The smell of bamboo – 香香 – English

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Author: Yuan Hao

During midsummer, for people who live in rural mountain areas, the early mornings are always the most comfortable time of the day. Often, on mornings like this, I would always snuggle in bed for that extra snooze; even if Mum shouts herself hoarse from downstairs for me to get up, I wouldn’t budge one bit. But this morning, as soon as mum shouted at me from downstairs, I rolled out of bed and descended the staircase on half-slipped-on shoes. Last night, Dad had already arranged with me to ask Uncle Fuxun, who lives by the mountain bend, to come over for breakfast this morning. Today my family was planning to make some new furniture with a dragsaw, and Uncle Fuxun was one of the people we invited around to provide some much-needed help.

The real reason Dad sent me to invite Uncle Fuxun over for breakfast this morning is because he is a little unreliable and flaky with his commitments. He doesn’t necessarily complete what he has agreed to. In reality, Dad made me ask him over for breakfast to force him to come and help out sooner rather than later. Bluntly calling him over to start work wouldn’t be effective, so we had to say we were inviting him for breakfast instead.

Rubbing my still half-asleep eyes, I listlessly walked down the stone steps of the courtyard, and headed towards Uncle Fuxun’s house. The early mornings in the mountains are the most enchanting part of the day, especially this morning, with the light mist slowly unfurling on the mountain further adding to the tranquillity. The crops in the fields glow with an even more intoxicating deep green after absorbing their fill of the night’s dew, and all sorts of birds jump and leap about between the branches and bamboo tips.

In order to get to Uncle Fuxun’s house you have to pass through rows and rows of ridges in the fields. On both sides of these ridges were planted soybeans, adzuki beans, Ba mountain beans and the like. The flourishing bean sprouts and their tightly rolled leaves were full of last night’s dew, and it often soaked the ends of my trousers as I walked through them. I normally won’t follow my parents to work in the fields on summer mornings precisely because I hate that sticky wet feeling of your pants being soaked through from the dew. But this morning there was no way out – Dad told me to go and I didn’t dare to refuse, otherwise he would pull my ear and ask me if I was going to listen or him or not. Nine-year-old me could only meekly obey and let the dew pour cold water on the midsummer morning, startling me from my dreams when I was sound asleep.

Xiang Xiang is mute, a year older than me, and one of the kids in our little group of playmates. However, everybody always loved to bully her, after all, who asked her not to know how to speak! Despite getting bullied, she still wanted to play with us. We would often prank her during our games, but she usually wouldn’t get angry. If she did, she would just grunt “ah ah” a few times, and then she would be on our tails again, happy as ever. Sometimes I told the little leader of our group, Xiaofei, not to make fun of Xiang Xiang anymore. Our little leader would raise his eyebrows and declare in a loud voice: there was no place for compassion in the enterprise of revolution. Fine, the leader has spoken, and I did not dare to say anything else, or I might have been expelled from the revolutionary ranks as well, and then even a playmate would be impossible to find. Xiang Xiang doesn’t really get a chance to play with us much though; most of the time she just watches, and even this opportunity to watch was becoming increasingly rare, as she was always ordered round and about to do this or do that, cook the rice, let the ox out to graze, wash the clothes and so forth. Even though we were often bossed around by our parents too, most of us dared to defy their orders, and our parents in the end would spoil us. But Xiang Xiang was different. Her parents were alright and usually didn’t order her to do things. It was usually her grandma, and if grandma stood in the courtyard and yelled once, Xiang Xiang would immediately bolt off from our side and leave. Xiang Xiang’s grandma truly treats her like a slave girl to be ordered about and put to work. Now most of the time it is her grandma who orders her to let the ox graze on the part of the mountain that houses the cemetery. Her grandma didn’t live with her parents, but her parents still have no choice but to do whatever her Grandma says, letting her order around this ‘servant girl’ that can’t even utter a word.

