Throwback Thursdays! We’re bringing back some of our favorite pieces from the last 30 years of Scribendi.
Mei Chin Tan – Willamette University – 1991
There is a girl in our village whom the villagers avoid like a dirty disease. Someone’s mother says Xiao Ling is shameless, throwing her face away like a rotten potato. Somebody else says she is a prostitute. I hear Mother say she is wanton, a person of loose morals. Of course all this is said in confidence amongst the adults, but we children pick up things and imagine the worst thing that Xiao Ling could have done.
“I know,” Mi Mi says. “She has a lover.” “From Ta Hu.”
“Who is married.” “And has five children.” “Why five?”
“And in a jealous rage … ” “She kills her lover.”
Ah Kang gestures wildly. “Here she comes.”
We quickly pretend we are playing five stones. Pick a pebble, throw it in the air, grab one on the ground and catch the pebble coming down. It goes on until all five pebbles arc in hand. Then scatter the pebbles again, throw one in the air, and grab two off the ground. Yi Fen drops one and loses her turn. Xiao Ling soon gets past us. We stop playing and stare at her back-a sol itary figure on an endless road, flanked by expansive fields.
She is the oldest girl in the village, about seventeen. She has the longest, blackest hair I have ever seen, but straight across at the fringe. Her cheeks are usually pale and many times nowadays, her eyes are puffy red.
“Somebody doesn’t want her face!” I hear someone say, and a pebble flies after Xiao Ling.
I turn around. The children are standing up, making faces, calling names.
“Shameless! Faceless! Loose!”
Stones start flying in the air. Someone hands me a stone and hisses, “What are you doing? Throw it at her!”
I grasp the stone.
“Do it! What’s the matter with you? Are you her friend?”
I shake my head hastily and fling the stone. It flies wide; I hope no one notices. Xiao Ling never turns around.
Although it is only fall, Xiao Ling wears big, long shirts cut for winter, covering her from neck to knees, making her look like a tree trunk. She eats outside by the doorstep sometimes, a bowl in her hands, her feet apart, knees touching. Nobody talks to her or even greets her. And she doesn’t talk to anyone. When she walks down the road, people avoid her, walking on the other side. But she walks straight, like the empress of the road. She works in the fields, and everyone else works at least a row away. Sometimes I forget and get on the same row with her and Mother will call me to switch, never giving a reason. I am embarrassed because Mother makes it so plain.
At least once a week, there is yelling and screaming at the Chang’s, Xiao Ling’s family. I look at Mother’s, Grandmother’s, anyone’s face to see if I can get a clue as to the commotion, but I seem to be the only one who hears it. And that night, Xiao Ling sleeps in the cow shed. I see her there in the morning when I pass by with Moo-cow.
So while the whole village pretends she does not exist, everyone follows her with averted eyes.
At the beginning of the tenth month, I fall ill. I turn yellow, have fevers, and to my horror, my stomach and arms and legs bloat. I am afraid Mother will dress me like Xiao Ling, and everyone will start avoiding me, staring at my back, whispering. There is not enough money to see the doctor, so Mother buys a whole bin of medication somewhere and I have to swallow some every morning. It is so smelly, I vomit it out, but I remember Xiao Ling and swallow it back. I don’t have to carry water from the well for a while, but nothing else is different. I wear the same clothes, eat the same sweet potato porridge and weed the same fields. It is a little more than two months before I am well. I am relieved when the swelling leaves me, although it also leaves my body an empty casing for my bones. “Bam boo,” the village children call me.
Xiao Ling is fatter now, but she still doesn’t smile. She walks more slowly and has a harder time getting up from a squat. She is as invisible as ever. And now she sleeps in the cow shed most of the time.
“Stupid girl.” Mother hits my head. “Your eyes grow in your pants. Tell you to pull weeds, you pull the potatoes.”
I nurse my head and return my attention to the weeds. “You see this child. She is the most useless, ugly child,” Mother tells Mrs. Li and Mrs. Ho close by.
“No, lah, Mrs. Lin. It is too early to tell,” Mrs. Ho says.
“A leopard never changes its spots,” Mother says. “She is not so bad,” Mrs. Li says.
“Look at her. We are talking about her and she doesn’t even care. No feelings.”
I look up, eyes smarting.
“Look at her. Really, she has no feelings.” Mother jerks her chin toward me.
Something in me speaks. “Yes, I have no feelings.”
Mother glances at me, and says, “See, she says so herself.”
Mrs. Li and Mrs. Ho give a half-smile and return to their work.
“Go and carry in some water for dinner,” Mother orders.
I go back to the house for the buckets and yoke, Stupid and make my way to the well. Ugly Somehow, I end up in the sugarcane fields, Useless the buckets and yoke abandoned on the ground, and I cry. I think no one can hear me and am shocked when I feel a touch on my shoulder. I whirl around: it is Xiao Ling. She sits down beside me and puts her arm around my shoulders. I cry into her shirt, and she puts her other arm around me. Stupid girl. Ugly girl. Useless girl. Look, she has no feelings. Like a dumb dog. If! kick a dog, it’ll cry. She doesn’t even blink. Like a log-head. No feelings. Stupid. Born to be cursed. Unwanted. Burdensome. What debt did I owe in my past life? Why don’t you go and die? Dead person’s child, damned girl. Unwanted. Unwanted. I cry all the harder, but these memories arc a part of me. To rid myself of them, I’d have to cut my heart out.
