W4-Mao+Dun-Spring+Silkworms

W4-Mao+Dun-Spring+Silkworms - Spring Silkworms by Mao Tun...

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Unformatted text preview: Spring Silkworms by Mao Tun Translated by Sidney Shapiro Old T’ung Pao sat on a rock beside the road that skirted the canal, his long-stemmed pipe lying on the ground next to him. Though it was only a few days after the Ch’ing-ming Festival1 the April sun was already very strong. It scorched Old T’ung Pao’s spine like a basin of fire. Straining down the road, the men towing the fast junk wore only thin tunics, open in front. They were bent far forward, pulling, pulling, pulling, great beads of sweat dripping from their brows. The sight of others toiling strenuously made Old T’ung Pao feel even warmer; he began to itch. He was still wearing the tattered padded jacket in which he had passed the winter. His un— lined jacket had not yet been redeemed from the pawn shop. Who would have believed it could get so hot right after Ch’ing—ming? Even the weather‘s not what it used to be, Old T'ung Pao said to himself, and spat emphatically. Before him, the water of the canal was green and shiny. Occasional passing boats broke the mirror—smooth surface into ripples and eddies, turning the reflection of the earthen bank and the long line of mulberry trees flanking it into a danc- ing gray blur. But not for long! Gradually the trees reappeared, twisting and weaving drunk- enly. Another few minutes, and they were again standing still, reflected as clearly as before. On the gnarled fists of the mulberry branches, little fingers of tender green buds were already burst- ing forth. Crowded close together, the trees along 1See the note [0 “Medicine,” p. 9. the canal seemed to march endlessly into the dis— tance. The unplanted fields as yet were only cracked clods of dry earth; the mulberry trees reigned supreme here this time of the year! Be— hind Old T’ung Pao’s back was another great stretch of mulberrytrees, squat, silent. The little buds seemed to be growing bigger every second in the hot sunlight. ' Not far from where Old T’ung Pao was sitting, a gray two-storey building crouched beside the road. That was the silk filature, where the delicate fibers were removed from the cocoons. Two weeks ago it was occupied by troops; a few short trenches still scarred the fields around it. Every- one had said that the japanese soldiers were at- tacking in this direction. The rich people in the market town had all run away. Now the troops were gone, and the silk filature stood empty and locked as before. There would be no noise and excitement in it again until cocoon-selling time. Old T’ung Pao had heard Young Master Ch’en—son of the Master Ch’en who lived in town—say that Shanghai was seething with unrest, that all the silk weaving factories had closed their doors, that the silk filatures here probably wouldn’t open either. But he couldn‘t believe it. He had been through many periods of turmoil and strife in his sixty years, yet he had never seen a time when the shiny green mulberry leaves had been allowed to wither on the branches and be- come fodder for sheep. Of course, if the silkworm SPRING SILKW’ORMS eggs shouldn’t ripen, that would be different. Such matters were all in the hands of the Old Lord of the Sky. Who could foretell His will? “Only just after Ch’ing—ming and so hot al- ready!" marveled Old T’ung Pao, gazing at the small green mulberry leaves. He was happy as well as surprised. He could remember only one year when it was too hot for padded clothes at Ch’ing—ming. He was in his twenties then, and the silkworm eggs had hatched “200 percent”! That was the year he got married. His family was flourishing in those days. His father was like an experienced plow ox—there was nothing he didn‘t understand, nothing he wasn’t willing to try. Even his old grandfather—the one who had started the family on the road to prosper ity—seemed to be growing more hearty with age, in spite of the hard time he was said to have had during the years he was a prisoner of the Long Hairs.2 Old Master Ch’en was still alive then. His son, the present Master Ch’en, hadn’t begun smoking opium yet, and the House of Ch’en hadn’t be- come the bad lot it was today. Moreover, even though the House of Chen was the rich gentry and his own family only ordinary tillers of the land, Old T’ung Pao had felt that the destinies of the two families were linked together. Years ago, Long Hairs campaigning through the countryside had captured T’ung Pao’s grandfather and Old Master Chen and kept them working as prisoners for nearly seven years in the same camp. They had escaped together, taking a lot of the Long Hairs’ gold with them—people still talk about it to this day. What’s more, at the same time Old Mas- ter Ch’en’s silk trade began to prosper, the cocoon raising of T’ung Pao’s family grew successful too. Within ten years grandfather had earned enough to buy three acres of rice paddy and two acres of mulberry grove, and build a modest house. T’ung Pao’s family was the envy of the people of East I45 Village, just as the House of Ch’en ranked among the first families in the market town. But afterwards both families had declined. Today, Old T’ung Pao had no land of his own; in fact he was over three hundred silver dollars in debt. The House of Ch’en was finished too. Peo— ple said the spirit of the dead Long Hairs had sued the Ch’ens in the underworld, and because the King of Hell had decreed that the Ch’ens repay the fortune they had amassed on the stolen gold, the family had gone down financially very quickly. Old T’ung Pao was rather inclined to be— lieve this. If it hadn’t been for the influence of devils, why would a decent fellow like Master Ch’en have taken to smoking opium? What Old T'ung Pao could never understand was why the fall of the House of Ch’en should af- fect his own family. They certainly hadn’t kept any of the Long Hairs’ gold. True, his father had related that when Grandfather was escaping from the Long Hairs’ camp he had run into a young Long Hair on patrol and had to kill him. What else could he have done? It was fate! Still from T’ung Pao‘s earliest recollections, his family had prayed and offered sacrifices to appease the soul of the departed young Long Hair time and time again. That little wronged spirit should have left the nether world and been reborn long ago by now! Although Old T‘ung Pao couldn’t recall what sort of man his grandfather was, he knew his father had been hard-working and honest—he had seen that with his own eyes. Old