I always felt somewhat uncomfortable when I thought of Xiang Xiang’s situation. Walking to Uncle Fuxun’s front door, I didn’t enter the house, but shouted a few times from the back of their house. Uncle Fuxun answered to say that he would come over after he had breakfast; I insist that he come over to my house for breakfast – my mum had already prepared the meal for him. After spending a lot of time on this back-and-forth talk, Uncle Fuxun walked out of the grass hut. As we were about to leave, Aunt Xiulan called Uncle Fuxun and asked Xiang Xiang to return home for lunch. I followed behind Uncle Fuxun, going back home by the same route. While walking up to the cemetery, I saw that Xiang Xiang was still quietly watching that yellow ox nibble at the grass; she hardly seemed to have felt hungry at all. Uncle Fuxun walked to Xiang Xiang’s side and yelled, “Go home to eat! Such a stupid child, it’s been so long and you still don’t know you’re hungry.” Xiang Xiang didn’t react at all. When we were about to pass the cemetery, I told Xiang Xiang, “Let’s go to my house to play today. Xiaofei, Chaoping, Xiao Yanzi and the rest will all be there.” Xiang Xiang looked in my direction for a while, and her face bloomed into the crimson of the morning sun.

People in the villages seldom have big construction projects. Other than fixing the house, making furniture and the like, hardly anybody needs to be called upon for most of the year. Our family just completed a new house, and needed some furniture, so we had to invite people to saw the timber, then ask the carpenters to craft the furniture. Asking people to help the house is a troublesome affair; you had to spend money, prepare good wine and good food, and for the village people in the mountains who rarely have an income, this was indeed a difficult matter. To make or not to make furniture? My parents deliberated for a long time. They secretly planned not to do so, but my grandma insisted that they had to: how could a new house be left in such an empty state, without even a few pieces of presentable furniture? Speaking on the subject, my grandma went on and on to educate my parents about the arduous experience she and grandpa had in the thirties in first raising up a family and then a business. In those days, grandma and grandpa carried naught but a tattered bundle on their backs, escaping from other cities to seek refuge here. Literally with their own hands, they built a home and raised a family that was of a decent size. Every time she talked about this, grandmother would carefully enumerate grandfather’s strengths and competences, and conversely, scold my parents’ laziness and incompetence. At this time, I and my sister would always snuggle next to grandma and sit on both her legs, one on her left and the other on her right. We would look at her with grand admiration, and feel that she must the world’s most capable person. The long towel that she wrapped her head in; her hair below the towel that was speckled in white – all excited our loving admiration. My parents could not fend against grandma’s glorious stories of raising a family, and had no choice but to bite the bullet and call on the help of neighbours to make some furniture.

For children, the occasions on which the house would call upon others for help was a rare festival, and even more important than a festival. Festivals were usually short, and the celebration had to be with your family. In those difficult years, your own family would usually tighten their belts and be reluctant to eat or drink well. It was not that they did not wish to feast or drink heartily; it was more that there was nothing much that they could bring out to feast or drink on. It wasn’t bad if the national grain quotas could be delivered without a hitch each year; the remaining grain usually could not wait until the second year’s new round of collection. Whatever chicken, duck, fish or meat there was, it was even fewer than the grain. But on these days when others came to help out at the house, whoever’s house it was had to prepare the best wine and food. Moreover, the duration where one had to call upon others for help was slightly longer than a festival; it wouldn’t end in one or two days. As such, for kids like us, the days where others came to one’s house to help were happy days of celebration, a happiness that was so indulgent that we would even giggle in our dreams, brimming with satisfaction.

In the mid-afternoon, just when I and Xiaofei were watching the adults in the courtyard flapping their arms as they pulled the dragsaw, Xiang Xiang walked up the stone stairs to my house without a sound. The big yellow dog barked twice as a formality; it was his way of greeting her. He was already very familiar with the other kids. Uncle Fuxun spotted Xiang Xiang, and angrily shouted, “What did you run here for! Get back home!” Xiang Xiang eyed me, and silently tugged at the corner of my shirt with her hand. My father helped to intervene. “She’s just a child, she won’t be a problem. Just let her play with Ah Yong and friends.” “Xiang Xiang, it’s ok then, just have lunch here and don’t go back.” After hearing this, I quickly pulled Xiang Xiang, Xiaofei, and the rest, and we ran towards the bamboo forest near the courtyard, the paradise of our childhood.

