for me or not. Just then, I noticed that Eighth Uncle was also at the market. When I called his name he turned around and saw us. We hadn’t seen him for a while: he looked much older.

“So you’ve come to the market, too?” he asked Mother and Qiuxiang. He looked at Mother’s empty hands: “Why haven’t you bought anything?” Mother said, a little embarrassed, “Qiuming was just asking me to buy watermelon, and here we are.” Mother’s words made me feel better. He said, “Have one of mine!” I noticed that he was carrying several slices of watermelon. Mother pushed the bag away in some confusion and said, “We’ll buy our own!” Looking a little unhappy, he said, “It’s just watermelon, isn’t it? Come on!” Mother was embarrassed.

Each of us took a slice of watermelon. Mother and Qiuxiang were rather discomfited and didn’t eat it right away. But I ate mine happily. Mother stole a look at me, and I could see that she wasn’t happy. They kept chatting, and suddenly he said, “Is Qiulei still in Fengshu? How’s she been lately?”

Mother answered hastily, “She’s fine. She’s working in Guangdong now.” She added, “In an electronics factory.”

His expression was unfathomable as he said, “Oooooohhhhhhh . . .?”

This long, drawn-out sound was upsetting. Mother said we had more shopping to do, and we left in a hurry. After we had walked some distance, she asked Qiuxiang suspiciously, “How did he happen to ask about your sister all of a sudden?”

Qiuxiang was quiet for a while and then said, “Perhaps word somehow leaked out.”

Mother’s face fell. She had never liked this man. He had lost his wife three years ago and still hadn’t remarried. Several days ago, a matchmaker had come to see Mother and told her that he intended to marry her. The matchmaker was roughly the same age as Mother, but she was about to lose her teeth. She knew all the jargon, and the two of them talked for a long time. Mother said, “I can’t agree. This guy—he forced his daughter-in-law to have an abortion when she was six months pregnant. That was inhuman!”

At last, the two of them parted on bad terms, and the matchmaker took off in a hurry. It seemed this incident caused Eighth Uncle to lose face, so for a long time, he didn’t come to our home at all. He used to come by quite often, even if he didn’t have a reason to visit. Although he had quite a lot of prestige in this town, very few people really liked him. Ever since his daughter-in-law had died of an infection from her abortion, his eldest son had broken off relations with him. For a time, this had caused a great commotion. Yet, the higher-ups had also praised him for the action he had taken, and it seemed he would soon be promoted to a position in the township

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In the afternoon, for no reason that I could figure out, I was dragged off to get a watermelon haircut. I hated this style. Mother was in a bad mood, so all I could do was squelch my feelings. As the market was about to break up, Mother finally decided to buy a bar of soap and a bottle of pesticide. It was almost time for the rice harvest, and pesticides were no longer needed. I had no idea why Mother was buying it.

A terrifying warning suddenly began making the rounds.

Everyone dashed around spreading the word: “They’re coming to catch people! Go into hiding!” People kept saying this to us.

“They’re coming to ferret out pregnancies!” people yelled.

Qiuxiang was holding my hand tight and pulling me along, lest I be crushed and lost in the stream of people. Bewildered, Mother drew a woman aside to ask her questions. The woman looked at Mother and said, pointing at Qiuxiang, “You’d better hide this girl quickly! They’re almost here, and they’ll take her off to the clinic for an examination!”

Mother said immediately, “She isn’t even married yet.”

The woman thought Mother wasn’t listening and hurried off.

A tractor fully loaded with shrieking women drove past. It was frightening. They had been captured on their way to the market and were being taken to the clinic for examinations. If anyone was found to be pregnant and it was learned that it was her second pregnancy, she would have to have an abortion before being allowed to go home.

Worry all over her face, Mother watched the tractor go into the distance. She sighed repeatedly, “What bad luck!”

All along the way, I felt uneasy. I saw those women taken away, wailing and sobbing. I couldn’t get the sound of their weeping out of my mind.

All kinds of slogans were posted on the walls of buildings alongside the road:

It’s glorious to have only one child, it’s shameful to have two!

Anyone who dares to have more than one child will be ruined!

