Bai Lu Yuan
Bai Jiaxuan took pride later in his life on having married seven different women.
His first marriage was just after his sixteenth birthday. It was with the oldest daughter of Gong Zengrong, who was from a wealthy and powerful family in Gong Jia Village—village of the Gong clan, on the West Plateau. She was two years his senior. His first night passed in panic and fear that left him scarred forever with the shame of his silliness. The woman died a year later in childbirth.
His second marriage was with the youngest daughter of Pang Xiurui, a well-off man in Pang Jia Village—village of the Pang clan on the South Plateau. She was a cute girl with sparkling eyes, and coincidentally two years younger than he was. She was ignorant of how marriage worked at that time, but he was by then experienced in the nuances between the sexes. Her looks of panic and shyness, not unlike his first time, only served to make him more excited. It wasn’t moans of pleasure but cries of pain that he heard as he coerced the cowering yet obedient young wife down under, and only after he stopped in exhaustion did he feel an agonizing pain in his inner shoulder, where she had bitten through his skin. He was starting to get quite annoyed with the spoiled girl as he checked his wound, but before he could react, she grabbed his shoulders and hinted for round two. She became relentlessly addicted after her first time. It took just under one year from when she first married into the Bai family in red wedding gowns, to being taken out of the household in a cheap coffin. It was tuberculosis.
The third woman was from the North Plateau. The oldest daughter of a rich family in Fan Jia Village, she was as plump and mature as a 20-year-old at the age of 16, succulent shoulders, round buttocks, and a great pair of tits. She either matured a bit too fast, or had gotten familiar with the ways of sex before marriage; she held him tightly as soon as they came under the sheets; her arms were eager and full of lust, and she pressed her large, full breasts against his chest without any signs of shame or shyness.
She cried out as he entered her body, not of pain, but of deep pleasure. Somehow, this soft and plump young woman turned into a twig after one year in his lustful arms. She died of unknown causes after having hematemesis.
The fourth woman was from Mi Jia Bao Village—village of the Mi Clan’s Fort on the South Plateau, near the foot of the mountains. This woman left almost no impression on him. She seemed to have no reaction to whatever he did. Never said no when he wanted it, and never bothered him when he didn't. She did what she did from beginning to end without one extra word, then she died while he was out into the town. When he came back, he saw that she had bitten tightly onto the corner of the blanket, nails torn and blood still fresh on her hands. The heated bed and sheets were full of bloodstains and scratch marks. It was said that she had a stomach ache in the afternoon, and Jiaxuan’s father went into town to find Dr. Leng when Jiaxuan was away. She was diagnosed with a typhoid disease called Yangmaoding, and was treated with bloodletting from the rash spots. However, by then it was already too late, as her blood had coagulated. She died in severe agony; her dead body crumpled up like a dried shrimp.
连着死了四个女人，嘉轩怕了，开始相信村人早就窃窃着的关于他命硬的传闻，怕是注定要打一辈子光棍了。他的老子秉德老汉为他张罗再订再娶，他劝父亲暂缓一缓再说。秉德老汉把嘬着的嘴唇对准水烟壶的烟筒，噗地一声吹出烟灰，又捻着黄亮绵软的烟丝儿装入烟筒，又嘬起嘴唇噗地一声吹着了火纸，鼻孔里喷出两股浓烟，不容置疑地说：“再卖一匹骡驹。” 第二天上午，秉德老汉就牵着骡驹上白鹿镇去了。回来时天已擦黑，扔下那条半截铁链半截皮绳的缰绳，告诉儿子说：“媳妇说成了，东原上李家村木匠卫家的三姑娘。”这个女子是一个穷家女子，门不当户不对已经无从顾及。木匠卫老三养下五个女子，正愁养活不过，只要给高金聘礼，不大注重男人命软命硬的事。这时候，远远近近的村子热烈的流传着远不止命硬的关于嘉轩的生理秘闻，说他长着一个狗的家伙，长到可以缠腰一匝，而且尖头上长着一个带毒的倒钩，女人们的肝肺肠肚全被捣碎而且注进毒汁。那些殷实人家谁也不去考虑白鹿村白秉德淳厚的祖德和殷实的家业了，谁也不愿眼睁睁把女儿送到那个长着狗逑的怪物家里去送死; 只有像木匠卫老三这种恨不得把女子踢出门去的人才吃这号明亏。当婚事按照祖传的严格程序和礼仪加紧筹办的重要关头，秉德老汉自己却突然暴死了。
Four women dead in a row. Jiaxuan was starting to get scared of becoming forever alone; village rumours of his cursed life were starting to feel very real. Despite his father, Bingde, eager to get him married again, he asked his father to give it a rest for a while. But the old man put his lips around the mouthpiece of his water pipe, blew hard so the ashes flew out. He then snatched some soft and shiny yellow tobacco, stuffed it into the bowl, and lit up the fire paper.
