W11-Han+Shaogong-Blue+Bottlecap

W11-Han+Shaogong-Blue+Bottlecap - Blue Bofllecop Hon...

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Unformatted text preview: Blue Bofllecop Hon Shcogong Translated by Michael 3. Duke MY STRENGTH gave out. I passed the heavy bottle of wine over and asked if he could get the cap off. He was just then struggling mightily with a chunk of pig’s feet, a piece of gristie stuck between his teeth. and hadn’t even got his tongue free to talk. The wine bottle just disappeared. A hand on my left had grabbed it away. “I’ll open it.” The young-looking Town Elder glanced over at him and then at me with a simple, guileless smile on his plain, ruddy face. He grabbed the wine bottle away too quickly, too abruptly; it was more than politeness. There was obviously something behind it. There was also something funny about those two fellows across the table from us, looking at him and then smiling at me. He just kept his head down and went on eating with some difficulty. Not until he had let out a burp of satisfaction, picked clean a nice row of false teeth that looked just like real ones, and stooped over to wash his hands did the Town Elder finally touch me lightly on the knee: “You shouldn’t ask him to open bottlecaps. Come on, have some soup, it’s still pretty fresh.” “Why not?” “You’d better not mention bottlecaps.” “Why not?” “Have some soup, have some soup; what’re you doing staring at that how] of rice?” I was very puzzled, not about my host getting on me for eating only rice, but about that empty chair on my left. He was sitting there just a minute ago, wearing a pair of high—topped boots seldom seen around here, offering me some beef and introducing himself: Name’s Chen, lChen Mengtao, work in the ware- house taking care of the tea. He even went on with me about the differences between spring tea and summer tea and about the Martial Emperor of the Han The original story was published in January 1935. This translation is from Han Shaogong, You-has (Lure) (Changsha: Hunan wenyi chuhanshe, 1936), pp. 19—29. A FEW SHADE-C} NG dynasty—I could see that his woolen cap was resting on a slim volume called Anecdotes of the Western Han. What kind of strange connection did he have with bottlecaps? After washing his hands, he came in very solemnly, clicked in his false teeth, suddenly smiled once more, and started talking to me about the Martial Emperor of the Han dynasty. I moved my chair back a little to take a good look at him and discovered that his neck was sort of frightening: the skin was loose and there were rolls of protruding flesh moving softly up and down in time to the rhythms of his speech; it made one’s own neck feel uncomfortable, like you’d want to scrunch down in your collar. His eyes stared straight at you with a look of intimate friendship; they were like cat’s eyes, with yellow and green circles. Inside the circles it was very, very deep and made you think of a dark tunnel that you could not see to the bottom of; a slight speck of light floated there in the tunnel sorely tempting you—tempting you to walk right in. I felt there was something wrong, too. As the Town Elder escorted me back into town, I asked him, “Why can’t that fellow Chen open bottlecaps‘? Did he . . .’ ’ “I don’t know. I hear the town zoo has a new red-haired wild man; have you seen ’im?” ‘ ‘I haven’t seen it. How did you happen to end up here?“ ’ “I don’t know, I haven’t been here long. Do you think there really are crea- tures like red-haired wild men? It’s probably just some kind of ape, right?’ ’ All I could do was settle down to discuss apes with him. That day I ran into another friend who also knew Chen Mengtao, and he finally helped me to get rid of that bottlecap. It was after dinner, I was sitting on the high wooden veranda of the town guesthouse looking way out over the railing at the moss-covered, mottled old brick wall of the Fupo Temple there in the distance. Below the high temple wall, the ridge tiles were streaked with water marks, some deep and some shallow, all in close-knit lines. Silky threads of cooking smoke pushed their way through the cracks in the tiles, rose into the sky, gradually faded and drifted down again to pervade the whole horizon and all the small streets and alleyways like an amorphous wave of smoke. The roofs resem— bled the masts of a great ship drifting along on a wave of smoke with the two high ridges naturally forming the bow and stem of the ship. I seemed to feel the boards swaying beneath my feet. The newcomer was a young man who worked at the meat and fish-pmcessing plant. I had seen him a few times before. He was an amateur expert on regional surnames. I heard that he often went to the local police station to help with the census; on the basis of only the name someone reported, he could accurately determine whether or not that person had made a mistake about his native place; in this way he had cleared up a number of cases and earned the respect of the provincial authorities in charge of such things. He already had half a trunkfull of BLUE BOTTLECAF’ 5 unofficial historical anecdotes that he had secretly collected for several years; he regarded them as a precious treasure and probably intended to hide them on some famous mountain. Whatever he thought ought to be recorded, he recorded: what village produced an arithmetic prodigy, what village