The bamboo forest is so pleasant in summer. No matter how hot it is, once you enter the forest, you immediately feel the light passage of wave after wave of cool air. We built our own world in the bamboo. Our favourite game was called “pulling the power line”. Today was no exception; there were so many kids, it was just nice to play this game together. Xiaofei and Chaoping would first cut out palm leaves, and the material for the power line would be woven from rolls and rolls of palm leaves. This time we wanted to pull the power line all the way from China to far away Africa to help our suffering black brethren, so we required even more palm leaves. Xiaofei and Chaoping even used back-baskets to carry the palm leaves they cut them from beside the fields. Xiang Xiang, Xiao Yanzi and I were in charge of tearing the palm leaves into strands and tying them into a line. Xiao Yanzi was the daughter of our village leader and she was very finicky, always grumbling when asked to carry out a task. In reality, the matter of joining the power line was completed by me and Xiang Xiang. Xiang Xiang sat on the ground and tore loose the palm leaves carried by Xiaofei and Chaoping while I was in charge of tying them together. Xiang Xiang moved very fast – her little hands whooshed, the ground was stacked with thick layers of leaves – soon, she was done. After finishing the job, Xiang Xiang didn’t slack off and play by herself at one side like Xiaofei, but she squatted next to me and handed me the leaves so I could join them together even faster. We kids were roughly the same age, and we loved to play, running around everywhere for the whole day and doing strange things. Only Xiang Xiang was more obedient; she was always helping us do stuff, and rarely was she like petulant and naughty like us. She was very quiet, and silently followed us around. Although we didn’t like her, we couldn’t leave her either, so she always played with us as if she was distant from us, but in reality she was a part of us.

The bamboo forest was huge. There was tortoise-shell bamboo and spotted bamboo. We chose to call the best-positioned and most verdant section of the spotted bamboo forest “China” while the tortoise-shell bamboo forest that was slightly further and poorly-grown was called “poor Africa”. Before today, we would only set up the power line in China because it was the centre of the world; only if the centre held light could the periphery have hope. This time we were going to extend the power line from China, the centre of the world, to darkest Africa to fulfill our long-held dreams. Xiaofei often pretentiously told us that when he grew up he would definitely be an electrician so that he could send light from China into Africa and fulfill Chairman Mao’s unrealised aspirations. Xiaofei guaranteed this in school in front of the whole class. That was when our teacher wanted us to talk about our future aspirations, and Xiaofei solemnly announced that his aspiration was to be an electrician, to bring China’s power lines to Africa. The teacher asked him if he knew how far Africa was. Xiaofei replied that no matter how far it was, what Chairman Mao said to be possible, he had to achieve. Xiaofei’s bout of heroic spirit was probably the result of his father’s words and deeds. His father was the village’s only railroad worker, and his father said that the railroad workers’ dream was to build a railroad all the way to Africa. Xiaofei had an even grander aspiration than his father. After all, at least the railways were laid on the ground; he was even more bull-headed than his dad for he wanted to bring the power lines to Africa from the air. Every time Xiaofei talked about his grand aspirations, we were secretly ashamed. Why didn’t we have any thoughts of our own? We only thought about spending an entire day catching crabs or searching birds’ nests, doing miscellaneous and trivial things that neither appeared solemn nor holy at all.

