Writer Yang Xianhui traveled around China interviewing survivors of the great famine of 1959. He circumvented government censorship by adding details and presenting the results as fiction. In this chapter from his book The Dingxi Orphanage, a woman describes the horrific toll the famine took on her village.
I grew up in the legendary Black Rock Village, a part of Xiangnan Township in Tongwei County.
Old village folks used to recount a well-known tale: One night, with a loud rumbling that reverberated through the village, two rocks hurtled from the sky and landed by the Niugu River, which meandered past the village. The two rocks, one long and thin and the other short and fat, landed solidly on the ground, like two pieces of dark pig iron. Curious onlookers from near and far swarmed the village to see the rocks, but nobody believed they could fly.
Not long after, as if to convince the doubters, the rocks flew again.
One evening, a woman returning from the field stopped to rest by the rocks. She dipped her bound feet in the river, washed the long bandages wrapped around them, and left her bandages on the rocks to dry. The next day, when she returned to pick up her bandages, the rocks were nowhere to be seen. News spread fast and the whole village turned up to search for the missing rocks. Eventually, they found the rocks sitting squarely in the middle of a millet field at the back of the village. Then, people began to believe they were a pair of magic rocks. Desecrating these holy objects with a woman’s unclean bandages spelled disaster for the whole village.
There were three businesses in the village: a grain store where people bought and sold wheat and corn by the bucket, a grocery called “Rongfuxiang” (Prosperous, Happy and Auspicious) that sold local specialties, and a bank, called “Qianyongchang” (Money Forever Abundant) that loaned money to peasants.
In my hometown, children called their fathers “Da.” My da had two brothers. His eldest brother, my uncle, owned Rongfuxiang. His second brother taught at a school in downtown Tongwei County.
Before the Communists came, my da was a businessman. He owned a store in Biyuguan. The Communist government labeled him a big landlord, confiscated his business, and booted him out of there.
In 1958, during Chairman Mao’s Great Leap Forward Campaign, our families dismantled our stoves, smashed our pots and pans, and joined the communal kitchen. Soon, my da and his eldest brother were ordered to work on the Tao River Diversion Project, which the government said would help the region shift to Communism faster. Through a canal that traversed the mountainous terrain, the Gansu government planned to divert water from the Tao River in the east to the desert land in the west.
My brother went to Jingyuan County to support the production of iron with makeshift furnaces. Chairman Mao said if the whole country mobilized to produce iron and steel in their backyards, we would surpass the United States and United Kingdom in three years. My mother was not spared either. She was assigned to help build a road that could pass through Huaijialing Mountain, which was nearly 2,500 meters above sea level.
The next year, in September, the communal kitchen in our village ran out of food. There was no food at home either.
The village had not distributed any grain to individual families since the communal kitchen was opened in 1958. During harvest time, work team members from the county guarded the warehouse, making sure every sack of harvested wheat or corn was carted away. Even so, we were told that we had not met the government quotas. Work team members and village officials went door to door, searching for leftover grain from previous years.
Before ransacking our house, the work team chased my whole family out. We squeezed into my second uncle’s house several doors down. The work team stayed at our house for three days, flinging hammers at walls and pounding the floor with iron rods to look for hidden stores or cellars. On the second day, I followed a group of children who were drawn by the loud pounding noises to take a peek at what was happening at our house. Upon entering the courtyard, I saw several holes in the ground. The work team did find two cellars, but there was not a single particle of grain inside. I ran back home and told my ma. She said my eldest uncle had built the cellars to keep the inventories for his grocery store before the Communists came. During the Land Reform movement in the early 1950s, those cellars had been emptied out and all the goods had been handed over to the village.
When we were finally allowed to go home, my second uncle’s house was turned upside down. The work team dug a dozen holes in the courtyard. They even rummaged through the pigsty. There was no grain to be found. As I mentioned before, my second uncle was a teacher in central Tongwei County. They built the house right before the Communists came. They never saw the need to build cellars.
