There’s an expression that describes me: timid as a mouse. That’s what my teacher said, back when I was in primary school. It was one autumn, I remember, in Chinese class. Our teacher stood on the rostrum, wearing a dark blue cotton jacket over a clean white shirt. I was sitting in the middle of the front row, looking up at him. He held a textbook in his hand, and his fingers were coated with red, white, and yellow chalk dust. As he read the text aloud, his face and his hands and his textbook towered above me, and his spittle was constantly spraying my face, so that I had repeatedly to raise my hand and wipe it off. He noticed that his spittle was sprinkling my face, and that I would blink my eyes fearfully, just at the moment it came flying my way. He stopped reciting and put down his book. He stepped down from the rostrum and walked over to me, then stretched out his chalk-stained hand and patted my face, as though giving it a wash. Then he went back to the desk to retrieve his book, and began to walk around the classroom as he recited the lesson. He had wiped dry the spittle on my face, but in so doing had left my face blotched with red, white, and yellow chalk dust. I heard the classroom erupt with titters and sniggers, chuckles and laughs, because my face now looked as gaudy as a butterfly.
It was at this point that our teacher came to the point in the text where the expression “timid as a mouse” was introduced. He laid the upturned book against his thigh, and said, “What is meant by ‘timid as a mouse’? It’s an expression, used to describe somebody who has no more courage than a mouse . . .”
His mouth stayed open, for he had something more he wanted to say. He said, “For example . . .”
His eyes scanned the room. He wanted to find an analogy. Our teacher loved analogies. If he was trying to explain the word “effervescent,” he would have Lü Qianjin stand up, and then he’d say, “For example, Lü Qianjin—he’s effervescent. It’s as though he’s got a straw stuck up his ass all the time—he’ll just never sit still.” Or when he came to the expression “If the lips are gone, the teeth will be cold,” he would ask Zhao Qing to stand up: “For example, Zhao Qing. Why does he look so miserable? That’s because his father has died. His father is the lips, and if the lips are gone, then the teeth will shiver with cold.” So that’s the way our teacher made his analogies: “For example, Song Hai . . . For example, Fang Dawei . . . For example, Lin Lili . . . For example, Hu Qiang . . . For example, Liu Jisheng . . . For example, Xu Hao . . . For example, Sun Hongmei . . .”
Now he spotted me, and he said, “Yang Gao.”
Hearing my name, I got to my feet. Our teacher looked at me a moment, then waved his hand at me and said, “You can sit down.”
I sat down. Our teacher tapped his fingers on the desk and said to us, “Those who are afraid of tigers, raise your hands.”
Everybody in the class raised their hands. Our teacher surveyed the room and said, “Put your hands down.”
After we had all put our hands down, our teacher said, “Those who are afraid of dogs, raise your hands.”
When I raised my hand, I heard a lot of giggles. I found that all the girls in the class had raised their hands, but none of the other boys had. The teacher said, “Put your hands down.”
The girls and I put our hands down. The teacher went on, “Those who are afraid of geese, raise your hands.”
Once more I raised my hand. The whole classroom erupted in laughter. This time I was the only person to raise his hand—none of the girls had. All my classmates were laughing their heads off. Our teacher didn’t laugh, and he had to tap sharply on the desk to bring the laughter to an end. He looked out into the room, not at me, as he said, “Put your hand down.”
I was the only person who had to do that. Then he turned his gaze in my direction and said, “Yang Gao.”
I stood up. He extended his arm and pointed at me, as he said, “For example, Yang Gao, he’s even afraid of geese.”
He paused for a moment, then went on, in a loud voice, “‘Timid as a mouse’—that’s Yang Gao.”
It’s true that I’m timid as a mouse. I don’t dare go near the river and I don’t dare climb trees, and that’s because, when my father was alive, he would often say to me: “Yang Gao, you can go play in the school playground, or along the sidewalk, or at a classmate’s house. Any place is fine—just don’t go near the river, and don’t go climbing trees. If you fall into the river, you’ll drown. If you fall out of a tree, you’ll break your neck.”
That’s why I was standing there in the summer sun, watching them from a distance, watching Lü Qianjin and Zhao Qing and Song Hai and Fang Dawei and Hu Qiang and Liu Jisheng and Xu Hao, watching them play in the river, watching the water cascading about in the distance, watching their glossy black heads and shiny white behinds. One after another they dived into the water and stuck their behinds into the air. They called this game “Selling Pumpkins.” They shouted to me from the river, “Yang Gao, come on in! Yang Gao, hurry up and sell a pumpkin!”
I shook my head and said, “I would drown!”
They said, “Yang Gao, do you see Lin Lili and Sun Hongmei? See how they’re in the water? Girls get in the water, see? You’re a boy—how come you won’t join us?”
Sure enough, I could see Lin Lili and Sun Hongmei tramping about in the river in their bright underpants and their colorful tank tops, but still I shook my head and repeated, “I would drown!”
Knowing that I wouldn’t go in the river, they told me to climb a tree instead. They said, “Yang Gao, if you won’t come in, then go climb a tree.”
“I can’t climb trees,” I said.
“All of us can,” they said. “How come you’re the only one who can’t?”
“If I fall out of the tree, I’ll break my neck,” I told them.
They stood in a line in the water, and Lü Qianjin said, “One, two, three, shout.”
They shouted out in unison, “There’s a phrase ‘timid as a mouse,’ and who is it about?”
I said quietly, “Me.”
Lü Qianjin shouted to me, “We didn’t hear that.”
So I said it again, “It refers to me.”
After hearing this, they no longer stood in a line, but went back into the water, and the water again began to splash and seethe. I sat down in front of a tree and carried on watching them fool around in the river, watching them as they went on selling those white pumpkins of theirs.
I am a biddable boy. That’s not my word—that’s what my mother says. She often sings her son’s praises to other people: “Our Yang Gao is just the most biddable boy. He’s so obedient, and such a hard worker. He’ll do whatever you tell him to do. He’s never got in trouble outside the house, and never got into fights with people. Why, I’ve never heard him say any dirty words . . .”