T’ung Pao himself was a respectable person; both Ah Szu, his elder son, and his daughter—in—law were industri- ous and frugal. Only his younger son, Ah T0, was inclined to be a little flighty. But youngsters were all like that. There was nothing really bad about the boy. Old T’ung Pao raised his wrinkled face, scorched by years of hot sun to the color of dark 2In the mid-nineteenth century, China‘s oppressed peasants rose against their feudal Manchu rulers in one of the longest (1851—1864) and most bitter revolutions in history. Known as the Taiping Revolution, it was defeated only with the assistance of the interventionist forces of England, France, and the United States of America. The Manchus hated and feared the “Long Hairs," as they slanderously called the Taiping Army men, and fabricated all sorts of lies about them in a vain attempt to dis- credit them with the people. Old T‘ung Pao, although steadily deteriorating economically, is typical of the rich peasants. Like others of his class, he felt and thought the same as the feudal landlord rulers. 1 4 6 M A 0 parchment. He gazed bitterly at the canal before him, at the boats on its waters, at the mulberry trees along its banks. All were approximately the same as they had been when he was twenty. But the world had changed. His family now often had to make their meals of pumpkin instead of rice. He was over three hundred silver dollars in debt. Toot! Toot—toot—toot . . . Far up the bend in the canal a boat whistle broke the silence. There was a silk filature over there too. He could see vaguely the neat lines of stones embedded as a reinforcement in the canal bank. A small oil-burning river boat came puffing up pompoule from beyond the silk filature, tug— ging three larger craft in its wake. Immediately the peaceful water was agitated with waves rolling toward the banks on both sides of the canal. A peasant, poling a tiny boat, hastened to shore and clutched a clump of reeds growing in the shal- lows. The waves tossed him and his little craft up and down like a seesaw. The peaceful green coun- tryside was filled with the chugging of the boat engine and the stink of its exhaust. Hatred burned in Old T’ung Pao’s eyes. He watched the riverboat approach, he watched it sail past, and glared after it until it went tooting around another bend and disappeared from sight. He had always abominated the foreign devils’ contraptions. He himself had never met a foreign devil, but his father had given him a de— scription of one Old Master Ch‘en had seen—red eyebrows, green eyes, and a stiff-legged walk! Old Master Ch’en had hated the foreign devils too. “The foreign devils have swindled our money away,” he used to say. Old T’ung Pao was only eight or nine the last time he saw Old Master Ch’en. All he remembered about him now were things he had heard from others. But whenever Old T’ung Pao thought of that remark—“The foreign devils have swindled our money away”— he could almost picture Old Master Ch’en, strok- ing his beard and wagging his head. How the foreign devils had accomplished this, Old T’ung Pao wasn’t too clear. He was sure, how- ever, that Old Master Ch’en was right. Some things he himself had seen quite plainly. From the time foreign goods—cambric, cloth, oil—ap— peared in the market town, from the time foreign 'I‘UN riverboats increased on the canal, what he pro- duced brought a lower price on the market every day, while what he had to buy became more and more expensive. That was why the property his father left him had shrunk until it finally vanished completely; and now he was in debt. It. was not without reason that Old T’ung Pao hated the foreign devils! In the village, his attitude toward foreigners was well known. Five years before, in 1927, some— one had told him: “The new Kuomintang govern- ment says it wants to throw out the foreign devils.” Old T’ung Pao didn’t believe it. He had heard those young propaganda speechmakers the Kuomintang sent when he went into the market town. Though they cried “Throw out the foreign devils," they were dressed in Western—style cloth- ing. His guess was that they were secretly in league with the foreign devils, that they had been purposely sent to delude the countryfolk! Sure enough, the Kuomintang dropped the slogan not long after, and prices and taxes rose steadily. Old T’ung Pao was firmly convinced that all this had occurred as part of a government conspiracy with the foreign devils. Last year something had happened that made him almost sick with fury: only the cocoons spun by the foreign-strain silkworms could be sold at a decent price. Buyers paid ten dollars more per load for them than they did for the local variety. Usually on good terms with his daughter-in—law, Old T’ung Pao had quarreled with her because of this. She had wanted to raise only foreign silk- worms, and Old T’ung Pao’s younger son Ah To had agreed with her. Though the boy didn’t say much, in his heart he certainly had also favored this course. Events had proved they were right, and they wouldn‘t let Old T‘ung Pao forget it. This year, he had to compromise. Of the five trays they would raise, only four would be silkworms of the local variety; one tray would contain foreign silkworms. “The world’s going from bad to worse! In an- other couple of years they’ll even be wanting foreign mulberry trees! It‘s enough to take all the joy out of life!" Old T’ung Pao picked up his long pipe and rapped it angrily against a clod of dry earth. The SPRING SILKV‘VORMS sun was directly overhead now, foreshortening his shadow until it looked like a piece of charcoal. Still in his padded jacket, he was bathed in heat. He unfastened the jacket and swung its opened edges back and forth a few times to fan himself. Then he stood up and started for home. Behind the row of mulberry trees were paddy fields. Most of them were as yet only neatly ploughed furrows of upturned earth clods, dried and cracked by the hot sun. Here and there, the early crops were coming up. In one field, the golden blossoms of rapeseed plants emitted a heady fragrance. And that group of houses way over there, that was the village where three gener- ations of Old T’ung Pao’s family were living. Above the houses, white smoke from many kitchen stoves was curling lazily upwards into the sky. After crossing through the mulberry grove, Old T’ung Pao walked along the raised path between the paddy fields, then turned and looked again at that row of trees bursting with tender green buds. A twelve-year-old boy came bounding along from the other end of the