“Go sell another mule foal”, he said firmly, as smoke expressed from his nostrils.
The next morning, old man Bingde took the mule foal to the town of Bai Lu. The sun had just set by the time he came back. He threw down the rein made of half iron chain, half leather. “You're getting married again. Your wife will be the third daughter of the Wei family, carpenter of Li Jia Village on the East Plateau.” He told his son. This time, the girl is from a rather impoverished family, as Jiaxuan’s marital situation was getting a bit too tough to worry about marrying with the right social class. The carpenter Wei had five daughters, and he was far too worried about keeping his daughters alive to think twice about marrying a man with a cursed life, as long as the bride price was right. At this point, villages from far and wide told rumours about Jiaxuan that even his cursed life paled in comparison. People spoke of him having a dog’s dong that could wrap a full circle around his waist; at its tip was a poisonous hook that shreds the insides of women and injects them with poison. All decently off families were no longer interested in the vast fortunes and benevolent reputation of Bai Bingde from Bai Lu Village; who would want send their daughters to die from the monster with a dog’s dick? Only people like the carpenter Wei who would do anything to get rid of daughters could pull such a stunt. However, at this crucial time for traditional rituals and wedding proceedings, old man Bingde dropped dead.
那是麦子扬花油菜干荚时节，刚交农历四月，节令正到小满，脱下棉衣棉裤换上单衣单裤的庄稼人仍然不堪燥热。午饭后，秉德老汉叮嘱过长工鹿三喂好牲口后晌该种棉花了，就躺下来歇息会儿。每天午饭后他都要歇息那么一会儿，有时短到只眨一眨眼眯盹儿一下，然后跳下炕用蘸了冷水的湿毛巾擦擦眼脸，这时候就一身轻松一身爽快，仿佛把前半天的劳累全都抖落掉了; 然后坐下喝茶，吸水烟，浑身的筋骨就兴奋起来抖擞起来，像一匝一匝拧紧了发条的座钟; ~等得鹿三喂饱了牲口，他和他扛犁牵马走出村巷走向田野的时候，精神抖擞得像出征的将军。整个后晌，他都是精力充沛意志集中于手中的农活，往往逼得比他年轻的长工鹿三气喘吁吁汗流浃背也不敢有片刻的怠慢。他从来不骂长工更不必说动手动脚打了，说定了的身价工钱也是绝不少付一升一文。他和长工在同一个铜盆里洗脸坐一张桌子用餐。他用过的长工都给他出尽了力气而且成了交谊甚笃的朋友，满原都传诵着白鹿村白秉德的佳话好名。秉德老汉刚躺下就滋滋润润地迷糊了。他梦见自己坐着牛车提着镰刀去割麦子，头顶呼地一个闪亮，满天流火纷纷下坠，有一团正好落到他的胸膛上烧得皮肉吱吱吱响，就从牛车上翻跌到满是黄土草屑的车辙里。惊醒后他已经跌落在炕下的砖地上，他摸摸胸脯完好无损并无流火灼烧的痕迹，而心窝里头着实火烧火燎，像有火焰呼呼喷出，灼伤了喉咙口腔和舌头，全都变硬了变僵了变得干涸了。他的女人大约听到响声跑进屋来抱他拉他都无法使他爬到炕上去，立即惊慌失措呼喊儿子嘉轩和长工鹿三。三个人把秉德老汉抬到炕上，一齐俯下身焦急而情切地询问哪儿出了毛病。可是秉德老汉已经不能说话，只是用粗硬的指头上的粗硬的指甲抓扒自己的脖颈和胸脯，嘴里发出嗷嗷嗷呜呜呜狗受委屈时一样的叫声。嘉轩和母亲全都急傻了，只有长工鹿三尚未混乱，忙喊：“快去请先生！”嘉轩得到提醒随即跑出院子，奔白鹿镇请先生去了。
It was the time of flowering wheats and drying rape pods—just entering the fourth month of the lunar calendar, or “Xiaoman”. Though most may feel a chill during this period where people change from cotton jackets to just a single layer of clothing, it was scorching hot for a farmer. After lunch, Bingde ordered his farmhand, Lu San to plant the cotton after feeding the livestock, then he lay down. He always took his nap after lunch every day, sometimes just a few minutes of a shuteye would suffice. Afterwards, he would hop off his heated bed and freshen up by cleaning his face with a cloth soaked in cold water. As his exhaustion from a whole morning of work subsided, he would then sit down, sip some tea, smoke his water pipe, and turn into a fully cranked-up clock from all that stimulation. By the time Lu San finished feeding the livestock, the old man would become as vivacious as a general riding out to battle, with his horse on reins and a plow on his back, setting out from the village to the farms. The entire afternoon would be comprised of him concentrating on the farm work at hand, forcing even his much younger farmhand, Lu San, to work without a moment’s rest even when sweat poured like a storm. Bingde never scolded his workers, let alone beat them; they were paid the exact amount both parties agreed upon, not a penny less. He even used the same brass basin as his workers to wash his face, and ate at the same table. All of his workers became friends with him, and did their hardest at work; the whole plateau spoke of the good name of Bai Bingde from Bai Lu Village.