My mother’s right. I never curse people, and I never pick a fight with anybody. But there are always people who like to come over and curse me, who like to come over and pick a fight with me. They roll their sleeves up above their elbows and their pants up above their knees, they block my path, and they poke me on the nose, spit in my face and say, “Yang Gao, have you got the guts to fight with us?”
Then I’ll say to them, “No, I don’t have the guts.”
“In that case,” they say, “Do you have the guts to curse us?’
“No, I don’t have the guts,” I say.
“In that case,” they say, “We’re going to curse you. Listen up! You cretin! Cretin! Cretin! Cretin! Cretin! Cretin! Cretin, and asshole too!”
Even Lin Lili and Sun Hongmei—even girls like them—even girls give me a hard time. Once I heard other girls say to those two, “You only know how to bully us girls. If you’re so great, why don’t you go pick a fight with a boy?”
Lin Lili and Sun Hongmei said, “Who said we’re afraid of boys?”
Then they came over to me, sandwiching me between them, and they said, “Yang Gao, we want to pick a fight with a boy, so how about if we pick a fight with you? We won’t both fight with you, we’ll fight one to one. So you pick between us two, Lin Lili and Sun Hongmei.”
I shook my head and said, “No, I’m not going to pick between you. I’m not going to fight with you.”
I wanted to get away, but Lin Lili stretched out her arm and held me back. She asked me, “Tell us: are you not going to fight with us? Or do you not have the guts to fight with us?”
“I don’t have the guts to fight with you,” I said.
Lin Lili let me go, but Sun Hongmei grabbed me, and she said to Lin Lili, “We can’t let him off that easy. We need to have him say ‘timid as a mouse.'”
So Lin Lili asked me, “There’s a phrase ‘timid as a mouse.’ Who does it refer to?”
“It refers to me,” I said.
When my father was alive, he would often say to my mother, “This boy Yang Gao is too much of a sissy. When he was six, he still wouldn’t dare talk to people. When he was eight, he was still too frightened to sleep by himself. When he was ten, he still didn’t have the guts to lean against the balustrade on the bridge. Now he’s twelve already, and still he’s scared of geese.”
My dad was right. When I ran into a flock of geese, my legs would turn to jelly, and there was nothing I could do about it. What frightened me the most was when they charged toward me, stretching out their necks and flapping their wings. I was forced to just keep going in the other direction, past Lü Qianjin’s house. Past Song Hai’s house I went, and Fang Dawei’s, and Lin Lili’s, but those geese just kept on chasing me, honk honk honk, in full cry all the way. Once they pursued me right out of Yang Family Lane, and then kept on my tail the full length of Liberation Road, right up to the school. As they followed me across the playground, still honking away, lots of people gathered round to watch, and I heard Lü Qianjin shout to me, “Yang Gao, give them a kick!”
So then I swiveled on my heel, took aim at the goose in the middle, and gave it a gentle kick. But that just made them honk more fiercely and lunge toward me more aggressively. I turned right round and kept on going.
Lü Qianjin and the others were shouting, “Kick them! Yang Gao, kick them!”
I moved as quick as I could, shaking my head and saying as I went, “They’re not afraid of my kicks.”
Lü Qianjin and the others shouted, “Hit them with a stone!”
“I don’t have a stone,” I said.
They laughed uproariously and called, “Then you’d better run for your life!”
I shook my head again and said, “I can’t run. As soon as I do, you’ll laugh at me.”
They said, “We’re laughing at you already!”
I took a good look at them. They were laughing so hard their mouths were open and their eyes were closed and their bodies were bent double. I thought to myself, they’re right, they are laughing at me, so I began to run.
“It’s the geese’s eyes that are the problem,” my mother explained to me later. “Geese see everything as smaller than it really is, and that’s why they are so bold.”
She went on, “Seen through a goose’s eye, our front door is like a hollow in the wall, our window is like the opening in the crotch of your pants, our house is as small as a hen’s nest . . .”
What about me, then? That evening, when I lay in bed, I kept wondering how big I was in the eyes of a goose. I decided that the biggest that I could possibly be was only as big as another goose.
When I was little, I often heard them talking about how timid I was. By “them” I mean Lü Qianjin’s mother and Song Hai’s mother, and also Lin Lili’s mother and Fang Dawei’s mother. In the summer they would sit in the shade under the trees and gossip about other families’ affairs. They would chatter away, even louder than the cicadas in the tree above, talk and talk until their conversation came round to me. They would talk about how timid I was on lots of occasions, and once they talked about my father too, and said that he was just as much of a coward as I was.
When I heard that, I felt awful, and went and sat down by myself on the doorsill. I’d heard something that I never knew before. They said my father was the slowest driver in the world. They said nobody wanted to ride in my father’s truck, because a trip that would take other drivers three hours to drive, my father wouldn’t manage to complete in five. Why? They said my father was too timid. They said my father got scared if he drove at all fast. Scared of what? Scared he’d crash and die.
Lü Qianjin and the others saw me sitting alone on the doorsill. They came over, stood in front of me, and said with a laugh: “Your father is a coward, just like you. Your cowardice is genetic. You got it from your dad, and he got it from your granddad, and your granddad got it from your granddad’s granddad . . .”
They went through a whole dozen of so of my ancestors’ granddads, and then they asked, “Does your father have the guts to drive with his eyes closed?”
I shook my head. I said, “I don’t know. I’ve never asked him.”
Lü Qianjin said his father could swallow a whole York pig in one go. Lü Qianjin’s father slaughtered pigs. Lü Qianjin said to me, “You’ve got eyes in your head. You can see for yourself that my father is even stouter than a York pig.”
Song Hai’s father was a surgeon. Song Hai said that his father regularly operated on himself. He said, “I often wake up in the middle of the night and see my father sitting by the dining table, his head down, with a flashlight gripped between his teeth so that the light shines on his belly. He’s stitching himself up.”