Everything we saw along the road was desolate and dilapidated. Large holes had been smashed in many buildings. Some tiles and windowsills had even been lifted off. The dark holes looked like wide-open mouths that could swallow everything. Many homes had been abandoned. Those unoccupied homes looked lifeless; they gave off an eerie chill, making people feel inexplicably afraid.

People often say that this is how houses become haunted: after people leave their homes, ghosts sneak in and occupy them.

Mother also said that during the Festival of the Ghosts, one should avoid going out at night, because there’s a lot of negative qi at that time. The roads are filled with lonely souls and unruly ghosts who return at this time to ask their descendants for hell money. Some of these ghosts have no home to return to, and can only rob people or beg at the side of the road.

“If you do go for a walk at night and someone calls your name or taps you on the shoulder, you must be sure not to turn around!” Mother cautioned us again.

I had no reason to doubt this.

It wasn’t yet dark when we got home. We locked the courtyard gate very early. Only then did we feel fairly safe. As Mother cooked, she kept grumbling about buying watermelon for me.

“If you hadn’t been clamoring for watermelon, that old thing wouldn’t have taken us by surprise!” Mother’s tone was unpleasant. I couldn’t be sure if her wrath was aimed at me or at him.

Qiuxiang was sitting on a small stool washing vegetables. She said, “Don’t blame my brother. And anyhow, the old guy doesn’t know Qiulei is here!”

Mother didn’t say anything else. We all felt uneasy. After we ate dinner, the moon came out. We could see each other’s faces in the bright moonlight. The four of us cooled off as we sat in the courtyard and cut up paper to be used as hell money offerings during the festival.

The moon was always quiet. As I sat there at one side, I was a little bored so I stood up and strolled in the courtyard. When I looked up, I noticed that the moon was walking with me. I wondered whether it was walking more quickly or whether I was. Just then, from a corner, Brownie began snarling at something outside. It looked really frightened. In the night air, it seemed we could smell the scent of strangers.

Mother stood up at once. She grabbed the yellow paper from Qiulei’s hand and motioned to her. They crept quickly into the main room of our house.

Brownie was still howling when Mother came out. If I opened the door, it would certainly shoot out like an arrow and make straight for its quarry. Just then, I realized that it had been barking all along at a pine tree outside the courtyard. The pine tree was much higher than the surrounding wall. We could see it from inside.

Mother cursed Brownie. Chagrined, it wagged its tail and whined in surprise. Just then, the pine tree seemed to quiver, and then right after that, it wobbled. And after that, it seemed that something jumped down from it. Brownie barked even louder. But then, to my surprise, it stopped barking right away.

After the dog calmed down, I whispered to Mother:

“Have our ancestors come back?”

Mother looked at me in annoyance, and Qiuxiang said, “You’d better go to bed right now.”

The next morning, I was surprised to discover that Qiulei had disappeared. When I asked Mother and Qiuxiang, they reluctantly pantomimed that she had left.

-3-

On the evening of the tenth day of the seventh lunar month, we “invited” all the ancestors to our home. When Mother said “invite,” I felt a little uncertain. Why did she have to say “invite”? Had someone gone to the other world to extend the invitation?

Mother had already told Qiuxiang and me to take our baths after dinner and then set the incense burner table. We knew without being told that the offerings would be the same as those in past years—a liter of rice, with a stick of incense inserted on top of it, and four cups of fragrant tea. Some fruit, vegetables, ham, and red peppers were also placed on the table.

Mother lit the incense and then turned toward the entrance and began murmuring:

“Today is the tenth day of the seventh month. This is the home of Li Dangping in Qinghuatan. We extend a special invitation to all of the ancestors to come to our home to observe the Festival of the Ghosts . . .”

After Mother burned the hell money and the worship ended, our home immediately turned desolate again. The lighted red candles attracted some moths: not fearing for their lives, they pounced on the candles and were burned to a crisp. A scorched smell filled the air.

People say that during the Festival of the Ghosts, one shouldn’t deliberately kill moths, for they had originally been ghosts. People also say that during the Festival of the Ghosts, after the ancestors finish dinner, they like to go out and watch the opera. They don’t return until very late. Sometimes you can hear their footsteps at midnight. There are also rules against providing certain foods. For instance, bitter melon is prohibited because it’s too bitter, and the towel gourd is prohibited because it’s shaped like a snake and would scare the ancestors away.