Now we could only follow Xiaofei in extending the power line from the spotted bamboo forest to the tortoise-shell bamboo forest, from China to Africa. The fun in pulling power lines is in seeing who could set it up the highest and who could stretch it the furthest. If you want to set it up high, you need to know how to climb the bamboo. This was more difficult for me because I was slightly fatter, so I could climb for hours without getting up. Furthermore, climbing bamboo was even more slippery than climbing trees. Maybe you might have spent all of your strength just to get on and were about to unload the power line from your back to tie it to the bamboo, then suddenly, you would slide all the way back down. As such, I would often lose to Xiaofei and friends. Whenever this happened, Xiang Xiang would help me. She would take off the power line coil from my back and nimbly tie it to the bamboo trees. Hence, even though it was nominally a competition between me and Xiaofei every time we played the power line game, in reality it was between Xiang Xiang and him, except Xiang Xiang wasn’t competitive, so she happily gave the fruits of victory to me. Because of this, Xiaofei was often unsatisfied, and teased me: how could I count as a hero if I relied on women, and even worse, a mute woman? This made me doubly uncomfortable, but I had no choice but to vent my frustration on Xiang Xiang by always scolding her. She didn’t really resist, and would only make a few noises, “ah, ah”, then silently wait in a corner as if it had nothing to do with her. And today’s power line competition actually pissed me off. Halfway through the game, Xiaofei ran over to check on our progress – you could say he was spying on the enemy – and when he saw again that Xiang Xiang was helping me tie the power line, his disdain was palpable, and it made me very embarrassed. I told Xiang Xiang, stop helping, come down. Xiang Xiang looked as if she didn’t hear what I said and continued tying the power line to the bamboo. I was furious, and I went up to grab her feet and pull her down, and she fell very hard on the ground. I was continued to scold her ruthlessly. Xiang Xiang climbed up and pushed me, her eyes full of tears. It seemed that she was really hurt from the fall. I didn’t care – in front of Xiaofei and the others my prestige was more important – who cared that you were mute. She continued shoving me, and I was terribly annoyed, and screamed at her, “Get lost, little mute. You’re no longer welcome. Don’t even think of having lunch at our place.” “Whoever overstays their welcome is a wretched bastard.” Xiang Xiang also turned angry, and her throat rattled and gurgled, as if it was going to spew forth lava, and I became slightly scared. I ducked away and told Xiaofei and the rest to leave with me and ignore Xiang Xiang: let her scram by herself. We slipped away as fast as smoke, and Xiang Xiang didn’t follow us behind as usual.

During lunch, Xiang Xiang had not yet returned. Xiaofei had been grounded by my mum. She asked me where Xiang Xiang went and I pretended that I didn’t know – she probably went home. My mother scolded me for a while then let it go. Actually I knew Xiang Xiang didn’t go home. She must have been hiding in the forests at the back of my house; she must have been waiting for us to call her back, or at least to tell the grown-ups so they would call her home. This was the way us kids would resolve any conflict then. We were all very familiar with the hiding places. If the guilty party still valued their friendship to the kid who was offended, then they would usually call their friend home before dinner, or even if they didn’t show up themselves, they would tell a grown-up, who would drag the kid home. However, this time, I simply refused outright to call back Xiang Xiang, who was hiding behind the house. Xiaofei hinted this to me a few times but I ignored him, such that they seemed extremely ill-at-ease while we were having lunch. In their hearts they blamed me for bullying Xiang Xiang, but because it was my house, it wasn’t appropriate for them to call Xiang Xiang, so they imperceptibly became my accomplices in bullying her as a group.

After lunch, I soundly took an afternoon nap. Behind my back, Xiaofei and the rest went behind the house to play. In my dreams I was shaken awake by Xiaofei. He quietly told me, “Xiang Xiang has been crying in the forest, go and look.” I didn’t know if I should go or I shouldn’t, and still bleary-eyed, I was dragged by Xiaofei and Chaoping to the woods behind the house. I saw Xiang Xiang seated beneath that peach tree with streams of tears rolling on her sunburnt face and her hair in a mess. It was a sorry sight, especially when her eyes fixed on me – the rage in the early afternoon had dissipated, and what surged was a hidden sense of guilt. Seeing that I wasn’t talking, Xiaofei handled the delicate situation with finesse, pulling Xiang Xiang up and walking her towards our house. I silently followed both of their backs. Xiang Xiang saw that I wasn’t talking, stopped, and refused to go further. Xiaofei grumbled to me, “You bring her home. It’s all your fault.” I silently walked to the front and held Xiang Xiang’s left hand. The surge of warmth from her small hands, sticky with soil, completely woke me up from my haze. I hurried to bring Xiang Xiang home. My mother rushed back and forth to wash Xiang Xiang’s face and hands and to heat up her meal. The few of us kids squeezed in front of the entrance to the kitchen and watched Xiang Xiang sit at the small table, eating bite by bite. Our feelings of guilt slowly dissipated as we jostled against each other to watch her eat.

