Comic strains have characterized much of Wang Chen-ho’s early writing, such as “An Oxcart for Dowry” (Chia-chuang i niu-ch’e, 1967; included in Chinese Stories from Taiwan). To be sure, as evident in the present selection, “The Story of Three Springs,” his fictional world teems with comic moments. But such moments rarely translate into a full-bodied comic work. For, almost alone of his contemporaries, Wang depicts a life that is comically conceived but tragically understood—a life of forced compromises and forfeitures. His characters lend themselves to the categorization of the predator and the prey. When cornered, his mock-hero extricates himself from the predicament by making virtues of docility and yielding.
Like Ch’en Ying-chen and Huang Ch’un-ming, Wang is deeply concerned about the bankruptcy of Chinese virtues under Western impact. He is troubled by the Chinese practices of sprinkling their conversation with English phrases, of abbreviating their given names in initials, or of adopting outright a Western name. “Hsiao Lin in Taipei” (Hsiao Lin lai Taipei, 1973) lampoons what he regards as excesses of Western adulation by transliterating in Chinese one Mr. T. P. Ku as “Kicking-in-the-Ass Ku.” Aside from three volumes of stories, Wang has written a number of one-act plays. His works are discussed in Chinese Fiction from Taiwan: Critical Perspectives.
Translated by Jane Parish Yang
—for B. L.—
When she was about eighteen, she went to a fortune-teller with some of her sworn sisters. The fortune-teller was from far away, and all of his clients testified that his judgment of the past and predictions of the future were extremely accurate. She couldn’t remember all the details now, only that one sentence, and she was able to remember it because in it latent seductive powers awaited release: “Miss, you’ll have a life of peach blossoms,2 marriages galore. Three stars will with Beauty mate, busy with carnal pleasures your whole life through.” Fearing that she didn’t understand, the fortune-teller wildly gesticulated with hands and feet to help explain every line, every word.
“Miss, you’ll enjoy the pleasures of three husbands in your life. One, two, three. No more, no less. Exactly three.”
After they had gone a safe distance from the fortune-teller’s booth, her sworn sisters competed with each other in teasing her.
“Ah-chiao, so a husband for you is like a shoe—as soon as one is worn out, you replace it with another. What a deal!”
That prophecy had now come true, twenty-five years later—three husbands, not one more and not one less. It was as if she had made a pact with that fortune-teller.
Preparations for Ah-chiao’s third marriage were already being made for summer. The ceiling fan whined overhead. The dormitory was empty, since all the bus attendants had left for work. Ah-chiao sat under the fan picking over sweet potato greens, carefully stripping the stems piece by piece. No one did that where she came from, but city folk were picky. Ahchiao was wearing only a slip, but she wasn’t afraid anyone would come in because this place was off limits to men. Perspiring as she sorted the greens, she finally finished and replaced them in the small rattan basket. Just as she was about to take them back to the kitchen, she suddenly spotted a figure entering the dormitory. Before she could see clearly who it was, the figure had already appeared in front of her.
“Ah-chiao, how are you? Haven’t seen you for ages.”
“Uh—,” she was too frightened to speak. Her face was expressionless and her mouth agape—she didn’t know what to say. Ah-chiao’s mouth was slightly larger than average. She had only to part her lips and immediately two deep V-shaped creases would run down from her nostrils to her lips. The creases made her look as if her face was wreathed in smiles. Thus, even though she was in fact scowling, she would give the impression that she was being seductive, with her head tilted slightly to one side. Maybe this was why she lived a “peach blossomed” life.
When the coffin of her first husband, Ah-yüan, was being lowered into the ground, she had wailed “My husband, my master!” But below the coarse hemp hood of her mourning gown were those lips of hers, spreading out in a broad grin. Out of curiosity, her relatives walked over to her on the pretext of comforting her, and peered under the hood to determine whether she was in fact crying or laughing. Her Aunt Liang even suggested that a doctor be called immediately, since she though Ah-chiao had probably become so distressed that she didn’t know the difference between crying and laughing anymore.
But, before the unexpected visitor, she was really smiling this time, her mouth gaping wide open. The visitor was Mr. Ying, an inspector for the Highway Bus Bureau. Perhaps because he had been an inspector for too long, it became his habit to drop in on people when they were least prepared. This time was no exception. He hadn’t bothered to knock, though this was a dormitory for single women.
“Ah-chiao, long time no see. You look better each time I see you. Is your son still in the army?” Inspector Ying was from her hometown, and had moved to the city some five or six years ago. Last year, when Ahchiao and Skinny Kao had called it quits, she had ended up coming to the city and earning her keep doing house chores for Inspector Ying’s family. Later, when the old amah in the bus attendants’ dormitory got sick and quit her job, Inspector Ying had recommended Ah-chiao to fill the post. While she was working as a maid in his house, no matter how shabbily she was dressed, she had never felt as embarrassed as she did now. Now that she was earning a government salary, her status was different. People like to save face, just as a tree wants to keep its bark intact. Facing a man with only a slip on was certainly not appropriate. Making an excuse that she was going to get some tea, she retreated to the bedroom to put on a dress, and then returned to offer her guest some tea. With an extra garment on, Ah-chiao suddenly came to life and responded to whatever she was asked in her most ladylike manner.
But after half an hour, she was lost for words again. Perhaps she could use another piece of clothing. Fortunately, Inspector Ying finally got around to the point of his visit. She was speechless. Her throat burned as if she had just swallowed a mouthful of stir-fried red peppers, her mouth gaping wide open with that “smile” of hers. Ying took her reaction to mean that she was pleased but too shy to speak. As a result, he rambled on buoyantly with a torrent of words.
For a long time after Inspector Ying left, Ah-chiao remained slouched against the chair, motionless, bathed in sunlight, as if she were immersed in a tub of bubbling hot water, not daring to move an inch for fear of scaldinig her skin. When the bus attendants returned, one by one, she was still in this dazed state. At dinner, an attendant named Tsung, her eyebrows arched, complained that the sweet potato greens were overcooked. She also had other derisive remarks for Ah-chiao’s ears. Ah-chiao, however, ate her meal in silence, as if she hadn’t heard a thing. Ordinarily she could be expected to bang the table and shoot back a caustic remark or two.
After everyone had gone to sleep, Ah-chiao lay quietly on her canvas bed and went over in her mind everything Inspector Ying had said. She came to her senses and finally realized that Ying wanted to introduce a boyfriend to her. She was, of course, long familiar with the meaning of “boyfriend.” Almost every night the bus attendants discussed almost nothing else but “boyfriend.” She was, however, a woman over forty, and she felt a bit uneasy to hear herself mentioned in one breath with, Ugh! a “boyfriend,” as if she were guilty of trying to turn back the clock of life. It was in this mood of misgiving that she began to analyze the nuances of Inspector Ying’s words concerning, of course, her future spouse.
