Born and raised in Sarawak, Li Yung-p’ing came to Taiwan to study English literature at National Taiwan University, where he took his B.A. in 1967. Driven by homesickness, he tried to recall his childhood in the South Seas through the medium of fiction. His first attempt, “The La-tzu Woman” (La-tzu fu, 1968), epitomizes the mise-en-scène and the ethos of his imagination, which are to recur frequently in his later writing. “The Rain from the Sun” is one of three related but independent stories under the serial heading “Legends of Chi-ling” (Chi-ling chi). Its title is metaphorically ambiguous. On the one hand, it refers to the tropical showers which are so hot that they appear to have come direct from the sun. On the other hand, it denotes the stultifying atmosphere and blinding passions that drive some Chi-ling residents to the brink of madness and depravity. What is unique in Li Yung-p’ing’s fiction is his ability to elicit intense human drama out of the moral chaos in a self-contained legendary world. His work offers a dramatic foil to the staple of tendentious writing in recent Taiwan fiction.
Li Yung-p’ing received his Ph.D. in comparative literature from Washington University in 1982, and is currently a member of the English Department at National Sun Yat-sen University in Kaohsiung. Most of his publications appear in the United Daily (Lien-ho Pao). A fastidious writer with a penchant for revision, he is taking his time to add finishing touches to his published stories before gathering them in an anthology. “The Rain from the Sun” won the first prize in United Daily’s fiction contest in 1979, and is accordingly included in United Daily Prize-winning Stories in 1979 (Lien-ho Pao liu-pa-nien-tu tuan-p’ien-hsiao-shuo-chiang tso-pin-chi, Taipei, 1979). Li’s work is discussed in my article “The Tropics Mythopoetized” cited in the Preface.
Translated by Candice Pong and Robert Eno
Hsiao Lo1 walked home under the scorching sun. His gaunt chest was bare and he cursed Heaven for the heat. His mother was sitting on the doorsill with her head bent, carefully picking out unhulled grains from a pan of rice. She heard him kick open the wooden gate of their bamboo hedge fence, and spoke without lifting her eyes from her chore.
“Hsiao Shun’s wife from next door just came by with the news. Liu Laoshih is back in town.”
Hsiao Lo stood in the shade of the doorway and glanced at his mother, then, turning away, he stared out over the white glare on the pond in front of the house.
“Mother, you’re missing two of your buttons.”
She set the pan of rice down on the ground and closed her blouse over her old, vein-streaked breasts, fastening it with a hairpin that she plucked from her head.
“For the next day or two you’re going to stay home and wait this out,” she said. “You stay away from that demon. If you go on with your evil deeds, I swear I’ll knock my head against this door and die before your eyes!”
Hsiao Lo sat down on the doorsill, close to his mother. “Heaven damn this heat! It’s enough to make your sweat turn cold. A month since the last rain!”
The old woman turned around and looked closely at her son. “Don’t you go on cursing Heaven! Sooner or later, lightning will strike you down after all you’ve done.” She reached over and felt his chest. “What’s wrong with you, breaking out in a cold sweat on a hot day like this? Go fix yourself a bowl of hot ginger broth and drink it right now. It’s good for cold sweat.”
Hsiao Lo went into the kitchen, filled a ladle with water and poured it over his head. His mother, coming in after him with the pan of rice, saw him hunched over the half-full jar, his arms braced against the rim, looking down into the muddy water with a vacant stare.
“Look at you!” she scolded. “Your face is green as a corpse!” She set the pan on the stove and went to the cupboard to look for ginger. Hsiao Lo raised his head and yanked off the undershirt draped across his shoulders to wipe his face with it, slowly making his way back out. As he walked into the courtyard he passed a bitch dozing in the shade, and he gave her a kick in the chest.
“Mother, I feel sick. The smell of ginger makes me want to throw up. Fix it for me later.”
The old woman shook her head in resignation. “Back to your evil ways again, eh?”
The young wife of their neighbor came into the kitchen, her breast exposed, nursing the baby in her arms. She was grinning as she spoke to Hsiao Lo’s mother. “I was just passing by and decided to drop in to see you. Why is that dog yelping so piteously?”
The bitch was tied up in the courtyard, and now lay whining in the shadows. She was curled up, licking her belly with her long red tongue, and looking furtively at the man standing above her.
Hsiao Lo’s mother took a ham bone from the cupboard and threw it out into the courtyard. “He’s been out dog-snatching again. Who knows where he got this one.”
Hsiao Lo came back into the kitchen. He ignored the two women and walked directly to the iron pot used for cooking pig slop. He heaved it onto the stove and began to fill it with ladlefuls of water. Without a word, he proceeded to pile a big stack of wood in the belly of the stove. Hsiao Shun’s wife watched as he took a dagger from a hidden compartment in the cupboard. She carried her little son out into the courtyard and peered down at the dog.
“What a fine-looking bitch,” she chuckled, looking back at Hsiao Lo’s mother. “Her fur’s so black and so slick. Looks young, too. I’d say she hasn’t had any pups yet.”
The old woman heard her but said nothing. She carried out a pan of bean sprouts, sat down on the doorsill, and began to snap the ends off with her fingers.
Hisao Shun’s wife looked up at the sky. “A month since it last rained, and nothing but blue sky for days. Anyway, I can’t say I’m not happy to see at least some dark clouds gathering up there.”