Then there’s Fang Dawei’s father. Fang Dawei says his father can knock a hole through a wall with just one punch. Even Liu Jisheng’s father—who is so thin that there’s no sign of flesh on his bones, who spends half the year in a hospital bed—Liu Jisheng says that he can snap nails in half with his teeth.
“So how about your father?” they ask me. “What is it that he can do? Does he have the guts to drive with his eyes closed?”
I shook my head again and said, “I don’t know.”
“Then hurry up and ask him.”
After they left, I went on sitting on the doorsill, waiting for my father to return. In the late afternoon, my mother came home and saw me sitting there in a daze. She said to me, “Yang Gao, what are you doing?”
“I’m sitting on the doorsill,” I said.
“I can see that you’re sitting on the doorsill,” she said. “What I’m asking you is what are you doing sitting there?”
“I’m waiting for Father to come home,” I said.
Mother started to prepare dinner. As she ladled water out of the vat to sieve the rice, she said, “Come inside and help me wash the vegetables.”
I didn’t go in. I stayed sitting on the doorsill, and though my mother called me time and again, I went on sitting there, right until nightfall, when my father came home. His slow and heavy footsteps sounded on the darkened street, and then he appeared at the corner, carrying that worn—out old bag of his. As he moved his black shadow toward me, I saw the light from the house shine on his foot, and then quickly rise higher. When it reached his chest, he stopped and bent down. His head was still in shadow as he asked me, “Yang Gao, what are you doing here?”
“I was waiting for you to come home,” I said. I stood up and went inside with my father. He sat down in a chair and put his arm on the table. He looked at me, and that was when I asked him, “Do you dare to drive with your eyes closed?”
My father looked at me and smiled. He shook his head and said, “You can’t drive with your eyes closed.”
“Why not?” I said. “Why can’t you drive with your eyes closed?”
“If I was to drive with my eyes closed,” my father said, “I’d get killed in a collision.”
What my mother said is right—I am biddable. I have got a fine job now, on the cleaning staff at the machine plant. I am in the same factory and the same shop as Lü Qianjin. He is a fitter, so he’s got oil all over his hands and all over his clothes, but he’s perfectly happy. He says he’s got a skilled job, and he looks down on the work I do, saying that my job is unskilled. It’s true that there’s no skill involved in my job—all I have to do is to take a broom and sweep the shop’s concrete floor. So I don’t have any skill, but I also don’t have any oil on my hands or clothes, while Lü Qianjin’s fingernails are a dirty black. His nails have been like that ever since he came to the factory.
Actually, when we just started at the factory, it was Lü Qianjin who was the janitor, and it was me who was the fitter. Lü Qianjin refused to be a janitor, and he went off to see the manager with a chisel in his hand. He stuck the chisel in the manager’s desk and said that he would not be a janitor, and he insisted on being reassigned. So that’s how Lü Qianjin and I came to exchange positions, with him becoming a fitter, and me becoming a janitor. After he became a fitter, he handed me the chisel and told me to stick it in the manager’s desk just as he had. I asked him why.
He said, “If you stick it in his desk, you won’t have to be a janitor any more.”
“What’s wrong with being a janitor?” I asked him.
“Damn it, you’re really such a blockhead,” he said. “Being a janitor is the most degrading job of all—do you still not realize that yet?”
“Yes, I realize that. I know that none of you are willing to be a janitor.”
He put his hands on my shoulders and started pushing me, saying, “If you’re clear on that, that’s fine then. Off you go.”
He pushed me out of the shop. I took a few steps forward, and then I turned around and went back in. Lü Qianjin blocked my path and said, “What are you doing back here again?”
“If I stick the chisel in the manager’s desk, but he still wants me to be a janitor,” I said, “what do I do then?”
“That’s not what will happen!” said Lü Qianjin. “All you need to do is stick the chisel in the desk, and the manager will be scared. If he’s scared, he will let you go back to being a fitter again.”
I shook my head and said, “The manager won’t get scared so easily.”
“What do you mean?” said Lü Qianjin. He started pushing me with both hands, saying, “Didn’t I scare him?”
“You scared him,” I said, “but I wouldn’t scare him.”
Lü Qianjin looked at me intently for a moment, and then he withdrew his hands. He said, “You’re right. You wouldn’t scare the manager. You wouldn’t fucking scare anybody. You were fucking born to sweep the floor.”
Lü Qianjin was right. I was born to sweep floors. I liked sweeping floors. I liked sweeping the shop floor until it was squeaky clean. I liked walking back and forth in the shop with the broom in my hand, and even when I sat down to take a break, I liked to hold the broom. The guys in the shop would often say to me, “Yang Gao, the way you hug that broom of yours, it’s like you’re putting your hands around a woman.”
I knew that they were making fun of me, but I paid them no mind, because they were always making fun of me. I have no idea why they loved to laugh at me so much.
When I was sweeping the floor, they would roar with laughter as they watched; when I was walking along, they would point at me and burst out laughing. When I came to work before them, they would think this a great joke, and when I finished work later than them, they thought that a great joke too. Actually, I would start work and finish work just at the proper time, at the time fixed by the factory, but they made fun of me all the same, because they always started late and knocked off early. Lü Qianjin once said to me, “Yang Gao, everybody else starts late and finishes early, so why do you start on time and finish on time?”
“That’s because I am biddable,” I told him,
He looked at me and shook his head. “No, it’s because you’re so timid.”
I felt it wasn’t that I was timid, it was because I liked this job of mine. Lü Qianjin didn’t like his job, didn’t like this skilled fitter’s job that he got with the chisel, so he came to work very late every day. Not only did he turn up late, but he also would often drag an old mat to one corner of the workshop and take a nap there. Sometimes Song Hai and Fang Dawei would come over to socialize, slipping out from their jobs during work hours, and when they saw Lü Qianjin snoring away on his old mat, they would shout at him to wake up, saying, “Damn, you really know how to make yourself comfortable, don’t you? Here you are, sleeping away during working hours. You might as well fetch your bed from home and move it right in.”
