It was Lao Lan who invented the scientific method of forcing pressurized water into the pulmonary arteries of slaughtered animals. With this method, you could empty a bucketful of water into a two-hundred-jin pig, while with the old method you could barely empty half a bucket of water into the carcass of a dead cow. The amount of money that the clever townspeople have spent on water from our village when they thought they were paying for meat in the years since will never be known, but I’m sure it would be a shockingly high figure.
Lao Lan had a substantial potbelly and rosy cheeks; his voice rang out like a pealing bell. In a word, he was born to be a rich official. After rising to the position of village head, he selflessly taught his fellow-villagers the water-injection method and served as the leader of a local riches-through-ruse movement. Some villagers spoke out angrily and some attacked him on wall posters, calling him a member of the retaliatory landlord class, which was intent on overthrowing the rule of the village proletariat. But talk like that was out of fashion. Over the village P.A. system, Lao Lan announced, “Dragons beget dragons, phoenixes beget phoenixes, and a mouse is born only to dig holes.” Sometime later, we came to realize that he was like a kung-fu master who will never pass on all his skills to his apprentices—who holds back enough for a safety net. Lao Lan’s meat was water-injected, like everyone else’s, but his looked fresher and smelled sweeter. You could leave it out in the sun for two days and it wouldn’t spoil, while others’ would be maggot-infested if it didn’t sell the first day. So Lao Lan never had to worry about cutting prices if his supply did not sell right away; meat that looked as good as his was never in danger of going unsold.
My father, Luo Tong, told me it wasn’t water that Lao Lan injected into his meat but formaldehyde. My father was much smarter than Lao Lan. He’d never studied physics, but he knew all about positive and negative electricity; he’d never studied biology, but he was an expert on sperm and eggs; and he’d never studied chemistry, but he was well aware that formaldehyde can kill bacteria, keep meat from spoiling, and stabilize proteins, which is how he guessed that Lao Lan had injected formaldehyde into his meat. If getting rich had been on my father’s agenda, he’d have had no trouble becoming the wealthiest man in the village, of that I’m sure. But he was a dragon among men, and dragons have no interest in accumulating property. You’ve seen critters like squirrels and rats dig holes to store food, but who’s ever seen a tiger, the king of the animals, do something like that? Tigers spend most of their time sleeping in their lairs, coming out only when hunger sends them hunting for prey. Similarly, my father spent most of his time holed up, eating, drinking, and having a good time, coming out only when hunger pangs sent him looking for income. Never for a moment did he resemble Lao Lan and people of that ilk, who accumulated blood money, putting a knife in white and taking it out red. Nor was he interested in going down to the train station to earn a porter’s wages by the sweat of his brow, like some of the coarser village men. Father made his living by his wits.
In ancient times, there was a famous chef named Pao Ding, who was an expert at carving up cows. In modern times, there was a man who was an expert at sizing them up—my father. In Pao Ding’s eyes, cows were nothing but bones and edible flesh. That’s what they were in my father’s eyes, too. Pao Ding’s vision was as sharp as a knife; my father’s was as sharp as a knife and as accurate as a scale. What I mean to say is: if you were to lead a live cow up to my father, he’d take two turns around it, three at most, occasionally sticking his hand up under the animal’s foreleg—just for show—and confidently report its gross weight and the quantity of meat on its bones, always to within a kilo of what might register on the digital scale used in England’s largest cattle slaughterhouse. At first, people thought my father was just a windbag, but after testing him several times they were believers. His presence took blind luck out of the equation in dealings between cattlemen and butchers, and established a basis of fairness. Once his authority was in place, both the cattlemen and the butchers courted his favor, hoping to gain an edge. But, as a man of vision, he would never jeopardize his reputation for petty profits, since by doing so he’d smash his rice bowl. If a cattleman came to our house with a gift of wine and cigarettes, my father tossed them into the street, then climbed our garden wall and cursed loudly. If a butcher came with a gift of a pig’s head, my father flung it into the street, then climbed our garden wall and cursed loudly. Both the cattlemen and the butchers said that Luo Tong was an idiot, but the fairest man they knew.