When the communal kitchen was still operating, we could at least have thin corn gruel every day, if not wheat or corn buns. Once the communal kitchen closed, we had nothing to eat. My mother boiled corn chaff and mashed it in a big pot. Then she dug out alfalfa roots, chopped them, baked them dry, and ground them into powder. My mother would mix the mashed corn chaff with the powdery alfalfa roots to make gruel.
Soon, death seemed to have set up residence in my family. My eldest uncle was the first to go. He was killed by a falling rock while he was working on the Tao River Diversion Project. His wife went out begging and we heard that she had dropped dead on the roadside. Passersby had stripped the flesh from her body.
My second uncle, the schoolteacher, was labeled a Rightist during Chairman Mao’s Anti-Rightist campaign and died in a labor camp in Jiuquan. My da, the third son, had come back from the Tao River Diversion Project a month before. He was bedridden for a few days, then passed away. The day he died, he could not let go. He mumbled to my mother: “I’m going to leave soon. My Qiao-er is still a kid. I’m worried about her. She is the only child left.” My Ma replied, “Don’t worry. As long as I live, I’ll make sure our daughter is alive and well.”
I was only ten years old that year. I had a brother who was much older. He came back from Jingyuan, where he joined many young people who were selected to participate in the campaign to produce iron and steel so China could surpass the West in industrial production. In those days, people lacked the knowledge and means to produce iron and steel. They simply searched the mountains for what they believed were iron ores and dumped them into primitive furnaces in the hope of getting iron. In the spring of 1959 the experiment failed, and he came home. In August and September, when the millet turned ripe, he would sneak into the field every night to steal the crops and munched them raw. One night, he was caught by the village chief, who beat him with a big wooden stick. When we found him, his head was swollen like a big pumpkin and blood oozed from his ears. He died two weeks later. He was only eighteen and had not married.
My da and my ma had deep feelings for each other. My ma grew up in Xiangnan Township and was very pretty. She caught my da’s eye on one of his business trips. He proposed through a matchmaker. My ma’s family was wealthy, but her father was quite liberal and open-minded and allowed his daughter to make her own choice. Since my ma did not like my da, Grandpa turned down the proposal. According to my ma, she thought my da was not good-looking. Actually, he wasn’t bad-looking. He just had darker skin. But, my da wouldn’t give up. He had his mind fixed on her. He told everyone in the village that he wouldn’t marry anyone except my ma. Later on, he proposed to my ma again without a matchmaker. In the old days, nobody proposed to a girl without going through a matchmaker, especially in the countryside. My da’s action was considered crude and improper. But my ma was touched by his sincerity and consented to their marriage.
After they got married, my ma moved to Black Rock Village to take care of my paternal grandparents while my da tended to his business in Biyuguan. He came home every other month and stayed for two to three days. When he was home, he would take over the kitchen, mixing flour, kneading the dough, and making noodles. Sometimes, my ma would tell him that my grandma was upset that her son was in the kitchen cooking, accusing him of being a henpecked husband. My da would tell my grandma: “I’m out all year round. My wife had to take care of you. It’s a hard job. When I’m home, I can take over the cooking and let her rest for a couple of days. What’s wrong with that?”
After the Communists came, my da could no longer operate his business. He came home and worked in the fields and took over the cooking at home. At that time, my Ma also helped with the fieldwork. She had lived the life of a spoiled rich girl, and the fieldwork exhausted her.
After my da passed away, she faithfully followed the local mourning ritual, lighting incense and burning fake paper money every seventh day for seven weeks. Massive numbers of deaths had occurred in the region. Many families simply dragged the dead to the cemetery for a quick burial and burned some fake paper money to send off the departed. My Ma visited my da’s tomb and burned fake paper money seven times. The last two times, she was too emaciated to walk. Step by step, she clawed her way out of our house and then to the cemetery outside the village.