dug up a giant sweet potato, or even the gossip surrounding a big blowup in one of the high—level provincial academies. At the mention of Chen Mengtao, he pursed his lips and smiled, leaned back, rolled his eyes a little as though looking both at you and at the roof, seemingly in complete control of the facts. “You mean him? Yea, I’m pretty clear about him. He came from the penal colony. You know what a hard—labor penal camp is? There used to be one here. A lot of these bricks came from there; there was a kiln. . . He went on talking {I have to omit some of his overly detailed verifications and explanations, and also add an appropriate amount of my own imagination): Chen Mengtao used to carry rocks at the penal colony. Because he was so tall it was very hard for him to carry rocks; if the carrying pole moved just a little off center he would go toppling over like an avalanche. After carrying rocks for a few days, his back was bent out of shape; he had a pained expression all the time; when he changed his clothes his shoulders and back hurt so much he would yell out loud. The clothes he took off were weighted down with big white powdery patches of salt, each blotch bigger than the next one, made from the condensation of old and new sweat. Early one momin g before first light, he was awakened by a full bladder and discovered that his legs were so numb he couldn‘t move. When he finally felt around in the dark and discovered a pair of legs he thought were his, he discovered that they were all covered with mud; he had completely forgotten to wash his feet the day before. He couldn’t move his legs, but he had to piss something awful; finally he struggled to the edge of the bed, but the hot piss trickled out through his trousers and wet the bed. He started bawling, woke up everybody else in the shed, and got himself roundly cursed. He decided to ask for an easier job. There was only one really easy job at that time—burying people. There were those who died of illness and those who committed suicide, and there were those who could not finish their assigned labor quota and were marched out at gunpoint for “training.” When their train- ers got bored, they’d always have to slap ’em and kick ‘em around or use their ropes and leather belts; after a loud wail full of the most exquisite educational significance, a pile of bone and meat weighing about a hundred pounds or so would have to be returned to the yellow earth. When the guards saw that Chen Mengtao was always first in line for collective training and always bowed his head at the lowest possible angle, they decided to treat him with special care by giving him the task of burying people. “Right, you go get ready,” they’d order him. As a matter of fact, Chen Mengtao was terribly afraid of dead people; as soon as he heard that wail, he’d start shaking and looking miserable; his tongue would é I-EAN SHAOGONG roll around in his mouth for a long time without being able to form a single word. But then carrying people was a good deal lighter work than carrying rocks. Furthermore, the guards thought this particular task very unpropitious and would not go along to supervise. You could relax and take a morning nap or put on long unwom shoes and socks, drink your fill of water, revitalize your spirits, leave the tensions of the work site far behind, and go up to the quiet hillside. Slowly dig a hole and slowly fill in the dirt; didn’t even matter if you sat down on the pick handle to rest until your sweat cooled. Carefree, with the carrying pole removed from your back and those unpredictable rifle barrels no longer pointed at you, you could just relart and put on weight. With a feeling of cheerful trepidation, Chen Mengtao busily plaited a straw rope, making an altogether different use of the previously harvested rice stalks. After he finished plaiting it, he stepped on one end with his foot and pulled it hard several times to see if it could bear the weight of a man. Then he picked up another carrying pole, bent it a few times, saw that it was of good quality, held it up by his side to measure it, and, discovering that it was indeed two or three feet taller than he, was then completely satisfied. He worked with loud vivacity so that the guards could see him, and to demonstrate that he was most worthy of their trust in this occupation. When he came face to face with the icy cold body of the deceased, however, the wrinkles on his face twitched quite uncontrollably, and he held his breath and turned his face to one side before he dared to breath. His hands would not obey orders either; for a long time they were unable to tie a knot in the rope. Fortud nately he had a helper who tied a couple of loops in the rope, put one loop around the neck and one loop around the feet, and let Chen Mengtao shoulder the carrying pole and walk in front. When a person has a body temperature he’s very soft, but when he’s cold he’s stiff and you don‘t even have to put a stretcher board under him; you can just hoist him up straight as you please, let him sway back and forth as you walk him up the hill to the place of eternal repose. There was one good thing about walking in front. You didn’t have to see the deceased’s dark, cavernous mouth, or a copper-capped tooth, or a black piece of pickled vegetables still caught between his teeth. You could just pretend that you were carrying rocks