People trusted him implicitly. If a transaction reached a stalemate, the parties would look at him to acknowledge that they wanted things settled. “Let’s quit arguing and hear what Luo Tong has to say!” “All right, let’s do that. Luo Tong, you be the judge!” With a cocky air, my father would walk around the animal twice, looking at neither the buyer nor the seller, then glance up into the sky and announce the gross weight and the amount of meat on the bone, followed by a price. He’d then wander off to smoke a cigarette. Buyer and seller would reach out and smack hands. “Good! It’s a deal!” Once the transaction was completed, buyer and seller would come up to my father and each would hand him a ten-yuan note and thank him for his labors. What must be made clear is that, before my father showed up at the cattle auctions, the deals had been negotiated by old-style brokers, dark, gaunt, wretched old men, some with queues hanging down their backs, who were proficient in the art of haggling by finger signs hidden in wide, overlapping sleeves, thus lending the profession an air of mystery. My father effectively drove the shifty-eyed brokers off the stage of history. This remarkable advance in the buying and selling of cattle on the hoof could, with only a bit of exaggeration, be called revolutionary. My father’s keen eye was not limited to cattle but worked on pigs and sheep as well. Like a master carpenter who can build a table but can also build a chair and, if he’s especially talented, a coffin, my father had no trouble sizing up even camels.
Early one summer day, Father carried me on his shoulders over to the threshing floor. We were still living in the three-room shack we’d inherited from my grandfather. Our shack looked particularly shabby and awful now that it was tucked in among a bunch of newly built houses with red tiled roofs, like a beggar kneeling in front of a clutch of landlords and rich merchants in silks and satins, asking for a handout. The wall around our yard came barely up to an adult’s waist and was topped by weeds. Thanks to my lazy, gluttonous father, we lived a life of extremes, with potfuls of meat on the stove during good times and empty pots during the bad. Whenever he was the target of Mother’s frantic curses, he’d say, “Any day now, very soon, the second land-reform campaign will begin, and you’ll thank me when it does. Don’t for a minute envy Lao Lan, since he’ll wind up like that landlord father of his, dragged off to the bridgehead by a mob of poor peasants to be shot.” He’d aim an imaginary rifle at Mother’s head and fire off a round: bang! She’d grab her head with both hands and go pale with fright. But the second land-reform campaign didn’t come and didn’t come, and poor Mother was forced to bring home rotten sweet potatoes that people had thrown away so she could feed the pigs. Our two little pigs never got enough to eat and they squealed hungrily most of the time. It was annoying.
That morning, Father had railed angrily, “What the hell are you squealing about? Keep it up and I’ll toss you two little bastards in a pot and have you for dinner!’
Cleaver in hand, Mother glared at him. “Don’t even think about it,” she said. “Those are my pigs. I raised them, and nobody will harm a hair on them. Either the fish dies or the net breaks.”
“Take it easy,” Father said, with a gleeful laugh. “I wouldn’t touch those skin-and-bones animals for anything.”
I took a long look at the pigs—it was true that there wasn’t much meat on either of them, but those four fleshy ears would have made for good snacking. To me, the ears were the best part of a pig’s head—no fat, not much grease, and tiny little bones with a nice crunch. They were best with cucumbers—the thorny ones with flowers—and some mashed garlic and sesame oil. “We can eat their ears!” I said.
“I’ll cut off your ears and eat them first, you little bastard!” Mother said. She grabbed hold of my ear and jerked it hard, while Father tried to pull me free—by the neck—and I screamed for all I was worth, afraid my ear would be ripped off. My screams sounded like the squeals of pigs being slaughtered in the village. In the end, Father, with his superior strength, managed to yank me free.
Rage turned Mother’s face waxen and her lips purple; she stood at the stove shaking from head to toe. Emboldened by my father’s protection, I cursed, spitting out her full name: “Yang Yuzhen, you stinking old lady, you’re making my life a living hell!”
Stunned by my outburst, she just stared at me, while Father chuckled, picked me up, and took off running. We were already out in the yard by the time we heard Mother’s shrill wail. “I could die, I’m so mad, you little bastard. . . .”
Father rapped me on the head and said softly, “You little imp, how did you know your mother’s name?”
I looked up into his swarthy, sombre face. “I heard you say it!”
“When did I ever tell you her name was Yang Yuzhen?”