Ah-chiao’s “boyfriend” was fifty-one this year. That seemed a bit too old, but maybe it was better that way, because older people weren’t as vigorous and thus were easier to control. Ah-yüan, her first husband, had worked as a carpenter and was every inch as tough as a nail. If she talked back to him at all, fists would rain down on her in an instant. She couldn’t recall what year it had been when she had told him not to use such language as “fuck your mother” and other curses on New Year’s day, so that they would have good luck in the years to come. No sooner had she finished speaking than one of his legs landed on her chest. Badly hurt and bruised, she took to bed. Afraid that her condition would be found out, she made up some excuse not to visit her parents’ home the second day of the New Year.3
With Skinny Kao, the businessman, it was a different matter: they stayed together two days and separated for three. Even on the days they were together, he was always on the go. They really didn’t have enough time to nurture mutual affection. But though they had their share of arguments, at least they never came to blows. Skinny Kao had a wife and family and could have dropped her at any time to go back to them. But he didn’t, and probably it was for that reason that she was willing to offer herself to him without reservation. Even so, in the end they still went their separate ways. The saying that “loving couples don’t live to grow old together” was true after all.
The “boyfriend” Inspector Ying introduced was a Mr. Ou, who was on the payroll of a county government office. It seemed that he was head of some section. His position would be an honor for her. Besides, he wanted to take her formally as his wife. His two sons were already married and independent. The older one was apparently doing business in Japan and the younger one worked in a sugar refinery. His family was truly simple, with few house chores to take care of. Well, Ah-chiao thought, I might as well meet him and see what happens.
They arranged to meet at Joy-at-the-Threshold, a Japanese restaurant, at 7:30 p.m. sharp. She hurried to fix dinner for the attendants, then changed into a blue dress with a purple mosaic pattern made from the nice fabric Skinny Kao had given her. She looked lucky from head to toe.
Ah-yüan had died at thirty, run over by a car. Everyone said he had died in his prime because of his inauspicious features—ears stuck out, nostrils stuck out, teeth stuck out. If these three things stuck out, then it was small surprise that he died stuck out in the road. Skinny Kao went bankrupt and his property had been auctioned off. His inauspicious facial features were to blame—at least that was the opinion of those who knew him. He was skinny, so his bones were exposed; his forehead was concave, so his eyebrows were exposed; his cheeks were low, so his cheekbones were exposed. With these three things exposed, prosperity and honor were hard to hold. This time Ah-chiao was determined to pay special attention to facial features.
They sat in a quiet corner of the restaurant, separated from the other tables by Japanese-style carved screens. A lantern hung overhead, a faint flush flooding over them through the pinkish shade. Mr. Ou sat in this reddish glow, his face reflecting the rosy tint of the lamplight, an auspicious appearance indeed. Seeing him in this light, respectably dressed in a western suit, Ah-chiao was ecstatic. Of all the men she was acquainted with, not one had ever worn a western business suit. Not even Skinny Kao. Mr. Ou’s forehead was bald and shiny, as if rubbed with oil. It was said that those with high bald foreheads were sure to get rich. No need to work, and there would be plenty of food. She wished all his hair would hurry and fall out to guarantee his lasting good fortune.
Mr. Ou sat opposite Ah-chiao, with Inspector Ying to one side. Having introduced the two principal parties, Ying busied himself with helping Mr. Ou read the menu, turning to Ah-chiao for suggestions. Ah-chiao laughed nervously, her mouth as wide as usual, as if she were dining with a foreigner and didn’t know how to answer. Seeing her “smile,” Inspector Ying thought that she was satisfied with everything and didn’t ask for any further suggestions. After ordering, Inspector Ying quietly disappeared.
“Say, where has Inspector Ying gone?” Ah-chiao spoke up for the first time, her eyes boldly fixed on Mr. Ou. Her dark plump hand unconsciously slipped down from the table to her legs. She was afflicted with varicose veins and had put on long thick stockings for this occasion, in spite of the hot weather. She should be safe, she thought, because she was sitting opposite Mr. Ou where he couldn’t see her legs.
“Oh, yes. I wonder where has he gone?” Mr. Ou smiled, speaking in a tone which suggested that he had discovered Inspector Ying’s absence just now.
They started to talk, each sentence so formal that it sounded as if it had come out of a conversation textbook. At the beginning of each sentence was tacked on the phrase “Inspector Ying told me that . . .” or “Inspector Ying mentioned that . . .”, as if they had made a special trip to the restaurant just to discuss Inspector Ying.
When the food was being served, Inspector Ying suddenly reappeared on the scene. As soon as they saw him coming, their conversation abruptly halted, as if they were gossiping about his personal affairs. They talked as they ate, only now it was Inspector Ying and Mr. Ou who did the talking. They talked a lot, mostly about current events, worlds apart from Ah-chiao’s life. She seemed lost, her mouth agape, like a child listening in on adult conversation. Still, she was happy. After all, Mr. Ou had studied in school and knew a lot of things. If this introduction led to marriage, Mr. Ou could take care of the letter-writing to her son and daughter so she wouldn’t have to bother other people. She thought of her son, Chünhsiung, stationed in Kaohsiung on military duty. She thought of Ts’ai-o, her daughter, working as a maid in a hotel in Wan-li township. She wondered how they were getting along now, since she hadn’t heard from them for ages. Troubled by these thoughts, her lips involuntarily parted even wider.
Mr. Ou was in the heat of analyzing some current event and was about to finish when he suddenly noticed Ah-chiao’s “smile.” Mistaking that as her interest in his argument, he hurriedly repeated himself two or three times for her benefit. After that, he did his best to dig up all the topics he was familiar with to discuss with Inspector Ying. He expounded enthusiastically, as if he were giving a campaign speech.
A steaming dish of freshly shelled shrimp was brought to the table. Since the shrimp had been soaked in cornstarch, they were glassy and slippery. Mr. Ou picked up a large one with his chopsticks, dipped it in catsup, and was about to deposit it in his mouth when the plastic chopsticks slipped from his hand and dropped under the table. The shrimp landed squarely on Ah-chiao’s chest, leaving a large spot of catsup. Her breast looked as if it had blood on it, speared by Cupid’s arrow sent by Mr. Ou. Ah-chiao gasped; her face went pale. She grabbed a handkerchief to wipe the spot, her heart sinking. Inspector Ying called a waiter to bring a wet washcloth. Mr. Ou sat on one side speechless, like a naughty child awaiting punishment. He wrung his hands, murmuring “I’m sorry” over and over again.