Before the forty-nine-day mourning period for my da ended, Grandma also collapsed. The ground corn chaff and alfalfa roots that she had eaten got stuck in her stomach and blocked her intestine. My mother attempted to scoop out her waste with a stick. I also pitched in to help. Nothing worked. A few days before she died, she lay on our bed and babbled. She kept yelling the names of her three sons, all of whom had died before her. Since my ma was too weak to move around, she sent me to get my eldest uncle’s daughter-in-law in the village. She showed up with two buns for Grandma. They were made from elm bark. In those days, those buns were the best food I could get. When the communal kitchen shut down and families ran out of food, we all went out to strip the bark off the elm trees to make gruel. I loved the gruel. It was sticky and really good. When the gruel cooled off, I could finish a bowl with one big gulp. When my cousin’s wife handed a bun to Grandma, she immediately stopped babbling and started gumming it. Since she was in her seventies, she had no teeth to chew with. So, my cousin’s wife cut the bun into tiny pieces and then fed them to her. I also spoon-fed her some water.
My cousin’s wife carefully examined Grandma’s eyes and said to my ma: I think Grandma is at the end of her life. So, my Ma brought out a new outfit that the family had prepared a long time before and with our help, she put it on Grandma. Everything fit except the skirt. We couldn’t tie the buttons. In my region, it was customary to prepare a skirt for a deceased woman, but the skirt, made in an ancient style, looked spooky and it didn’t bear any resemblance to the skirts that young women wear on the street.
Grandma lingered on for three more days. Then, when we ran out of food, she died.
At that time, Grandma, my ma, and I slept on a big kang. The kang is a bed built with fire clay. Part of the inside is hollow and attached to a chimney. We heated it with wood or coal through a hole on the side, just like a stove. Grandma slept near the window and close to the hollowed-out section, where it was warmer. My ma lay on the outer section and I squeezed in the middle. At midnight, Ma tapped me on the back and woke me up: “Your grandma has left this world.” Grandma had been reduced to a bag of bones. She wasn’t heavy at all, but I didn’t have the strength to lift her up. Ma was even weaker. When she moved around in the house, she had one hand on the wall or the edge of the kang. Ma and I knelt on the kang and slowly lifted one side of Grandma’s body and then rolled her over twice to the edge.
Then, we went back to sleep. Ma did not cry. Neither did I. There were so many deaths at that time, we were used to it. We became numb. I did not know how to cry. We were not scared either.
When dawn came, Ma said: “Qiao-er, get someone to help us. It doesn’t matter who he is, as long as he is an adult. Tell him Grandma is dead and we need help with the burial.”
Black Rock was a big village, densely populated. On the first, fourth, and seventh of each month, people came from ten to twenty kilometers away for market days. But this year there was hardly anyone on the street. Many houses had big padlocks on their doors, and even the unlocked ones looked deserted. I could not find anybody. Finally, I found an elderly lady. When I told her that I was looking for an adult to help bury my grandma, she replied, “Did you say your grandma is gone? It’s good that she died.”
“Grandma Mao,” I asked, “where is your family?”
She answered, numbly, “They are all dead. I have one grandson left. He’s out picking earth fungus.”
I went home without finding anyone. Ma said, “Qiao-er, why don’t you go take another look to see if Fuxiang is back home. If he is, ask him to take you to see the village chief. The village might send someone to help.” I was about to leave when we heard loud banging on the door.
It was Futang, the son of Grandma’s nephew. “I’m here to see Grandma,” he replied. When I told him that Grandma had died, he sighed, “My father worried about your grandma and asked me to bring some food over. I’ll go home and get help.”
The next day, several of Grandma’s relatives showed up. My da had prepared a coffin for Grandma several years before. Our relatives buried Grandma on the sunny side of a ridge next to our family cemetery. Since the land was frozen, nobody had the strength to dig a hole.