“You told it to Auntie Wild Mule. You said, ‘Yang Yuzhen, that stinking old lady, is making my life a living hell!’ ”
Father clamped his hand over my mouth and said under his breath, “Shut up, damn you. I’ve been a pretty good father so far. Don’t you go and ruin things for me now.”
Mother came out of the house, cleaver in hand. “Luo Tong,” she shouted, “Luo Xiaotong, you two sons of bitches, you scruffy bastards, I wouldn’t care if I died today if I could take the two of you with me. Today will see the end of this family!”
The terrible look on her face announced to me that this was no joke. My father may have led a dissipated life, but he was no fool. The smart man avoids danger. He swept me up, tucked me under his arm, turned, and ran toward the wall and all but somersaulted over it, putting my enraged mother and a whole lot of trouble behind us. I harbored no doubts about her ability to scamper over the wall, as we’d done, but she chose not to. Once she’d driven us out of the yard, she stopped chasing us. She jumped about for a while at the foot of the wall, then went back inside to finish chopping the rotting sweet potatoes and fill the air with loud curses. It was a brilliant way to let off steam: no blood and no mess, no falling afoul of the law, yet I knew that those rotten potatoes were surrogates for the heads of her bitter enemies.
Now, as I think back, I realize that the true bitter enemy in her mind was neither Father nor me—it was Wild Mule, who ran a wine shop in the village. My mother was convinced that the slut had seduced my father, and I simply cannot say if that was or was not a fair assessment of the situation. Where Father and Wild Mule’s relationship was concerned, the only people who knew who’d seduced whom, who’d cast the first flirtatious glance, were the two of them.
Seven or eight cattle merchants were sitting on their haunches at the edge of the threshing floor when we got there, smoking cigarettes as they waited for the butchers to show up. (Once our village had been turned into a huge slaughterhouse, the fields, for all intents and purposes, were left fallow, and the threshing floor had become the place where cattle were bought and sold.) The cattle stood off to the side, absent-mindedly chewing their cud, oblivious of their impending doom. The merchants, most from the western counties, spoke with funny accents, like radio-play actors. They showed up every ten days or so, each bringing along two head of cattle, maybe three. For the most part, they came on a slow, mixed freight-and-passenger train, men and beasts in one car, arriving at the station nearest our village at around sunset. They didn’t reach our village till after midnight, even though the station was no more than ten li away. A stroll that should have taken an hour or two took these merchants and their cattle a good eight. Why did they prefer to reach our village in the middle of the night? That was their secret. When I was young, I asked my parents and some of the village graybeards that very question. But they just gave me stony looks, as if I’d asked them the meaning of life or a question whose answer everyone knew.
The cattle’s arrival was a signal for the village dogs to set up a chorus of barks, which woke up everyone—man, woman, young, and old—and informed us that the cattle merchants were here. In my youthful memories, they were a mysterious lot, and this sense of mystery was surely tied to their late-night entry into the village. On some moonlit nights, when the silence was broken by the chorus of dogs barking, Mother would sit up, wrapped in a comforter, stick her face close to the window, and gaze at the scene outside. This was before Father skipped out on us with Wild Mule, but there were already nights when he didn’t come home. Noiselessly, I’d sit up, too, and look past Mother, out the window, at the cattle merchants driving the animals silently past our house, the freshly bathed cattle glinting in the moonlight like giant pieces of glazed pottery. If it hadn’t been for the seething current of barks, I’d have thought I was observing a beautiful dreamscape; even with the dogs, as I think back now, it seemed like one.
Our village boasted several inns, but the merchants never bedded down in them; instead, they led their cattle straight to the threshing floor and waited there till dawn, even if the wind was howling or it was pouring rain, if the air was bitter cold or steamy hot. There were stormy nights when innkeepers went out to drum up business, but the merchants and their cattle remained in the inhospitable elements like statues, unmoved, no matter how flowery the invitation. Was it because they didn’t want to part with that little bit of money? No. People said that after they sold their cattle they went into town to get drunk and whore around on a spending spree that stopped only when they had just enough to buy a ticket for the slow train home. Their life style could not have been more different from that of the peasants. Their thinking, too. As a child, on more than one occasion I heard some of our more eminent villagers comment, with a sigh, “Hai, what kind of people are they? What in the world is going on inside those heads of theirs?” When they came to market, they brought brown cows and black ones, males and females, fully grown cows and immature ones, and once they even brought a nursing heifer whose teats looked like water jugs, and my father had trouble estimating a price for her, since he didn’t know if the udder was edible or not.