At moments like these, Lü Qianjin would rub his eyes and chuckle, and he’d ask, “You guys not working today?”
Fang Dawei and co. would say, “We’re working all right, but we slipped out.”
Lü Qianjin said, “Well, aren’t you doing the same thing? You guys are pretty damn comfortable yourselves.”
Then Fang Dawei and co. called me over and said to me, “Yang Gao, every time we come over here we see you sweeping the floor. When do you take a nap on the old mat the way Lü Qianjin does?”
I shook my head and said, “I’d never take a nap.”
“Why?” they asked.
Holding my broom in my hand, I said, “I like my work.”
Hearing this, they roared with laughter. They found this very strange. They said, “Can you believe it? There is still somebody in the world who likes sweeping floors.”
I don’t find it strange at all, because I really do like sweeping the workshop till it’s squeaky clean. I also wipe all the machinery in the shop until it is squeaky clean too. Because of me, our workshop has become the cleanest in the whole plant. People in the other shops all wish they could have me working for them, but the people in our workshop won’t agree to that. Everybody knows this—the people in the plant, and people outside too. Even my old classmates Lin Lili and Sun Hongmei know, because once they said to me, “Yang Gao, you’re the best worker in your factory, but every time they give out raises or assign housing, you’re always left out. Look at that Lü Qianjin—he’s always napping on the job, but he gets a raise, he gets an apartment. He does no work but he has his finger in every pie.”
I said to them, “I’m not in his league. Lü Qianjin has ways of getting things done. But not me. I have no way of getting anything done.”
“What are Lü Qianjin’s ways of getting things done? What else is there to it but threatening the factory manager with a knife?”
They got that wrong. Lü Qianjin never used a knife to threaten the manager. He did use a chisel when he first got his job assignment, but later he didn’t even use that. When he heard that a small number of workers were going to get pay raises, he went off with nothing in either hand, went off to the manager’s office every morning as though that was his workplace, not our workshop. Every day he would go into the manager’s office, sit down in one of the manager’s chairs, drinking the manager’s tea and smoking the manager’s cigarettes, talking to the manager for hours on end. That carried on until one day the manager said to him, “Lü Qianjin, the list of those getting raises has now been approved, and your name is on it.”
Lü Qianjin then returned to our workshop to work. From that time on, the old mat in the corner of the shop was never left unoccupied—you would see a body stretched out there at all hours of the day.
Lü Qianjin’s wages kept on rising, while mine never changed. Lü Qianjin tried to educate me. He said, “Yang Gao, just think—when we first came to the plant, we had exactly the same pay. Years have passed, and I keep on napping every day, and you keep on slaving away, and yet I’m paid more than you are. Do you know why that is?”
“Why?” I said.
“It’s because misery is the lot of the timid, and fortune favors the bold.”
I didn’t agree. I shook my head and said, “I didn’t go and see the manager, not because I’m timid, but because I feel I make enough money. So it doesn’t bother me that I make less money than you.”
Lü Qianjin had a good long chuckle after hearing that, and he said, “You’re incredible.”
Lü Qianjin is a good friend. He’s always got my interests at heart. After the factory built a new block of housing, he came to see me again: “Yang Gao, have you seen? That new apartment building is finally completed. It took a full three years to build it, damn it. We need to go and see the manager, and demand that he assigns us new housing. What you need to understand is that after this housing allocation, there won’t be any new construction for another ten years, so we have to get our hands on an apartment now, no matter what it takes.”
I asked him, “What do you mean ‘no matter what it takes’?”
“Starting today,” he said, “I’m sleeping at the manager’s place.”
Lü Qianjin was as good as his word. After night fell, he went off cheerfully to the manager’s house, holding a quilt in his arms. Lü Qianjin spent only three nights there before he came into possession of the key to a new apartment. He waved the key in my face and said, “See this? This is a key! This is the key to my new apartment.”
I took Lü Qianjin’s key in my hand and inspected it. It was a new key, sure enough. I asked him, “When you went to the manager’s house with a quilt in your arms, what did the manager say?”
“What did the manager say?” Lü Qianjin thought for a moment, then shook his head and said, “I forget what he said exactly. All I remember is what I said to him. I said that my apartment was too small, that there was no room for me to sleep, so I was moving to his house for the night.”
I interrupted him and said, “Your apartment is bigger than everybody else’s. How could you say that you have no room to sleep?”
“That’s called tactics,” said Lü Qianjin. “I put it that way so that the manager would be clear that if he didn’t give me a new apartment, I would stay on at his place. Actually, he knows perfectly well that I have a large apartment, but he gave me this key all the same.”
After that, Lü Qianjin said to me, “Yang Gao, I’ll tell you what to do. Starting today, take all the trash that you collect when sweeping the workshop floor and dump it outside the factory manager’s apartment. Within three days, the manager will put a new key in your hands.”
Saying this, he dangled his key in front of my eyes and said, “A key just as new as this one.”
I shook my head and said, “Although my apartment is small, there’s plenty of space for my mother and me. I don’t need a new apartment.”
When he heard me say that, Lü Qianjin clapped me on the shoulders and chuckled. He said, “You’re still a sissy, just like your dad.”
They all said that my father was a coward. They said that he never got mad at anybody, that he never even raised his voice, while others stuck their fingers in his face. They could grab him by the lapels of his jacket and they could hurl abuse at him, but my father never said a word in protest. They also said that my father bowed and scraped to everyone he saw, that his face would be wreathed in smiles even if he ran into a beggar who wanted to cadge a meal off him. They said that if it was someone else in his shoes, they would promptly send the beggar packing with a kick up his ass, but my father would wine him and dine him, with a smile glued on his face the whole time. They would have all kinds of stories about how timid my father was, ending up finally with comments on how he never smoked and never drank.