The wet washcloth arrived. Ah-chiao prudently broke into a real smile. “Oh, don’t bother. I’ll take care of it when I get home. It’s just an old dress. Really, it’s not worth the bother.”
The next day Inspector Ying showed up carrying a present from Mr. Ou. Opening it, she found some material from Hong Kong to make a ch’ip’ao.4 Ah-chiao felt overjoyed as she stroked the smooth shiny brocade. She had seen others wear this kind of fabric but had never touched it before. Unfortunately, there were only two yards, only enough for plump Ah-chiao to make a one-piece western-style dress.
About one month later, Mr. Ou and Ah-chiao became husband and wife. With Ah-yüan she had had an eight-month engagement. She flirted with Skinny Kao four or five months before they started living together. But now, with Mr. Ou, it had taken only one month. One gets more impatient as one gets older.
By the time Mr. Ou was ready to make a formal proposal, two items of news concerning the practical aspects of marriage were circulating. A sixty-five-year-old woman was engaged to be the second wife of a Mr. Ou, owner of a soy sauce shop. The betrothment money was $52,000.5 A fifty-seven-year-old procuress married a stationery store merchant. Because her “market value” was less than others, the asking price was a little lower, only $45,000. Ah-chiao naturally listened attentively to all of these gossips, and held off giving a straightforward answer to Mr. Ou’s proposal. She would always change the subject, and she mentioned that some owner of a ready-made garment shop had sent a matchmaker over to propose to her.
“He said he’d give $40,000 for the betrothment, and what’s more, I would have the key to the counter cash box.”
Then her tone of voice would change. Shrugging her shoulders, she would break into a smile. “But if the person isn’t honest and likes to fool around, I wouldn’t take him even for $100,000! Don’t you agree?” This pronouncement carried an implication that she was interested in Mr. Ou for his trustworthiness despite the fact that he wasn’t wealthy.
But the next time, she would change her tune again. Who says fickleness is limited to young women?
“There’s a Mr. Chang who also came with a matchmaker,” she would say. “Everything about him is acceptable, except he can’t come up with reasonable betrothment money.”
She certainly wanted both the man and his money. According to what the fortune-teller had said, this would be her last marriage, so all the more reason to ask for a decent betrothment price. If she let this golden opportunity slip by, she would never get another. She had no hope of getting a high price like $52,000 or even $45,000. After all, not every woman her age could be as highly sought as the two exceptional ladies in the news, although it was a fact that she was more experienced in marriage. So she decided to settle for $30,000.
Originally, she was going to hold stubbornly to this figure, or else Mr. Ou could look elsewhere. Why so impatient? Hadn’t someone paid $52,000 for a woman over sixty? Later, however, she heard through the grapevine that Mr. Ou’s younger son, Shun-ch’eng, had mocked her and strongly opposed bringing her into the family as his step-mother. Worse still, she also heard that Mr. Ou had indicated to someone that he didn’t care about the outcome of his proposal one way or the other. After fuming about it for a while, she gave in and expressed her willingness to negotiate.
In the end, Mr. Ou’s final offer was to have his $20,000 savings account transferred to her name. It took Ah-chiao more than three days arguing with herself before she finally told Inspector Ying, “Well, I’ll put the matter in your hands, sir.”
They decided not to make a wedding announcement or send around engagement cakes,6 as was the custom. And they didn’t want to celebrate in the restaurant. Instead, they would prepare a banquet at home for one table,7 just for close friends and relatives. Ah-chiao had no objection to the new frugality ethic.
Around 10:30 p.m., the weather suddenly changed. Luckily, the guests had all gone home. The rain came pouring down and lasted more than two hours. About midnight the rain grudgingly let up and then ceased altogether. By that time Ah-chiao had finally finished her bath and changed into a new nylon nightgown. She sat in front of the new vanity table facing the mirror, pinning up her newly coiffured hair into a net. All the bus attendants routinely did this before they went to bed, just as they mechanically punched tickets when passengers got on the bus. She looked at herself in the mirror, and discovered that her cheeks were flushed bright red. Ah-chiao wasn’t going to drink much, but tonight everyone kept toasting her, a sip here, a sip there, and before she knew it, half a bottle of Red Dew wine had thus gone into her stomach. With her hairnet in place, Ah-chiao slowly turned around.
“Say, who was that woman sitting across from me?”
“The one in the long gown sitting next to Chang, the department chief?” Mr. Ou returned with a smile. He was lying on the couch and smoking, his belly covered with a bright red Japanese blanket. The newly replaced tatami mats had a yellowish sheen, and the air was filled with the fresh pleasing scent of dried straw. The freshly papered walls sparkled like snow. The brocade quilts and embroidered pillows were piled neatly on the redwood double bed. The sheets were a bright orange. Everything in this room was as new as the hearts of the newlyweds.
“That’s right. She was the one.” The hem of her nightgown was accidentally pulled up to her knees. She quickly lowered it to cover her legs. She had no stockings on and this wasn’t the appropriate time for her varicose veins to show.
On the other side of the plywood partition was the bedroom of Shunch’eng and his wife, Pao-chen. Just a minute earlier, she had heard Paochen washing the dishes. Now it was quiet. Probably everyone was in bed.
“That was Third Aunt.” Mr. Ou lowered his voice as much as possible, as it was almost midnight. Besides, this was their wedding night and anything they said would attract interested eavesdroppers. Even a simple statement like “I’m going to the toilet” could be converted into a lascivious statement by word of mouth. His daughter-in-law Pao-chen, for instance, was gifted with the ability to transform anything ordinary into the fantastic. Fortunately he had always quoted the maxims of Chu Pai-lu,8 such as “Gossiping women are the media of licentiousness and thievery,” to remind her not to meddle in other people’s business. But still he didn’t want to take a chance, particularly tonight.
Ah-chiao snorted softly. “So that’s Third Aunt!” Her voice had a hint of contempt. “No wonder she was always trying to put me down.”
Mr. Ou motioned to her to lower her voice.
Ah-chiao pretended not to understand his signal and continued to rattle along with an innocent look on her face. She said Third Aunt always looked at people out of the corner of her eyes. When Ah-chiao had toasted her, she had pretended to be flustered and refused to accept the compliment, as if she didn’t want Ah-chiao to have the honor.
“If she can’t drink, well, there’s nothing to it. But what’s the meaning of repeating ‘Wait ‘till next time? Humph. That double-talking bitch! She was obviously putting a curse on us so that we won’t live out our lives together. Humph. Next time indeed! Till I marry again was what she meant!”
“She didn’t mean that.”
“Well, I hope not.” Ah-chiao was absolutely certain there was no next time, since the fortune-teller had told her that she would have only three husbands in this life, no more.