The cattle merchants would stand when they saw my father. They wore mirrored sunglasses early in the morning, which was a spooky sight, though they smiled as a show of respect. My father would lift me off his shoulders, squat down on his haunches ten feet or so from the merchants, pull out a crumpled pack of cigarettes, and remove a crooked, damp cigarette. The cattle merchants would take out their packs, and ten or more cigarettes would land on the ground by Father’s feet. He’d gather them up and lay them back down neatly. “Lao Luo, you old fuckhead,” one of the merchants would say. “Smoke ’em. You don’t think we’re trying to buy your favors with a few paltry cigarettes, do you?” Father would just smile and light his cheap smoke.
The village butchers would start showing up then, in twos and threes, all looking as if they were fresh from a bath, though I could smell the scent of blood on their bodies, which goes to show that blood—whether from cows or pigs—doesn’t wash off. The cattle, smelling the blood on the butchers, would huddle together, fear flashing in their eyes. Excrement would spurt from the bungholes of the young cows; the older ones looked composed, but I knew that was for show, since I could see their tails draw up under their rumps to keep them from emptying their bowels. Their legs trembled, like the ripples on a pond in a passing breeze.
Negotiations began as soon as the butchers arrived. As they circled the animals, a casual observer might think they were having trouble deciding which ones to buy. But, if one of them reached out and grabbed a halter, within three seconds the others would do the same, and, lightning quick, all the cows would have buyers. No one could recall ever seeing two butchers fight over the same animal, but if something like that had happened the dispute would have been quickly resolved. In most occupations, competitors are rivals, but the butchers in our village were united in friendship, prepared to confront any and all opponents as a brotherhood. When each of them had a halter in hand, the cattle merchants approached languidly and the bargaining began. Now that my father had cemented his authority, these negotiations took on little importance, became pro forma, a mere custom, for it was left to him—he had the last word. The men would jockey back and forth for a while, then walk up to my father, cow in tow, like applicants for a marriage license at the town hall.
But something special occurred on this particular day: instead of heading straight for the cows, the butchers chose instead to pace back and forth at the edge of the square, their meaningful smiles making anyone who saw them uncomfortable. And, when they passed in front of my father, something was hidden in those smiles that hinted at unpleasantness, as if a conspiracy were afoot, one that could erupt at any moment. I cast a timid glance at Father, who sat there woodenly smoking one of his cheap cigarettes, just as he did every day. The better cigarettes tossed his way by the merchants lay on the ground untouched. Once the deals were struck, the butchers would come over, gather up the cigarettes, and smoke them. And, as they smoked, they would praise my father for his incorruptibility. “Lao Luo,” one would say, half in jest, “if all Chinese were like you, Communism would have been realized decades ago.” He’d smile but say nothing. And this was the moment when my heart would swell with pride and I’d vow that this was how I would do things, that he was the kind of man I wanted to be. It was obvious to the merchants as well that something was in the air that day, and they turned to look at my father, except for a few who coolly observed the butchers as they paced. A tacit agreement had been reached: everyone was waiting to see what would happen, like an audience patiently waiting for the play to begin.
A bright-red sun rose above the fields in the east, like a blacksmith’s ruddy face, and the leading actor in the drama finally appeared at the threshing floor: Lao Lan, a tall, husky man with well-developed muscles. He had a bushy brown beard, the same color as his eyes, which made you wonder if he was of pure Han stock. The minute he strode into the square, everyone’s eyes were on him. With the sun shining down, his face glowed. He walked up to my father, but his gaze was fixed on the fields beyond the squat earthen wall, where rays of morning sun dazzled the eye. The crops were jade green; the flowers were in bloom, releasing their perfume into the air; the skylarks sang in the rosy-red sky. My father, who seemed to be nothing in the eyes of Lao Lan, might as well not have been sitting by the wall at all. And, naturally, if my father meant nothing to him, I meant even less. Maybe he was blinded by the sun—that was the first thought that entered my juvenile mind—but I quickly understood that Lao Lan was trying to provoke my father.