“Auntie,” raising her voice, she called out to Hsiao Lo’s mother, “the weather’s changing.”
The old woman kept on snapping beans as if she were not listening. “It’s about time, too,” she muttered to herself. “Heaven couldn’t be so blind as to let the sun dry up all the pepper plants in the gulch.”
Down in the courtyard Hsiao Lo tossed a ladle of water on the whetstone and crouched down with the dagger in his hands. Hsiao Shun’s wife stood in the shade and watched him sharpening it. Her child, sucking heartily at her breast, giggled with delight and suddenly bit down on her nipple.
“Auntie, it’s really something. Have you heard of a baby growing teeth in the first year! It’s a sure sign he’ll grow up to be the scourge of his mother.” She slapped the child affectionately on the cheek.
“No comparison with the dog thief I’ve got in my house,” said the old woman from the doorsill. “When I carried him, he kicked and jolted in my belly. And that first month of lying-in, he bit and chewed whenever I suckled him. Finally, by the time he was two, he had grown the sharpest teeth I’ve ever seen. It was as if I’d been his enemy in some previous life and now he’d returned to get even with me.”
Hsiao Lo thrust the sharpened dagger into his waistband and turned to his mother. “I was a bad seed from the very start, born with a worm in my brain. Sooner or later it’ll eat up my soul and drive me crazy, and then you can rest easy, Mother.”
His mother kept her head bent over the bean sprouts. After a while she looked over to Hsiao Shun’s wife. “See what a good son I’ve raised. He’s got sharp teeth now, and his arms are thick and brawny. Even his own mother can’t hold him down. Running after that hoodlum Sun Ssu-fang from dawn to dusk, calling him his brother! Tagging behind him wherever he goes, whoring and gambling. And the night of the Kuan Yin parade in Wan-fu Lane,2 he was teamed up with Sun Ssu-fang again in his evil ways. And now Liu Lao-shih’s come back! Let him settle the account himself.”
The stove began to spit and crackle as the water in the pot boiled over. Hsiao Lo hunched over and fed more wood into the burner. His sweat poured down, glistening on his swarthy body. He mopped his forehead with his undershirt as he watched the fire.
Hsiao Shun’s wife came to the kitchen door and spoke to the old woman. “Strange, wasn’t it, that we had a rainstorm the first time Liu Lao-shih ran away from the asylum in the city and came back to Chi-ling. It’s a month ago. And it hasn’t rained since.”
Hsiao Lo’s mother got up and carried her pan inside. She went into the main room where the Kuan Yin altar stood. She wiped her hands before she lit three joss sticks and placed them before the statue. “A lot of the men in our town and those from the gulch went to Wan-fu Lane that evening to see the parade. When Liu Lao-shih’s wife was dragged into the whorehouse and raped by a gang of drunks, not one of these men came forward to raise a finger and stop Sun Ssu-fang and his foul deed. They suddenly turned into a flock of gaping geese—just stood there gawking. The poor little thing Ch’ang-sheng hanged herself the next morning. If Heaven has eyes, these men will surely be punished.”
Hsiao Lo didn’t say a word. He took a length of hemp rope from the cupboard and stuck it in his waistband. Averting his eyes from his mother’s stare, he picked up a hemp sack and sauntered out to the courtyard. It was four o’clock and the sun’s rays slanted into the house. Hsiao Lo’s long thin shadow was cast across the courtyard and up onto the opposite wall, where his head and neck hung at an angle to the rest of his body. It looked as if it were the very image of the Death Messenger in the temple processions, swaying on tall stilts, shaking his big rushleaf fan and dangling his tongue.3
The pot of water on the stove was at full boil, filling the kitchen with hot, moist air. Hsiao Shun’s wife pulled her nipple from her son’s mouth, coaxing him to turn around and watch Hsiao Lo sport with the dog. Hsiao Lo hissed and shook the sack at the dog. The bitch huddled at the foot of the courtyard wall and watched him with stealthy, gleaming eyes. The baby had nestled his cheek against his mother’s breast and was watching Hsiao Lo’s caper with amusement. Suddenly, he opened his mouth and burst out crying, his tiny fists pawing at his mother’s bosom.
“Stop teasing it,” Hsiao Shun’s wife pleaded with Hsiao Lo, trying to calm her child. “It’s sickening to watch.”
Hsiao Lo took another step towards the dog, gave the sack a hard jerk and stamped his foot on the ground. The bitch was aroused. Slowly she struggled to her feet and snarled at Hsiao Lo, baring her fangs. This finally drew a grin from Hsiao Lo. He sprang forward, and in two quick steps had swung the sack over the bitch’s head. A quick yank and the sack was closed. Then he whipped the hemp rope from his waistband, wound it around the top of the sack, and pulled it into a tight knot.
“Heaven is watching!” The old woman had stuck her head out of the kitchen door and saw what her son was doing.
The baby had stopped crying. His arms were wrapped around his mother’s neck; he chuckled with delight now, and watched Hsiao Lo throw the heavy sack to the ground and give it a kick.
“Show some mercy and kill her with a club. One good blow will do it! Look how she’s kicking and jumping in there. If you want her to suffocate to death, you’ll have to wait an hour or two.” Hsiao Shun’s wife carried her son over to the sack and nudged it with her foot.
Hsiao Lo removed a cigarette butt he had placed behind his ear and lit it inside the stove belly. He went back out and squatted down at the edge of the courtyard, dragging on his cigarette as he watched the sack turn and twist in the sun. Hsiao Shun’s wife frowned disapprovingly as she stood looking at him.