This time, however, the old man fell into an especially sweet slumber as soon as he lay down. He dreamed that he was riding in the oxcart with his sickle, ready to harvest the wheat. All of a sudden, the sky flashed and fireballs rained down onto the earth, one of which struck him directly on the chest and left his flesh sizzling from the flames. He fell off the oxcart into the garage filled with dirt and hay. He jerked awake, and discovered that he had fallen off the bed and onto the brick-lain floor. There were no burns as he checked his chest with his hands, but it felt like he had swallowed a fireball; his heart burned as though flames were coming out, charring his throat, tongue and mouth, turning them numb and dry. His lady may have heard the noise and rushed into the room to try and get him back into the bed, but failed, and yelled for his son Jiaxuan and the worker Lu San in panic. The three lifted Bingde back into bed, and bent down to ask with panicked concern what was wrong. But by then the old man was unable to speak; he scratched his neck and chest with his long, thick fingernails while whining like a hurt dog. Jiaxuan and his mother were frozen from the shock, and only Lu San remained calm, and shouted “go get the doctor”!
After this reminder, Jiaxuan rushed out to get the doctor from the Town of Bai Lu.
The Town of Bai Lu was to the west of the village. One tiny street with one pharmacy, where Doctor Leng both conducts his diagnosis and sells his herbs. After hearing Jiaxuan’s descriptions, the doctor was already more than 80 percent confident of the situation. He brought a parcel that he hooked onto his belt and hurried off to the Bai household.
He was a well-respected doctor of Bai Lu Yuan, or the "White Deer Plateau". A man in his forties, he wore a well-tailored beige silk shirt with black silk pants. His hair was black as ink and glistened as though the strands were waxed; with a healthy red glow on his face and bright eyes, he sat in his office
, and diagnosed an endless stream of patients. No one was restricted from his service; the rich would take him in a litter, or at least an oxcart lined with a fur rug, and the poor would bring him on a donkey, or walk to the household for those who could not afford even a donkey. He took payments of any kind or value, whether gold and silver from those with wealth, or a few coins from the impoverished. He would not even bother to ask the dirt poor for payment, and waited for them bring some cash much later on.
Such actions won him great reputation. At his father’s funeral, countless former patients whose lives he’d saved, along with villagers who had heard about his great reputation from far and wide came to honor his deceased father with plaques written with gold ink and ritual-silk to be hung all over the street. Dr. Leng sat on his glossy, lacquered black chair, even more rigid than his late father. Despite his few words, he was capable of treating his restless patients very well. He always had a confident expression on his face when dealing with anxious patients, and their even more anxious family members. Regardless of whether he was able to treat the patient or not, people believed if he was able to rid someone of an illness, it was because of his extraordinary skills and further praise would be unnecessary. If he wasn’t, it was because the patient was fated to die from a mortal illness, and no other doctor, not even God himself would have been able to save that person.
As soon as he entered the door, Dr. Leng saw Bingde on the bed, crumpled up like a pretzel, still whimpering like a dog. The doctor showed no expression; he checked the old man’s pulse on the left hand, pressed his stomach, then pried open the old man’s mouth with his hands, and gave a “hm”. He then turned to Jiaxuan.
“Do you have any soju?”
Jiaxuan’s mom, Mrs. Bai Zhao replied quickly “yes, yes we do”, and then brought over a whole bottle.