As he cocked his head to speak to the butchers and the merchants, he unzipped his pants, took out his dark tool, and let loose a stream of burned-yellow piss right in front of my father and me. A heated stench assailed my nostrils. It was a mighty stream; he’d probably been saving it up all night, without relieving himself, so that he could humiliate my father. The cigarettes on the ground tumbled and rolled in the man’s urine, swelling up until they lost their shape. A strange laugh had arisen from the clusters of butchers and merchants when Lao Lan took out his tool, but they broke that off so abruptly it was as if a gigantic hand had reached out and grabbed them by the throat. They stared at us, slack-jawed and tongue-tied, looks of surprise frozen on their faces. Not even the butchers, who had known that Lao Lan wanted to pick a fight with my father, had imagined that he’d do something like this. His piss landed on our feet and on our legs, some even spraying into our faces and our mouths. I jumped up, enraged, but Father didn’t move a muscle. He sat there like a stone. “Fuck your old lady, Lao Lan!” I cursed. My father didn’t make a sound. Lao Lan wore a superior smile. My father’s eyes were hooded, like those of a farmer taking pleasure in the sight of water dripping from the eaves.
When Lao Lan finished pissing, he zipped up his pants and walked over to where the cattle were standing. I heard long sighs from the butchers and merchants, but couldn’t tell if they were sorry that nothing had happened or happy that it hadn’t. With that, the butchers walked in among the cattle and in no time made their selections. Then the merchants walked up and the bargaining commenced. But I could tell that their hearts weren’t in it, that something other than making deals was on their minds. Though they weren’t looking at my father, I was sure they were thinking about him. And what was he doing? He’d brought his knees up and was hiding his face behind them, like a hawk sleeping in the crotch of a tree. Since I couldn’t see his face, I had no way of knowing what he looked like at that moment. But I was unhappy with what I saw as weakness. I may have been only a boy, but I knew how badly Lao Lan had humiliated my father, and I also knew that any man worth his salt would not take that without a fight; I’d proved that by my curses. But my father remained silent, as if he were dead.
That day’s negotiations were brought to a close without his intervention. But, when they were over, all the parties walked up as usual and tossed some notes at his feet. First to do this was none other than Lao Lan. That mongrel bastard, apparently not content to piss in my father’s face, took out two brand-new ten-yuan notes and snapped them between his fingers to get my father’s attention. It didn’t work, for he kept his face hidden behind his knees, which seemed to disappoint Lao Lan. He took a quick glance all around, then flung the two notes down at my father’s feet, one of them landing in a still steaming puddle of his piss, where it nestled up against the soggy, disintegrating cigarettes. At that moment, my father might as well have been dead. He’d lost face for himself and his ancestors. He was less than a man, reduced to the level of the bloated cigarettes swimming in his adversary’s piss. After Lao Lan had tossed down his money, the merchants and butchers followed his lead, sympathetic looks on their faces, as if we were a father-and-son team of beggars who deserved their pity. They tossed down double the amount they usually gave my father, either as a reward for not resisting or in an attempt to copy Lao Lan’s generosity.
As I stared at all those notes which had fallen at our feet like so many dead leaves, I began to cry, and at long last Father looked up. There was no sign of anger on his face, or of sadness. It had all the lustre of a dried-out piece of wood. He gazed at me coldly, a look of perplexity in his eyes, as if he had no idea why I was crying. I reached out and clawed at his neck. “Dieh,” I said, “you’re no longer my father. I’ll call Lao Lan Dieh before I ever call you Dieh again!”
Momentarily stunned by my shouts, the men around us quickly burst out laughing. Lao Lan gave me a thumbs-up. “Xiaotong,” he said, “you’re really something, just what I need, a son. From now on, you’re welcome at my house anytime. If it’s pork you want, that’s what you’ll get, and if it’s beef you’ll have that, too. And if you bring your mama along I’ll welcome you both with open arms.”
That was too great an insult to ignore, so I rushed him angrily. He easily sidestepped my charge, and I wound up face down on the ground with a cut and bleeding lip.
With a loud guffaw, he said, “You little prick, attacking me after calling me Dieh! Who in his right mind would want a son like you?”