“You’d better mend your evil ways. Didn’t your mother tell you yet? Hsiao Shun came home a while ago and said that a stranger came to town at noontime. He said he’s got a sack over his shoulder and something heavy’s in it. His face is so hairy that he looks like a wild man from the mountains, and they can’t see his mouth, or his nose, or even his eyes. So no one knows who or what he is. And when he came into town he went straight to the k’u-lien tree4 in front of the county granary and sat down under it. Doesn’t pay attention to anyone—just sits there hugging his sack, and he’s been sitting patiently since noon. As soon as the news that Liu Lao-shih was back in town was reported, some of the men who had a bad conscience for what they did all rushed home and huddled inside like they’d seen a ghost. But then they got restless sitting around doing nothing, so now they’ve all slipped into the woman Chu’s teashop across the street from the granary. Hsiao Shun said you’re not to go out for the next couple of days, because who knows, that crazy man might have a butcher’s cleaver hidden in that sack.”
“A bad seed like me is bound to be struck down by lightning sooner or later. Why should I be scared of his butcher’s cleaver?” Hsiao Lo tossed away his cigarette and stood up. He grabbed a pole which they kept for carrying buckets and walked toward the middle of the courtyard. His mother’s, voice came from inside. “There s lightning above and the King of Hell below. He’s got a ghost in his conscience. There’s no use worrying about him.”
Hsiao Shun’s wife pressed her baby’s head against her bosom, standing to one side and watching without a word.
Hsiao Lo moved his hand over the writhing sack and groped around for the dog’s head. Then he lifted the pole high and struck down hard. A stifled moan came from the sack. The bitch’s hind legs jerked the sack taut twice and quietly Hsiao Lo struck it again.
Hsiao Shun’s wife took her hand away and sighed. “You really did a clean job. Last time Hsiao Shun killed one, he pounded away a dozen times, only to find the dog was still kicking around in the sack.”
Now the sack collapsed into a lifeless lump. Hsiao Lo went up to it and turned it over with his foot. Blood began to seep out slowly. He squatted down, deftly undid the rope and dragged the bitch out. Her skull was split in two.
Hsiao Lo’s mother’stuck her head out through the kitchen doorway. “Are you sure you want to watch such evil with your baby in your arms?” she called out to Hsiao Shun’s wife.
Hsiao Shun’s wife was watching Hsiao Lo draw the sharpened dagger from his waistband. It flashed with a cold brilliance. “It’s already dead!” she shouted back without turning her head. “My son didn’t see him kill it.”
Hsiao Lo held the dagger in one hand and grasped the dog’s neck with the other. He ran the tip of the dagger over the throat for a moment, then he slit open the gullet with a single, measured stroke. He stood back a few steps as a stream of blood gushed out. He watched for a while, then he went back to the stove and poured several ladles of boiling water over the dead dog. The bitch lay on her back, her legs pointed up toward the red evening sun. Her eyes were open and shone like glass beads, blank with astonishment. Somehow, her expression resembled that of a dead five- or six-year-old child.
Hsiao Lo wiped the bloodstained dagger on the dog’s fur, and gave the cutting edge one or two skims on the whetstone. Then he split the dog open from her throat straight down through her belly in one smooth cut. He tossed the dagger aside and wedged his right hand into the cleavage. He flicked his fingers through the length of the gash, then yanked the sides open with both hands. He thrust his hand inside and began to dredge out the dripping innards. Hsiao Shun’s wife walked over with her hand covering her son’s face. She crouched halfway down and ran a finger over the dead dog’s teats. She squinted back at Hsiao Lo and chuckled. “The little brat! Her nipples were just starting to get big. Another six months and she’d have found herself a mate to make her a real bitch.”
Hsiao Lo got a basin and filled it with hot water. He rinsed out the belly of the dog. Then he flayed the carcass and chopped it into pieces. “I’ll stew her up with pepper and sauce,” he said to Hsiao Shun’s wife. “You can have a bowl of it tonight.” She giggled and stood up, hiding her mouth in her baby’s cheek and giving it a smacking kiss. “I don’t want any,” she replied, pushing her nipple back into the baby’s mouth. She started to walk toward the kitchen door, but suddenly turned to look back. “Last time that bastard Hsiao Shun forced me to eat some, it made me feel sick for days. Every time I went out I felt as if all the dogs on the street were glaring at me.” She chuckled again and said, “Dogmeat really does something funny to you! It makes your whole body itch with a burning sensation.”
Hsiao Lo put the meat into the pot and left it stewing on the stove. Suddenly a fit of dizziness seized him and he felt everything falling away. His legs became shaky. He reached out and grabbed the edge of the stove to brace himself, then slowly sank down onto a stool. He stared out into the sunlit courtyard, where the dog’s innards lay in a pool of blood. But he could not shake off the sudden memory of Liu Lao-shih wielding that blood-soaked cleaver.
That evening, two days after the night of the Kuan Yin Festival, Liu Lao-shih had gone crazy because his wife had hanged herself. He sprang out of Wan-fu Lane to search out his wife’s rapists in East Market Street. Hsiao Lo was hiding in the thatched privy behind the woman Chu’s teashop opposite the county granary. Peeking over the wall, he watched that deranged man bolt silently into the kitchen next door, grab Sun Ssufang’s wife and, without a word, slice off her nipples. The woman Chu had bolted up her shop. She dragged Hsiao Lo out from the privy and shoved him into the teashop. She had made him stand behind the door and watch through the slats.
