My grandfather died on a winter’s day and the mourning shelter was quickly erected. My father is his eldest son so the shelter was at our place, right in the front yard.
The night was windy and the white cloth streamers swelled, making frightening sounds like wildfire.
The old man died in a fire. Only my uncle saw the last scene. It was a week before the lunar New Year and the village was empty. I was in Shanghai, probably working on the face of a client in the salon, accompanied by soft music and a sweet aroma. Other family members were away in Beijing, Suzhou or Kunshan. There’s not much to do in the countryside.
Only my uncle saw it. He heard a strange noise – ‘pipa, pipa’ – and some fussing about so he went outside. What he saw froze him. A fireball was moving frantically in the yard of grandpa’s house.
‘After lunch he said he’d take a nap by the kitchen stove. I helped him adding more charcoal. I took a stool from the bedroom and placed it right beside the stove. I didn’t know...’ My uncle told the story to every relative and villager who came to the wake.
I took a night train home, and then an early-morning bus. The image of his clothes catching fire haunted my imagination more powerfully than the mere fact that he had died.
The truth is that my grandfather didn’t want me. Every time I tell the pretty women in the salon that I’m the third in the family, and that we also have a fourth, they stare. They ask, how come there are so many? When they hear that the fourth was – at last – a boy, there’s a look of understanding.
My grandfather didn’t want me even when I had just been born. ‘Give her away to any house that wants her,’ he allegedly said after casting a look at the nude, new me. A girl, again. But my mom couldn’t give me away to ‘any house’. She smuggled me home, to her own parents, and that’s where I grew up until nine.
I spent as much of my childhood as I could basking in the sun. There was a lot to do. I built a sand castle for the brown ants but they wouldn’t come. I helped my ‘po’ and ‘gong’ (that’s how I call my grandparents on my mother’s side) pollinate the watermelon flowers because I had a flexible waist and could crawl between the planted rows. I learned paper-cutting from po and I can tell you that it’s beautiful to peep out of the window through the paper-cutting, even more so when red paper has faded into a shade of pink. That’s what I did when it rained. I could do it for hours.
Now I sit in the corner of the yard. Grandfather is no longer in the mourning shelter. He’s lying still on a wooden bed in the middle of the living room. His figure has become much smaller than it used to be. And the smell. It is more than the smell of death. There’s fire and ash in that smell.
‘Run, May, to grandpa’s house and grab his tobacco waterpipe.’
‘At this hour of the night?’
‘Yes at this hour of the night. Pozi says he has to have his favourite something in his hand or he wouldn’t rest.’ Pozi is not to be challenged; she knows everything. She’s eighty years old and is the village shaman.
I grab a torch from the kitchen, an old one.
I never went out at this hour. It was too dark. Shanghai stays up all night but here the village sleeps early. Where people don’t set up street lamps, nature does. Greenish-pale jack-o’-lanterns dimly lit the horizon.
Grandpa’s house is not too far way but to get there you have to cross half an acre of woods. Every summer the children in the village gather there, waiting to catch the new cicadas. The young insects sleep for years in the earth and there they wake up. You know they are awake when small holes appear in the earth under the feet of the trees, like bubbles along the sea coast. The holes grow from the size of a needle-tip to the size of your thumbnail, and the tender little things crawl from within.
Poor things. They are waiting for their nirvana. Their skin is not dark enough for their maturity; neither are their wings strong enough to lift them into the air. The children wait patiently. In four or five hours the cicadas will grow too big and move into the tree tops, out of reach.
So the children wait until the cicadas have crawled two metres up a tree trunk and catch them then. These young cicadas, they say, can make good medicine. The fastest of them are able to get a thousand of these insects in one night. Imagine how many bottles of barley fudge they can buy with the money they make! Oh those summer nights, the woods are brightly lit, each child holding a small torch in their hands.
But now the woods are dark. No cicadas, no children, no hustle, no sound at all.
However, there is the shadow of some one. He doesn’t follow too closely. He doesn’t have a fixed shape. But there he is, shuffling from one tree trunk to another, sometimes quickly, sometimes slowly. It is like a gothic dance. He doesn’t speak, and the silence is nearly unbearable. ‘Who is it?’ I ask, ‘Why do you follow me?’
He won’t answer. Neither will he leave me. My backbone is chilled. My legs move mechanically.
That’s why the villagers wouldn’t go out at night! When I was fourteen, mom went out one night and returned talking all kinds of nonsense – about subjects you wouldn’t imagine she had any knowledge of.
Father looked serious. He called grandma home. Grandma slapped mom in the face but she wouldn’t stop. ‘There’s something filthy on her,’ grandma sighed. ‘Call Pozi.’ At that time Pozi was seventy years old. She mesmerized mom and pinched her lip shut. Mom stopped chattering, and she knew nothing of what had happened to her.
This was a fairly common occurrence in the village. Babies cried incessantly after their moms carried them along the small paths through the wood after midnight. A man returned home and axed his favorite cupboard.
Pozi was summoned on every occasion. She’d either pinch shut the lip of the enchanted, draw a circle at crossroads, burn ancient money or plead with the ‘things’ to go away. In the morning normalcy returned.
Now I run, as if speed alone could get rid of my pursuer. I can’t breathe and try not to pay him any attention. But he appears from the backs of trees and flashes onto the walls of houses. He is a dim silhouette; an intangible existence.
He follows me to grandpa’s house, and from grandpa’s house back home. I continue to run, waterpipe in hand. When I trip into the boggish mud I want to scream. But I know I would sound like an owl, or like a dying crow. I wonder if he’ll grasp my ankles and drag me down. His glittering silhouette is close! He flutters like butterflies in a kaleidoscope. ‘Go away! Leave me alone!’
At first my home is a dim, small object but its lights soon become yellowish, and then warmly bright. The stalking shadow cannot run as fast as me.
I stumble through the gate and hand the waterpipe to my mom. I want to give her a hug but she deftly ducks aside. We’re not used to that in the countryside.
She takes the torch I hold. She mumbles ‘Why did you pick this one? It’s too old and worn out. You see? The glass cap doesn’t fit. Light leaks out. Why did you pick this one?’
Grandpa was buried the next day, in the far corner of our farm. That’s how we do it here. I was surprised when I heard in the beauty salon that in other places people are put into little boxes when they die and their ashes lie with the ashes of strangers.
Grandpa would go into the corner of our own land where there are tombs of his father and grandfathers. The crops gradually make their way, encroaching on the tombs until, decades later, you don’t see them.
After lunar New Year, in spring, we’ll grow rice, then watermelon in the summer, and later corn.