She snorted again, and enumerated Third Aunt’s faults at the banquet one by one. She had asked Ah-chiao her previous husband’s name and occupation, and the name and occupation of the one before that. She did this kind of residence check right in front of Department Chief Chang, Inspector Ying, Shun-ch’eng, and Pao-chen! If Inspector Ying hadn’t changed the subject, Third Aunt might even have taken notes to file away for future reference on how often Ah-chiao had slept with her previous husband and the one before that.
Ah-chiao chose her words dispassionately, as if she were relating how unfilial a neighbor’s child was to his parents. She prattled on effusively, as if the affair was no concern of hers and she had no cause to get angry. Her cheeks seemed more than ever to be crinkled in a beneficent smile, emanating from her very heart. Mr. Ou was in an embarrassing situation: he could neither confirm nor refute what Ah-chiao had said about his Third Aunt. All he could do was let Ah-chiao carry on, at times adding a noncommittal word or two himself.
“Why did you invite her?”
“She’s the only remaining elder in the family. There was no excuse for not inviting her. She’s always had a sharp tongue. Better just ignore her.”
Someone seemed to be moving around in Shun-ch’eng’s room and Mr. Ou immediately stopped talking. Having finished his cigarette, he stood up and undressed. He hadn’t taken a bath yet. Afraid that he would catch a cold, he hadn’t dared take off his clothes until he had sobered up. Ahchiao, eyes riveted on Mr. Ou, didn’t speak, either.
A moment later she stood up and declared: “A relative like this is like a chicken who only shits and doesn’t lay eggs. If you want my advice, don’t have anything to do with her anymore!” She raised her voice as she spoke, enunciating the last few words as if she were giving a military order and wanted everyone to hear it distinctly.
What could Mr. Ou say? He bowed his head and silently unbuckled his pants. His palms were sweaty and he had a hard time loosening his belt.
Mr. Ou usually went to the bathroom from the time he got home from work to the time he sat down to dinner, about five or six o’clock. He suffered from constipation and had to squat there for as long as half an hour. The drawstring on his shorts was a bit short, leaving only a short section to be drawn and knotted at the waist. If he were careless and stood with his legs too far apart, the drawstring would slip back without warning into the eyelet at the waist. He had been thinking of asking Fao-chen to buy the kind of shorts with an elastic waist. Today, around 5:40 he had gone to the bathroom as usual. He must have taken an inordinate amount of time there, for Inspector Ying, tired of waiting outside, urged him to hurry in a loud voice. The drawstring to Mr. Ou’s shorts had thus been spirited into the eyelet. Frantic, Mr. Ou pulled the whole drawstring out and tied it tightly around his waist, then pulled up his suit pants. Once outside, he was dragged off by Inspector Ying to the wedding ceremony. Naturally, he had had no time to attend to this business again. Later, busy with the banquet, he had completely forgotten about it.
Now it was the belt that was stuck, perhaps because perspiration had soaked the leather. Mr. Ou became frantic and gave a hard tug. With a flourish the suit pants dropped to the floor along with his undershorts, guilelessly baring his sallow skinny rump, the white cotton drawstring still around his waist.
Fortunately, Ah-chiao was not unfamiliar with the sight of a naked man. Without the slightest hint of a blush, she gave a short grunt and walked over to help him get out of his pants. She then picked up the undershorts, scrutinizing them coldly as if she were a nurse examining the shorts of someone with venereal disease.
“Cheap things are always like this. The belt is never long enough.” She looked at him out of the corner of her eyes, then her voice raised slightly. “Doesn’t Pao-chen know how to sew? If she were willing to make you a pair, this wouldn’t happen!”
Her tone of voice seemed to imply that Mr. Ou’s grievance was all due to his daughter-in-law’s unworthiness. Mr. Ou felt it was necessary to say a few words in Pao-chen’s defense. They were only separated by a plywood partition. If Pao-chen had overheard! But how could he say anything in earnest with all this naked sincerity exposed to Ah-chiao? Nevertheless, Mr. Ou still wanted to get in a few words. When he was about to speak, Ah-chiao drew near and reached out to untie the drawstring at his waist, her nimble fingers at times tenderly grazing the skin below his bellybutton.
When she was married to Ah-yüan there had been a relative, probably the wife of Sixth Brother, who had taught her on the sly twelve ways to domesticate a husband. Of utmost importance was the necessity to overpower the mother-in-law and tame the husband. On her wedding night, when they sat down to dinner the first thing she did was to reach for the chicken head. There’s an old saying: “Chew the hen’s head and you’re taking the mother-in-law’s head!” Little did she know that the mother-in-law was no one to be fooled. No sooner had Ah-chiao picked up the chicken’s head than the old lady blocked Ah-chiao’s chopsticks in midair. A knowing smile flashed on her lips as she reminded Ah-chiao: “It’s simply improper to have the daughter-in-law gnaw the bones of the chicken head on her very first day. Here, this piece is a meaty one. Take it!” She picked up the tailbone and practically tossed it into Ah-chiao’s bowl.
Today there was no mother-in-law to contend with, only a Third Aunt. Ah-chiao was sure that Pao-chen would spread around her stinging remarks about Third Aunt. That, Ah-chiao was certain, would stop her from sticking her nose into Mr. Ou’s affairs. Now all she had to deal with was her husband. Would he be any problem?
The next day her facial expression was deathly blank. Only her two enormous breasts, unrestrained by a bra, bounced rhythmically from side to side with each step she took, like two electrically powered mill stones hanging down from her shoulders. Mr. Ou, by contrast, was the one who showed embarrassment, as if he was the one who had lost his virginity. He walked with an unusual gait, as if he hurt somewhere.
He was wounded, indeed. He had never thought he would turn out to be this useless. So many precious evenings had passed, and yet Mr. Ou was still unable to summon his masculinity. Ah-chiao kept after him relentlessly, pressing him until he felt like crying. A conscientious practitioner of the arcane art of virility-strengthening by way of scrotum-massage, Mr. Ou now found himself cut down to size. He tried every other method imaginable, but pathetically there was no ripple of movement. Finally, Ah-chiao resolutely raised one of her huge breasts and stuffed it into Mr. Ou’s mouth. That seemed to work a little, but not long enough for the final consummation. Near daybreak, Mr. Ou broke into tears. Ah-chiao hurriedly coaxed him to sleep, leaving whatever there was to be said for tomorrow.
Never having experienced such a situation before, she became a bit panicky, too. She asked all around for some medicine for restoring virility. Someone tipped her off that T ien Hsi-t’ang ginseng pills from Hong Kong were quite useful for that purpose. She immediately bought some, and had Mr. Ou take a dose every four hours or so. If he forgot to take them to work, she would take a pedicab down to the district government office building and have him suffer the embarrassment of downing one in front of his colleagues before she would return home. Day after day passed, but Mr. Ou’s potency showed no sign of returning. His constipation, however, became worse.