After Grandma died, Ma and I subsisted on the food brought by Futang: dried turnip leaves, two or three kilograms of millet corn, and a stack of cooked cakes made from ground ma-zi, a sesame-looking type of castor seed. Since Ma was too emaciated to move, I dumped the millet into a stone mortar and pounded it into powder. Then, I made the powder into a soupy gruel, with some turnip leaves and alfalfa roots, and fed it to my mother. I ended up eating most of the food. My ma only drank the soup and left the cakes for me. When I handed one to her, she said, “You keep it for yourself. The soup is enough for me. I can’t move anymore. You need to preserve energy. This family depends on you.”
Two or three days after Grandma died, my ma and I came back from the cemetery. We closed the courtyard door and entered our house. Suddenly, the courtyard door burst open. A disheveled woman dashed into our house and flung a stoker at us. My ma screamed and clawed onto the kang. It was dark and I could hardly make out who it was. I yelled loudly, “Aren’t you Kou-er’s mom?” The woman dropped the stoker and ran out. I followed her to the door and shouted: “Why did you try to hurt me and my ma?” She disappeared around the corner. I came back in, lit the kerosene light, and saw my ma hiding under the quilt.
“Come out, Ma,” I said. “Kou-er’s mom has left.”
My ma noticed that my head was bleeding. I still have the scar today, on the left side of my forehead. My Ma slowly wiped the blood off my head and chided me. “You shouldn’t have followed her out the door. She was going to kill us and eat our flesh,” my Ma said.
“Is it true that Kou-er’s mom ate her youngest son?” I asked
My ma sighed, then said, “Did you lock our courtyard door? Remember, don’t go play with Kou-er at her house.”
The next week, my cousins Qingxiang and Jixiang came to our house and asked me to go digging wood fungus inside the mountains. My cousins and I always brought Kou-er along. So, when we passed her house, Qingxiang and Jixiang ran in while I was waiting at the door.
I didn’t want to go because I was still scared of Kou-er’s mother. Adults said her eyes were red and watery, the sign of a cannibal. Kou-er had four brothers and sisters. Two of her brothers had gone elsewhere, looking for food and jobs. Kou-er and her other brother and sister stayed home with their mother. Soon, her siblings died. Their bodies were buried in a gully. But adults said that at night, Kou-er’s mother dug them out, brought them home, and boiled them for food.
Qingxiang and Jixiang went into the living room. Kou-er wasn’t there. Then, Qingxiang went to the back of the house while Jixiang waited at the front. A few minutes later, Qingxiang reappeared. His face was white, his eyes wide. He whispered: “Let’s get out of here fast. Run.”
I was confused and scared. Without thinking, I followed them. We were soon out of breath and stopped near the market, where there were more adults around. As we rested, Qingxiang told me what he had seen.
When Qingxiang didn’t find Kou-er in the living room, he stepped out and saw steam coming out of the kitchen. Kou-er’s mother was feeding the stove. Qingxiang asked about Kou-er’s whereabouts.
“Kou-er went to visit her uncle in another village yesterday,” she said.
Qingxiang did not believe her. He became more suspicious when Kou-er’s mother tried to push him out of the kitchen. He noticed a big pot boiling on the stove. The aroma was somewhat strange, but delicious. As he turned around, he saw part of Kou-er’s pigtail behind the vat. Thinking that Kou-er might have hidden behind the vat to avoid him, Qingxiang pushed Kou-er’s mother aside and ran over. There was nothing but the lone pigtail on the floor. Qingxiang felt his knees buckle.
“What are you standing there for?” Kou-er’s mother jolted him out of his paralysis. He turned around and escaped. As he was running, he could feel her bloodshot eyes on his back.