Dr. Leng asked for a celadon bowl, poured soju into it, and signalled Jiaxuan to light up the bowl of alcohol. Jiaxuan was dripping sweat and his hands shook constantly due to being nervous; he kept failing to get a spark going with the flint stone. Lu San took over and lit up the fire paper with a single strike, and got a flame going with one quick blow. As the soju was lit, Dr. Leng took off the parcel on his belt, unbuttoned the flap, and exposed a row of knives, awls, needles, and a shiny triangular scraper. He took out a steel needle as thick as a straw along with a steel plate and put both on the blue soju flames; he then asked Jiaxuan to hold down Bingde’s hands, Mrs. Bai Zhao to press down her husband’s legs, and specifically told Lu San to steady the head and neck of his master, no matter what happens. Everything proceeded as the doctor asked, and Dr. Leng stuck the steel plate into Bingde’s mouth, made a V-shaped ridge that held Bingde’s mouth open as widely as possible with a press of his finger, then took the already-past red-hot needle that was on the flame, and stabbed it down the old man’s throat. Before the others could figure out what had happened, he took the needle out, and smoke came out of the old man’s mouth along with a putrid odour of burnt flesh.
“Let go, we’re done” Dr. Leng said as he cleaned his tools.
The old man Bingde untwisted his arms and legs, and then spread out completely relaxed on the bed. A nauseating dark mucus leaked out of his mouth, and Jiaxuan cleaned it off carefully with a cloth. The old man opened his eyes slowly, alarming the four others to this turn of events. His eyes glowed with signs of having been brought back to life, like a ray of sunlight piercing through a crack of the stormy sky. Three of them cried out in excitement, and turned to look at Dr. Leng with tears in their eyes. He was calm as usual, and said, “Get some cold water in him.”
The three frantically but carefully got a few spoonful of water into the wide-open mouth. Soon Bingde miraculously sat up, held the doctor’s hand and joked, “Leng! My son! I was just ticking my name off Yama’s list, and suddenly someone grabbed the brush from my hand and stuck it straight down my throat. I was just telling Yama that ‘well there’s nothing I can do about that’. Turns out it was you all along!”
The three burst into laughter still in tears. Bingde told his wife, “Go get some tea and lunch for the doctor!” and she rushed out with an apology for mistreating the honoured saviour; noises of splashing water and howling bellows came out of the kitchen.
Dr. Leng sat down, and without a word, he started to smoke using the old man’s white brass water pipe that Jiaxuan handed over. Mrs. Bai Zhao brought over a porcelain bowl with gold lining, contained therein three boiled eggs, each white as jade. However, Dr. Leng made a gesture that showed absolute and complete rejection of this offer. Just as Mrs. Bai Zhao was about to say something like “take care my dear”, Bingde suddenly fell over; his arms and legs began twisting up again even more fiercely than before. The life in his eyes faded and looks of death remerged along with the same dog-like whimpering. The three fell into terror as they had just let down their guard. The second strike hit much worse—they got happy far too soon for the crisis to subside. Dr. Leng took care of business calmly as usual; he began heating the steel plate and needle on the same blue soju flames. The three held Bingde down even without instruction. Again the red-hot needle was stuck down his throat, and again came out the revolting blue smoke. Bingde settled down as life came back into his eyes, but this time he didn’t crack a joke about stealing Yama’s brush. The three were puzzled, but the doctor tidied up his shiny purple leather parcel, re-strapped it onto his belt, and was ready to leave. Jiaxuan, his mother and the worker Lu San grabbed Dr. Leng by the arm, “How can you leave at this time? What if he’s at it again?”
Dr. Leng said with his poker face, “My help is only a temporary solution. I can rob Yama’s brush these two times, but if he’s meant to go, he’s meant to go and there’s nothing I can do if it keeps on happening!” He then left the room and went out onto the street.
Jiaxuan rushed out to bid farewell, then asked what his father was sick with.
“Xiaxia disease.” Dr. Leng said.
Jiaxuan was almost powerless to walk back inside. The doctor’s words meant a blind disease. In other words, unknown and fatal.
The old man Bingde died. His father’s death was the first that Jiaxuan had seen with his own eyes. His grandfather passed before he came to this world, and his grandmother too before he had any intelligence. His four wives took their last breaths away from him, as his mom always dragged him into the livestock shed (barn***) with a red blanket over his body to prevent him from getting possessed. His father was the first person that he had seen to pass from this life onto the afterlife. The death left him a permanent scar, a memory that did not fade over time, but rather like a bronze mirror that shined brighter as it was wiped over and over.
After the doctor left, Jiaxuan, his mother and Lu San gathered around Bingde like the most loyal of guards keeping their king safe. He and his mother fed the sick man a spoonful of sugar water, scared like a person treading on thin ice of Bingde’s third strike. Bingde glanced over the three of them with a sad and tender look, then peeked through the gaps between their bodies to check around the whole room. Perhaps he had discovered that Dr. Leng was no long around, he closed his eyes after a moment’s hesitation, and as he opened them again, a deathly silence fell.