Since no one offered to help me up, I had to get to my feet on my own. I walked over to my father and kicked him in the leg to vent my disappointment. Not only did that not make him angry; he wasn’t even aware of it. He just rubbed his face with his large, soft hands. Then he stretched his arms and yawned like a lazy tomcat, looked down at the ground, and, slowly, conscientiously, carefully, gathered the notes that were steeping in Lao Lan’s piss, holding each one up to the light, as if to make sure it wasn’t counterfeit. Finally, he picked up the new note from Lao Lan that had become dirty in the urine and dried it on his pants. Now that all the money was stacked neatly on his knees, he held it with the middle two fingers of his left hand, spat on the thumb and forefinger of his right hand, and counted it. I ran over to grab it out of his hand, intending to tear it up and fling it into Lao Lan’s face, to avenge the humiliation that had settled on us both, father and son. But he was too fast for me; he jumped up and held his left hand high in the air, muttering, “You foolish boy, what do you think you’re doing? Money’s money. It’s not to blame; people are. Don’t take your anger out on money.” Grabbing his elbow with my left hand, I tried to claw my way up his body to rip that shameful money out of his hand. I didn’t stand a chance, not with a full-grown man. I was so mad I rammed my head into his hip over and over, but he just patted me on the head and said genially, “That’s enough now, son, don’t get carried away. Look over there at Lao Lan’s bull—see, it’s getting angry.”
It was a big, fat Luxi bull with straight horns and a satiny hide over rippling muscles, the kind I saw later on athletes on TV. It was a golden yellow, all but its face, which, surprisingly, was white. I’d never seen a white-faced bull before. It was castrated, and the way it looked at you out of the corner of one of its eyes was enough to make your hair stand on end. Now that I think back, that was probably the look people describe when they talk about eunuchs. Castration changes a man’s nature; it does the same with bulls. By pointing out the bull to me, Father made me forget about the money, at least for the moment. I turned just in time to see Lao Lan swagger out of the square, leading his bull. Why not swagger, after the way he’d humiliated my unresisting father? His prestige in the village and among the cattle merchants had risen dramatically. He’d gone up against the only person who dismissed him as irrelevant, and won; no one in the village would ever defy him again. That only makes what happened next so startling that I’m not sure I believe it even now, years later.
That Luxi bull of his stopped in its tracks. Lao Lan tugged on the halter to get it moving again. It didn’t respond. Without even trying, the bull made a mockery of Lao Lan’s show of strength. A cattle butcher by trade, he had an odor that could normally make a timid calf shake like a leaf and cause even the most stubborn animal to meekly await its death when he stood in front of it, knife in hand. Unable to get the bull moving again by tugging on its halter, he went around and smacked it on the rump with an ear-piercing yell. Now, most animals would have lost control of their bowels in the wake of that smack and yell, but this Luxi bull didn’t so much as piddle. Still enjoying the glow of victory over my father, and acting like a cocky soldier, Lao Lan kicked the animal in its underbelly, giving no thought to the nature of a bull. Well, the animal shifted its rump, let out a loud roar, lowered its head, and flung Lao Lan into the air with its horns, as if he weighed no more than a straw mat. The cattle merchants and butchers were shocked by what had just happened, shocked and speechless, and none of them went to Lao Lan’s aid. The bull lowered its head again and charged. Now, Lao Lan was no ordinary man, and when he saw those horns coming at him he rolled out of the way. Eyes blazing with anger, the bull turned to charge again, and Lao Lan saved his skin by rolling out of the way a second time and a third.
When he was finally able to scramble to his feet, we saw that he was injured, if only slightly. He stood there facing down the bull, hips shifted to one side, not taking his eyes off the animal for a second. The bull lowered its head, slobber gathering at the corners of its mouth, and snorted loudly, as it prepared for the next charge. Lao Lan raised his hand to distract the bull, but he was clearly only putting on a front to appear brave. He looked like a terrified bullfighter who would do anything to save face. He took a cautious step forward; the bull didn’t move. Rather, it dropped its head even lower, a sign that the next charge was imminent. In the end, Lao Lan abandoned his macho posturing, gave one final, blustery shout, turned, and ran madly. The bull took off after him, its tail sticking out stiff and straight, like an iron rod. Hooves kicked mud in all directions, like a spray of machine-gun fire; meanwhile, Lao Lan, hellbent on escaping, headed instinctively toward the onlookers, hoping to find salvation in the crowd. But rescuing him was the last thing on their minds. With shrieks all around, they, too, ran for their lives, cursing their parents for not giving them more than two legs. Luckily, the bull had enough intelligence to single out Lao Lan and not vent its anger on anyone else. The merchants and butchers sent sand flying as they scrambled over walls and up trees. Lao Lan, stupefied by his predicament, ran straight toward Father and me.