The bruises on Mother’s calf had gradually faded. They seemed to be latent scars in Mother’s mind, which could surface at any time.

She sat on a small bamboo chair. Because of years of exposing her calves while doing hard work, her skin was somewhat yellow. The blue veins crisscrossed in all directions.

Mother said:

“I might not live very much longer. Sooner or later, I have to be with your dead father Li Dangping!”

I’d been terrified ever since Qiulei disappeared. She adored me. Whenever she was around, I always felt a special warmth. With her sudden disappearance, I felt as if there were a hole in my heart. I suspected that her pregnancy was already very evident. Where could she go? Her tummy was sticking out so much . . .

It was very quiet at home during the several days of the Ghost Festival. Mother said, “Don’t make a racket. The ancestors are all here.” I immediately felt my hair stand on end: it was as though eyes and shadows were everywhere. Some of them were smiling; others were gazing sternly at their descendant—me. I was walking on eggshells. I didn’t dare even think of certain kinds of things. People often said that ghosts could penetrate to the very depths of one’s being.

I was waiting sulkily for the yueban. Mother was systematically preparing everything needed for it. The huge drum—the most resounding one in this vicinity—had been borrowed and placed in the hall. I imagined the loud sound it would make on the fifteenth day.

Just then, he showed up.

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Mother asked me to pour tea for him. As I picked up the pot, I decided not to throw out the tea leaves from the day before, but just to pour more hot water over them and give him that. Of course he wouldn’t say anything to me. I stood to one side watching him carefully, and I gloated a little.

He said, “My legs are getting worse.”

Mother said, “You need to see a doctor.”

He said, “That won’t do any good. I’ve been taking medicine for a long time. I’ll probably be deformed.”

Mother said, “Don’t say such things. You have to keep taking your medicine.”

He said, “If I am deformed someday, everyone will surely think I’m nothing but a joke. My older son won’t come to see me, even on my dying day.” As he went on talking, his eyes grew moist.

Mother said, “How could that be? You’re the party secretary!”

He said, “So what? In this job, I end up making people angry. . . Do you think I want to kidnap these women? I just do what the higher-ups tell me to do and hope that I don’t do anything that I’ll regret. I just go along with what the higher-ups say. They can’t be wrong.”

After a while, they started talking about Qiuxiang’s marriage. Mother said, “She isn’t yet eighteen years old; it’s too early to talk of this . . .”

Mother was preparing beans for supper. The beans that were wrapped like snakes around her fingers dropped to the ground. She picked them up. After this, they talked about trivial matters, and then he rose to take his leave. After he stood up, he looked into all of the rooms and said, “You don’t have anyone here who’s pregnant, do you?”

Frowning, Mother said, “What are you saying? If you don’t trust me, just go ahead and search!”

He forced a laugh and said, “You’re kidding. How could I not trust you?” Watching him leave, Mother let the beans fall from her hands again and they scattered on the ground. She looked at me bitterly, and then decided I’d done nothing wrong. I had barely regained my composure when I suddenly noticed that she was shivering all over. 

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Father’s ceremony was scheduled for the most solemn day of the Festival of the Ghosts. That morning, Mother rose early; by the time we got up, she had already made breakfast. She sat alone in front of the kitchen stove, stirring the embers with tongs. Above the embers were drawn some slipshod mysterious symbols. I noticed that she hadn’t combed her unkempt hair, and her spirits were sagging a little. I didn’t dare ask if she was in a bad mood. She drew Qiuxiang and me to her.

“Last night, I dreamed that I saw souls.”

Just then, she pulled her pant-legs up to her thighs. I saw that the skin on her thighs and calves was absolutely different. Her thighs were pale and delicate. I was a little ashamed to look at them. Pointing to a bruise, she pressed down on it with her thumb and said:

“Look. I remember for sure that Pingtao hit me here! I dashed out to take her hell money, and she hit me.

