Yang Zhengguang – Moonlight Over the Field of Ghosts
Dou Bao was awakened by a full bladder. Throwing off his ripped and torn quilt, he sat bare bottomed on the edge of the kang, two spindly legs feeling the ground for his sandals. When he found them, he shoved his feet in and shuffled out the door of the cave. Dou Bao never bothered to bring a chamber pot to bed at night, not even in the winter. He just relieved himself as soon as he cleared the doorway. Since it was summer, he walked a little farther, until he was standing in front of the levee. The moon was bare bottomed, too. He raised his head, and in the quiet of the night he heard his piss flow in a rivulet down the side of the levee.
He shuddered, then shook himself. As he turned around, he spotted someone sitting on the rock in front of the cave. In the bright light of the bare-bottomed moon, he could see that it was his daughter, Dou Gua. She sat there so silently, resting her head in her hands, that her body seemed to have grown out of the rock. Dou Bao's face twitched.
He shuffled past his daughter. He lit the oil lamp, then climbed back onto the kang to put on his clothes. He reached for his pipe on the stovetop connected to the kang and settled back with his legs crossed. He knocked the bowl of his pipe against the stove twice, and his daughter entered the room.
Dou Gua rested her backside on the edge of the kang but didn't look at Dou Bao. Puffing away on his pipe, Dou Bao soon finished a bowl of tobacco, and still Dou Gua hadn't spoken. He refilled his pipe, the long stem tilting stiffly upward, as if to say, Fine, go ahead and just sit there. Sit until dawn if you want. But…
"He's dead," Dou Gua announced.
Dou Bao's face twitched a second time. The stem of his pipe seemed to go limp, almost drop off, but quickly tilted upward again.
"He followed me to the Field of Ghosts. I hit him with a rock. It caught him on the forehead, and he went down. He must be dead," she said. "He was still on the ground when I left. I killed him."
Dou Gua thought she heard a swish. The whip that Dou Bao used to herd sheep hung behind the door, its thong snaking quietly down the mud wall. She knew by experience that that was how it sounded when it skimmed past her ear; she felt a muscle on her back jump. Actually, nothing moved. The oil lamp had crackled, sending off a spark and causing the shadow of the whip on the wall to flicker.
Not a hint of expression on Dou Bao's face.
Earlier, when Dou Gua had returned from the town of Shaping, it was already dark. She hadn't got anything done in town. She'd run into Teacher Chai as soon as she got there, and his brief conversation with her had left her feeling bad. She'd sat down where the stream wound toward the irrigation ditch and watched the market goers pass by, one after the other, until they had all disappeared, leaving only a parched brown road. Then she had turned and come back home.
Mangmang was waiting for her in their cave. His arms swiftly closed around her, drawing her toward the kang. When she spat in his face, Mangmang loosened his hold to wipe the spit off with the back of his hand. He looked at her, smiled a secret smile, and climbed onto the kang. Stripping off his clothes, he slipped naked beneath the quilt.
She felt miserable and spat on him.
Afterward, she had come here.
Everyone called this place the Field of Ghosts. No one ever came here, least of all at night. This piece of land had never yielded a single crop, not a single blade of grass. It was only an expanse of red soil, while everywhere else the earth was brown. And because there was only this unvarying red soil, it was called the Field of Ghosts.
She came here often, always at night.
Tonight the Field of Ghosts was shrouded in a layer of moonlight. The red, red soil was shrouded in moonlight. She sat at the edge of the field, all by herself, without even a blade of grass around.
"Lanying!" Teacher Chai had called out to her in town as he approached from the other side.
Lanying was the name she'd used in school.
"Lanying, so you've come, too," he said.
"Teacher Chai," she greeted him.
"How have you been, Lanying?"
She remembered that she'd produced a smile.
"Quanmao's come back," continued Teacher Chai. "You remember him, don't you? Last year, he passed the exam and got accepted to high school, and now he's back for summer vacation. Why don't you go see him? He came by to see me and asked about you. You two were the top students in my class… Quanmao is the first one from this town…"
She remembered that she'd produced a smile.
The smile she had to produce for Teacher Chai made her feel so miserable that she just turned around and headed back. She sat down where the stream wound toward the irrigation ditch and watched the market goers disappear, one after the other, until only a parched brown road remained. It was such a very long road.
She began walking, too. She walked and walked and became the girl of the pancake stall. She walked and walked and became Mangmang's woman.
Since it was Sunday and there was no school, she was tending the pancake stall in front of the house. A crew from Qiao Family Gully on their way to mend the terraced paddies walked by, their heads swiveling around to look in her direction.
"That's some tender young cabbage," one of them remarked.
"Belongs to Dou Bao," said another.
"If anyone on the way asks who we are, you just say we're man and wife…" Someone started a bawdy song.
She was a little frightened. She wanted to go to the latrine, but she didn't dare get up until all the men were gone.
The latrine was located west of the levee, screened by cornstalks. She had just crouched down when she heard someone laughing above her.
It was Mangmang. He was laughing. Then he laughed some more, his head tilted to one side so he could see her thighs.