Time was limited, he thought. He stared at his son Jiaxuan, then stated firmly, “After I die, go get married with the carpenter’s daughter.”
“Dad…we’ll talk about that later, let’s get you well first, alright?” Jiaxuan said.
“I’m telling you my last wishes, you have to comply right here and now.”
Jiaxuan was feeling awkward, “If it must be done, then I will do so after three years of bereavement based on our traditions.”
“There are three ways a son is unfilial; among the three leaving no offspring is the worst. Have you forgotten everything you’ve learned? Us Bai’s do not lack in wealth, but we do lack in population. Your grandfather was an only son who had an only son, me, who again, had only one son, you. Men in the Bai family always had a short lifespan for as long as I can remember. Your great grandfather lived to forty-eight, and your grandfather to forty-six. I had lived the longest, breaking the fifty-year mark. Three years of traditional bereavement means you’ve done your duties? No, you would have done nothing filial if you never have any kids!”
Jiaxuan felt cold sweat beginning to gather on his forehead.
Bingde kept going, “The fifth wife will come after the fourth. Those who have passed were never meant to be with this family. They were gone because they hadn’t finished paying back what they owed. I’m only going to say this once, even if we have to sell our cattle, horses, land, house, each and every bit we have…”
Jiaxuan saw his mother signalling him to talk, but he could not. Who would ever have a wedding before the three years of bereavement passes?
The old man began to twitch again in their argument; the life in his eyes faded in and out, and the whimpers started again. The three were clueless on what they should do. Suddenly, Bingde grabbed one of Jiaxuan’s wrists; his nails dug hard into his son’s flesh, unwilling to let go. A look of savagery appeared in his eyes despite him already foaming at the mouth, and tumbling all over the bed.
His mother was getting anxious, “Talk to your dad!”
Lu San felt uneasy too, “Just say yes!”
Jiaxuan cried out, “Dad…I’ll do as you say, I promise…”
The old man immediately let go, tilted back his head, kicked a bit, and stopped breathing.
Jiaxuan fainted after a loud cry. By the time he came to, his late father was already in his grave clothes, and candles were lit on the altar. Lu San said, “You really should stop crying now and get the funeral started. We can’t take action until you take charge.”
Jiaxuan got started on the funeral process right away. He started by discussing with the elders of the clan, then moved onto the things that had to be done: send out four closely related clan members to announce the news to other friends and family in the cardinal directions. Eight less related clan members were sent to get bricks for setting up the gravesite after the Yin Yang master has determined a good location. A couple of helpful neighbours were asked to go to the water mill in town and get flour ready, since the stone mill at home was too slow. Finally, it was time for Jiaxuan to decide on the number of musicians. How many would be required, for how big of a reception, and how many days?
Jiaxuan said, “My father worked hard in a lifetime of anguish; usually we should not bury him without three years of soul-resting at home. However, my father said before his death, that we should bury him in three days, no music, and no extravagant rituals. I say we take the middle ground, not a three-year wake, and not a simple burial in three days. Let’s have him stay home for the first seven days, which would give us time to stabilize the tomb. Uncles and great uncles, I hereby await your instructions…”
The elders of the clan were aware of Jiaxuan’s hardships—a man without a child to arrange his own eventual funeral; they agreed with Jiaxuan’s decisions. An uncle told him calmly, “No one has eyes in the back of his head. You must look forward towards life, and not backwards towards death.”
The group achieved agreement. A person was sent to get a group of musicians in a nearby village, “eight by five”, they ordered. That is, eight musicians to play for the first three days and the last day of the funeral, while five musicians for the three days in the middle, just to keep a tune going.
The funeral proceeded as planned. Seven days later, a new grave was drawn for the old man on the ancestral graveyard, with a brand new tomb tower made of fresh yellow earth raised. The tomb was just one row below that of Jiaxuan’s grandfather based on traditions, slightly to the left. The area to the right was, of course, left empty for Mrs. Bai Zhao when she ascended to heaven.
Finally it was all over. Without his father, the household became so quiet that it was suffocating. His mother stayed in the master bedroom on the north side of the homestead, he at a side bedroom, and Lu San at the stable. The household made no noise all day and night, besides an occasional cough from his mother.
One night, his mother asked him when he was planning to get married. A year after his father’s passing, he said. His mother suggested that he should stop waiting around; the household was too quiet and dreary, and she was getting quite overwhelmed with housework like cooking and cleaning, that she really needed an extra hand to help out so they could do more things like weaving and spinning thread.