But they didn’t know that my father looked really fine sitting in his truck. When my father walked toward his Liberation truck, his footsteps resounded with a louder ring than usual, and his arms would swing in a wider arc. He would open the door, sit himself down in the cab, and then slowly don a pair of white cotton gloves. He would lay his gloved hands on the steering wheel and his foot would press down on the accelerator, and then off he would go in his Liberation truck.
They said that my father never dared to curse anyone, not even his own wife and child. They were quite right—my father never cursed my mother, and never cursed me. But when my father was speeding down the highway in his truck, he would often stick his head out the window and shout out at pedestrians, “Are you trying to get killed?”
That was when I was sitting next to my father. I was watching the leaves and branches of trees as they flitted past the truck window, watching the road ahead as it glinted in the sunlight. I had a commanding view of the pedestrians who appeared on the sides of the highway, and when one of them made a move as if about to cross the road, my father would shout at him, “Are you trying to get yourself killed?”
My father would then turn his head and glance at me. His eyes would be gleaming and he would look like a man completely in control as he said to me, “Yang Gao, keep an eye open and next time I’ll let you be the one to shout.”
So then I kept my eyes peeled, watching the people walking next to the road. When I saw somebody up ahead who had made an effort to cross over before changing his mind and moving back to the side of the road, I gripped the window frame with both hands and my mouth opened, but no words came out. I was too afraid.
My father said, “There’s nothing to be afraid of. There’s no way he can catch up with us.”
I watched as our truck roared past. The man quickly became just a small figure receding in the distance, and I knew that my father was right—people on the road could not possibly catch up with us, and I could shout at them without the slightest scruple. I put my hands on the window frame once again, and carefully surveyed the people walking by the side of the road. When another person tried to cross, I suddenly felt my body quivering all over, and gave a feeble shout, “Are you trying to get yourself killed?”
“Not loud enough,” my father said. “You need to shout louder than that.”
In the rearview mirror, I could see how the truck very quickly left that man behind, and I shouted with all my might, “Are you trying to get yourself killed?”
Then I set back against the seat. I felt completely drained. I saw that my father was laughing as he held the steering wheel, and after a moment or two I began to laugh myself.
I like being with Lü Qianjin, because he is so daring. He’s more daring even than Zhao Qing, Song Hai, Fang Dawei, Hu Qiang, Liu Jisheng, and Xu Hao. Although he’s the smallest and skinniest of the lot, he’s the most daring of all. I often wonder if Lü Qianjin’s eyes are like a goose’s, so that everybody looks puny in his eyes, and so he’s afraid of no one. He has three stab wounds on his face, all from cuts he inflicted on himself with a kitchen cleaver. He ran home after losing a fight, picked up the kitchen cleaver and then chased after his adversary. When he caught up with him, he first cut himself on the face, and then raised the cleaver and advanced on his enemy, who took to his heels in fear.
Later, Song Hai and the others said, “Nobody would ever cut their own face with a cleaver, but Lü Qianjin is ready to do that. That’s why everyone is afraid of him.”
I asked Lü Qianjin, “Why did you have to cut your face first?”
“That was to show the other guy that I would stop at nothing,” said Lü Qianjin. “You know what they say—’The timid fear the bold, and the bold fear the reckless.'” That’s when I realized that Lü Qianjin was even more daring than the bold—he was reckless. I asked him, “And what are reckless people afraid of?”
“They’re not afraid of anything,” was his reply.
There he was wrong. Reckless people actually also have moments when they’re scared, and Lü Qianjin is a case in point. There was one evening—and very late in the evening it was—one evening when Lü Qianjin and I had both been working on the night shift. I left the plant ahead of him, and walked as far as a street that had no lighting. It began to rain, so I took shelter under the eaves of a house, and stood there in the dark for some ten minutes or so. I heard footsteps approaching. Because it was so dark, I couldn’t see who it was. All I could make out vaguely was a very short silhouette. As the figure came closer I could see that it had a coat draped over its shoulders and was walking toward me with its head bent. Just as it passed me it gave a cough, and right away I knew who it was. It was Lü Qianjin because he had a cold—he had been coughing the whole day through. When he coughed it sounded even more disgusting than the sound of someone throwing up—it was as though his throat was clogged with sand. He gave a long, drawn-out hacking cough as he passed me.
By this time I had been standing under the inky black eaves for a good ten minutes. Although the rain didn’t get my face wet, it had soaked my shoes right through. When Lü Qianjin walked past, I was so pleased that I immediately darted out and put my hands around him from behind. I felt his body suddenly contract, and then I heard him scream out in panic, “I’m a man! I’m a man! I’m a man!”
I’d never heard a scream like that before. It was a bit like the call a rooster makes. It wasn’t at all like the kind of shout you’d expect to hear from Lü Qianjin. He had never spoken or shouted in that tone of voice before. He burst free of my grasp and started running for all he was worth, and in the blink of an eye he disappeared around the corner. He ran away so quickly, I did not even have time to tell him that it was Yang Gao. As soon as I put my arms around him, he screamed, and it startled me so much that by the time I had recovered from my surprise, he had already vanished into the distance.
That night I puzzled over it, but I just couldn’t figure out why he shouted “I’m a man.” I knew that he was a man, obviously—what I didn’t understand was why he had to shout out that he was. He didn’t need to shout that for me to know that he was a man. The next day, at Song Hai’s place, when I was sitting around with Lü Qianjin, Zhao Qing, Song Hai, Fang Dawei, Hu Qiang, Liu Jisheng and Xu Hao, that’s when I learned why Lü Qianjin screamed the way he did.
Lü Qianjin was sitting opposite me. With a cigarette in one hand and a cup of tea in the other, he said to us, “A rapist tried to rape me last night.”
“A woman tried to rape you?” asked Song Hai.
“A man,” said Lü Qianjin. “He took me for a woman.”
“How could he mistake you for a woman?” they asked.
“I had a bright-colored coat over my shoulders,” said Lü Qianjin. “It was raining when I got off work, so I grabbed the coat of one of the women in the workshop and threw it over my head. I went out the gate and got as far as Army Emulation Road. That fucking street hasn’t got a single streetlamp, and as soon as I started walking down the road, the rapist jumped on me from behind and put his arms around me.”