fields, calling as he ran: “Grandpa! Ma’s waiting for you to come home and eat!” It was Little Pao, Old T’ung Pao’s grandson. “Coming!” the old man responded, still gazing at the mulberries. Only twice in his life had he seen these finger-like buds appear on the branches so soon after Ch’ing-ming. His family would probably have a fine crop of silkworms this year. Five trays of eggs would hatch out a huge number of silkworms. If only they didn’t have another bad market like last year, perhaps they could pay off part of their debt. Little Pao stood beside his grandfather. The child too looked at the soft green on the gnarled fist branches. jumping happily, he clapped his hands and chanted: Green, tender leaves at Ch’ing—ming; the girls who tend silkworms clap hands at the sight! The old man’s wrinkled face broke into a smile. He thought it was a good omen for the little boy to respond like this on seeing the first buds of the year. He rubbed his hand affectionately over the 147 child’s shaven pate. In Old T’ung Pao’s heart, numbed wooden by a lifetime of poverty and hardship, suddenly hope began to stir again. 11 The weather remained warm. The rays of the sun forced open the tender, finger-like little buds. They had already grown to the size of a small hand. Around Old T’ung Pao‘s village, the mul- berry trees seemed to respond especially well. From a distance they gave the appearance of a low gray picket fence on top of which a long swath of brocade had been spread. Bit by bit, day by day, hope grew in the hearts of the villagers. The unspoken mobilization order for the silk— worm campaign reached everywhere and every- one. Silkworm rearing equipment that had been laid away for a year was again brought out to be scrubbed and mended. Beside the little stream which ran through the village, women and chil- dren, with much laughter and calling back and forth, washed the implements. None of these women or children looked really healthy. Since the coming of spring, they had been eating only half their fill; their clothes were old and worn. As a matter of fact, they weren‘t much better off than beggars. Yet all were in quite good spirits, sustained by enormous pa— tience and grand illusions. Burdened though they were by daily mounting debts, they had only one thought in their heads—if we get a good crop of silkworms everything will be all right! . . . They could already visualize how, in a month, the shiny green leaves would be converted into snow-white cocoons, the cocoons exchanged for clinking silver dollars. Although their stomachs were growling with hunger, they couldn’t refrain from smiling at this happy prospect. Old T’ung Pao’s daughter-in-law was among the women by the stream. With the help of her twelve-year-old son, Little Pao, she had already finished washing the family’s large trays of woven bamboo strips. Seated on a stone beside the stream, she wiped her perspiring face with the edge of her tunic. A twenty-year—old girl, working with other women on the opposite side of the stream, hailed her. 148 “Are you raising foreign silkworms this year too?” It was Sixth Treasure, sister of young Fu-ch’ing, the neighbor who lived across the stream. The thick eyebrows of Old T’ung Pao‘s daughter-in-law at once contracted. Her voice sounded as if she had just been waiting for a chance to let off steam. “Don’t ask me; what the old man says, goes!” she shouted. “He’s dead set against it, won’t let us raise more than one batch of foreign breed! The old fool only has to hear the word ‘foreign’ to send him up in the air! He’ll take dollars made of foreign silver, though; those are the only ‘foreign' things he likes!" The women on the other side of the stream laughed. From the threshing ground behind them a strapping young man approached. He reached the stream and crossed over on the four logs that served as a bridge. Seeing him, his sister-in—law dropped her tirade and called in a high voice: “Ah To, will you help me carry these trays? They’re as heavy as dead dogs when they’re wet!” Without a word, Ah To lifted the six big trays and set them, dripping, on his head. Balancing them in place, he walked off, swinging his hands in a swimming motion. When in a good mood, Ah To refused nobody. If any of the village women asked him to carry something heavy or fish some- thing out of the stream, he was usually quite will— ing. But today he probably was a little grumpy, and so he walked empty-handed with only six trays on his head. The sight of him, looking as if he were wearing six layers of wide straw hats, his waist twisting at each step in imitation of the la- dies of the town, sent the women into petals of laughter. Lotus, wife of Old T’ung Pao’s nearest neighbor, called with a giggle: “Hey, Ah To, come back here. Carry a few trays for me too!” Ah To grinned. “Not unless you call me a sweet name!” He continued walking. An instant later he had reached the porch of his house and set down the trays out of the sun. “Will ‘kid brother' do?” demanded Lotus, laughing boisterously. She had a remarkably clean white complexion, but her face was very flat. MAO TUN When she laughed, all that could be seen was a big open mouth and two tiny slits of eyes. Origi- nally a maid in a house in town, she had been married off to Old T'ung Pao’s neighbor—a pre« maturely aged man who walked around with a sour expression and never said a word all day. That was less than six months ago, but her love affairs and escapades already were the talk of the village. “Shameless hussy!” came a contemptuous fe— male voice from across the stream. Lotus’s piggy eyes immediately widened. “Who said that?" she demanded angrily. “If you’ve got the brass to call me names, let’s see you try it to my face! Come out into the open!” “Think you can handle me? I'm talking about a shameless, man~crazy baggage! If the shoe fits, wear it!" retorted Sixth Treasure, for it was she who had spoken. She too was famous in the vil- lage, but as a mischievous, lively young woman. The two began splashing water at each other from opposite banks of the stream. Girls who en~ joyed a row took sides and joined the battle, while the children whooped with laughter. Old T‘ung Pao’s daughter-in-law was more decorous. She picked up her remaining trays, called to Little Pao, and returned home. Ah To watched from the porch, grinning. He knew why Sixth Treasure and Lotus were quarreling. It did his heart good to hear that sharp-tongued Sixth Treasure gel told off in public. Old T’ung Pao came out of the house with a wooden tray-stand on his shoulder. Some of the legs of the uprights had been eaten by termites, and he wanted to repair them. At the sight of Ah To standing there laughing at the women, Old T’ung Pao’s face lengthened. The boy hadn’t much sense of propriety, he well knew. What dis- turbed him particularly was the way Ah To and Lotus were always talking and laughing together. “That bitch is an evil spirit. Fooling with her will bring ruin on our house," he had often warned his younger son. “Ah To!” be now barked angrily. “Enjoying the scenery? Your brother’s in back mending equip— ment. Go and give him a hand!" His inflamed eyes bored into Ah To, never leaving the boy until he disappeared into the house. m—_—_.