The street was seething with people. A crowd of idlers had gathered in front of Sun Ssu-fang’s house. With nothing better to do after dinner, they jostled around the house with their mouths hanging open and watched Liu Lao-shih spring out of the house holding a bloody cleaver in his hand. He strode off toward West Market Street, silent as before, and they all fell in behind him, pushing and shoving each other as if afraid to lose sight of an angry demon. After a while the clamor died away, and the only person left on the street was Liu Lao-shih’s mother. The old woman was down on her knees in the middle of the street, her face turned toward the retreating crowd, sobbing loudly. Hsiao Lo had run out the back of the teashop and fled home. He had lain under his quilt retching all night. His mother made him two bowls of ginger broth, but he vomited it back up, all over the old woman’s face.
“If you don’t clean up the courtyard, the neighbors will see all the blood and think we’re running a murderer’s den.” His mother had sent Hsiao Shun’s wife away and come back into the kitchen. Her son was staring out into the courtyard, sweat pouring from his torso. She went up to him and felt his chest. “Your skin feels cool. Breaking out with a cold sweat on a hot day like this! I told you to go fix yourself some ginger broth. What harm could it do you? If you come down with sunstroke in this kind of weather, well, don’t expect me to listen to you groan and moan all night.” She felt for the ginger in the cupboard and looked hard at her son again. “And you’re going to stay home for a few days. Keep you from stirring up that madman and getting chopped up by that cleaver.”
“Stop nagging me, Mother.” Hsiao Lo yanked the drenched undershirt from his shoulder and pulled it over his head. “Vengeance will fall on the evildoer, debts will fall to the debtor. I’m just going to take a look at him, he’s not going to cut me into pieces just for that!” He turned his back to the old woman and quietly slipped the bloodstained dagger under his shirt. Then he fed more wood into the belly of the stove and put a cover over the pot stewing the dogmeat with pepper and sauce. “Watch the fire, Mother. I’ll clean up the courtyard when I get back.”
Hsiao Lo stepped out the gate. The blinding white sun of noon had burnt itself into a disk of raw luscious crimson, ready to sink. It looked as if it had permanently suspended itself over the horizon at the edge of town. A hot, arid wind suddenly rose, twisting out from nowhere. It pierced the undershirt that clung to his skin, and, cooled by the damp sweat, sent a shiver creeping up Hsiao Lo’s spine. He turned his back to the sun and began to walk. Next door, Hsiao Shun’s wife sat on her doorsill, her breast bare as she suckled her child. Her lips parted in a grin when she saw Hsiao Lo go by. Hsiao Lo felt a wave of nausea. He clutched at his chest, squatted down by the gutter, and belched out two mouthfuls of gastric spittle. He didn’t care who saw.
It was quiet down the alley. Women in their thinnest clothing sat out on their doorsills, waving large rushleaf fans. The young ones suckled their babies, the old ones culled their rice. From time to time, they looked listlessly at the sky and watched the dark clouds that had been gathering overhead since midday. Dogs sprawled silent in the shade, their red, slimy tongues jerking as they panted for breath. Nobody stirred when Hsiao Lo went by. Both the women and the dogs stared at him with lazy, vacant eyes.
It had been hot the day of Kuan Yin’s birthday, the nineteenth day of the sixth month. The heat had been just as oppressive as it was today. By noon Hsiao Lo had drunk himself sick. For a while he had managed to hold up by hugging his chest, but he soon gave up and vomited his bellyful of meat and wine all over the street.
Earlier that day, altars had been moved out in front of all the shops along East Market Street. At noontime the women came out carrying incense urns. Overhead the sun seemed to be pouring on them like molten iron. They lit their joss sticks, bowed before the altars and solemnly prayed that Kuan Yin protect and bring peace and prosperty to every household in Chi-ling when she came around for her annual ceremonial parade through the town.
Hsiao Lo grabbed a short bench from the woman Chu’s teashop and sat outside under the eaves. He fanned his chest and watched the street gradually fill up with the men from the gulch. They had come in for the festivities of the day and were scurrying in and out of Wan-fu Lane, poking their heads in here and there with eyes agog.
“Lecherous louts! Coming into town and making a beeline for Wan-fu Lane on today of all days!” Sun Ssu-fang staggered over with a bottle of wu-chia-p’i wine5 in his hand, cursing the heat with every step. He was about to pull off his undershirt when he lurched and fell against the woman Chu, who had just come out of her shop carrying an incense urn.
“Why don’t all of you go home and stay there until you sober up!” she snapped. “This place stinks of your vomit!” Just as she said this, she caught sight of someone in Wan-fu Lane that made her change her tone of voice. “Well, well, today’s a great day indeed!” she smirked, “Liu Laoshih has let his woman out.”
Sun Ssu-fang followed her gaze. “And what a smooth, white piece of meat! To have it all wasted on that coffin-maker!”