I cried out with delight, “So that’s why you screamed: ‘I’m a man!’ It’s because you had a woman’s coat on your shoulders.”
They interrupted me and asked Lü Qianjin, “What did you do when he put his arms around you?”
Lü Qianjin looked at me, and then said to them, “I grabbed his two hands, and with a quick flick of my waist I threw him like a sack to the ground.”
“Then . . .” Lü Qianjin gave me another look, and then went on, “I stuck my foot in his mouth and said to him, ‘I’m a man.'”
Having heard what Lü Qianjin had to say, Song Hai and the others turned and looked at me, as though they had recalled what I had just said. Song Hai pointed at me and said, “What was it he said just now?”
I just laughed. So they went back to questioning Lü Qianjin, “What then?”
“Then . . .” Lü Qianjin continued, his eyes fixed on me, “I kicked him two or three times, and then I picked him up and punched him in the face two or three times, and then . . . and then . . .”
When Lü Qianjin saw that I was laughing with even greater amusement, he stared at me and said, “Yang Gao, what’s so funny?”
“Actually,” I said, “I had no idea that you were wearing a woman’s coat. It was so dark, there was no way I could tell what you had on.”
Lü Qianjin’s face turned pale. Song Hai and the others all looked at me and they asked me, “What did you say?”
I pointed at myself and said, “It was me who put my arms around him last night.”
Hearing this, they were all taken aback. Looking at Lü Qianjin, I said, “Last night you ran so fast that I didn’t have the chance to tell you it was me. You ran out of sight in a flash.”
I saw Lü Qianjin get to his feet, his face livid. He came up to me, raised his hand and gave me two resounding slaps across the ears that left my head spinning. Then he picked me up by the lapels of my jacket and pulled me out of the chair. First he thrust his knee into my belly, so hard that my stomach felt it had been hit by a sledgehammer, and then he planted a fist in my chest, so fiercely that it completely knocked the breath out of me.
Afterward, I dragged myself up off the floor. I left Song Hai’s house, and slowly followed Liberation Road until I reached Sunnyside Bridge. I stopped there for a while and leaned against the balustrade, as the midday sun beat down so strongly that I couldn’t open my eyes. My body was still aching as I heard a boat pass under the bridge, making a lapping sound as it cut its way through the water. I thought of my father, who died in the year that I turned twelve. I thought of the summer that he died, of the Liberation truck he drove that summer, and that battered old tractor.
My father let me sit in the cab of his truck. He was going to take me to Shanghai, to the big city. My father’s truck sped along the summer highway. The wind, warmed by the sun, ruffled my hair as I sat there in the cab and made my shirt flap. I said to my father, “Why don’t you close your eyes?”
“You can’t close your eyes when driving,” my father said.
“Why not?” I said. “Why can’t you?”
“Do you see the tractor up ahead?” my father said.
I saw there was a tractor creeping along up ahead, with a dozen or so farm workers sitting in the cart that it was pulling. They were all naked to the waist, and their bodies looked as black and as shiny as carp. “I see it,” I said.
“If I were to close my eyes,” said my father, “we would run right into the tractor, and the impact would kill us.”
“All I want is for you to just close them for a moment,” I said. “If you can just close them for a moment, then I can tell Lü Qianjin and the others. I can tell them that you are daring enough to drive with your eyes closed.”
“Okay, then I’ll just close them for a moment,” said my father. “Watch my eyes. I am going to close them on the count of three. One, two, three . . .”
My father closed his eyes at last. I saw it for myself—he did close them for a moment. When he opened them again, our truck was about to crash into the tractor, and the tractor was veering off to the left in alarm. My father jerked the steering wheel as sharply as he could, and our truck scraped past the right side of the tractor.
I saw as those dark, carplike men in the cart waved their hands in our direction, and I knew that they must be cursing us. That’s when my father stuck out his head and shouted back at them, “Are you trying to get yourselves killed?”
My father turned to look at me and gave me a smile of satisfaction. I smiled right back at him, as our truck raced on along the summer highway and the leaves and branches flitted past my eyes. I saw crops spread out in the fields, one patch after another, and winding rivers, and houses, and people making their way along the paths between the fields.
But my father’s truck broke down. My father got out, opened the engine cover and began to repair his Liberation. I stayed put in the cab. I wanted to watch my father, but the raised engine cover blocked my view, so that I could not see him. All I heard was the sound of him making repairs. Underneath the engine cover, he kept tapping away at something.
After a long time, my father jumped down on the ground, closed the engine cover and came over to where I was sitting. He took a cloth from under my seat to rub off the oil that had stained his hands, and then walked round to the other side of the truck. Just as he opened the door and was about to climb in, the tractor that we had passed earlier rolled up. It came to a stop right in front of us, and the men as dark as carp all jumped out. They advanced towards us.
My father gripped the truck door, and he watched as they came over. Their hands grabbed his shirt collar, and at least three hands all at the same time seized hold of my father. I heard them ask him, “Who is trying to get killed? Is it us, or is it you?”
My father said nothing at all. They dragged him to the middle of the road, and I saw their hands reach into my father’s pockets, and then their hands took out his cash and transferred it to their own pockets. After that, their fists started landing on my father’s face, and the dozen or so of them together beat up my father, and knocked him to the ground.
In the truck, I was crying. I couldn’t see my father, because they had surrounded him. I was crying loudly in the truck while they were kicking my father. After kicking him for a while, they began to disperse, and only then did I see him, lying curled up on the ground, as though he was hugging himself. I was crying fit to burst, because I saw that four of the men had opened their flies and were pissing on my prostrate father, on his face and his legs and his chest. I sobbed and wailed, and through a veil of tears I saw them walk towards the tractor and climb back onto the trailer. The tractor began to chug, and off they went.