A fortnight later, my ma and I had eaten up all Futang’s food. There was nothing edible at home. When the corn chaff ran out, my ma emptied the buckwheat chaff out of our pillows. The buckwheat chaff was rough and hard to eat. We baked the buckwheat chaff until it was brown and crisp. Then, I pounded it into dust and made it into a soup. I kept stirring the soup, hoping that the powder and the water would mix. They didn’t. Buckwheat chaff dust floated on the top. As I kept stirring, the whole water became black. Besides, the buckwheat chaff tasted bitter. I had to hold my breath and gulp it down fast. After drinking the buckwheat chaff soup, we had to eat some wood fungus. Otherwise, we wouldn’t be able to eliminate it and our stomachs could be painfully bloated. One day, my constipation was so bad that my ma had me lie on my stomach, with my hands holding the edge of the kang. She poked my behind with chopsticks, trying to dig the stuff out. It hurt so much that I screamed like a pig. The blood from my anus smeared my mom’s hand. I cried and yelled loudly: “Ma, I’ll never eat the buckwheat chaff again. I would rather die of hunger.” My ma started crying and wailing.
“Qiao-er,” she said, “if you want to die, it’s very easy. I have long ago given up hope. But if I die, you won’t be able to survive. I can’t let anything happen to you. I have to keep my promise to your da.”
I hadn’t cried for a long time. I did not shed a tear when my da died. I did not cry when my brother and Grandma died. I just stopped feeling anything. I lost the sense of fear because my ma was there. She always let me have most of the food. I seldom suffered. With my ma around, I felt that we could pull through anything. However, the bloating from the buckwheat chaff soup revived my fear. I suddenly felt quite close to death. I felt as if I was separated from death by a piece of thin paper, which could be poked through anytime. My ma’s wailing suddenly brought home the realization that my ma, who had been my protector all along, wasn’t really invincible, but vulnerable. I was gripped with fear. I was only eleven. Was I going to die? If I did die, my body would be tossed into the gully like the others and wild dogs would eat it.
“Ma, are we truly going to starve to death?” I asked, sobbing and shaking. My ma had stopped crying. She looked at me absentmindedly. “Qiao-er, have you started to be afraid of death?”
I didn’t answer her, but I knew at that very moment that my ma had seen through to my soul. “There is no need to fear. Ma can keep you alive.”
“But Ma, what are we going to eat?”
“Daughter, it’s market day today. Go see if there are any people around.”
“What for? Are you buying something?”
“Please go, Daughter. Go to see if anyone is selling or buying wood. If anyone wants to buy wood beams, tell him that our price is much cheaper.”
“Ma, I don’t see any rafters here. Are you trying to come up with some wood like a magician?”
“We can dismantle your second uncle’s house.”
I was taken aback. My second uncle was dead, but his wife had escaped to Shaanxi province. “What if my second uncle’s wife came back, though? Where would she live?”
“Daughter, we can’t think that far. All those houses are lying idle there. Let’s use it to fill our stomachs first. That’s the most important.”
Even though it was a time of famine, there were a few people at the market selling buns, deep-fried cakes, grain, and corn chaff. The bun vendors carried their buns inside their shirts. If someone expressed interest, the vendor would take one out to show it and then quickly put it back inside. He wouldn’t hand over the buns until the buyer paid. A bun cost two yuan, a deep-fried cake four and half, a kilo of millet seven.
I went directly to the lot where wood was sold and bought. There was hardly any new wood. I saw piles of used wood rafters.
I paced up and down the market and finally summoned enough guts to ask an adult, “Uncle, are you coming to buy wood rafters? We have them at home. Do you want to buy?”
“Where do you live? How much do you charge per rafter?” I told him to ask my ma.
“She’s lying sick at home,” I said.
Black Rock Village was situated on a gentle slope of a mountain next to the Niuhe River. The market divided the village into two parts. I took the buyer to the upper section, where my family lived. He looked around and said, “Where are the rafters?”
My ma said, “Let’s talk about price first. They’re top pine wood.” I took the buyer to the second uncle’s house. The buyer agreed that the rafters were first-class but said dismantling the house would be a nuisance. He proposed a much lower price than I had seen in the market. Ma agreed.