___._.___._ _. . SPRING SILKVVORMS 149 Only then did Old T’ung Pao start work on the tray—stand. After examining it carefully, he slowly began his repairs. Years ago, Old T’ung Pao had worked for a time as a carpenter. But he was old now; his fingers had lost their strength. A few minutes’ work and he was breathing hard. He raised his head and looked into the house. Five squares of cloth to which sticky silkworm eggs ad- hered hung from a horizontal bamboo pole. His daughter-in—law, Ah Szu’s wife, was at the other end of the porch, pasting paper on big trays of woven bamboo strips. Last year, to economize a bit, they had bought and used old newspaper. Old T’ung Pao still maintained that was why the eggs had hatched poorly—it was unlucky to use paper with writing on it for such a prosaic purpose. Writing meant scholarship, and scholarship had to be respected. This year the whole family had skipped a meal and, with the money saved, pur- chased special “tray pasting paper.” Ah Szu's wife pasted the tough, gosling—yellow sheets smooth and flat; on every tray she also affixed three little colored paper pictures bought at the same time. One was the “Platter of Plenty”; the other two showed a militant figure on horseback, pennant in hand. He, according to local belief, was the “Guardian of Silkworm Hatching." “I was only able to buy twenty loads of mul- berry leaves with that thirty silver dollars I bor- rowed on your father’s guarantee,” Old T‘ung Pao said to his daughter-in-law. He was still pant— ing from his exertions with the tray-stand. “Our rice will be finished by the day after tomorrow. What are we going to do?” Thanks to her father’s influence with his boss and his willingness to guarantee repayment of the loan, Old T‘ung Pao was able to borrow money at a low rate of interest—only 25 percent a month! Both the principal and interest had to be repaid by the end of the silkworm season. Ah Szu‘s wife finished pasting a tray and placed it in the sun. “You’ve spent it all on leaves,” she said angrily. “We’ll have a lot of leaves left over, just like last year!” “Full oflucky words, aren't you?” demanded the old man sarcastically. “I suppose every year’ll 3 Falls on April 20 or 2 1. be like last year? We can’t get more than a dozen or so loads of leaves from our own trees. With five sets of grubs to feed, that won’t be nearly enough." “Oh, of course, you’re never wrong!” she re— plied hotly. “All I know is with rice we can eat, without it we’ll go hungry!" His stubborn refusal to raise any foreign silkworms last year had left them with only the unsalable local breed. As a re5ult, she was often contrary with him. The old man’s face turned purple with rage. After this, neither would speak to the other. But hatching time was drawing closer every day. The little village‘s two dozen families were thrown into a state of great tension, great deter- mination, great struggle. With it all, they were possessed of a great hope, a hope that could al— most make them forget their hungry bellies. Old T’ung Pao’s family, borrowing a little here, getting a little credit there, somehow managed to get by. Nor did the other families eat any better: there wasn’t one with a spare bag of rice. Al- though they had harvested a good crop the pre- vious year, landlords, creditors, taxes, levies, one after another, had cleaned the peasants out long ago. Now all their hopes were pinned on the spring silkworms. The repayment date of every loan they made was set up for the “end of the silkworm season.” With high hopes and considerable fear, like soldiers going into hand-to—hand combat, they prepared for the silkworm campaign! “Grain Rain”3 day—bringing gentle drizzles— was not far off. Almost imperceptibly, the silk- worm eggs of the two dozen village families began to show faint tinges of green. Women, when they met on the public threshing ground, would speak to one another agitatedly in tones that were anx- ious yet joyful. “Over at Sixth Treasure’s place, they’re almost ready to incubate their eggs!” “Lotus says her family is going to start incubat- ing tomorrow. So soon!” “Huang ‘the Priest’ has made a divination. He predicts that this spring mulberry leaves will go to four dollars a load!” 150 M A 0 Old T’ung Pao’s daughter—in—law examined their five sets of eggs. They looked bad. The tiny seed—like eggs were still pitch black, without even a hint of green. Her husband, Ah Szu, took them into the light to peer at them carefully. Even so, he could find hardly any ripening eggs. She was very worried. “You incubate them anyhow. Maybe this variety is a little slow,” her husband forced himself to say consolingly. Her lips pressed tight, she made no reply. Old T'ung Pao’s wrinkled faced sagged with de— jection. Though he said nothing, he thought their prospects were dim. The next day, Ah Szu’s wife again examined the eggs. Ha! Quite a few were turning green, and a very shiny green at that! Immediately, she told her husband, told Old T‘ung Pao, Ah To . . . she even told her son Little Pao. Now the in- cubating process could begin! She held the five pieces of cloth to which the eggs adhered against her bare bosom. As if cuddling a nursing infant, she sat absolutely quiet, not daring to stir. At night, she took the five sets to bed with her. Her husband was routed out, and had to share Ah To’s bed. The tiny silkworm eggs were very scratchy against her flesh. She felt happy and a little frightened, like the first time she was preg- nant and the baby moved inside her. Exactly the same sensation! Uneasy but eager, the whole family waited for the eggs to hatch. Ah T0 was the only exception. “We’re sure going to hatch a good crop,” he said, “but anyone who thinks we‘re going to get rich in this life is out of his head.” Though the old man swore Ah To’s big mouth would ruin their luck, the boy stuck to his guns. A clean, dry shed for the