The woman Chu set the incense urn down gently on its stand, and gave Sun Ssu-fang a dark, cryptic look over her shoulder. “Don’t cross that coffin-maker. You know what they say about him, ‘He’s slow to boil, but when he does, he cracks the pot.’ ”
Hsiao Lo felt another surge rise inside his chest. He tore over to the gutter and vomited until his stomach was empty. This sobered him up a bit, and when he looked up from the gutter her saw Liu Lao-shih’s wife, Ch’ang-sheng, coming out of Wan-fu Lane, walking in the sun down East Market Street with a basket on her arm. She wore a simple blouse with a high collar, and her trousers were of the same material: a small flowered pattern on a plain white background. Her eyes narrowed against the sun. The men on the street all turned their heads to watch her as she passed by. A lustful gleam came to their eyes as they looked her up and down.
Four young punks, about fourteen or fifteen years old, came scrambling out of Wan-fu Lane. They fell in behind Ch’ang-sheng and followed her on tiptoe, grinning mischievously. As they came up under the k’u-lien tree in front of the county granary on East Market Street, they let out a shrill whistle and swooped around her. They pantomimed the men who bore Kuan Yin’s sedan chair in her yearly procession through town: they dipped and swayed with shouts of “heigh-ho, heigh-ho!” Just as they were working themselves to a frenzied pitch, they caught a glimpse of Hsiao Lo bearing down on them like a mad demon, and they scattered.
Hsiao Lo drew a bill, crumpled beyond recognition, from his waistband, and, flourishing it in his hand, sidled up to Ch’ang-sheng. “Mistress Liu,” he simpered, crouching, “you dropped some money.” Ch’ang-sheng’s face flushed red but she kept on walking with her eyes down. For a while Hsiao Lo trailed stupidly behind her, but he noticed all the shop women lighting incense in the sun so he stuffed the bill back into his waistband. Slowly he caught up with Ch’ang-sheng. “Don’t you know today’s Kuan Yin’s birthday? How come Brother Lao-shih’s still squatting in his shop making coffins?”
Ch’ang-sheng’s face went pale as she turned around to look at Hsiao Lo. Hsiao Lo felt a quiver go through his heart, and he sobered up a little more. He retreated, taking a slow step back, and at the same time he said to her, “Mistress Liu. A busy street in broad daylight. You’ve nothing to be afraid of.”
A string of firecrackers, the fuse lit, was thrown from the eaves of one of the shops. It fell without a sound right in front of Ch’ang-sheng’s feet. Then it broke into a burst of explosions. Hsiao Lo’s head shot up. He saw one of the four young punks hiding under the eaves behind a post. The boy was craning his neck and grinning at Ch’ang-sheng. He held a stick of incense in his hand, the tip glowing fiery red.
“You filthy little runt! If you’ve got any hair on your prick, I’ll pull it out!” Hsiao Lo sprang toward the boy, raising his fists. Another string of firecrackers came shooting out into the street. Ch’ang-sheng stood with the basket on her arm, at a loss as to what to do and pale as could be. As Hsiao Lo charged after the boy, cursing, the little wine left in him surged to his head. He tore off his undershirt, baring his gaunt chest, and ran up and down the street, wildly chasing after all the young punks in the street. The uproar reached every shop in the street, and every other young lout hurried out to join in, carrying firecrackers and a stick of burning incense. A score of half-grown boys followed close behind Hsiao Lo, tossing firecrackers every which way, goading him with shouts of “Welcome Boddhisattva Kuan Yin, Goddess of Mercy!”
“Hsiao Lo!” Hsiao Shun walked up to him and shook him hard. “Has the Death Messenger snatched your soul away?”
Hsiao Lo raised his head and gazed at Hsiao Shun.
“Look at you! Your face is as green as a corpse!” said Hsiao Shun, loosening his grip. He looked up at the sky. “The weather had better be turning. If it doesn’t rain soon, the folks down in the gulch might as well go hang themselves in front of Kuan Yin.”
Hsiao Lo suddenly began laughing idiotically. “That lunatic Liu Lao-shih, has he really come back?”
“He’s still sitting there under that k’u-lien tree in front of the granary, taking his nap.” Hsiao Shun went up a few steps toward home, but suddenly turned and eyed Hsiao Lo inquisitively. “That night after you and Sun Ssu-fang got drunk, why didn’t you just go and sleep it off? Why did you run into Wan-fu Lane and bring this evil curse on all of us?”
That day Sun Ssu-fang had gotten drunk on wu-chia-p’i. At first, his pock-marked face flushed bright red. As he drank into the evening it turned a grayish green, and a steady stream of curses poured from his lips toward the sky.
He led a bunch of hangers-on staggering into Wan-fu Lane, cursing and coughing. “What has the world come to? Here comes the mother whore leading her flock to worship Kuan Yin, choking the street with their incense!”
Hsiao Lo leaned against Red Spring’s door. His bellyful of wu-chia-p’i was acting up. He felt his bloodshot eyes fill with water. Then he became aware of bursting firecrackers, and when he looked up, all of Wan-fu Lane seemed ablaze. Those four filthy young punks from East Market Street were scampering barefoot into the lane, screaming, “Welcome the Boddhisattva! Welcome!”
“I’ll get you, you little—” Hsiao Lo started toward them, cursing, but the wine surged to his head again. He spun around twice then fell sprawling in the middle of the lane, raising howls of laughter from all the men gathered under the eaves of the brothels watching the Kuan Yin parade.
A firecracker rocket shot up into the dark sky. Hsiao Lo craned his neck to watch it. Half of the sky was aglow with an umbrella of red petals. Seconds later they dissipated like meteors, into the vast night.