“Your eighth uncle said I shouldn’t take that hell money. It’s for the dead. But I didn’t listen, and so Pingtao did this to me. I don’t remember what she used as a weapon. But it hurt a lot. She almost broke my bones. Afterward, your eighth uncle rushed over and pulled me away. I woke up at midnight and couldn’t get back to sleep. Oh, God knows . . .”

The expression in her eyes was confused and distracted.

At noon, Mother told me to press Luo Xiao to come. And so the afternoon ceremony began on time. Father’s portrait—a serious expression on his face was placed in the shrine. Qiuxiang and I knelt in front of the portrait. He was constantly gazing at us. The gongs and drum were loud, and firecrackers made explosive sounds outside. Several people came, including shamans and a number of villagers who showed up on their own. Naturally, he also came.

Generally speaking, at the third ceremony for the dead, family members don’t need to cry. But that day, Mother cried especially hard. Holding a long bath towel, she sat paralyzed on the floor. Her voice was hoarse, and she couldn’t speak. She was inconsolable.

The villagers whispered, “. . . She’s too sorrowful. Even when Li Dangping had just died, we didn’t see her crying so hard.” As I knelt there listening, I felt these words were rather harsh.

I had no idea why Mother was crying so hard. She seemed beside herself. She even seemed to have forgotten that the ceremony was for Father.

When the sun set, the ceremony finally ended. Noise rose all around. People sitting at the table were waiting to eat. Mother’s eyes were swollen and bloodshot. Her hair was a complete mess, and her nose was red. Some women were consoling her, but Mother said nothing. She just kept wiping her nose.

He was the party secretary, so of course he would stand up and say a few words.

He drank a lot; many people toasted him. He said to Mother, “You mustn’t grieve so much. The ancestors have all been in your home for several days. Seeing how much you care about him, Li Dangping will surely feel reassured!”

With that, the people at the feast all burst out laughing.

All of a sudden, I felt embarrassed and sad for Mother.

It was as though Mother had remembered something, and she turned to Luo Xiao and asked about the bruises on her legs. Luo Xiao seemed a little out of it. He said, “So are you saying that you dreamed you had seen me in the afterworld?”

The people on the sidelines burst out laughing again. No one thought Mother’s dreams meant anything, and of course Mother didn’t have the nerve to bring it up again.

The crowd of people finally left, and the courtyard grew quiet again. I kind of missed the chaos just now, because the noise had made everything more colorful.

He left, too, but in the evening he came back, reeking of alcohol. Mother sent me to a side room to string beans. I sat there in a trance, listening to their voices which were sometimes halting and sometimes arguing vehemently.

Qiuxiang sat down next to me.

After halfheartedly stringing a few beans, Qiuxiang and I stood up in confusion and walked inside. In the dim light, I saw him embrace Mother.  Both of them were staggering, and they seemed to be scuffling.

Catching sight of us, he dropped his hands in a hurry.

Mother said in disgust, “He’s drunk!”

He said crossly, “Who says I’m drunk!? I’m not!”

As if he’d been provoked, he shouted, “You can’t hide this from me! Do you think I’m blind?”

Mother and Qiuxiang were dumbfounded. Their faces pale, they stood there, as if they were stark naked. He hiccupped and said, “Actually, I knew a long time ago. Someone reported it to me. Sooner or later, someone will notice that Qiulei is hiding there!”

He seemed to regret having said this. Qiuxiang walked up and helped Mother walk away. She also tried to help him. Putting his hand on Qiuxiang’s shoulder, he said, “You’re a nice girl!”

Qiuxiang threw his hand off impatiently. He instantly placed his hand there again. Annoyed, she threw it off again.

Just then, I saw him quickly pinch her face. Exasperated, she scratched at his face, leaving a long bruise. Mother squatted on the floor and began weeping loudly . . .

After he left, Mother still couldn’t stop crying. She hunched her shoulders and kept choking with sobs.

This was the last day of the Ghost Festival. In the evening, all of the ancestors had to be sent back to the afterworld.

Mother didn’t say anything. She was in a stupor as she prepared the offerings. I stood there, wanting to help her, but I found I was absolutely superfluous. I was afraid she would lash out at me for trying to help.

I started speculating: if the ancestors saw this scene, how would they react?