growing grubs was all prepared. The second day of incubation, Old T’ung Pao smeared a garlic with earth and placed it at the foot of the wall inside the shed. If, in a few days, the garlic put out many sprouts, it meant the eggs would hatch well. He did this every year, but this year he was more reverential than usual, and his hands trembled. Last year‘s divination had proved all too accurate. He didn’t dare to think about that now. TUN Every family in the village was busy incubating. For the time being there were few women’s foot— prints on the threshing ground or the banks of the little stream. An unofficial “martial law" had been imposed. Even peasants normally on very good terms stopped visiting one another. For a guest to come and frighten away the spirits of the ripening eggs—that would be no laughing matter! At most, people exchanged a few words in low tones when they met, then quickly separated. This was the “sacred” season! Old T'ung Pao‘s family was on pins and need- les. In the five sets of eggs a few grubs had begun wriggling. It was exactly one day before Grain Rain. Ah Szu’s wife had calculated that most of the eggs wouldn’t hatch until after that day. Be- fore or after Grain Rain was all right, but for eggs to hatch on the day itself was considered highly unlucky. Incubation was no longer necessary, and the eggs were carefully placed in the special shed. Old T’ung Pao stole a glance at his garlic at the foot of the wall. His heart dropped. There were still only the same two small green shoots the gar- lic had originally! He didn’t dare to look any closer. He prayed silently that by noon the day after tomorrow the garlic would have many, many more shoots. At last hatching day arrived. Ah Szu’s wife set a pot of rice on to boil and nervously watched for the time when the steam from it would rise straight up. Old T'ung Pao lit the incense and candles he had bought in anticipation of this event. Devoutly, he placed them before the idol of the Kitchen God. His two sons went into the fields to pick wildflowers. Little Pao chopped a lamp wick into fine pieces and crushed the wildflowers the men brought back. Everything was ready. The sun was entering its zenith; steam from the rice pot puffed straight upward. Ah Szu’s wife imme- diately leaped to her feet, stuck a “sacred” paper flower and a pair of goose feathers into the knot of hair at the back of her head, and went to the shed. Old T’ung Pao carried a wooden scale-pole; Ah Szu followed with the chopped lamp wick and the crushed wildflowers. Daughter-in-law un— covered the cloth pieces to which the grubs ad— hered, and sprinkled them with the bits of wick SPRING SILKVVORMS and flowers Ah Szu was holding. Then she took the wooden scale-pole from Old T’ung Pao and hung the cloth pieces over it. She next removed the pair of goose feathers from her hair. Moving them lightly across the cloth, she brushed the grubs, together with the crushed lamp-wick and wildflowers, onto a large tray. One set, two sets . . the last set contained the foreign breed. The grubs from this cloth were brushed onto a sepa- rate tray. Finally, she removed the “sacred” paper flower from her hair and pinned it, with the goose feathers, against the side of the tray. A solemn ceremony! One that had been handed down through the ages! Like warriors taking an oath before going into battle! Old T’ung Pao and family now had ahead of them a month of fierce combat, with no rest day or night, against bad weather, bad luck, and anything else that might come along! The grubs, wriggling in the trays, looked very healthy. They were all the proper black color. Old T’ung Pao and his daughter-in-law were able to relax a little. But when the old man secretly took another look at his garlic, he turned pale! It had grown only four measly shoots. Ah! Would this year be like last year all over again? III The fateful garlic proved to be not so psychic after all. The silkworms of Old T’ung Pao’s family grew and thrived! Though it rained continuously during the grubs' first and second moulting, and the weather was a bit colder than at Ch’ing-ming, the “little darlings” were extremely robust. The silkworms of the other families in the vil— lage were not doing so badly either. A tense kind of joy pervaded the countryside. Even the small stream seemed to be gurgling with bright laugh- ter. Lotus‘s family was the sole exception. They were only raising one set of grubs, but by the third moulting their silkworms weighed less than twenty catties. Just before the fourth, people saw Lotus‘s husband walk to the stream and dump out his trays. That dour, old-looking man had bad luck written all over him. 151 Because of this dreadful event, the village women put Lotus’s family strictly off limits. They made wide detours so as not to pass her door. If they saw her or her taciturn husband, no matter how far away, they made haste to go in the op- posite direction. They feared that even one look at Lotus or her spouse, the briefest conversation, would contaminate them with the unfortunate couple’s bad luck! Old T’ung Pao strictly forbade Ah To to talk to Lotus. “IfI catch you gabbing with that baggage again, I’ll disown you!” he threatened in a loud, angry voice, standing outside on the porch to make sure Lotus could hear him. Little Pao was also warned not to play in front of Lotus’s door, and not to speak to anyone in her family. The old man harped at Ah To morning, noon, and night, but the boy turned a deaf ear to his fa- ther’s grumbling. In his heart, he laughed at it. Of the whole family, Ah To alone didn’t place much stock in taboos and superstitions. He didn’t talk with Lotus, however. He was much too busy for that. , By the fourth moulting, their silkworms weighed three hundred catties. Every member of Old T’ung Pao’s family, including twelve-year-old Little Pao, worked for two days and two nights without sleeping a wink. The silkworms were unu- sually sturdy. Only twice in his sixty years had Old T’ung Pao ever seen the like. Once was the year he married; once when his first son was born. The first day after the fourth moulting, the “lit» tle darlings” ate seven loads of leaves. They were now a bright green, thick and healthy. Old T’ung i Pao and his family, on the contrary, were much , thinner, their eyes bloodshot from lack of sleep. 3 No one could guess how much the “little dar- lings” would eat before they spun their cocoons. Old T’ung Pao discussed the question of buying more leaves with Ah Szu. “Master Ch’en won’t lend us any more. Shall we try your father—in-law’s boss again?” “We've still got ten loads coming. That’s enough for one more day," replied Ah Szu. He could barely hold himself erect. His eyelids weighed a thousand catties. They kept wanting to close. 