Hsiao Lo was crawling to his feet, knees still weak, when his eyes fell on the sedan chair bearing Kuan Yin. He fell back to his knees, staring, in a trance. There, seated in the darkness of the pitching, tossing sedan chair, he was sure he saw Ch’ang-sheng, so demure, so beautiful, her eyes half closed.
Those four young punks came scampering up to Hsiao Lo and dragged him over under the eaves, twisting his arms.
“You drunken devil! Just after downing a few cups of cat piss,6 you go spewing filth in the middle of the lane and blocking Kuan Yin’s holy procession. What gall! You’re just begging us to spit on you!”
Ch’ang-sheng was dressed in her simple blouse and trousers, a print of tiny flowers on a white background. She was kneeling demurely before her husband’s coffin shop next to Red Spring’s brothel. She held joss sticks up to her brow. With an expression of extreme reverence she followed her mother-in-law in paying homage to Kuan Yin, Bestower of Children. The Boddhisattva was dressed in snow-white robes, and in her arms she held a rosy-cheeked infant, upon whom she gazed with half-lidded, rapt eyes, her face filled with compassion.
Slouched against the door of the coffin shop, muttering curses, was Sun Ssu-fang, his face green with drunken stupor.
“The Boddhisattva is going to show us her magical power!” cried Hsiao Lo. He ripped the undershirt from his body, exposing his gaunt chest.
Out in the middle of the lane, an old shaman7 stood soaked in blood, a sword gripped tight in his hand. His eyes were half shut as if in a trance. Blood slowly seeped from his navel onto his black robe, which was already dyed a deep crimson. He displayed it dripping before Kuan Yin’s eyes.
“The Boddhisattva has revealed to us her magical power!” cried Hsiao Lo. He staggered up to the shaman, reached out his hand and rubbed some blood from the old man’s navel: laughing foolishly, he smeared it on his own face. His cry was echoed by the onlookers under the eaves of the brothels. It grew into a roar: “The Boddhisattva has revealed to us her power!”
Hsiao Lo stood up in the lane and tried to steady himself. His eyes, blurred with the wu-chia-p’i wine, glanced over the crowd of men jostling under the long row of eaves. Their faces were strangly contorted. Suddenly overcome by the rank stench of blood, his heart faltered and everything began to fall apart. He went reeling down and toppled squarely before Kuan Yin’s sedan chair.
The four runts pounced on him without warning and dragged him away, spitting, “You drunk! Blocking the holy sedan chair again. Just wait till we open our pants—we’ll piss on you, one at a time!”
The sky whirled, the earth churned. Hsiao Lo could feel the worm that was gnawing at his brain, turning round and round, spiraling down. The din of firecrackers and the roar of the crowd no longer reached his ears. His eyelids twitched with spasms as he tried to open his eyes. Vaguely, he saw Ch’ang-sheng’s mother-in-law sprawled in front of Red Spring’s door. The faces under the eaves began to bloat and balloon before his eyes, spinning around him, crowding toward him as if they were going to devour him.
“The Boddhisattva has given us a sign!”
With a great leap Hsiao Lo butted his head against the door of the brothel run by Red Spring. It flung wide open. In the hall, perched on her altar, sat the statue of Kuan Yin, head bowed, eyes lowered, mute and withdrawn. The light from two red candles shone on her compassionate face, so peaceful and yet so mysterious.
The door to Red Spring’s room was half ajar. The red embroidered quilt on the bed was covered with slime. Sun Ssu-fang, his swarthy back glistening, was sprawled over Ch’ang-sheng’s snow-white breasts. He was biting her nipples in wild abandon, nipples that had never suckled a child. A final surge rose inside his chest, and Hsiao Lo fell into a crouch beneath the altar. The vomit rose in one rush after another; he felt as if his insides were being dredged out. He stared up toward Kuan Yin, as his violent retching echoed through the stale air. The noise of the crowd and the firecrackers outside rose back to a clamorous din. All of Wan-fu Lane seemed to have lost its soul. And like the turtledove’s bloody mourning cry, deep in the midnight woods, came Old Mother Liu’s shriek, “Heaven will smite! Lightning will strike! Thunder will roar!’’
A group of young boys were running and hollering on East Market Street when they saw Hsiao Lo at the other end, walking toward them with glazed eyes. They came to a braking halt, and slowly jostled each other across the street to the front of the preserved fruits shop. They stared at Hsiao Lo, choking with mischievous laughter. An old woman came out of the shop. She glared at them angrily. “Vengeance will fall on the evildoer, debts will fall on the debtor. Now that Liu Lao-shih’s back, the whole lot of you will have to pay!” She glanced up at the sky, then bent down to pick up the tray of orange peels that had been left drying in the sun. “The Boddhisattva has eyes,” she muttered, as she carried the tray back inside.
The boys snuck up after Hsiao Lo and tiptoed behind him. As the k’ulien tree came into view, the youngest one sidled up by Hsiao Lo and tugged at his pants. “Brother,” he whispered, “don’t go up there. That demon Liu Lao-shih is waiting for you.”
Hsiao Lo looked over his shoulder. At the end of the street, the sun was still suspended over the horizon. The street was bathed in red. Over by the granary everything was quiet, except for the cawing of the black crows8 that wheeled about the branches of the k’u-lien tree. The tree, scorched by the sun for the past month, stood gaunt and lonely. A thin veil of golden dust now hung over it. Bent at the waist, it hunched toward the sinking sun, seeming to stare at it vacantly. Beneath the tree sat the napping man, his arms wrapped around his knees, hugging a sack to his chest.