“How about after the first one hundred days?” He asked.
“Don’t bother”, his mother told him, “A hundred days would be too long, just do it after the first seven weeks of prayer.”
In the end, it took two months for him to get married again, this time with his fifth wife—the third daughter of the carpenter Wei. By then it was already a short off-season during the summer after harvesting, threshing, cleaning, and planting the autumn wheat. Night of the wedding was hot and humid. Jiaxuan locked the doors to his bedroom, and took off his outer garments in an instant. His new wife who was sitting firmly on the bed suddenly got up and kneeled on the bed, bowing and begging him to stop taking off his undergarments. He asked her what was going on, and she answered that being born as the third daughter in a poor family meant that she would have a miserable life. Alarmed as he suddenly realized something, he asked her if she had heard any rumours. She said that she knew he had been married four times and all of his wives died. She also heard that not only was he cursed, he had a venom-filled hook on his thing that would grind up the insides of a woman—heart, lungs, liver and all. Even a woman made of iron would be decimated.
She trembled and cried as she spoke, “My dad got greedy over the bride prize to the point that he didn’t even care if I lived or died; he’d tell me to jump off a cliff if he had to. Can you please, please let me live for a few more years, I can take care of you, get you tea, give you baths, cook, clean, sew, I’ll do anything as long as you don’t take that thing out! Please oh please honey, my beloved, my daddy…”
Jiaxuan was stupefied. He lumped in a chair in dismay. The joy of a wedding’s night was gone without a trace. He’d long heard about this ridiculous rumour but there was no way he could prove or disprove if his thing was any different from other peoples’. He even checked out other men’s penises while pretending to take a leak or a dump in public outhouses during a festival. That only served to make the confusion even worse since all of them were the fucking same but still seemed different. The act of the carpenter’s daughter begging for her life not only failed to gain his sympathy, but seriously hurt his pride. In his fury, he stood up from the chair, leaped onto the bed and stripped himself clean to show her what it looked like. “Where is the hook and venom?”
The girl was scared and embarrassed. She shook and cried in fear. The more she did, the more enraged he became. He ripped off her clothes and did the deed. Afterwards, he asked her if her internal organs are okay, but found that she had long fainted. He panicked and pressed her philtrum to wake her up. The girl cowered into one corner of the bed as she came to. He didn’t know whether to laugh or to cry, but still went over to hold and caress the girl to soothe her. Yet it was all in vain. She could not get over her trauma no matter what he did. Each night she would have a seizure as though she had contracted malaria. She fell into a trance and turned half-mad before their marriage could reach its half-year mark. She had a seizure one day as she was doing laundry at the water hole, fell in, and drowned.
Her funeral was treated with much more respect than the previous four. He made a poplar coffin, and put on her five layers of grave clothes. The other four only had three. Naturally he made no arrangements for musicians or further spending; it was already extremely generous for the death of a young woman. The reason for this slightly-more-generous funeral was psychological. He felt seriously guilty from the day her corpse was reeled up, all smeared with stinking mud, to the moment she was put into the coffin. He remembered that on the night of the wedding, how amazed he was at her beauty and her strong physique as he took off her red veil. Her eyes, large and bright as black pearls; her arms were strong, and her hands were callused—monuments of her hard work at the farms with her mother while the carpenter was out at work. Even a strong body was no match for the powers of dirty rumours…he could not get the image of her begging for her life on the wedding night out of his head, and it flashed back to him during each of those lonely nights he spent on the heated bed of his room. How her ice-cold hands and legs twitched as he took her in his arms. How she had never felt the pleasures, but only fear from sex. How she eventually collapsed from the collected fear. He felt rather hopeless, to the point that he turned his life into only laying down on the cold, earthen bed, and working at the farms. This heated earthen bed had held five women of different shapes and sizes, which turned into five cold, hard corpses that were strikingly similar. Compared to the despair, the vast amounts of silver dollars, food, cotton and mules spent on these marriages meant little to nothing. No sadness, no sighs; just exhaustion, both physically and mentally as he rested on the bed. He felt light and powerless as a feather, that a light breeze would lift him into the air, and throw him into a little corner without a stir. The worldly tasks were so far-fetched that nothing at all concerned him. He lay on his bed until it became dark. His mother asked him to have dinner, but he told her he wasn’t hungry. Then she called for Lu San. He was far too shy to have dinner alone, so went into the side bedroom to talk some sense into Jiaxuan, but Jiaxuan remained adamant, and told Lu San to eat alone and stop worrying about him. Lu San made an unbelievable amount of noise as he sat under the grape vines, chowed down the food, fast and furiously. Is anything in this world that would make people gorge it down while making such a satisfying noise? Jiaxuan thought.