The buyer took eight rafters and carried them away in a donkey cart. With the money, I bought six millet corn buns. My ma said those six buns weighed almost a kilo. I broke then into pieces and mixed them with wood fungus to make gruel. The food lasted us three days.
We sold sixteen rafters on the next market day. Soon we had sold all of the wood rafters and the three big wood beams, which were so big and thick, I could barely wrap my arms around them. We got ten yuan for each. In the end, my ma sold our stone grinder. With the sales of rafters, beams, and stone grinder, we managed to live until January.
It was the coldest time of the year. We ran out of food again. My ma could no longer get out of bed. She spent the whole day sitting or sleeping on the kang. Her face looked dry, her eyes sunken, her cheeks collapsed. Her skin clung to her bones like a piece of white paper. With my ma’s deteriorating condition, I had to heat up the kang. Fortunately, my ma had taught me how to do it while she was still healthy. She joked when she showed me how to do it: “You little girl, you’d better learn how to do it. Otherwise, when I die, you could freeze to death.”
I said, “I don’t want to learn how. If you die, I’ll follow you.”
Then, my ma began coaxing me into doing it by saying: “You damn girl, don’t be mad. I won’t die. I’ll stay with you the rest of your life. But you’ve got to learn to do this. When you get married, Ma can’t help you heat up the kang, right?”
I smiled. “I won’t get married. I’ll be with you the rest of my life.”
The colder the weather, the hungrier we were. Out of desperation, I followed my cousins Qingxiang and Jixiang to search for wood fungus in the mountains. They were orphans. They stayed with their uncle, whose family didn’t suffer because his son worked at the commune’s grain collection and management bureau. It was tough to find wood fungus in the wintertime. Since there was no rain, the fungus was tiny and it grew underneath the wood or grass. But once you collected a bunch and softened it in water, it could be nutritious. My Ma and I put it in our soup.
We lived on fungus for half a month. I started to feel weak and could not summon enough strength to go out. Fortunately, the government rescue grain arrived. My ma and I were given two kilos of rice.
We didn’t have pots and pans to cook the rice. During the Great Leap Forward, our pots and pans had been smashed and taken away to be smelted. Everyone was hoping to produce steel and iron with backyard furnaces. All we had was a clay pot, which we used to boil our gruel. Regardless, the bag of rice energized my ma. She crawled out of bed and slowly stepped out to the courtyard. As we were preparing to cook the rice, we realized we had no firewood. My Ma glanced around and saw a piece of thick broken tree root lying by the wall. We tried to chop it into pieces but couldn’t. My ma simply put the clay pot on top of the root. Then, we put some wheat stalks underneath the root and lit it up. We crouched down and blew air from both sides, hoping the burning wheat stalks could light up the root. The outer layer of the root finally began burning. However, the wheat stalks were used up soon and the fire on the root also went out. The rice was only half cooked. We did not care.
Five days later, we exhausted our rice supply, but the village had reopened the communal kitchen. Every villager could get two hundred grams of rice. That was supposed to be the ration set by the local government relief committee. You could hardly cook a full meal with that amount. So, all we could eat was thin rice gruel, twice a day.
One day Qingxiang and Jixiang showed up at our house. They told us they were living in a welfare institute next door to the Xiangnan Commune Office Complex. They got two filling meals a day: millet buns in the morning and noodle soup with chunks of potatoes in the evening.
My ma sat up in her bed and asked: “Can the welfare institute take Qiao-er?”
Qingxiang shook his head. “No, the welfare institute only takes orphans.”
After my cousins left, my ma closed her eyes and lay down on the kang. I thought she needed a rest. So, I picked up a bucket and went out to look for wood fungus. In the afternoon, I passed by the communal kitchen and brought two bowls of rice gruel home. My ma did not touch the food at all. She didn’t take any food the next morning. She simply lay there, quietly.
I was scared. Before their deaths, my da and my grandma were both like that. What would happen if my ma left like that? Goodness, the sky would fall on me. I had to do something. So, I did not go out at all that day. I mixed the fungus with the rice gruel from the communal kitchen and handed it to her.