152 “One more day? You‘re dreaming!” snapped the old man impatiently. “Not counting tomor- row, they still have to eat three more days. We’ll need another thirty loads! Thirty loads, I say!” Loud voices were heard outside on the thresh— ing ground. Ah To had arrived with men deliver- ing five loads of mulberry branches. Everyone went out to strip the leaves. Ah Szu‘s wife hurried from the shed. Across the stream, Sixth Treasure and her family were raising only a small crop of silkworms; having spare time, she came over to help. Bright stars filled the sky. There was a slight wind. All up and down the village, gay shouts and laughter rang in the night. “The price of leaves is rising fast!” a coarse voice cried. “This afternoon, they were getting four dollars a load in the market town!” Old T’ung Pao was very upset. At four dollars a load, thirty loads would come to a hundred and twenty dollars. Where could he raise so much money?! But then he figured—he was sure to gather over five hundred catties of cocoons. Even at fifty dollars a hundred, they’d sell for two hundred and fifty dollars. Feeling a bit consoled, he heard a small voice from among the leaf-strip— pers. “They say the folks east of here aren’t doing so well with their silkworms. There won’t be any rea- son for the price of leaves to go much higher.” Old T’ung Pao recognized the speaker as Sixth Treasure, and he relaxed still further. The girl and Ah To were standing beside a large basket, stripping leaves. In the dim starlight, they worked quite close to each other, partly hid— den by the pile of mulberry branches before them. Suddenly Sixth Treasure felt someone pinch her thigh. She knew well enough who it was, and she suppressed a giggle. But when, a moment later, a hand brushed against her breasts, she jumped; a little shriek escaped her. “Ai-ya!” “What’s wrong?” demanded Ah Szu’s wife, working on the other side of the basket. Sixth Treasure‘s face flamed scarlet. She shot a glance at Ah To, then quickly lowered her head and resumed stripping leaves. “Nothing,” she re- plied. “I think a caterpillar bit me!" MAO TUN Ah To hit his lips to keep from laughing aloud. He had been half starved the past two weeks and had slept little. But in spite of having lost a lot of weight, he was in high spirits. While he never suf- fered from any of Old T’ung Pao’s gloom, neither did he believe that one good crop, whether of silkworms or of rice, would enable them to wipe out their debt and own their own land again. He knew that they would never get out from under merely by relying on hard work, even if they broke their backs trying. Nevertheless, he worked with a will. He enjoyed work, just as he enjoyed fooling around with Sixth Treasure. The next morning, Old T’ung Pao went into town to borrow money for more leaves. Before leaving home, he had talked the matter over with daughter-in-law. They had decided to mortgage their grove ofmulberries that produced fifteen loads of leaves a year as security for the loan. The grove was the last piece of property the family owned. By the time the old man ordered another thirty loads and the first ten were delivered, the sturdy “little darlings" had gone hungry for half an hour. Putting forth their pointed little mouths, they swayed from side to side, searching for food. Daughter—in-law’s heart had ached to see them. When the leaves were finally spread on the trays, the silkworm shed at once resounded with a sibi- lant crunching, so noisy it drowned out conversa- tion. In a very short while, the trays were again empty of leaves. Another thick layer was piled on. just keeping the silkworms supplied with leaves, Old T’ung Pao and his family were so busy they could barely catch their breath. But this was the final crisis. In two more days the “little darlings" would spin their cocoons. People were putting every bit of their remaining strength into this last desperate struggle. Though he had gone without sleep for three whole days, Ah To didn’t appear particularly tired. He agreed to watch the shed alone that night until dawn to permit the others to get some rest. There was a bright moon, and the weather was a trifle cold. Ah To crouched beside a small fire he had built in the shed. At about eleven, he gave the silkworms their second feeding, then re- SPRING SILKV‘VORMS turned to squat by the fire. He could hear the loud rustle of the “little darlings” crunching through the leaves. His eyes closed. Suddenly he heard the door squeak, and his eyelids flew open. He peered into the darkness for a moment, then shut his eyes again. His ears were still hissing with the rustle of the leaves. The next thing he knew, his head had struck against his knees. Waking with a start, he heard the door screen bang and thought he saw a moving shadow. Ah To leaped up and rushed outside. In the moonlight, he saw someone crossing the threshing ground toward the stream. He caught up in a flash, seized and flung the intruder to the ground. Ah T0 was sure he had nabbed a thief. “Ah To, kill me if you want to, but don’t give me away!" The voice made Ah To’s hair stand on end. He could see in the moonlight that queer, flat, white face and those round little piggy eyes fixed upon him. But of menace, the piggy eyes had none. Ah To snorted. “What were you after?" “A few of your family’s ‘little darlings’!” “What did you do with them?" “Threw them in the stream!” Ah To’s face darkened. He knew that in this way she was trying to put a curse on the lot. “You’re pure poison! We never did anything to hurt you.” “Never did anything? Oh, yes you did! Yes, you did! Our silkworm eggs didn’t hatch well, but we didn’t harm anybody. You were all so smart! You shunned me like a leper. No matter how far away I was, if you saw me you turned your heads. You acted as if I wasn’t even human!” She got to her feet, the agonized expression on her face terrible to see. Ah To stared at her. “I’m not going to beat you," he said finally. “Go on your way!" Without giving her another glance, he trotted back to the shed. He was wide awake new. Lotus had only taken a handful, and the remaining “lit- tle darlings" were all in good condition. It didn’t occur to him to either hate or pity Lotus, but the last thing she had said remained in his mind. It seemed to him there was something eternally 153 wrong in the scheme of human relations; but he