His mother called him over after she had cleaned up the kitchen and the dirt on her clothes. He went into the master bedroom, and saw his mother sitting on the simplified “Tai Shi” armchair that his father used to sit, in a way that reminded him of his dad. He sat down on the chair across the table, and tried to look nonchalant. His mother told him that she was planning to go back to her family next morning to ask her brothers to find him potential partners. Jiaxuan asked her to take things slower.
“Why should I?” His mother asked. She kept on going as she became more excited. “You’re already over twenty years old, there’s no time to waste! And stop putting on that gloomy face; women are just like the paper that covers windows; a broken piece of paper is meant to be replaced. Five dead? I’ll get you five more. Spend everything we own? So be it, still better than someone else taking over your land if you die without children.”
Jiaxuan was left speechless.
Five days later, his mother returned from his uncle’s with news of a settlement. A decent family on the South Plateau, the Hu’s, lost all their money when gambling. The gamblers went into their home, took all their grains, cattle and mules as payment for the money the man owed. The woman of the house was embarrassed half to death; the man, in his shame, took off his belt and hung himself on a chestnut tree in the back yard. Luckily he was saved by people that went by. He thus asked for a huge sum of bride prize for his daughter—20 dan of wheat, which was roughly 2000 litres, along with 20 bundles of cotton, or the market-price equivalent in silver dollars, lump sum. These figured sent a chill down Jiaxuan’s spine, but his mother told him blankly that she had already agreed to those terms. Following the talk, his second maternal uncle acted as the matchmaker and conducted the marriage as per usual. Jiaxuan discovered in surprise that his mother had already exceeded his father in her tenaciousness and directness when taking action. Once she had chosen her path, there was no looking back, no hesitation, and only going forward. Just like that, the sixth wife came in through the doors with the celebratory tones of suona horns, all during the perfect season of March where the peach flowers bloomed, and one month before his father’s one-year death anniversary.
He was stunned after he took off her red veil. Even the partying men and women who gathered in the bridal chamber too had stopped their jittering. The woman, Hu, was beautiful like the women in folk tales, or like an aristocratic lady in a theatre. As soon as Jiaxuan squeezed himself out of the bridal chamber, people started yelling “Hu Fenglian”. That was the name of a character in a well-known Qinqiang, a Shaanxi Opera called “Trip to Guishan”; she was a gorgeous woman in an angler’s family.
The two sat on the bed at night, a time of wonder as they took peeks at each other. Her radiance completely dispelled the darkness left on Jiaxuan by his five former wives, and he no longer felt even a hint of regret over the huge bride price. They lay down together; he held her, felt her, kissed her on the cheeks and lips. She accepted everything gladly. But he soon discovered that things were not as wonderful as he thought. While he was trying to take off the belt from her underwear, she jumped, and quickly grabbed a pair of scissors from under the pillow. The scissors were obviously carefully sharpened; they shone bright red as the sharp blades reflected the red candlelight. She kneeled on the bed, with the sharp tip of the scissors pointed at him, while her perky white breasts were still left bare. “I’ll snip it off if you ever dare taking off my belt.”
He compromised. Such a woman sleeping beside him was enough, he thought, despite the pity he felt for himself every night. He was really starting to suspect that the stuff out of his thing was poisonous, and secretly put some into the pig fodder. The pigs acted just fine after him having experimented three times. He told his concerns to Dr. Leng. The doctor laughed, and told him he had long heard about this rumour and that it was completely false and ridiculous. He had seen in his twenty years of practice men with all sorts of semen; normal, none-at-all, dead, or bleak, but never a penis with a hook and semen with toxin.
Dr. Leng said after he had finished laughing, “Know what bro? Let’s just play along with it!”
He put down some paper and inked his brush, prescribed Jiaxuan a formula that strengthens his body and sex organs, seven doses in total, to be brewed into tea and ingested for the next hundred days. Jiaxuan took the herbs home and told his wife that it was to rid the poison. She was overjoyed, and brewed the herbs day and night, then watched her man drink it down. That night, she lay in his arms and told him amorously, “Just a hundred days of pain and bitterness, and you can do whatever you want with me when you’re no longer filled with poison. I never meant to give you a hard time.”
Jiaxuan was delighted. The bitter tea tasted sweet as honey. A hundred days passed and Jiaxuan glowed with strength and vigor from the herbs. Hu loosened her belt as her fears were resolved; the two went at it in all their lust and greed; they felt no exhaustion nor were they easily satisfied, and kept going even when the heated bed fell apart—they just giggled and moved to another location.