I was still wailing. I saw my father slowly clamber to his feet, and he stood there stock-still for a minute or two, stooping, as I cried my head off. He turned around and came over to the truck. When he opened the door, I could see that his face was caked with blood and dirt, and his hair and clothes were wet. He panted as he climbed into the cab. I was crying so much that my body was convulsed with tremors. He reached his hand over and rubbed my face with his grimy hand, lightly rubbing my face until all my tears were dried. He laid his hands on the steering wheel, and gazed at the tractor driving off into the distance. After a moment, he drew out his tea mug from next to his feet and handed it to me, saying, “Yang Gao, I’m thirsty. Go down to the river and fill this up with water for me.”
Still sobbing, I took the mug from his hand, opened the door, climbed out, and walked down to the river bank. I took a look back at my father, and I saw that he was watching me, and I saw tears falling from his eyes. I went down to the river.
When I stood up after filling the mug with water, my father’s truck had begun to move. I ran up the bank as fast as I could, spilling all the water on the ground, but my father’s truck just kept on moving. I stood wailing on the side of the road, shouting desperately at the departing truck, yelling to my father, “Don’t leave me! Don’t leave me!”
I ran after the truck, crying and screaming. I thought that my father didn’t want me any more, I thought that he was abandoning me. My father was driving at full speed, and I watched as it caught up with the tractor, and then I heard a colossal roar. I could see that my father’s truck had collided with the tractor. Up ahead of me there was a huge cloud of dust, and black smoke was rising out of the billows of dust.
I stood still, stood there for a long time, before finally walking further on. I saw that many vehicles had come to a stop by the site of the collision, and their passengers had all got out and were gathered round. I kept on walking—it was a long way away—and by the time I got there, it was almost dark. When I reached my father’s truck, I could see that its front end had been bashed in, and the door on his side was twisted out of shape. My father lay sprawled over the steering wheel, and his head was covered with broken glass. The steering wheel had punctured my father’s shirt, punctured his chest. My father was dead, and his whole body was stained red with blood. The people on the tractor had all been thrown to the ground. Some lay motionless, while others lay there groaning. I saw that sparrows lay strewn everywhere, carpeting the ground as thickly as crops. I realized that they must have been killed by the impact of that colossal roar. They had been perched on a tree, as happy as can be, but my father’s truck collided with the tractor, and suddenly that was the end of them.
I left Sunnyside Bridge and went home. My mother was not there. The clothes that she had washed that morning had been hung out to dry on the bamboo rails by the window. I saw that they were all dry, so I collected them, folded them and put them away. Then I swept one more time the floor that my mother had swept that morning, wiped the table that she had wiped, put in order the shoes that she had already arranged, and filled up her cup with water. Then I took the cleaver from the kitchen, and went out the door.
As I walked toward Lü Qianjin’s house, the cleaver in my hand, I passed Song Hai’s place. Song Hai stopped me and said, “Yang Gao, where are you off to? What are you doing with that cleaver in your hand?”
“I’m going to Lü Qianjin’s house,” I said. “The cleaver is for carving up Lü Qianjin.”
I heard Song Hai laugh, and I heard his voice behind me calling, “Fang Dawei, do you see this? Do you see the cleaver that Yang Gao is holding? He says he’s going to carve up Lü Qianjin.”
I saw Fang Dawei coming towards me. Hearing what Song Hai had said, he stopped and asked me, “Are you really going to carve him up?”
I nodded. I said, “I’m really going to carve him up.”
I heard Fang Dawei laugh, just as loud and as long as Song Hai, and he said to Song Hai, “He says he’s really going to carve up Lü Qianjin.”
Song Hai said, “That’s right. That’s what he says.”
I heard the two of them laughing. They fell in behind me. They said they wanted to see me carve up Lü Qianjin with their own eyes. So there I was walking on in front, and they were walking behind. When we passed Liu Jisheng’s apartment, Song Hai and Fang Dawei shouted out, “Liu Jisheng! Liu Jisheng!”
Liu Jisheng appeared in his doorway. He looked at us and said, “What’s up?”
Song Hai and Fang Dawei said to him, “Yang Gao is going to carve up Lü Qianjin. Don’t you want to catch the action?”
Liu Jisheng looked at me in amazement. He asked me, “You are going to carve up Lü Qianjin?”
I nodded. I said, “That’s right. That’s just what I’m going to do.”
Liu Jisheng laughed, just like Song Hai and Fang Dawei. Then he said, “Are you planning to kill him? Or just do him some damage?”
“Maybe not kill him,” I said, “but at least leave him in pretty bad shape.”
Hearing this, they laughed so hard they had to put their hands on their bellies. It was a mystery to me why they found this so funny, and I said to them, “How come you guys are so pleased to hear that I’m going to carve up Lü Qianjin? You’re his friends, after all.”
They laughed so much on hearing this that they squatted down on their haunches, and their laughter gradually turned to titters, a bit like the sound that crickets make. I ignored them and went on ahead by myself. When I passed Hu Qiang’s place, I heard Song Hai and the others again shout from behind, “Hu Qiang! Hu Qiang! Hu Qiang!”
I realized that they had stayed behind me all the time. The result was that when I reached Lü Qianjin’s house, there were five people with me: Song Hao, Fang Dawei, Liu Jisheng, Hu Qiang, and Xu Hao. Laughing gaily, they pushed me inside Lü Qianjin’s house.
Lü Qianjin was just then sitting at the table, eating watermelon. He had a slice of watermelon in his hands, and some seeds were stuck to his cheeks. He raised his head to look at us, and saw the cleaver in my hand. Munching the watermelon, he mumbled, “What are you doing with that cleaver?”
Song Hai and the others said with a laugh, “Yang Gao is going to carve you up with it!”
Lü Qianjin’s eyes widened. He looked at me, and he looked at Song Hai and the others. He said, “What did you say?”
Song Hai and the others burst out laughing. They said, “Lü Qianjin, death’s staring you in the face, and here you are eating watermelon. There’s no point in you eating any more. The watermelon you are eating will not have time to turn into shit, because you’re about to die. Don’t you see the cleaver in Yang Gao’s hand?”