My Ma did not respond. Her head shook feebly on the pillow.
I started crying. My wails startled my ma. She suddenly sat up. I had not seen her move so fast. “Why are you crying?”
I sobbed, “Why don’t you eat the soup? I thought you were dying.”
She forced a smile, the corner of her mouth trembling a bit. Her parched lips had lost all luster. “You damn girl, stop this nonsense. What makes you think I’m dying? If I die, who’ll take care of you? Who will make clothes for you? OK, bring me the food. I’ll show you how much I can eat. I’m fine.”
That afternoon, my ma had two bowls of the thick gruel I had made her. The next morning, she also finished the food I got from the communal kitchen.
Not only could she eat, she could work. When I came home the next evening, I was shocked by what I saw: our kang was covered with a bundle of goat wool. I didn’t know where she had found it. Anyhow, she was busy tearing, pulling and padding the wool, which was floating everywhere.
“Aren’t you supposed to rest? What are you doing with the wool?” I asked.
“I’m making a pair of padded pants,” she said, without even looking up.
I was so happy that my ma was able to get up and sew. But, worrying that she would overwork herself, I said, “Didn’t you just wash and re-pad my winter pants last year? It’s quite warm. There is no need for a new pair, really.”
I was telling the truth. Many children in my village wore old threadbare cotton-padded coats. Some could not even afford undershirts, not to mention cotton-padded pants. I know some teenagers had no long pants at all. In the wintertime, they simply stayed inside. I was quite lucky in this respect. My ma sewed me a new set every two years. For a while, when my da was called to work on the Tao River Diversion Project, the village also sent my ma out to participate in road construction or irrigation work. Without time to sew a new coat and pants for me, she simply took my old ones apart, washed them, and sewed them back together with new cotton. They were really warm and comfortable.
When I told my ma not to worry about sewing me a pair of new pants, she scolded me, smiling: “You fool. You’ll wear them out very fast.”
“Why don’t you wait until they are worn out?” I retorted.
She ignored me. After gulping down the rice gruel, she lit the kerosene lamp and went back to the wool, shaking off the dust from each piece, carefully breaking the knots, and laying out each individual piece on the kang. She didn’t sleep until all the wool was evenly padded into the pants.
In the next few days, my ma’s spirit remained high. Her health seemed to get better by the day. She dug out some leftover cloth and took apart a few nice jackets she had worn in her younger days. She measured, cut, and sewed nonstop. Finally, she made me a new coat and a pair of thick wool-padded pants. She had me take off my old pair and change into the new one right away. There was too much wool inside the pants. It was hard to move around, especially when I tried to get on or off the kang. I whined, “With pants this thick, how do you expect me to play the house jumping game and pick fungus?”
She smiled: “You idiot. The thicker, the warmer, don’t you know that?”
“And they’re too long. I could totally disappear in these. How am I supposed to walk?”
She said, seriously: “You’ll grow into it.”
The next day, I put on my old outfits with the excuse that the new ones were too long and baggy. I carried my bucket and went out to pick alfalfa.
Actually, I wouldn’t need the new wool-padded outfits. It was already March and spring was coming to Black Rock. We could feel it. Even though there were patches of snow glinting in the sun inside the gullies, we could see new grass sprouting on the sunny side of the mountain. The wheat field started turning green. In the distance, the mountain peaks seemed to be shrouded in a thin green veil. The air felt warmer and fresher, tasting like grass sprouts.
I headed to the alfalfa field at the back of the village. The plants grew so fast. A few days ago, I had to dig their tiny buds out. But now, I could see green alfalfa sprouts everywhere, about half an inch long.
There were many alfalfa pickers that day. I aimed at a patch way up the mountain. On my way, I saw people in every alfalfa field. In places where the plants were lush, there were a dozen or more people picking. After a long winter of extreme hunger, people were sick of buckwheat and corn chaff. People looked to the budding green grass, like goats. Some ate the grass raw, and their teeth turned green, like a monster’s.