Suddenly she recalled that Skinny Kao had taken a kind of red pill before they had intercourse. He said it was imported from Japan. After taking it, his performance was always remarkable. It would be embarrassing for her to make inquiries at the drugstore, so she pleaded with Mr. Ou to go instead. Unable to refuse her, Mr. Ou agreed to ask around when he went to Taipei on his next business trip, for he was too embarrassed to ask around where he was known.
True to his word, Mr. Ou returned with a bottle from his trip to Taipei. However, it was an American brand. Ah-chiao was so overjoyed when she saw it that, to put it crudely, she had to tighten her buttocks to keep from letting out a joyful fart. After her marriage, she kept her job as cook for the bus attendants. She didn’t want to give that up. As soon as she had prepared their evening meal that day, she rushed home and the moment she arrived she got hot water ready for Mr. Ou’s bath. After bathing, Mr. Ou checked his watch, took the pills, and waited quietly with Ah-chiao, their eyes fixed on the new wall clock someone had given as a wedding present. He counted the passing of each second, each minute out loud, as if making a countdown for a satellite takeoff. That evening, his satellite took off on schedule and smoothly slipped into its orbit as planned with no mishap.
Ah-chiao was so ecstatic she blossomed!
Two weeks later, Mr. Ou returned to his old self. To his utter disgust, the American pills no longer worked.
Ah-chiao searched for another wonder drug even more earnestly. Finally she obtained a prescription from a woman from her hometown and hurriedly made a copy. Carrying it back home, she scurried about gathering all the ingredients together: some polygonum multiflorum, epimedium, foxglove, atractylis lancea, ligusticum root, and things like that. She also bought a white eel to simmer with the rest of the ingredients. In the middle of the night she woke Mr. Ou up to make him finish the whole brew along with the eel.
The next morning when she got up, Mr. Ou was still sound asleep. Without waking him, she headed for the dormitory to start work. She had just put the rice in the pot for the congee when Pao-chen’s oldest son came rushing into the dormitory in a panic.
“Grandfather’s taken ill! Mother says for you to hurry home.”
His illness was serious but not fatal. Perhaps the medicine had been too strong, just as too much excitement is harmful to heart-attack patients. Mr. Ou’s weak, aging constitution wasn’t up to this strong supplement. His whole throat had been scorched dry. He could open his mouth but no sound came out, as if he were speaking on the other side of a thick glass window. They brought in a doctor to give him some medicine and a shot, but his voice, like a maiden in ancient times, refused to come out.
This went on for more than a month, but Mr. Ou still couldn’t speak. His son, Shun-ch’eng, sent for many doctors of western medicine whom he knew, including Director Hsü of the Provincial Hospital. None could give an explanation for his dumbness. Ah-chiao, waiting on him nearby, sneered coldly every time she saw Shun-ch’eng bringing the doctors to the house. She silently cursed them—what are those shitty doctors coming here again for?
Having encountered such a mysterious protracted illness, Ah-chiao didn’t miss a single opportunity to visit temples to burn paper money, and certainly didn’t forget to get a packet of joss-stick ashes to bring back to steep in water for Mr. Ou to drink. The mystical fire-tempered medicine could surely dispel evil influences and hasten his recovery, she thought. Once when Shun-ch’eng caught her doing it, he raced over, grabbed the glass out of her hand, and dumped its contents onto the floor. “You’ve already harmed Father to this point, isn’t that enough for you? You still make him drink this filthy water! Besides, Father has always looked down on herbal medicines and fire-tempered ashes. He’s been to school and works for the district government. He’s no country hick who believes in this nonsense.’’
Since her husband’s dumbness showed no signs of improvement, Ahchiao could say nothing in reply, but the way Shun-ch’eng insulted her was deeply imprinted in her heart, and she awaited her revenge. “I’ll take my revenge, no matter how long I have to wait,” she promised herself.
Later someone told her that the juice from celery stalks could ease the inflammation and restore the voice. Ah-chiao waited until Shun-ch’eng had left for the office, then stealthily squeezed out some celery juice into a large bowl and mixed it with brown sugar. She saw that Mr. Ou wasted no time in downing it. The next day Shun-ch’eng found out, probably having been informed by Pao-chen. He didn’t make a scene, though, probably because he, too, held out a thread of hope for this herbal concoction.
About ten days later Mr. Ou got his voice back. That day there wasn’t a second from morning to night that Mr. Ou wasn’t talking, as if he were fearful that if he hesitated an instant he might not be able to speak again. Or perhaps he was simply trying to make up for not being able to speak for over a month. Anyway, he behaved like a student who, after goofing off the whole summer, spends the whole day before school registration making up a summer’s worth of calligraphy assignments!
But Mr. Ou’s virility was like water over the dam, never to return again.
As time went by, Ah-chiao became more uninhibited. In the beginning she had remained somewhat on guard against Shun-ch’eng and Pao-chen. She even kept her anger to herself about their not referring to her as “Mother,” though her heart was wrenched and torn by jealousy. Her new assertiveness was due to the fact that she was responsible for the recovery of Mr. Ou. If it hadn’t been for that celery juice, would he have gotten his voice back? Gradually her grievances against Shun-ch’eng and Pao-chen spilled out in one great rush, like an overflowing garbage pail being dumped out. On his part, Shun-ch’eng felt that respectable gentlemen do not quarrel with women, so he turned a deaf ear to Ah-chiao’s taunts. Paochen, not wanting to embarrass her husband and father-in-law, was also not willing to confront Ah-chiao. Gradually, Ah-chiao tired of finding fault with the two. It was no fun picking a fight if one’s opponent didn’t fight back.
Mr. Ou thus became the unfortunate target of Ah-chiao’s jeers, being mocked bluntly as “The Ball-less One” or “The Limp-stick.” Sometimes she would pointedly complain that if she had married that ready-made garment merchant back then, she wouldn’t have come to this—a passionate woman with no one to show her passion to. Or she at least should have followed the example of that old procuress, charging a betrothal price of NT$45,000. That way, she wouldn’t have labored in vain. There were times when she would even be more straightforward: she would tell her husband that even so-and-so was older than he was, but so-and-so never missed a shot—both his wife and his concubine were kept contented and pregnant.
Of course she no longer felt the need of hiding the coiling varicose veins on her legs from Mr. Ou now. When he saw them, he would choke, his heart stuck in his throat. Later, Mr. Ou didn’t dare look down any more. This became a habit, and from then on no matter what he was doing, Mr. Ou always craned his neck up high, his eyes raised, as if he was intoning some martial verse about marching forward, fearless of the danger ahead. Even going over reports in the office with his bifocals on, he would hold his head up high, eyes on the ceiling. For this his colleagues gave him the nickname “Mr. Cobra.”