The woman Chu came out of the teashop. She stood under the eaves complaining loudly about the heat. She craned her neck to look at the sun, then looked up at the mass of dark clouds gathered overhead.
“The weather’s turning. If it doesn’t rain soon, we might as well put a torch to the town and burn it all down.” She emptied the basin of muddy water that she had brought out with her onto the ground in front of her shop. She had already noticed Hsiao Lo standing in the middle of the street, looking as if he had lost his soul. His bloodshot eyes were blurred, but he kept them fastened on the man beneath the tree.
“So, you too know when vengeance is near!” she scolded. As she turned back, she saw the men huddled inside her shop looking out into the street.
“Big, brave bunch of he-men, all of you! You’ve done your evil deeds, and now your hearts are ghost-ridden. One look at you fine fellows makes a woman feel sick.”
The old fortune-teller walked across the street carrying a cup of tea. He kept his eyes on the ground as he slowly made his way, but glanced up to study the man sitting beneath the tree. “Liu Lao-shih committed murder and went crazy. The constables took him and locked him up tight. How could they let him escape a second time? It just doesn’t stand to reason! And then, this man here doesn’t look crazy at all. I think he’s just a drifter passing through.”
“If it is that crazy demon,” said the woman Chu, “so much the better. As long as you’ve got a clean conscience, why should you care? Could it be, old sir,” she laughed coldly, “could it be that you, too, were watching the parade in Wan-fu Lane that night?”
The fortune-teller’s face stiffened. He looked over and spoke gravely. “I was watching them greet Kuan Yin from my doorstep. Not a drop of blood ever touched me. I’m white as innocence itself, and my conscience is clean.” He uncurled a finger from around his cup and pointed at Hsiao Lo. “This little lout got himself drunk and went with Sun Ssu-fang and his gang. It’s they who sinned, who brought us disaster, who summoned the plague demon to descend on us. It’s they who dragged every frightened innocent in town into their evil mess!”
The old man’s words brought the customers in the teashop shuffling to the doorway. They craned to look at Hsiao Lo, and then peered over at the man beneath the k’u-lien tree. The sun beyond the town was growing redder and redder as it sank. From the woman Chu’s teashop, the empty street in front of the county granary appeared to be spread with a thin veil of golden dust. The shadow of the man joined the shadow of the tree and they slanted across the street, stretching over toward the teashop. Women from shops next door carried out stools to sit under the eaves. They fanned themselves with large rushleaf fans. The young ones bared their breasts and suckled their babies. Their listless eyes were all turned toward the k’u-lien tree across the street. An arid gust of wind suddenly twisted through the air. The shadow of the k’u-lien, long and scraggy, softly caressed the heart of Chi-ling Town. The women looked up at the dark, heavy clouds assembling swiftly in the sky. They listened to the ceaseless, mournful cawing of the black crows above the granary.
One of the men in the teashop stood holding his own porcelain teacup from home. He peered out from the doorway a long while, then burst out, “Vengeance will fall on the evildoer, debts will fall on the debtor. That cleaver of Liu Lao-shih’s surely will not fall on an innocent body!”
“When Liu Lao-shih went crazy,” said another man, shaking his head, “and took to the street killing people, who of us didn’t wish to see every one of those louts chopped down. Who’d have thought that the victims would be two women—the whore Red Spring and Sun Ssu-fang’s wife?”
The woman Chu snorted. “Why, you’re actually eager to see Liu Laoshih come back and wreak his vengeance. Don’t tell me you two didn’t play your parts that night!”
She walked to the back of her shop and filled a basin with water to splash on the ground under the eaves. Hsiao Lo’s lone shadow was still stretched across the street. She went over to him and grabbed him by the arm. “Don’t you know what’s good for you?” she chided. “Standing out in the middle of the street attracting attention! If you could see how wretched you look standing out here! If that man were really Liu Lao-shih, he would’ve chopped you to pieces long before this!”
Without a word, Hsiao Lo followed her into the teashop. He sat down behind a table near the door. The fortune-teller casually walked outside and stood under the eaves sipping his tea. Again he peered across the street and studied the man sitting beneath the tree, then turned his grave face back to look at Hsiao Lo thoughtfully. The woman Chu brought out a cup of freshly brewed tea and set it in front of Hsiao Lo. She studied him. “Why didn’t you stay put at home? Why come running here and create a spectacle for these men?”
Hsiao Lo drew out the dagger from under his shirt. He placed it down softly on the table and sat staring at the half-dried dog blood smeared on its blade.
One of the men from the gulch sitting behind him suddenly heaved a sigh. “This weather! If it doesn’t rain now, I’m going to tie up my wife and kids tomorrow, drag them to Kuan Yin’s temple, and chop them to pieces. That’ll open the Boddhisattva’s eyes!”
“If she won’t open her eyes,” answered another, “there’s nothing you can do to make her. Even if you took a torch to the main temple on West Market Street, she wouldn’t if she doesn’t want to.”
The woman Chu walked over and filled their cups with hot water. “You two just forget about slaughtering your families and burning down the temples. If your consciences are clean you don’t have to worry about the ghost of Ch’ang-sheng going down to the gulch to search you out.”