Lü Qianjin put down the watermelon. He pointed at me, and then pointed at his nose, and he said, “You’re telling me he wants to carve me up?”
Song Hai and the rest all nodded. “That’s right!” they said.
Lü Qianjin wiped his mouth with his hand and, pointing at me, asked them again, “You’re telling me that Yang Gao wants to carve me up with that cleaver?”
Song Hai and the rest all nodded again, and they said, “You’ve got it!”
Lü Qianjin looked at me, and then he, along with Song Hai and the others, burst out laughing. This is when I spoke up. I said, “Lü Qianjin, you beat me up. You hit me on the face, you hit me in the chest, and you kicked me in the stomach and kicked me on the knees, and my face and my chest and my stomach and my knees are still sore. When you were hitting me, I never once hit back. The reason I didn’t hit back wasn’t because I was afraid of you, it was because I didn’t know what to do. Now I know what to do: I want a tooth for a tooth! I’m going to carve you up with this cleaver!”
I raised the cleaver to show Lü Qianjin, and to show Song Hai and the others too.
When Lü Qianjin, Song Hai, and the rest looked at the cleaver in my upraised hand, their mouths opened and laughter came out. I thought to myself, what’s the matter with them? Why are they laughing so hard? So I asked them, I said, “What are you laughing about? What are you so happy about? Lü Qianjin, why are you laughing too? I’ve got an idea why Song Hai and the rest are laughing, but I can’t understand why you think it’s so funny.”
They just laughed all the harder. Lü Qianjin fell on the table, he was laughing so hard. Song Hai and Fang Dawei stood next to him, each with one hand on their stomachs and the other hand clapping him on the shoulder. My ears were buzzing with the sound of their laughter. I stood there, with the cleaver in my upraised hand, and I didn’t know what to do. I watched them as they laughed, watched as they gradually stopped laughing and wiped away their tears. Then Song Hai pressed Lü Qianjin’s head down on the table and he said to Lü Qianjin, “You need to offer Yang Gao your neck.”
Lü Qianjin raised his head and he pushed Song Hai’s aside. “No way. No way am I going to offer him my neck.”
Song Hai persisted. “Come on, give him your neck. If you don’t do that, he won’t know what to do.”
Fang Dawei and company added their comments, “Lü Qianjin, if you don’t give him your neck, it won’t be any fun.”
“Fuck this,” Lü Qianjin said. Then with a laugh he laid his head on the table. Liu Jisheng and the rest pushed me over next to Lü Qianjin, and Song Hai took my hand with the cleaver in it and guided the cleaver to Lü Qianjin’s neck. When the cleaver made contact with his skin, his neck contracted and he sniggered. With his head resting on the table, he said, “The cleaver is making my neck all itchy.”
I noticed that on Lü Qianjin’s suntanned neck there were several spots, and I said to him: “There are quite a few spots on your neck. Your system is out of balance, because you must not have eaten enough vegetables lately.”
“I haven’t eaten any vegetables at all,” said Lü Qianjin.
“If you don’t want to eat vegetables, then watermelon will do just as well,” I said.
Song Hai and the rest said to me, “Yang Gao, cut out the crap. Weren’t you planning to carve up Lü Qianjin? Now you have his neck right underneath your cleaver, and we want to watch how you do it.”
It was true. Lü Qianjin’s neck was at the mercy of my cleaver. All I needed to do was to raise my hand, hack down, and I would sever his neck. But when I saw Song Hai and the others once more erupting into laughter, I couldn’t help thinking that what made them so happy was the prospect of seeing me cut his head off, and I began to feel distressed on Lü Qianjin’s account. I said to him, “They’re supposed to be your friends. But if they were truly your friends, they wouldn’t be so happy. They should be trying to talk me out of it, they should be pulling me away. But look at them—they’re all looking forward to me cutting your head off.”
Hearing this, they laughed all the louder. I said to Lü Qianjin, “See, there they go again.”
Lü Qianjin was laughing too, with his head against the table. He said, “You’re right, they’re not true friends of mine. But then, neither are you. If you were really my friend, you wouldn’t be about to cut my head off with a cleaver.”
This made me feel a bit uneasy. I said to him, “The reason I’m doing this is because you beat me up. I wouldn’t be doing it if you hadn’t beaten me up.”
Lü Qianjin said, “I just hit you a couple of times, that’s all, but here you are cutting me up with a cleaver. You’re forgetting how good I was to you in the past.”
This made me think. I recalled lots of things that had happened earlier, times when Lü Qianjin had done things for me, when he’d got into a fight or a row with someone on my account, and lots of other things, but now I was trying to cut him up. Although he had given me a beating, he was still my friend. I removed the cleaver, and said to him, “Lü Qianjin, I am not going to cut you up after all.”
Lü Qianjin lifted his head up off the table and rubbed his neck. He looked at Song Hai and the rest of them and laughed, and they looked at him and laughed.
I went on, “Although I’m not going to cut you up, I can’t just leave it like this. You gave me lots of slaps and kicks. Now I’m just going to slap you once, and we’ll call that evens.”
Then I reached out and gave him a box on the ear. When the people in the room heard my hand strike Lü Qianjin in the face, their laughter immediately evaporated. Then I saw Lü Qianjin’s eyes widen. He pointed at me and cursed, “What the hell do you think you’re doing!”
He knocked over the chair and in one leap jumped right in front of me. He delivered four slaps to my face, hitting me so hard that my head lolled and my eyes went blurry, and then he punched me fiercely in the chest, so hard that my lungs wheezed. As I fell to the ground, he kicked me in the belly, so hard that my stomach churned. As I lay there, I felt his foot kicking me several times in the legs, until they felt as though they were broken. As I lay on the floor I heard a buzz of conversation, though I couldn’t make out what they were saying. All I was aware of was waves of pain, traveling from my head to my toes, one after another, as though something was twisting my body just the way one wrings out a wet towel.
Originally published as “Wo Dan Xiao Ru Shu.” By arrangement with the author.