or a wedding palanquirt; but as soon as you recalled that what was following behind you step by step was really not a wedding palanquin but a life that was once warm but was now cold, you couldn’t help staring straight ahead blankly. That day as they crossed the ridge of the hill and took a downward trail, he stepped off the road a bit to avoid a pile of cow dung. The carrying pole swayed violently, and one of the deceased’s cold arms slipped down from his side, making a wide are like a pendulum and just grazing the inside of Chen Mengtao’s knee as if he were playfully tickling him there. H’Ivlama yal! ! ” Chen Mengtao leaped high in the air a couple of times and fell over in a heap. The deceased’s body fell just right so as to weigh down crook— edly upon him and Chen fainted dead away with his arms stiff at his sides. BLUE BOTTLECAF’ F’ His partner pinched his upper lip, slapped him a few times, revived him, and got him to spit out the mud that stuck to his mouth. After performing a few burials, he became a little more courageous and a little more experienced. The more he worked, the more proficient he became; he didn’t have to dig a pit as big as a swimming pool any more, like the first time. The bottom of the pit didn‘t have to be made into a perfect rectangle either, it didn’t have to be finely done. Going up and down the hill, everything had its prearranged pattern, right down to which foot stepped on which stone or which clump of grass and which hand grabbed onto which bunch of thatch or which tree branch. The time spent sitting on his pick handle at the top of the ridge also grew greater and greater. Chen Mengtao had sung in an amateur theater troupe and allowed that his partner had a handsome face and could play the xiaosheng (young man) roles. He said that he was in love once. The woman’s name had the character “tau” (peach) in it, so he changed his name to “Mengtao” {dreaming of peach} just to express the steadfastness of his love. This was the absolute truth. They talked up and down about everything that way until the wind grad— ually grew cold and the sun inclined toward the western hills, having already changed from a small white to a large red ball; they gazed off, not without sympathy, in the direction of the work site, gathered up their tools, and headed back. On entering the shed and without undue talk, he put his pick, carrying pole, and rice stalks for plaiting mats carefully away in their appointed place in the corner of the wall, making certain they didn’t become mixed up with the others’ tools and were ready for use the next time- Sometimes he was able to return a little early, stealthin dish up a small bowl of steamed meat with black bean sauce from the steamer in the kitchen, close the door, and wolf it down before everyone came back. He cleared this practice with the guards, his excuse being that in burying people he was polluted by the aura of the dead, which was very detrimental to his health, and thus he certainly needed the extra nourishment. At any rate the food money came from his family. In the same shed with him lived several men who often failed to complete their quota of work, and they were naturally enough quite disturbed by that bundle of rice stalks in the corner of the wall. When they saw that Chen Mcngtao no longer pissed on his bedding and was becoming more ruddy complected, they looked at him with an even more jaundiced eye. For some reason or other his porcelain bowl had a few more pieces of porcelain chipped off of it, and an old padded jacket flew away without the aid of wings. If he was the least bit late for dinner, that crock of salted vegetables there on the floor would be completely empty, without even a trace of green juice left over. One day in the shed there was a pair of chopsticks that went unused and an empty bunk; everybody was feeling gloomy and didn’t dare to come close to the desolate emptiness of that bunk. When his partner came to ask him to plait a grass rope, Chen Mengtao just sat there on the piss bucket without getting up, his 8 HAN SHAOGO NG cat eyes dark and lusterless and his two buck teeth chattering away against his lower lip. “I. . . I can‘t piss.” “Go plait a rope.‘ ‘ “I can’t . . . can’t piss, what . . . can I do?” His partner stared at him a moment and understood. The man to be buried that day was probably not some unknown he’d never had anything to do with before, like the others they’d buried earlier, but was from the bunk directly in front of Chen Mengtao’s, and thus he was feeling fainthearted. Chen Mengtao didn’t actually know the man very well, never talked to him much; it was just that the time when he wet his bed he had asked the man to loan him a pair of pants. He’d also talked to him once about the best place in town to buy steamed buns; they hit it off pretty well. What kind of friendship was that? But they had slept in facing bunks for several weeks; night before last Chen had even indignantly listened to him grinding his teeth, and today his straw mat was empty. Now Chen Mengtao had to rush out and plait a grass rope for that tooth—grinding head, right? He wouldn’t grind his teeth on Chen’s butt, would he? His partner said, “You don’t want to go? That’s OK, just go find the boss and get somebody else." Chen lvlengtao grit his teeth and stared at the wornaout straw sandals in front of his bed. “I‘ll go carry rocks! I‘ll go. . . carry rocks!" “Carry rocks? You’re as skinny as a monkey; tomorrow I’ll just have to come and carry you off.” “I. . . I’m stronger than Song Chaoyuan.’ ** “They‘ve increased the work quota today.” “By how much?H “By one square yard per person.” “God!” Chen Mengtao’s expression changed, the long wrinkles on his face drooped downward; his bladder feeling more stopped up than before, he painfully straightened up, stretched his long neck, sniffled slightly, and closed his eyes. He knew by now they had gone to work for some time and even if he had three bodies and six arms there was no way he could complete today’s quota. And besides he couldn’t piss. . . . “You think," he caught his breath, “we have to bury him today?” “Not bury him, we going to lay him out as an offering?“ “Cover hirn . . . with earth?” ‘ ‘We going to cover him with rice?” “Bury him . . . in the usual place?” “What the hell are you talking about? If you don’t want to go, don’t go, but don’t screw up my work. I still have to plait a rope.’ ’ *Utherwise unidtmtified character, probably someone who died in the camp. BLUE BOWECAF‘ 9 “Tell you the truth, I really . . . I really feel weak to think of it. Just think, night before last I heard him grinding his teeth, and yesterday he even smiled at me. . . . Look at his chopsticks, his chopsticks, he stuck 'em in the shelf over my bed. Ican’t carry him; I really can’t go. Don’t yell at me; I just can’t . . But he did go that day anyway, only when he returned to the shed he didn’t eat dinner. Life slowly settled down to normal, just as if there had been no particularly extraordinary change. As always, everyone squatted on the gmund to shovel in their rice; as always, they kept groaning about their stiff, sore arms and legs; as always, they scratched like crazy all over their bodies to dig out a couple of lice. That pair of unused chopsticks was also carried off by someone who used it to repair his carrying pole. Every day the sunlight extended itself inside through the door and then retracted itself again like a long white tongue licking away a little bit of the damp and the smell of rice straw, lapping it back out into nature, commingling it once again with the sweet smell of the rape blossoms and the intermittent honking of the geese. Chen Mengtao was acting rather strange, seemed to be very agitated; he often looked over at other people in a most suspicious way. While they were eating, with his two buck teeth sticking out, he would raise his head and look from this face to that face, and even though it was just a momentary glance, you would still feel like he was giving you a thorough going over, like he was sizing you up in some extremely meaningful way that made you shiver. He began enthusiastically performing good deeds and became especially solicitous toward those people who had a difficult time completing their work quotas. Asleep in bed at night, after tossing and turning he’d wake up and then go to the foot of your bed, arrange your shoes a little more neatly, or pour a little tea into your cup, or, noticing that your sleeping posture was none too good, he would lightly move your head or your feet over a little. If he carelessly woke you up, he would stoop over, how his head, and smile that buck—toothed smile that served as his greeting, his farewell, and his apology- With that extremely short-lived and totally baseless smile coming and going on his face in a very mechanical fashion, he certainly seemed to be up to no good. After becoming accustomed to the sight of grass ropes and holes in the ground, his cat eyes seemed even deeper, as if the pupils had grown larger and only a thin yellow circle was now left hiding some sort of glossy, green light. You would feel that his gaze had already pierced right through you, successfully estimating your weight and the size of your neck, predicting your future posture, and secretly comparing your body with the height of an invisible something. His abject meanness and his eager solicitude positively enraged the others. One night a big, strapping fellow was awakened by the clammy breath from his nostrils. He froze there in fright, then scrambled a few feet away on the bed and l0 HAN SHAOGONG cursed him: “Fuck your mother, you sonovabitch Chen! Why don’t you mess with somebody else; what’re you doing straightening up my shoes?” “There was some grass in your shoes. Heh, heh.” mWhat’s that got to do with you? Piss off! ” Chen Mengtao stooped over, smiled bitterly, picked up a dirty shirt off the floor, grabbed some soap, and headed for the sink to wash it. The owner of the shirt was frightened and said with a quivering voice, “Chen . . . Chen Mengtao . . - when did I ever cross you? What are you washing my shirt for. ’ ’ “I . . . I’m just going to wring it out abit. Heb.” “What do you mean by that? What do you mean?" Chen Mengtao was very sad, feeling that his services must be somehow deficient. He trudged resentfully back to his bed and fell asleep, but he tossed and turned again and often cried out. Some people look very large when they’re asleep, but, strangely enough, as soon as he got under his covers he seemed to shrink, becoming as small as a child. He began to suffer from an increasingly inexplicable guilty conscience, and the more good deeds he did, the more he was cursed by the others. His complex— ion grew