To think that there could be such a shameless man on this earth! She wept. She locked herself in the cave and wept until Dou Bao came back from herding sheep.
Dou Bao already knew. His face livid with anger, he called for her to come out. She heard the swish of the whip as it skimmed past her ear and felt a sharp pain on her back as if she had been slashed with a knife.
That evening, Dou Bao went to Qiao Family Gully to look up Mangmang's father.
"Your Mangmang has laid eyes on my daughter's body. Fork over a few coppers, and take her into your house. It's a fucking bargain for the lot of you!"
She was sixteen then and never set foot in school again.
Mangmang was a bull. When he wasn't working, he was sleeping. His hands were rough as winnowing fans, his toes like the fangs of a tiger. As soon as he walked in the door, he threw his arms around Dou Gua.
The tender young cabbage was plucked three times that night.
"Mangmang, please go easy on me," she begged.
He just looked at her and laughed.
"Mangmang, can't you do something else?"
"Like what?" he replied. "This is what everyone does."
As soon as dusk fell, the village became silent as a graveyard. Not a sound to be heard, not a soul to be seen. All the men had their arms around their women. After all, what else was there to do at night? It was only at this time that the men, exhausted by a day of hard labor, could shift their weariness onto the bosoms of their women, then stretch out beside them, and fall into a deathlike sleep that even a jab with an awl couldn't disturb.
While Mangmang slept in oblivion, Dou Gua wept softly. He couldn't hear her sobs. He needed a good night's sleep; he had to go up the mountain in the morning.
Before Mangmang left for the mountain, he made himself a packet of Dou Gua's pancakes. Then, for rolling tobacco, he tore off sheets of paper from the head of the kang, pages from Dou Gua's schoolbooks.
And so the tender young cabbage was plucked by Mangmang.
Three years had passed, and still no offspring.
"Dou Gua, don't you want to spend your life with me?" asked Mangmang as he straddled her. Not understanding what he was trying to say, Dou Gua could only stare into his face.
"You won't give me a son," said Mangmang.
"You want to run off with some other man, don't you?" Mangmang accused her.
Mangmang became a real bull because he thought the problem could be solved by exerting more force. The tears on Dou Gua's face flowed in rivulets.
"Pa, I can't live with Mangmang. I can't stand it. I can't stand it anymore." Dou Gua was on her knees in front of Dou Bao.
A crowd gathered on the levee, above the cave, looking at Dou Bao. Nobody knew what he would do.
His face livid with anger, Dou Bao strode into the cave, then emerged with his shepherd's whip. The onlookers watched as he raised it high.
Swish! Dou Gua heard a noise close by her ear. As the tip of the whip trailed across her back, she felt it cut into her flesh. Too weak to pick herself up, she rested her face against the ground, trembling all over.
Dou Bao didn't utter a word and went back inside.
"Serves her right! We should all do like Dou Bao. Women! Pah!" someone commented.
"I hear she even keeps books on the kang!"
"What does she have against Mangmang?"
"I'll bet you she's got someone else on her mind…"
One by one, the crowd dispersed. From their remarks, Dou Gua could tell that the single lash of the whip had cost her father his reputation.
When there was no one left, Dou Gua pushed herself to her feet and returned to Qiao Family Gully. She stripped naked and stretched out on the kang.
"Come on, Mangmang," she said. "You can do whatever you like.
"Mangmang, you've ruined my life," she wept.
She hadn't visited her father Dou Bao since that time.
But she became a frequent visitor to the Field of Ghosts.
An expanse of red soil, nothing else-not even a blade of grass. Yet she loved to go there.
At this moment, the Field of Ghosts was shrouded in a layer of moonlight that drifted here and there like mist. The lenses of Teacher Chai's glasses, too, seemed to have been covered with a layer of drifting mist.
Then there was the road; it, too, drifted about. She walked and walked and became the girl of the pancake stall, became Mang-mang's woman.
She heard somebody walking toward the Field of Ghosts. She knew it had to be Mangmang. Worried that she was meeting another man, he had come looking for her.
Mangmang, you've ruined my life, she thought to herself. With that, she picked up a rock that lay close by and struck him on the forehead. Mangmang sank to the ground without a murmur.
The sound made by the rock was not very loud, but it traveled far, startling the moonlight on the Field of Ghosts into flight, wings fluttering, like a swarm of white butterflies.
She glanced at Mangmang. His eyes were opened wide as if to ask her what had happened.
And that was the only thing that Dou Gua did.
Now Dou Gua was in her father's cave, her backside resting on the edge of the kang; she was confessing to him. There was no movement inside the cave. Dou Bao's shepherd's whip hung behind the door, its thong snaking quietly down the wall. Even the shadow of the whip remained quiet and still.
The bare-bottomed moon shone bright and clear. Dou Gua remembered the moonlight on the Field of Ghosts, wings fluttering like a swarm of white butterflies. She had gone there so many times, but only tonight was the moonlight like white butterflies. And that she would never forget.
Translated By Ellen Lai-Shan Yeung