Mr. Ou received his salary on the fifth of each month. When he brought it home, he would give a third of it to help Pao-chen with the household expenses. He gave half of the remaining amount to Ah-chiao, and kept the rest for pocket money. This went on without incident for three or four months, but suddenly one Sunday Ah-chiao unexpectedly protested.
“People raise children to have a source of support in their old age. Now you’re simply reversing this practice. Not only don’t you demand a penny of their money, you’re actually giving them yours! Is this what you raised your children for?”
“Since I can take care of myself, why should I make it more difficult for Shun-ch’eng?”
“Humph. That’s very considerate of you indeed! But if you didn’t have any income, I wonder if Shun-ch’eng would feel so kindly toward you, or simply let you starve to death.”
“I just give him a little sum. Why make such a fuss?”
“Just ‘a little sum’ is it? It comes to seven or eight hundred dollars. I slave all month and get only four or five hundred. And you say it’s only ‘a little sum.”
No matter what she said, Mr. Ou wouldn’t agree to stop helping Paochen with the monthly expenses. He didn’t say so explicitly, he just changed the subject whenever Ah-chiao brought it up.
That evening when Mr. Ou turned out the light and felt his way into bed, Ah-chiao gave him a hard shove and pushed him off the bed. She next cast down his pillow and quilt after him, as if she were throwing out trash.
“You ball-less thing! You’re not fit to sleep on the bed. Unfit to sleep on the bed . . .”
Each word resounded louder than the last. Mr. Ou wanted her to lower her voice and not create a scandal. But Ah-chiao, on the assumption that “the more disgraced her husband became in public, the more power she would have over him in private,” raised her voice on purpose to an earsplitting level.
There was really nothing Mr. Ou could do with her. He didn’t have the strength to begin with, so he just stood by silently, letting her tantrum run its course, her abuse sprinkled with “ball-less” and “you useless thing.”
But Ah-chiao wouldn’t let him remain silent. “Tell me, is there anything about you that’s useful? You’re afraid of your own children. You’re nothing more than a sack of garbage. Humph. What do you have to say for yourself? Tell me, what part of you, inside or out, is useful? Tell me!” How he wished his dumbness would recur at times like this! Even if it were only for a minute, it would be wonderful.
By the time Mr. Ou crawled onto the bedstead, the cocks were already crowing in the morning. She had him caress her buxom chest to massage away her anger, and wouldn’t allow him a second’s rest. Mr. Ou hadn’t slept a wink the whole night. He yawned incessantly while he was at work, prompting his colleagues to poke fun at him, saying he hadn’t slept well because of his “overtime assignments.”
He gave all his salary to Ah-chiao next month. She only gave him about two hundred dollars allowance for cigarettes, reminding him he’d better quit smoking because she might cancel the allowance next month. Out of Mr. Ou’s salary three hundred dollars were to be sent immediately to her son, Chün-hsiung, who was serving in the army. One hundred dollars was to be sent with equal dispatch to Ts’ai-o, her daughter, with a letter saying that if she disliked her husband, she should divorce him! So long as one is a woman, why worry about not getting a husband? Ah-chiao had wanted to add: Just look at your mother, what have I lost? Isn’t my present husband a respectable gentleman with a western business suit? She wanted to advise Ts’ai-o to take similar steps, but she couldn’t bring herself to say so in front of Mr. Ou.
Naturally Mr. Ou wasn’t willing to write down what she said. What person in his right mind would encourage his children to get a divorce? But Ah-chiao wouldn’t yield an inch. Recalling his disgrace at having been shoved out of the bed, Mr. Ou finally gave in.
Ah-chiao had always had her dinner with the bus attendants, if only because it was free of charge. But after she took charge of finances, she often returned home to eat dinner. Every time she was at the table, she pointedly found fault with the food. In the name of her love for Mr. Ou, she would point out how hard it was for him to make a living outside, and that he couldn’t go on without meat. After that, she would go out and buy five or six dollar’s worth of red-cooked pork for herself and Mr. Ou. When the grandchildren whined that they wanted to eat some pork, too, Ahchiao’s features froze and she scolded them, saying, “Children shouldn’t eat rich food!” Pao-chen sat silently nearby eating her dinner. Although she didn’t say a word, her face flushed and blanched intermittently, as if under a spotlight. Seeing that Pao-chen wasn’t about to take her on, Ahchiao was somewhat disappointed and chagrined.
After that, whenever Ah-chiao came home to dinner, Pao-chen would herd the children into their bedroom and wouldn’t let them out. But Ah-chiao would still have her points to make:
“Humph. She feeds you with only what’s fit for a pig. What an insult!”
“What are you fussing about? You don’t give her any help. Where’s the money to eat meat and fish every day?”
“Humph. She doesn’t have the money to feed you, but she has money to buy her own food to feed her children behind our backs. What kind of a section chief are you? So easily taken in!”
Ah-chiao would harangue on and on like this. At times Mr. Ou would get angry and talk back to her. He would point out that since Pao-chen wasn’t answering back, why should she keep prattling on so? He would also remind her that Pao-chen, like herself, was raised with the affection and care of her parents, and for this reason shouldn’t be picked on, just as she herself wouldn’t like to be picked on. Chu Pai-lu was certainly right in saying that “One who runs a household with a ruthless hand will come to an early end.’’
“Humph. It’s Pao-chen who’s the cunning and ruthless one. ‘Dogs that bark don’t bite’ ” Ah-chiao’s mouth was agape, the two creases from her nose to her lips were etched in a smile. Even when enraged, she always appeared ecstatic, as if naturally addicted to bickering.
One Monday morning some time later, Ah-chiao solemnly announced that she and Mr. Ou were going to cook separately. Mr. Ou listened to her announcement in silence. He didn’t go to the office that day, either, fearful his colleagues would again poke fun at him, saying he had had another “overtime assignment.” They couldn’t have guessed that he had again slept on the floor half the night.
Shun-ch’eng, stunned at first at the announcement, suddenly became enraged. “This is all your doing, you old hag, trying to break up our household, you—” Before he could finish, Mr. Ou had rushed over to box him soundly on the ears.
“Call her an old hag, but she’s still your step-mother.”
Her hands on her hips, Ah-chiao curled her lips in a sneer.
Later, Mr. Ou regretted what he had done. He had never before hit his children like that. He kept wanting to find a chance to explain, but Ah-chiao kept a close watch on him that day, not letting him slip away to be alone with Shun-ch’eng.