Suddenly, thunder rolled overhead. The woman Chu stood in the middle of her shop, holding herself very still, head tilted to listen. It came from far above the seven heavens, rolling and grumbling, like someone being throttled. The whole town of Chi-ling paused, as if its heart had stopped beating. In front of the granary the street lay silent and empty. The crows, perched on the k’u-lien tree, flew up in confusion, flapping their wings and cawing with mounting urgency.
It was dark inside the teashop; the lamps had not been lit. The rays of the setting sun, heavy and silent like molten gold, filtered down the street from beyond the town and cast themselves upon the shadowy faces of the men inside. The townsmen and the men from the gulch all laid their cups gently on the tables. They looked out and saw the red sunset grow deeper and dimmer. They cocked their ears, gauging the sounds from the heavens above.
A streak of lightning slithered out from behind the k’u-lien tree like a long, white snake. A moment later they heard the muffled roll of thunder come across the sky. Soon the sky above the granary was crossed with streaks of lightning, splitting the heavens asunder at last. Waves of thunder chased each other across the sky, rearing and pitching over Chi-ling Town.
“It’s turned at last!” exclaimed the woman Chu, tossing aside the kettle and striding out under the eaves. All down the street, from the north end to the south, not even a single shadow of a man was in sight, except that of the one sitting beneath the k’u-lien tree. Beyond the town, the blood-red sinking sun ignited the western sky. It hung just over the horizon, glaring back through the center of town to the k’u-lien, gaunt and lonely.
A hot gust of wind twisted silently over the street, scattering the dark evening air, sweeping up the rustling yellow leaves lying in front of the granary. The woman Chu shivered, and turned to look at Hsiao Lo. He had lifted his head, and was staring out with fathomless, empty eyes. A bolt of lightning sliced the sky in two; the dagger on the table gleamed a cold blood-red. One by one, the men inside the teashop came out and huddled under the eaves. They sipped their tea and watched the white snakes slithering across the crimson sky. Another gust of wind twisted down the street. Fat drops of rain began to fall pattering down.
On either side of the teashop the women rose from their stools to stand under the eaves of their shops. The younger ones were still suckling their babies, and the older ones held their rice pans closely to their bosoms. Quietly, they all watched the torrents of rain coming down.
The man beneath the tree rose to his feet. He looked up at the flock of crows frantically beating their wings, seemingly bewildered by the wind and rain. They scattered toward the west, a burst of black specks in the brilliant awesome sunset.
The man they feared to be Liu Lao-shih shook off the raindrops and wiped his hairy cheeks with the back of his hand. Throwing the sack over his shoulder, he walked out into the street, tucking his chin down on his chest.
Hsiao Lo felt for the dagger. He slipped out of the teashop and onto the street like a kite broken loose from its string.
The two of them stood in the middle of the street. The man slowly looked up at Hsiao Lo. The wind howled past the granary. The k’u-lien, hunched toward the sun beyond the town, soughed as it scattered its yellow leaves over the ground beneath it. On one branch sat a lone crow. Its mournful cries mingled with the sound of the wind and rain.
Slowly the man turned around, shrugged the sack on his shoulder, and heedless of the rain he began to walk away down the long street.
Hsiao Lo stood in the street alone, blankly staring after the man’s retreating back. He looked over to the side. The woman Chu was still standing at the door of her shop, looking at Hsiao Lo quietly through the rain. Under the row of eaves across from the granary, men and women stood lost in a trance, hypnotized by the great torrent of rain. Hsiao Lo felt a vast emptiness growing in his heart. At last, he deposited the dagger back under his shirt and he, too, turned toward the blurry red sun beyond the town. Then, tucking his chin down on his chest, he began to walk home. The empty street glistened with the rain and the sunset. It stretched on and on, broken only by the gaunt and lonely shadows of the two men.
1. The Chinese nomenclatural system needs a word of explanation here. “Hsiao Lo” literally means “Little Happiness.” “Lo” is a given name. When a surname or a given name is prefixed by hsiao, it is intended as a familiar form of address. Another character that is prefixed by hsiao is Hsiao Shun. Like Hsiao Lo, a number of proper names in the story are invested with either ironic or symbolic significance. Thus “Wan-fu Lane” is “Lane of Myriad Blessings”; the town, “Chiling,” means “Auspicious Tomb.” The coffin-maker Liu Lao-shih can be translated as “Liu the Honest One.”
2. Wan-fu Lane is the red-light district of Chi-ling Town. The woman Red Spring, mentioned later in the story, is one of the prostitutes residing in the lane. Kuan Yin is the Boddhisattva Kuan Yin, worshipped in China as the Goddess of Mercy and Progeny. Legend has it that she once became a prostitute in order to redeem the sinners from this lust-ridden world.
3. The wu-ch’ang is a personification of the Buddhist doctrine of impermanence. In popular belief, it is thought of as a messenger demon of death under Yen-lo, the King of Hell. Hence the translation.
4. A lofty tree, Melia japonica, with bipinnate leaves; a native of East Indies, it grows in hot climates. Also known as Pride of China and the Chinaberry.
5. A millet wine soaked in the bark of the spicy plant Acanthopanax spinosum.
6. Vulgar expression for liquor or wine.
7. A familiar figure in popular Buddhist-Taoist ceremonies, the chi-t’ung (here translated as “shaman”) is believed to be capable of communicating directly with the deities on behalf of ordinary mortals. The rituals he performs are usually violent and bloody, often involving physical self-affliction in a demonstration of his supernatural, divinely endowed prowess.
8. A symbol of ill omen in Chinese superstition.