couldn’t put his finger on what it was exactly, nor did he know why it should be. In a little while, he forgot about this too. The lusty silkworms were eating and eating, yet, as if by some magic, never full! Nothing more happened that night. just before the sky began to brighten in the east, Old T’ung Pao and his daughter—in—law came to relieve Ah To. They took the trays of “little darlings" and looked at them in the light. The silkworms were turning a whiter color, their bodies gradually be- coming shorter and thicker. They were delighted with the excellent way the silkworms were devel- oping. But when, at sunrise, Ah Szu’s wife went to draw water at the stream, she met Sixth Treasure. The girl’s expression was serious. “I saw that slut leaving your place shortly be— fore midnight,” she whispered. “Ah T0 was right behind her. They stood here and talked for a long time! Your family ought to look after things bet- ter than that!" The color drained from the face of Ah Szu’s wife. Without a word, she carried her water bucket back to the house. First she told her hus— band about it, then she told Old T’ung Pao. It was a fine state of affairs when a baggage like that could sneak into people’s silkworm sheds! Old T’ung Pao stamped with rage. He immediately summoned Ah To. But the boy denied the whole story; he said Sixth Treasure was dreaming. The old man then went to question Sixth Treasure. She insisted she had seen everything with her own eyes. The old man didn’t know what to believe. He returned home and looked at the “little dar- lings." They were as sturdy as ever, not a sickly one in the lot. But the joy that Old T’ung Pao and his family had been feeling was dampened. They knew Sixth Treasure’s words couldn’t be entirely without foundation. Their only hope was that Ah To and that hussy had played their little games on the porch rather than in the shed! Old T’ung Pao recalled gloomin that the garlic had only put forth three or four shoots. He thought the future looked dark. 154 Hadn‘t there been times before when the silk- worms ate great quantities of leaves and seemed to be growing well, yet dried up and diedjust when they were ready to spin their cocoons? Yes, often! But Old Tung Pao didn‘t dare let himself think of such a possibility. To entertain a thought like that, even in the most secret recesses of the mind, would only be inviting bad luck! IV The “little darlings” began spinning their co— coons, but Old T’ung Pao’s family was still in a sweat. Both their money and their energy were completely spent. They still had nothing to show for it; there was no guarantee of their earning any return. Nevertheless, they continued working at top speed. Beneath the racks on which the co- coons were being spun, fires had to be kept going to supply warmth. Old Tung Pao and Ah Szu, his elder son, their backs bent, slowly squatted first on this side then on that. Hearing the small rustlings of the spinning silkworms, they wanted to smile, and if the sounds stopped for a moment, their hearts stopped too. Yet, worried as they were, they didn‘t dare disturb the silkworms by looking inside. When the silkworms squirted fluid“ in their faces as they peered up from beneath the racks, they were quite happy in spite of the mo- mentary discomfort. The bigger the shower, the better they liked it. Ah To had already peeked several times. Little Pao had caught him at it and demanded to know what was going on. Ah To made an ugly face at the child, but. did not reply. After three days of “spinning,” the fires were extinguished. Ah Szu’s wife could restrain herself no longer. She stole a look, her heart beating fast. Inside, all was as white as snow. The brttsh that had been put in for the silkworms to spin on was completely covered over with cocoons. Ah Szu‘s wife had never seen so successful a “flowering”! The whole family was wreathed in smiles. They were on solid ground at last! The “little darlings" MAO TUN had proved they had a conscience; they hadn't consumed those mulberry leaves, at four dollars a load, in vain. The family could reap its reward for a month of hunger and sleepless nights. The Old Lord of the Sky had eyes! Throughout the village, there were many simi- lar scenes of rejoicing. The Silkworm Goddess had been beneficent to the tiny village this year. Most of the two dozen families garnered good crops of cocoons from their silkworms. The har- vest of Old T‘ung Pao‘s family was well above average. Again women and children crowded the thresh- ing ground and the banks of the little stream. All were much thinner than the previous month, with eyes sunk in their sockets, throats rasping and hoarse. But everyone was excited, happy. As they chattered about the struggle of the past month, visions of piles of bright silver dollars shimmered before their eyes. Cheerful thoughts filled their minds—they would get their summer clothes out of the pawnshop; at Summer Festival5 perhaps they could eat a fat, golden lish . . . They talked too of the farce enacted by Lotus and Ah To a few nights before. Sixth Treasure announced to everyone she met, “That Lotus has no shame at all. She delivered herself right to his door!” Men who heard her laughed coarsely. Women muttered a prayer and called Lotus bad names. They said ()ld T‘ung Pao‘s family could consider itself lucky that a curse hadn't fallen on them. The gods were merciful! Family after family was able to report a good harvest of cocoons. People visited one another to view the shining white gossamer. The father of Old T’ung Pao’s daughter—in-law came from town with his little son. They brought gifts of sweets and fruits and a salted fish. Little Pat) was happy as a puppy frolicking in the snow. The elderly visitor sat with Old T’ung Pao be- neath a willow beside the stream. He had the rep» utation in town of a “man who knew how to enjoy life.” From hours of listening to the professional [ storytellers in front. of the temple, he had learned l 4The emission of the Fluid means the silkworm is about to spin its cocoon. 