The next afternoon Shun-ch’eng and Pao-chen moved into the Restoration Sugar Refinery’s dormitory. Ah-chiao was a bit disappointed, for she hadn’t expected to get rid of her enemies this quickly. It was unfortunate, because she still had all sorts of tricks up her sleeve that she wouldn’t have a chance to show off now. But she was very good in making use of her talents. The day after Shun-ch’eng and Pao-chen moved out, wherever she went, she would complain: “They don’t want to spend money on their aging father, so they’ve moved out! Young people these days are really something! They carry an abacus around their necks, calculating everything. Now all the burden falls on me, taking care of the house as well as going to work.”
Once Shun-ch’eng and Pao-chen were gone, the house seemed deserted. Mr. Ou felt terribly lonely. Recalling the times he had spent with Shun-ch’eng and Pao-chen, and the fun he had had with the grandchildren, he fell silent, sitting woodenly on the sofa, his eyes glazed over as if in a trance. He saw himself in front of the grandchildren, explaining to them the meaning of Chu Pai-lu’s maxim on managing the household: “Rise at dawn, sprinkle and sweep the terrace . . . keep the house and yard sparkling clean . . .” He had also offered advice to Pao-chen and Shun-ch’eng, urging them not to be greedy about money, or drink too much.
As soon as Ah-chiao saw him lost in thought like this, she would busy herself serving him tea and fruit, speaking to him tenderly as if she had graduated from a training school for new brides. She would comfort him by saying:
“Chün-hsiung’s about ready to leave the army. When he gets back, we should find him a wife, then the house will be a bit more lively. Chünhsiung’s an obedient child, just wait and see! He’ll be more filial to you than anyone else could be!”
As the days passed, Mr. Ou gradually got used to his feeling of loneliness and desolation. But Ah-chiao, on the other hand, became more and more demanding, wanting him to quit smoking and stop writing letters to Shun-ch’eng. She even limited his toilet time to ten minutes. Sometimes when he was unusually constipated and went over the time limit, Ah-chiao would rap on the door to the toilet, causing whatever little bit he was laboriously squeezing out to be sucked back in. From then on Mr. Ou learned his lesson and didn’t dare defecate at home anymore. Instead, he tried to perform mightily in the office rest room. The toilet was filthy and reeked of urine. When he came out, the foul stench hung around him and wouldn’t go away. Mr. Ou thus gained another nickname: Mr. Stink.
He would force himself to hold off on Sundays, waiting until Monday to defecate. On those days he didn’t dare move around too much, for when he did, his belly would puff up and send out farts in protest. Lately he hadn’t gone out visiting on Sundays, all because of this. His only hobby was, as in the past, to read over the newspaper carefully. But while he read selectively before, he now became interested in the ads as well, especially the colorful columns run by the dubious sex clinics. He would savor such phrases as “Turn Impotency to Potency” or “Men, Your Opportunity to Restore Virility is Now!” and commit them to memory.
Early one Sunday, Ah-chiao had Mr. Ou write Ts’ai-o, asking how divorce proceedings were coming along and whether or not she needed her mother’s help. Having sealed the letter in the envelope, Ah-chiao took it out to mail.
It was the end of October. Autumn was in the air. A slight chilliness pervaded the morning, and the sunlight was like a glass of tepid water one swallows medicine with.9 Plump Ah-chiao still felt hot in her short sleeves, perspiration beading her forehead. Having mailed the letter, she cut over to the market and bought over a catty of pig intestines to make an herbal soup known for its cooling effects. Her back was already sopping with perspiration as she struggled out of the crowded market. She chose shaded parts of the street to walk along, thus taking three times as long to get home. Reaching the lane to her house, she spied Mr. Ou and Shunch’eng talking outside, shaded by the banyan tree. They appeared solemn, with Shun-ch’eng constantly looking about as if standing guard. Scurrying into an obscure shaded corner and waiting for them to finish their conversation, Ah-chiao pricked up her ears to hear what they were saying, but to no avail. If only she had returned earlier, she thought. Her biggest worry had been letting the two of them have a chance to be together.
Shun-ch’eng finally left when the sanitation truck entered the lane. Mr. Ou waved him away anxiously as if trying to hurry him. No sooner had he turned back into the house than Ah-chiao sauntered in carrying the pig intestines. Holding the morning paper high above his head, Mr. Ou resembled a cobra arching its neck to the tune of some distant flute. Behind him was a large window, tightly shut to seal off the cool autumn breeze. The dark green curtains were pulled half shut, allowing only part of the sunlight in. Sitting in the green shade of the curtain, he appeared submerged in a pond overgrown with algae. Spying Ah-chiao, he nodded and acknowledged her with only “You’re back,” then lapsed into silence again, as if the deep green water had blocked his windpipe.
Ah-chiao exhibited the pig intestines wrapped in lotus leaves to Mr. Ou: “I bought over a catty of pig intestines to make the soup!”
“Uh.” A grunt, then silence again. Mr. Ou continued reading the paper, savoring the colorful clinic ads.
Having cleaned and chopped the pig intestines, Ah-chiao changed her clothes before going into the living room. She looked around and found it needed some cleaning up, so she took up a broom to sweep the floor. Since Pao-chen and her family had left, the morning cleaning fell on her shoulders, but she never complained. Perhaps she had heard Mr. Ou reciting Chu Pai-lu’s maxim so often that after a while even she came under its influence. Ah-chiao didn’t know who this mysterious Chu Pai-lu was, but thought that since Mr. Ou invoked his name every day he must be some powerful deity.
Taking up the broom, she first opened all the windows to let light in. The breeze carried in the urgent tune of the sanitation truck churning out its gay music, ding, ding, ding. Ah-chiao remembered that the garbage pail in the kitchen needed to be taken out now, since it would be another week before the truck would come again. A draft of the autumn air blew in. Mr. Ou suddenly sneezed, a spray of saliva the size of a bowl wetting the paper.
“Don’t open all the windows at once!’’ Covering his mouth, he sneezed again, this time spraying his hand with saliva. Embarrassed, he quickly pulled out a handkerchief to wipe it off.
“Am I right in saying you’re just useless? Only a little breeze!” She closed the windows half-way and turned around, opening her mouth several times as if trying to say something. She swallowed hard several times to hold it back, but what was in her mind was as difficult to repress as urine in a bulged bladder. So in the end she broke loose:
“Wasn’t Shun-ch’eng just here?”
“So you know!” This time instead of sneezing, he farted twice.
“What made him bother to come over? Didn’t he say he wouldn’t come here anymore?”
Mr. Ou stuffed the handkerchief back into his pocket and swallowed, as if preparing to deliver an oration. He said Shun-ch’eng wanted to go into business and urgently needed some capital. He had come over to ask Mr. Ou to help him out. He spoke casually, as if it were some trivial matter.
“And what did you tell him?” Ah-chiao glared at Mr. Ou to make sure he wouldn’t come up with a lie.