Mother finally finished preparing all of the offerings. She asked me to set off a string of firecrackers outside the door. Other villagers farther away also set off firecrackers. This was a special send-off saluting the ancestors. All kinds of offerings were placed in front of the incense burner table, and then the hell money was burned. After lighting the incense, she began saying words of farewell. In the firelight, I realized that it was as if Mother were sending off a living friend or relative. She kept repeating these customary farewell remarks. All of a sudden, I felt my hair stand on end.

I shot a meaningful glance at Qiuxiang, who was sitting on a bamboo chair. She pretended not to see it, and so I had to walk over and tug at Mother. As though being awakened all of a sudden, she glanced at me in return. Her face was an unearthly dark color, as if she’d been struck by a ghost.

When all of this was finished, the only thing left to do was to burn the paper packages.

In the packages were piles of hell money. On each package were written the name of an ancestor and the date, as well as the name of the person burning the package. Qiuxiang’s and my names were also included. The word “seal” was written in large script on the back of each package. This meant that other ghosts could not steal it.

The packages were lined up neatly in a corner of the courtyard with brushwood beside them. Mother shakily struck a match and lit the brushwood.

Flames leapt up all at once and encircled the packages. The burning turned them into dark smoke which the ancestors took with them.

One package surprised me greatly. No matter how big the fire grew, except for burning a little at the corners, it remained almost the same as at the beginning. Mother walked up cautiously and knelt down and said to me, “You can read. Come and see whose package this is.”

“It’s Father’s.”

“Why do you suppose he doesn’t want it? Could he be upset with us?”

Mother’s words frightened me and made me sad.

She placed some more brushwood on top of it, and said, “Don’t blame me. I’ve done all I can. There’s no way I can protect them any longer. Someday soon, I’ll probably join you!”

At once, the package went up in flames. In the night wind, the red ashes rolled and fanned out as they rose and flew up toward the unfathomable night sky.

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At midnight, Mother shook me awake. As soon as I saw her face, I knew something very bad had happened. Qiuxiang had risen early. We followed Mother to the deep cellar behind the house, which was used for storing sweet potatoes. You needed a ladder to go down. I remembered that Father had spent two months excavating it. Carrying a kerosene lamp, Mother cautiously led us into the cellar.

All of a sudden, Qiulei’s face appeared before me. In the light from the kerosene lamp, her face was frighteningly pale—as though she was near death. She was lying in a pool of blood and shivering. In flashes of light from the kerosene lamp, I could see that the cellar was filled with centipedes, some as large as chopsticks and some as thick as fingers. They were shining with horrific black light. On the ground were a lot of centipedes and locusts that had been trampled to death. The turbid air was suffocating and nauseating.

Qiulei had miscarried and had a stillborn infant. She was gasping for breath. If she hadn’t been found in time, she would have died, too.

It was a baby boy. If he had lived, I would have had a nephew. Without a sound, he had left this world; he hadn’t had time to see his uncle even once. I felt desolate.

Mother was carrying a bamboo basket on her back, and she placed that thing in it. He lay there quietly, as though looking at me. This made me uncomfortable. But it was just a bundle of flesh and blood. Lifting the kerosene lamp, I carried a hoe on my shoulder. Without a sound, Mother followed me.

We found a place in the middle of a mountain in back and started digging a hole. In the quiet night, the sound of the hoe was unusually harsh. We finished digging the hole quickly, and Mother gently placed “it” in the hole and then covered it with earth. The red earth seemed fresh. I supposed it was the first time it had been turned over: just like my nephew, it was the first time it had come into the world.

After tamping down the earth, Mother squatted feebly on the ground. With her disheveled hair, she looked rather ghost-like. Very scary. To cast off the rising dread I felt, I had to keep telling myself, this is my mother, this is my mother.

“Why? Why in the world? We just have to,” Mother said faintly.

 

That summer seemed really long. We kept waiting for the family planning officials to show up on our doorstep. But a long time passed, and they never came. The next spring, Mother married Eighth Uncle.

© Zheng Xiaolu. By arrangement with the author. Translation © 2011 by Karen Gernant and Chen Zeping. All rights reserved.