Xiang Xiang was mute, so her grandma didn’t allow her to go to school. Since her grandma’s attitude was so stubbornly fixed, her parents could only listen to her and keep Xiang Xiang in the house. The truth was that the teachers in the village’s primary school and kindergarten never said that they did not accept mutes. The Guang kid from the Zhangs at the back of the mountains was also a mute, but all the same, he came to the kindergarten to play and played more happily than anyone else. Xiang Xiang was afraid of her grandma, and since grandma said she couldn’t go to school, she could only stay at home and listen to grandma’s orders. Chaoping, who was slightly younger than Xiang Xiang, was also her grandma’s grandson, but he could enjoy being treated like a little Emperor – he didn’t have to do anything, plus he ate well and dressed well. I heard afterwards that Xiang Xiang’s grandmother abused her so not only because she was mute, but because she was clever and cute, and all the adults in the mountain bend liked this little girl. Xiang Xiang’s father wasn’t grandma’s child but was adopted from the Dengs, who resided on top of the hills across the river. When Xiang Xiang’s father was five, grandma gave birth to a son, who later became Chaoping’s dad. Since grandma now had her own flesh and blood, times became difficult for Xiang Xiang’s father, who practically became child labour for the house. Grandma refused to send Xiang Xiang’s father to school at all while Chaoping’s father studied until high school, as that was the highest level you could study at in those days, and they were only a few high schools in the countryside. Chaoping’s father almost became our village leader. Xiang Xiang’s father, on the other hand, was thrust by grandma into the remote hillsides, where she built a few grass huts for him. When he reached the age for marriage, he lackadaisically found a girl to be his wife; this would later be Aunt Xiulan.

I don’t know if the misfortunes of Xiang Xiang’s family should be blamed on her grandma. I only know that Xiang Xiang’s increasing detachment from us was the result of her influence. Before she went to school, Xiang Xiang could still play with us from time to time. Even if her grandma had a tight rein over her, we were clearly still small children, and couldn’t do much, so Xiang Xiang could secretly run over and play with us. Ever since we started to go to school, Xiang Xiang played with us very little. Xiang Xiang wanted to go to school too. Every day she saw us carrying our small schoolbags happily walking to the village’s primary school, and she would cry to her parents. The way she cried was different from the way normal people cried. Her cry was soundless except for the moving of her throat and the trickle of her tears. At the start, Xiang Xiang even secretly ran towards school, and would play on the small parade square in school by herself while we had lessons in the classroom. After a period of time like this, she probably felt it was too boring, and slowly stopped coming to school. However, she would wait for us on the road home every afternoon after class was dismissed, and we would play together until dark before going home. Sometimes we showed her the newly issued textbooks we received. She would see the pictures in the books and her expression of joy was hung on her eyebrows. She stroked these images for a long time, and then reluctantly returned the book to us, then walked to home alone.

I don’t know which year it was when Xiang Xiang’s mother passed away. Then we were still in primary school in the village. Returning home after school had ended, we didn’t see Xiang Xiang, but only heard the sound of drums and firecrackers from their house. At once, the few of us scampered towards her house. Just after running past the peak of the mountain, we saw that there was a crowd in her house’s courtyard along with things like flower wreaths. We knew that someone had died, but we didn’t know who it was, and were very worried that it might have been Xiang Xiang. Xiaofei said it wouldn’t have been a child, because they wouldn’t bang on the gongs and hit the drums like this, but would wrap the child in a tattered mat and quickly bury her once and for all in the valley. When we reached her house’s courtyard, we saw that a dead body was displayed in the centre, covered with white cloth, and we couldn’t see who it was. At this moment, Xiang Xiang suddenly ran out to our side, completely dressed in white, and wearing a hat on his head that was made from white cloth skewered together, looking really strange. I asked her who died, and she didn’t indicate anything except cry. Chaoping’s mother, who was helping out by the side, growled at us, “Xiang Xiang’s mother is dead.” We all went “oh”, and didn’t know what to do next but look at the strange mannerisms of Xiang Xiang. She stood by her mother’s corpse, half leaning on the door on which it rested, looking somewhat tired, somewhat sad, and suddenly I felt the utmost pity for her. From now on, Xiang Xiang would have no mother.

 

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Source : my1510

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French-Australian writer, educator, sinophile. Any question? Contact [email protected]