deathly pale, his eyelids drooped, his hands and feet trembled, and much of his hair turned white, but he kept on working with all his heart. When he took his rice bowl up in line, he would often skip a few steps for no reason at all and then return to his normal gait as if some invisible person had just stepped on the heel of his foot. He rushed to take out the piss bucket and, with his height and his clumsiness, got filthy water all over his shoes, but he never complained a bit. One day a cold wind was blowing, one’s nose and fingers were extremely cold, it was torture to hide under the covers or to get out of bed. The guards talked it over a minute and agreed that everyone could buy some wine to ward off the cold. Chen Mengtao went into action immediately, generously pulling out the money his younger brother had sent him and rushing right off to the store- room to buy the wine. Back with the wine, he tried to take off the little metal bottlecap. He tried to bite it off, but to no avail. He got a chopstick and tried to pry it off, but it didn’t budge at all. Finally he propped a hoe up on his knee and used the hue blade to scrape it off. As he pulled down vigorously on the bottle there was a pop and the bottlec ap disappeared. He was dumbfounded. “Where’s the bottlecap'?” “Where’s the bottlecap‘?” He lifted up the grass mat; he turned over each of his shoes and shook them out. “Where’s the bottlecap. ” He banged around the rakes and carrying poles in the corner of the wall and peered into the empty piss bucket, but he still could not find it. Everybody had already taken a few big slugs of wine, and the pungent, hot BLUE BOTTLECAF' l l feeling was rising from their stomachs and coming out on their faces. Noticing that he still had not joined them, they looked over after him; they did net see his upper body; all they saw was his rump facing them, sticking up high in the air, the center seam of his pants was pulled over creokedly to one side, and there were still two big spots of faded yellow mud. These two spots of faded yellow mud went straight out the deer down to the yard and onto the read. Later on they heard that he wanted to go right on past the guardpost and straight onto the town sheets, all the while talking to himself in a bemused tone: “Where’s the betticcap? That’s really something, where’s my hettlecap'?” Just like that, he went insane. With the utmost calmness and amiability he started eff looking fer that eternally irrettievahle bottlecap. This event puzzled everyone no end. Later and later on a good deal of time went by, a number of people died and were hem, a number of houses were torn down and many more were built up again. When the penal colony was disbanded, just like many ether people’s his case was ruled mistaken and unjust and he was given his freedom. He was sent to hospital after hospital and then, when he seemed much better, was transferred here to take care of the tea. He took down a pretty good wage, ate steamed pork with black bean sauce, and sometimes would read a few books and newspapers, listen to the radio, evaluate the performances of amateur drama troupes, or wear his high-topped leather boots into town to buy the latest science fiction maga- zine. Apart from searching fer that bottlecap, he didn’t have any ether symptoms of insanity. Many good—hearted or ill—intentioned people gave him various kinds of bettleeaps, and he pinched them all between his crude, rough fingers, looked them all ever, turned his richly colored cat eyes back to the people, and spoke like someone seriously discussing an academic problem: “It looks a little bit like it, but it’s I'tflt.’ ' Who knows which one he’s searching for after all. The amateur expert on regional surnames finished talking and looked at his watch, “Oh, I’ve been talking too much. I still want to hear what you’ve got to say. What sort of news have you brought this time?” I smoked a cigarette and realized that we had actually been talking all along. Since we had been talking about it, the thing was new somewhat trivial and remote. We could immediately talk about something else, talk about the study of surnames, talk about pig’s feet, talk about the nuclear disarmament negotiations, just talk and talk. Suddenly my mind seemed quite numb. For along time I could not think of a subject of conversation, could not think of a single sentence, not even a single word. Once again I looked at all those reefs with the cooking smoke swirling around them; under those roofs were thousands of families. In the long, slow march of ages, who knows where these reefs were sailed in from to moor here and make 12 HAN SHAOGONG up this little tnwn. Maybe someday they’ll simply sail away again one by one to make a new world, silently stealing in and silently slipping away. Taking tempe- rary shelter in this tiny harbor, resting their poles and their ears, they entered into this pale blue stillness and repose. Right, there’s not even a single werd there. Just as there is ne bettleeap. ...
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This note was uploaded on 02/06/2012 for the course ASIAN 261 taught by Professor Kaldis during the Winter '11 term at University of Michigan.

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W11-Han+Shaogong-Blue+Bottlecap - Blue Bofllecop Hon...

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