With a sense of desperation, Father grabbed me by the neck with one hand and the seat of my pants with the other, and flung me up onto the wall only seconds before that damned Lao Lan took refuge behind him, grabbing his clothes so that he couldn’t break free, and would screen him from the charging bull. My father retreated; so, of course, did Lao Lan, until they were both backed up against the wall. Father waved the money in his hand in front of the bull and muttered, “Bull, ah, bull, there’s no bad blood between you and me, not now, not ever, so let’s work this out . . .”
It all happened faster than words can describe: Father threw the money at the bull’s face and leaped onto its back before the animal knew what was happening. Then he stuck his fingers in the bull’s nose, grabbed its nose ring, and jerked its head up high. The cows the merchants brought from the western counties were farm animals, so they all had nose rings. Now, the nose is a bull’s weak spot, and no one, not the best farmer alive, knew more about bulls than my father did, though he himself wasn’t much of a farmer. Tears sprang to my eyes as I sat on top of the wall. I’m so proud of you, Father, I thought, of the way you washed away the humiliation and reclaimed our lost face with your wise and courageous action.
The butchers and merchants helped him get the white-faced yellow bull down on the ground; in order to keep it from getting up again and hurting anyone, one of the butchers ran home, rabbit-fast, to fetch a knife, which he offered to the now pale-faced Lao Lan, but Lao Lan took a step backward and waved the man off, turning the task over to someone else. The butcher looked from side to side, knife in hand: “Who’ll do it? Nobody? Well, then, I guess it’s up to me.” He rolled up his sleeves, wiped the blade against the sole of his shoe, then hunkered down and closed one eye, like a carpenter with a plumb line. Taking aim at the slight indentation in the bull’s chest, he plunged the knife in, and, when he pulled it out, blood spurted, and painted my father red.
Now that the bull was dead, everyone climbed down; blackish-red blood continued to flow from the wound, bubbling like water from a fountain and releasing a heated odor into the crisp morning air. The men stood around like deflated balloons, shrivelled and diminished somehow. There was so much they wanted to say, but no one said a word. Except my father, who tucked his head down low between his shoulders, opened his mouth to reveal a set of strong but yellow teeth, and said, “Old man in the sky, I was so scared!”
At that, everyone turned to look at Lao Lan, who clearly wished he could crawl into a hole. He tried to cover his embarrassment by looking down at the bull, whose legs were stretched out straight, the meaty parts of its thighs still twitching. One of its blue eyes remained open, as if to release the hatred inside. “Damn you!” Lao Lan said as he kicked the dead animal. “You spend your whole life hunting wild geese, only to nearly have your eye pecked out by a gosling.” He looked up at my father. “I owe you one, Luo Tong, but you and I aren’t finished.”
“Finished with what?” my father asked. “There’s nothing between you and me.”
“Don’t you touch her!” Lao Lan hissed.
“I never wanted to touch her—she wanted me to,” my father said, with a proud little laugh. “She called you a dog, and she’ll never let you touch her again.”
At the time, I had no idea what this was all about, though later, of course, I figured out that they were talking about Wild Mule.
But when I asked, “Dieh, what are you talking about?,” he said, “Nothing a child needs to know.”
“Son,” Lao Lan said, “didn’t you say you wanted to be a member of the Lan family? Then why did you call him Dieh just now?”
“You’re nothing but a pile of stinky dog shit!” I said.
“Son,” he said, “you go home and tell your mother that your father found his way into Wild Mule’s cave and can’t get out.”
That made my father as angry as the bull had been; he lowered his head and charged at Lao Lan. They weren’t at each other’s throats for more than a moment before others rushed over to pull them apart. But, in that brief moment, Lao Lan had managed to break my father’s little finger and my father had bitten off half of Lao Lan’s ear. Spitting it out angrily, he said, “How dare you say things like that in front of my son, you dog bastard!”
(Translated, from the Chinese, by Howard Goldblatt.)
November 26th 2012