At last I lift my head up, wipe my face with dirty hands, a little ashamed to have been so weak. Xiao Ling looks at me, as if contemplating, then takes my hand and puts it on her abdomen. I want to pull back, but she holds it still. Her abdomen is round and hard, like a melon. Then I feel something move. I jerk my hand back. Something is in her belly, kicking. I stare at Xiao Ling, my mouth open like a village idiot, and she smiles, the first time I have ever seen her smile. Her eyes light up with a quiet joy that makes me wish, for an instant, that I knew her better. Gingerly, I put my hand to her womb again. She puts her hand next to mine, and we sit there for a long time, not speaking, feeling her baby come to life.
Now Xiao Ling and I pass each other with a smile in our eyes. We never speak to each other, but I share a secret with her that no other child in the village knows, and she shares a joy with me that no other adult in the village comprehends. I understand the name-calling now, but somehow it does not matter to me what she did, or what she appears to be, because I feel what she is, and that is enough. We do not acknowledge this kinship, though; secret and invisible, it invites no criticism or condemnation.
One morning, as I am bringing Moo-cow to pasture, I pass by the cow shed and sec Xiao Ling lying straight like a corpse on the hay. I rush over, dragging Moo-cow with me, and kneel beside her. She turns towards me and says, “Mother brewed a tonic for me two nights ago. I think she has forgiven me for what I did.”
I smile. She continues, “I am happy for that, but my baby is very quiet.” She rubs her stomach. “I told Mother yesterday and she got angry.” Her eyes grow pensive. “You think my baby is all right?”
I put my hand on her abdomen. Nothing, but I nod. “Of course.”
“Will you go to the doctor with me?” she asks.
I nod. It is early, so there is no one about. I put Moo cow back in the cow shed, and Xiao Ling and I walk out of the gates toward Zhong Hu. I am hoping that we will get back before anyone realizes we are gone.
We do not say anything until we get to the doctor’s. He is a shrunken old man, with a grey goatee and a missing front tooth, but he does not ask questions, just sits Xiao Ling down and feels her pulse. Doctors know a secret language of the body that no one else does; they can tell most changes in the body just by reading the pulse. He seems to concentrate on the tip of his nose for inspiration, and then he straightens and says, his voice clear but soft, “You know you are with child.”
Xiao Ling nods.
“So you came to me because you are worried.”
Xiao Ling nods again, scrunching the ends of her long shirt.
The doctor sighs, “‘Difficult business,” and gets up. “I’m sorry. Your baby … no more.”
Xiao Ling stands up. “Are you sure?”
“Now, you must get some rest and don’t think too much about it. The baby will come out very soon, but now it has to stay in. You are still young … ”
“How much?” Xiao Ling asks, feeling her pockets. “Never mind. I just took your pulse.”
“You must.” Xiao Ling leaves her purse on the table and walks out. I mumble goodbye and follow. Xiao Ling is walking very fast. I have to jog a little to keep up.
“I think he’s mistaken,” Xiao Ling says. “My baby will be born soon, then I’ll bring it to him. He will be surprised.”
“Xiao Ling,” I say.
She stops so suddenly I crash into her. “What?” She is breathing hard.
“We are going the wrong way,” I say.
All the way back she talks about the baby; she has already gone too far on the wrong track to turn back.
Xiao Ling shows me the little shirts and trousers that she makes for her baby-the sleeves and trouser legs no longer than the stretch from the tip of her little finger to the tip of her thumb. It is going to sleep right next to her bosom, secured with a long piece of cloth as she works in the fields. Her parents will come to love their grandchild.
When I put my hand on her stomach to feel her baby, the baby does not move. I think it has learned to distinguish touch because it seems to move for Xiao Ling. I do not put my hand on her belly very much now.
“Hurry! Hurry!” I hear Mrs. Chang’s voice. It is dark, and although everyone knows about the impending birth, nobody seems to acknowledge it. Mother and Grand mother sit darning, Ah Chang and Grandfather are in the leisure house with some other village men, gam bling with dice. I slip out and run to Xiao Ling’s house, feeling the sharpness of the gravel and sand scraping skin off my bare feet. The doors are closed, so I stand against the wall, catching my breath, listening for sounds.
Maybe she is right. After all, she knows her body best, and the doctor is very old. Maybe she is right.
Xiao Ling screams in pain, screams with purpose, pushing her baby into the world. I wince and shut my eyes. Then there is silence. I open my eyes and wonder whether to knock. Footsteps approach the door, and I shrink back against the wall, among the shadows. Mrs. Chong and the midwife come out. They walk a distance, and after getting her pay, the midwife leaves. Mrs. Chong looks toward the house, then turns and walks to the leisure house.
I step in front of the door, trying to catch some sound, a little cry, anything. Finally, I knock. No answer. I nudge the door open a crack. Then I push it wider.
There is a basin on the table, dark red soaked towels all bunched up around it. Xiao Ling is sitting on the bed, hair pulled back from her face, cradling a silent bundle in her arms. Her face is pale, her lips paler. I sink onto the floor. Softly, she sings her baby an old lullaby, her eyes bright as the moon that never shows that night:
Golden slumber kiss your eyes, Smiles awake when you arise, sleep my little baby do not cry, Mother will sing you a lullaby.