Their passion lasted for three full days and three full nights; on the fourth day they were finally worn out, and went into a slumber in each other’s arms. Suddenly a loud scream woke Jiaxuan up and threw him into panic. As he came to his senses, he found Hu clinging to him tightly, trembling and breathless. He quickly lit up the oil lamp, and saw fear and confusion flashing back and forth in Hu’s eyes. He asked her what was wrong, and hesitantly, she murmured “Ghosts”, and then buried her head back into the blanket while holding Jiaxuan even tighter.
After hearing those words his scalp turned numb as a chill went down his spine, and goosebumps raised all over his body. He asked, “Where are the ghosts?”
Hu replied, her voice trembling, “I can’t. I’m too scared.”
Jiaxuan shook her hand off, put on his pants, and dashed out of the room still half-naked and barefoot. He went upstairs, dug up half a litre of peas, and threw handful after handful of them down, raining the peas from the roof to the corners, from the bed to the ground. The flushing sound of peas dropping were loud enough to send people shivering. His father used the same method to calm him down when he was little and saw a ghost. As the bed, tables and ground became filled with peas, Hu miraculously became calm and lively again. She held him and cried, no longer trembling. He held her as they sat there until morning, when Hu finally gathered enough strength to tell him about the ghosts she saw in her dreams last night. She told him that she saw his five ex-wives, pinching, grabbing, scratching, beating, and spitting on her; they also squabbled to sleep with him. What truly puzzled Jiaxuan was that Hu had never met any of the women, but was able to describe how they all looked like perfectly! Jiaxuan told his mother, and she said without hesitation, “We’re getting an exorcist tonight, and we are gonna catch each one of these fuckers.”
The exorcist remained anonymous, but people called him “Hair Strand”, because he has a strand of hair that measured about a foot long on a mysterious mole under his left cheek. Jiaxuan told him the ins and outs of the haunting. After asking him for the address, the exorcist told him to go home and he’ll be there right away. Jiaxuan jogged back through a shortcut, as he knew the exorcist rode a ghost litter that was fast as the wind. Sure enough, the exorcist arrived right after he did. The exorcist threw a net over the gatehouse as soon as he got to the doors, “the net that covers the heaven and earth”. He went in, wore a red headband, a red belt and red shoes, and ran up down the stairs. Hu covered herself with a blanket in fear. The exorcist eventually caught the ghosts at the corner of the second set of doors in a pot. Under the lamp, the red cloth that sealed the pot fidgeted constantly, as though there were mice were trying to escape. The exorcist instructed them, “fill a wok with water, and we’re going to scald these fuckers dead then bake them dry!”
Lu San and Jiaxuan took turns manning the bellows. A disgusting stench came out as soon as the water started to boil; Jiaxuan threw up, followed by Lu San, but they continued to boil the water until the last drop turned to air. The exorcist took the payment, the pot, the net, and headed back to the mountains in his ghost litter. Since then, no haunting ever occurred. Yet it impossible for Hu to recover. She turned more gloomy, more morose, and thinned down by the day. Dozens of dosages from Dr. Leng were ineffective at making her well again. Eventually, she had a still-born, fell bedridden, and died soon afterwards.
Jiaxuan had completely given up. Dr. Leng tried to guide him, “Bro, get a Yin Yang master to check out the house and your ancestral graves, see what the problem is, and have him sort things out.”
X Jia Village (X家村): other translation includes X Village, but the former translation is more commonly used.
Plains/plateau (原): having had to ride a motorcycle up the road for 30 to 40 minutes to get there, I am sure it is a plateau, not plains.
Kang (炕): I chose to simply use bed or heated bed, as similar bed devices exist in many cultures.
Litter (轿): the vehicle brides and some aristocrats would use for travelling, usually carried by several men.
Soju (烧酒): another possible translation is baijiu, but as the original text says “soju”, I chose this as the translation.
Yama (阎王): the figurehead of the underworld, Yama is the translation from Sanskrit.
Yin Yang master (阴阳师父): a person that combines feng shui geomancing, exorcism, spirit detection, etc, based on Daoist traditions, typically.
Red veil (盖头): the face-cover a woman wears on a wedding in Chinese traditions
Tai Shi armchair (太师椅): a traditional Chinese armchair
Dan (石): a measuring unit of about 103 litres during the time of this novel. The other pronunciation is “shi”, however, most rural folks prefer to say “dan” instead
Death anniversary (忌祀): a yearly ritual to honour the dead