“We ought to help him out. Of course, I have to ask you first. The savings account is in your name anyway.”
Ah-chiao didn’t say a word. She resumed her sweeping with a flourish, and savagely attacked the small six by six living room. Dust arose all over. Mr. Ou hated dust, often telling his grandchildren that it contained germs. Once dust was inhaled into one’s body, it was easy to come down with some illness. He hurriedly pulled out his handkerchief again, selected a corner not wet from his sneezing and tightly covered his mouth. Seeing him act like this, Ah-chiao purposely raised up a cloud of dust. Afterwards, she straightened up, and plunked the broom to the floor. “You can save your breath. Not a penny from me for your baby boy! May the Thunder God take care of him some day.”10
The transition from her throwing down the broom to her speaking spanned less than twenty seconds. The alacrity of her movement, like some woman sword fighter, was startling and allowed one no way to duck out of the way.
Sitting silently on the sofa, Mr. Ou appeared in a trance, as if some of his acupuncture points had been touched by the lady swordsman and he had been temporarily rendered speechless.
“This was agreed upon beforehand. This money is mine to use as I see fit. You have no say in it any more. If you don’t remember, I’ll bring Inspector Ying in!”
“Ai-ya, it’s not such a big deal—”
Not letting him finish, Ah-chiao cut in. “This was agreed on beforehand. Since it’s mine now, there’s no way for you to want it back. Anyway, I want to save this money to get Chün-hsiung a wife. If you want to give it to that short-lived boy of yours, you’ll have to take it over my dead body.’’
Unwilling to hear any more, Mr. Ou became angry. “All right then, don’t help him. But don’t curse him. Can’t we have some decency in our house?” His head was held high, like a cobra poised to strike.
The sanitation truck’s chimes sang out urgently. If she didn’t take out the kitchen garbage, it would have to wait another week. Without retorting, she turned into the kitchen, eyebrows arched, her haughty appearance enough to scare even spirits and ghosts.
Carrying the plastic garbage pail into the living room, Ah-chiao stopped short, cocked her head and poked her free hand at Mr. Ou’s face.
“Look, the son you raised yourself, and he doesn’t give a shit about you. Decency? What a laugh! Don’t you ever try again to snatch away money for my coffin and give it to someone else!11 You’re really useless!”
“What do you mean, useless?” Mr. Ou abruptly stood up, the late autumn sunlight filtering through the window and reflecting off his face, as if he were an old nag confined to its stall.12
“Tell me just one thing here or at work that you can do. Mr. Ball-less—shall we talk about decency some more? What a joke!” Without looking back, Ah-chiao started for the door with the garbage in hand.
Another draft of autumn wind blew into the room. The sanitation truck chimes continued to urge the people to hurry out with their garbage. Ding-ding-ding, bring out the garbage. No more joyous sound than this.
After dumping the garbage, Ah-chiao carried the empty pail back into the parlor. Mr. Ou snapped the paper open in midair, his veins popping out on his fingers as he vigorously pointed to a large clinic ad.
“I’m going to Taipei on business Friday and look these people up. This time I’ll look them up! You just wait and see! Am I really all that useless? I won’t let you call me Mr. Ball-less my whole life, that’s for sure!”
Illiterate, Ah-chiao stared at the newspaper as if she were the White Snake facing Fa-hai’s magic spell against spirits, full of fear as well as respect, unable to speak.13 When she finally found something to say, Mr. Ou had already left the room. That newspaper which had momentarily cast her under its spell lay against the table leg.14 The pages rustled back and forth in the wind, happily dancing about. Ah-chiao seemed to recall that Mr. Ou had farted noisily, as he shouted just then. Maybe he had gone to the toilet. Since he was so angry today, she decided not to rush him, just in case he really was in the midst of evacuating his bowels.
She picked up the newspaper and laid it flat on the table, scanning it at the same time, but she couldn’t find the place Mr. Ou had just referred to. She would have to take it to show someone to see what mysterious element it contained. She shrugged, her eyes coming to rest on the Chu Pai-lu maxim hanging on the wall. She couldn’t make out even one word of it, but was familiar with what it meant. Maybe it was true that the educated could really practice what they preach, not to mention that Mr. Ou had a deity like Chu Hsi on his side. Maybe he really could make the flat round and the round flat. Who knows? She appeared worried and heaved a sigh. She was afraid that one day she’d lose her hold on the money and Mr. Ou, and according to the fortune-teller, this was her last marriage. Suddenly she remembered that someone had mentioned that spirits and ghosts were equally afraid of a fierce person. A smile instantly brightened her face as if she already had a plan. She decided that Mr. Ou’s toilet time should still be limited to ten minutes. She shouldn’t make any allowances.
Ding-ding-ding. The sound became fainter. The sanitation truck was moving away.
1. Reference to the three marriages of Ah-chiao.
2. A man or woman fated to encounter an unusual number of love affairs or marriages in his or her life is said to be under the influence of the “Peach Blossom Star.”
3. In traditional China, a wife returned to her parents’ home for a visit on the second day of the New Year.
4. Tight-fitting Chinese sheath with a high mandarin collar and side slits.
5. The figures are in New Taiwan currency. The exchange rate was roughly one American dollar to forty at the time of the story.
6. Flat round cakes filled with sesame paste sent to relatives and friends on announcement of an engagement.
7. Usually for ten or twelve people.
8. A scholar of the early Ch’ing, Chu Pai-lu (1617-1688) was the author of Maxims to Order a Household (Chih-chia ke-yen). Here and elsewhere in the story, Chu’s sayings do not always appear in complete quotations.
9. Chinese herbal medicine pills are supposed to be swallowed with lukewarm boiled water.
10. Reference to a folk belief that thunder is an expression of Heaven’s anger. An unfilial son or daughter is therefore a likely target for a thunderbolt.
11. Money for one’s coffin: an exaggerated way to indicate one’s savings are not to be squandered without a specific and urgent purpose.
12. Reference to a line from “Yu-t’u pu-t’ung,” a poem by Ts’ao Ts’ao (A.D. 155-220), Chinese warrior, statesman, and poet. The complete line: “though the old thoroughbred is confined to its stall, / its ambition soars a thousand li” (lao-chifu-li/ chih-tsai ch’ien-li).
13. Legend has it that a white snake in West Lake in Chekiang Province assumed the form of a beautiful woman to seduce men and eventually cause their death by imbibing their energy. The most famous version of this legend is the subject of a Ming story “Eternal Prisoner under the Thunder Peak Pagoda” (Painiang-tzu yung-chen lei-geng-t’a) in which the Buddhist monk Fa-hai finally subdues the snake by magic spells.
14. In the story cited above, various Taoist charms were used to dispel the white snake, but to no avail.