I felt lonely by myself. Qingxiang and Jixiang were in the welfare institute, and Kou-er had been eaten by her mother. I picked really fast and soon filled my bucket with alfalfa sprouts.
Whenever I came home and pushed the door open, I would yell, “Ma.” She would respond by saying: “My baby, you are back!” Sometimes, she would ask me to hand over the bucket and look to see how much I had picked. She would fumble around inside the bucket, saying: “My baby is growing up. She is so capable now.” No matter how much wood fungus or alfalfa I brought back in my bucket, she would always say that.
Since I filled the bucket that day, I wanted to show off. So, I deliberately kicked the door open and yelled: “Ma, I’m back.”
Strange, there was no sound. Maybe she had fallen asleep. She had done too much sewing in the past two days. She must have been tired.
“Ma, I’m back.”
My ma did not respond.
I knew something was wrong. I dropped my bucket and rushed into the room.
“Ma, what are you doing there?”
I saw my ma kneeling on the kang, very close to the window, with her back to me. Was she looking at something in the yard? In the past month, she always looked crooked and feeble. On that day, her posture was quite different, her back straight as a healthy soldier’s.
I saw a long thin belt. One end was tied to the windowpane and the other looped around my ma’s neck.
I screamed and screamed. I threw myself at her body. My knee hit the edge of the kang, but I felt no pain. I crawled over and lifted her, and her head slipped out of the loop. Then her body fell on the kang like a sack of cotton or wool I could carry.
“Ma, you cannot die,” I cried. I couldn’t believe she could die. When I laid her flat on the kang, her face looked peaceful, like she was asleep. Her body and neck seemed to have straightened out. Before the famine, she had walked around with her back straight and head up. Her neck was long and smooth like porcelain.
Adults used to tell us that when people hanged themselves, their tongues stuck out. Since they suffocated, their involuntary struggles for breath were imprinted on their face. But my mom’s eyes remained closed. Her tongue did not stick out, and she looked peaceful.
I knelt beside her, shouting her name and shaking her. She didn’t respond and she didn’t move. Several hours later, my cousin’s wife passed by our house, heard my screams, and came in to see what had happened. She scolded me:
“You idiot. Your ma is gone. What’s the point of calling her name?”
Then I began wailing. I realized that my ma had truly gone. I wanted to change her into a new outfit, but her body had become too stiff. Her legs remained bent, kneeling. No matter how hard I tried, I couldn’t change her pants. My ma was truly gone. She was so emaciated, she hadn’t even had the strength to struggle after she tightened the loop around her neck.
I sat next to my ma’s body all night long, guarding her spirit. When day broke, my cousin’s wife brought the village chief over. He and my cousin’s wife wrapped up my ma’s body in a piece of straw mat and buried her next to my da. I heard him saying: “What a sin. The whole family has died off. Not a boy left to carry on the family name.” The next day, the village chief took me to Xiangnan Commune and dropped me off at the welfare institute.
In 1968, I went back to Black Rock Village. That was one year after I got a job at the Wudaping State Farm. I earned twenty-five yuan a month. I sent some money to Futang, the son of my grandma’s nephew. In my letter, I asked him to use the money to buy three coffins so I could move my da, my ma, and my grandma to our ancestral cemetery. Since my family had no male descendants left, I had to fulfill the filial responsibilities and accord my parents a proper final resting place. Futang wrote back to me after he had the coffins made. So, I took some days off and went back to my native village. Futang said a girl was not allowed to touch her parents’ bones, that he would have to do the digging and tomb transfer. But I ignored him and insisted on doing it myself.
In the village, I ran into Kou-er’s mother. She avoided me. By now, she would be at least ninety years old.
© Yang Xianhui. By arrangement with the author. Translation © 2012 by Wenguang Huang. All rights reserved.