5May fifth in the Western calendar. Here Mao 'l'un probably meant luau-mu thigh or Dragon Boat Festival. which falls on May Fifth of the lunar calendar. SPRING SILKW’ORMS 155 by heart many of the classic tales of ancient times. He was a great one for idle chatter, and often would say anything that came into his head. Old T’ung Pao therefore didn't take him very seriously when he leaned close and queried softlyz. “Are you selling your cocoons, or will you spin the silk yourself at home?" “Selling them, of course,” Old T’ung Pao re— plied casually. The elderly visitor slapped his thigh and sighed, then rose abruptly and pointed at the silk filature rearing up behind the row of mulberries, now quite bald of leaves. “T’ung Pao," he said, “the cocoons are being gathered, but the doors of the silk filatures are shut as tight as ever! They‘re not buying this year! Ah, all the world is in turmoil! The silk houses are not going to open, I tell you!” Old T’ung Pao couldn’t help smiling. He wouldn’t believe it. How could be possibly believe it? There were dozens of silk filatures in this part of the country. Surely they couldn’t all shut down? What’s more, he had heard that they had made a deal with the japanese; the Chinese soldiers who had been billeted in the silk houses had long since departed. Changing the subject, the visitor related the lat- est town gossip, salting it freely with classical aphorisms and quotations from the ancient stories. Finally he got around to the thirty silver dollars borrowed through him as middleman. He said his boss was anxious to be repaid. Old T’ung Pao became uneasy after all. When his visitor had departed, he hurried from the vil— lage down the highway to look at the two nearest silk filatures. Their doors were indeed shut; not a soul was in sight. Business was in full swing this time last year, with whole rows of dark gleaming scales in operation. He felt a little panicky as he returned home. But when he saw those snowy cocoons, thick and hard, pleasure made him smile. What beauties! No one wants them? Impossible. He still had to hurry and finish gathering the cocoons; he hadn’t thanked the gods properly yet. Gradually, he forgot about the silk houses. But in the village, the atmosphere was changing day by day. People who had just begun to laugh were now all frowns. News was reaching them from town that none of the neighboring silk fila- tures was opening its doors. It was the same with the houses along the highway. Last year at this time, buyers of cocoons were streaming in and out of the village. This year there wasn’t a sign of even half a one. In their place came dunning creditors and government tax collectors who promptly froze up if you asked them to take co- coons in payment. Swearing, curses, disappointed sighs! With such a fine crop of cocoons the villagers had never dreamed that their lot would be even worse than usual! It was as if hailstones had dropped out of a Clear sky. People like Old T’ung Pao, whose crop was especially good, took it hardest of all. “What is the world coming to?” He beat his breast and stamped his feet in helpless frustration. But the villagers had to think of something. The cocoons would spoil if kept too long. They ei— ther had to sell them or remove the silk them— selves. Several families had already brought out and repaired silk reels they hadn’t used for years. They would first remove the silk from the cocoons and then see about the next step. Old T’ung Pao wanted to do the same. “We won’t sell our cocoons; we’ll spin the silk ourselves!” said the old man. “Nobody ever heard of selling cocoons until the foreign devils‘ compa- nies started the thing!” Ah Szu’s wife was the first to object. “We’ve got over five hundred catties of cocoons here,” she re- torted. “Where are you going to get enough reels?” She was right. Five hundred catties was no small amount. They‘d never get finished spinning the silk themselves. Hire outside help? That meant spending money. Ah Szu agreed with his wife. Ah To blamed his father for planning incorrectly. “If you listened to me, we’d have raised only one tray of foreign breed and no locals. Then the fifteen loads of leaves from our own mulberry trees would have been enough, and we wouldn’t have had to borrow!” Old T’ung Pao was so angry he couldn’t speak. 15 6 M A 0 At last a ray of hope appeared. Huang the Priest had heard somewhere that a silk house below the city of Wu-hsi was doing business as usual. Actually an ordinary peasant, Huang was nicknamed “The Priest” because of the learned airs he affected and his interest in Taoist “magic.” Old T’ung Pao always got along with him fine. After learning the details from him, Old T’ung Pao conferred with his elder son Ah Szu about going to Wu-hsi. “It’s about two hundred and seventy li by water, six days for the round trip," ranted the old man. “Son—of—a—bitch! It’s a goddamn expedition! But what else can we do? We can't eat the cocoons, and our creditors are pressing hard!” Ah Szu agreed. They borrowed a small boat and bought a few yards of matting to cover the cargo. It was decided that Ah To should go along. Taking advantage of the good weather, the co- coon selling “expeditionary force” set out. Five days later, the men returned—but not with an empty hold. They still had one basket of co- coons. The silk filature, which they reached after ajourney of two hundred and seventy li by water, offered extremely harsh terms—only thirty-five dollars a load for foreign breed, twenty for local; thin cocoons not wanted at any price. Although their cocoons were all first class, the people at the silk filature house picked and chose only enough TUN to fill one basket; the rest were rejected. Old T'ung Pao and his sons received a hundred and ten dollars for the sale, ten of which had to be spent on travel expenses The hundred dollars remaining was not even enough to pay back what they had borrowed for that last thirty loads of mulberry leaves! On the return trip, Old T’ung Pao became ill with rage. His sons carried him into the house. Ah Szu’s wife had no choice but to take the ninety odd catties they had brought back and reel the silk from the cocoons herself. She borrowed a few reels from Sixth Treasure‘s family and worked for six days. All their rice was gone now. Ah Szu took the silk into town, but no one would buy it. Even the pawnshop didn’t want it. Only after much pleading was he able to persuade the pawnbroker to take it in exchange for a load of rice they had pawned before Ch’ing—ming. That’s the way it happened. Because they raised a crop of spring silkworms, the people in Old T’ung Pao’s village got deeper into debt. Old T’ung Pao’s family raised five trays and gathered a splendid harvest of cocoons. Yet they ended up owing another thirty silver dollars and losing their mortgaged mulberry trees—to say nothing of suf- fering a month of hunger and sleepless nights in vain! ...
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W4-Mao+Dun-Spring+Silkworms - Spring Silkworms by Mao Tun...

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