A little life

IT WAS AFTER ten at night when they finally arrived – three men and a woman, faces shining and covered with sweat, their expressions displaying an alert restlessness. Everything about the short, pale, plump woman was blunt.

‘Our wait has finally produced some fruit. Have a seat.’ My youngest aunt, very polite, emphasised the word wait, as if to suggest our patience had reached its limits. She had specially rushed back from Beijing for this matter. Everyone had taken time off from work and suffered sleepless nights.

We had all been up through the previous night. The clock ticked, making us anxious. My oldest aunt’s husband crushed out his cigarette, saying, ‘We can’t just keep waiting like this. We should “invite” the guy over, then his parents will appear.’

‘Kidnap him? Isn’t that illegal?’ My father was afraid. He had so little courage it would fit in a nutshell.

‘Bring his girlfriend. She knows him, and also knows the way.’ My oldest aunt had dark circles under her eyes. ‘Who knows whether he’ll show up for work tomorrow.’

The guy’s girlfriend was my older sister. At the moment, she was the calmest of all of us, seven months pregnant and sitting like the Virgin Mary with her hands in her lap, saying nothing as she watched everyone worry about her life and her unborn child. Her face was untroubled and serene. She occasionally shifted in her seat, as if none of it had anything to do with her.

My sister was eighteen, and studying in a very poor junior college. She had taken out a loan for her tuition, while my mother cooked and cleaned for other families and my father did manual labour, struggling to save enough money to repay the loan. The college was close to home, about three hours by train. My sister came home often at first, but then she got busy, and we hadn’t seen a shadow of her for four months. She didn’t even resurface for the summer holidays, saying she had gone with the guy to Changsha for an internship.

But within a few days she came home, luggage in tow. Her face was still thin, but her midsection was plump. She wore a dress with no waist and waddled like a penguin. Mother was shocked, like she’d been electrocuted. She knew all about how to clean a window and could confidently fry up tasty vegetables, but was completely useless when faced with my sister’s inflated belly. Mother could only resort to the time-tested method – tears. Lots of tears. Her face was distorted by bitterness.

We soon found out that the guy who had accompanied my sister home in the middle of the night the previous winter, and who had been hiding away in the internet café playing games, was responsible for her present condition.

Our house was only fifty square metres. My sister usually slept with Mother on one bed, and I slept with Father on another – the family’s sleeping arrangements separated along gender lines. Only after my sister went to college did I have my own space. If she had a baby at home, it would cry, and there would be nappies and bottles piled up on my desk. It was no use considering how I could focus on my own studies and get into a good college if that were the case.

Father went quietly to the balcony to smoke. My mother could not stop crying. ‘Such a huge thing... Why didn’t you tell us?’

‘He said we should have it, so we’re going to have it,’ my sister said.

‘An unwed girl having a baby at her parents’ home. How can your father and I show our faces in public?’

‘Their house is even smaller.’

‘You haven’t graduated. You’re not even the legal age to marry. And you’ve no means to raise a child.’

My sister did not say anything. She was not anxious. She could have a baby or not; it made no difference to her.

THE GUY’S HOME was in the mining area. His parents divorced when he was two, then his father later found a woman whom he had lived with ever since. When the guy was hiding out at the internet café, my sister brought him home early one morning. That was the first time we met him, and the only time.

Father had a bad impression of him, saying he smoked, chewed betel nuts, and seemed foppish – all signs of dishonesty. Father never had high expectations of us. We just needed to be like a tree or a flower, honest and quietly doing our duty.

Mother liked the fellow, saying he was tall and handsome, clever, sweet-tongued, mature beyond his years and quite well mannered.

I thought of the dark mining area, where dust covered the vegetation and the hair and filled the nostrils. It was certainly not a good place. Father thought the same way. Even though our home was a poor one, at least it had mountains and water and the air was clean. But my father had always listened to my mother and, though he didn’t like the guy or that place, he was powerless to object to the relationship.

My mother did not cry long. Afterward, it seemed she had feelings for the child in my sister’s belly, saying I would be an uncle soon and things like that. Perhaps because it had been cleansed by tears, my mother’s face brightened. Her maternal instinct quickly restored, she went to the supermarket and bought milk, ribs, fish and nutritional supplements for my sister, and asked if the foetus was moving. The next day, Mother brought my sister to the hospital for another check-up. The ultrasound showed that the foetus was healthy and had a high nose. My mother was very happy. She suddenly realised that this was actually a joyful occasion.

Since every wedding must follow procedures, Mother decided she should phone and speak to the guy’s father. Nervous, she pressed all the wrong buttons. I finally had to dial the number.

Where we live, each city has its own dialect. Forcing herself to use Mandarin, Mother stammered. Her accent was strange, making it sound all wrong, even when seasoned with a degree of flattery.

The guy’s father seemed to be a real talker. Mother could only get the conversation started, then the rest was all ‘mm-hm…’ She pulled the phone away from her ear for a moment. The other voice was really loud.

Mother uh-huhed for a while, then hung up. Her joy had faded. It seemed her spirit had taken a blow, and her expression was dazed and bitter.

‘Are they coming?’ Father asked.

‘He said he hit someone with his car two weeks ago... In a few days, the official from the mine will come to investigate, so he has a lot of work to do in preparation. They don’t have time to come here, so they asked us to go there.’

‘That doesn’t make sense. Making excuses means they don’t want to take responsibility.’ Father wasn’t angry. He was just stating a fact. He was used to holding things in, and never spoke sharply.

Fortunately, Mother never expected Father to go to any trouble. She continued to try to contact the guy’s father, but the other side did not answer the phone.

Mother simmered for several days and, when she couldn’t hold it in anymore, told her two sisters. That’s when things really started to boil.

MY SISTER SAID the guy worked in an office. That night, when some of the family were getting ready to go to Changsha to look for him, she told us the truth – he worked in a bar.

My youngest aunt hadn’t slept for two nights, but drove there through her exhaustion. Mother was worried sick, and I kept her company while she waited. Sometime after four in the morning, they finally came home. We were all at my oldest aunt’s house, since it was the most spacious, sleeping on the sofa, the floor and anywhere else we could find. I opened the door when they returned and saw the guy, wearing a white shirt and black trousers, clean and cool. Without a word, he plunged into the room. He plopped onto a stool, like a child being confronted by his parents.

It had been several hours of hard work, and everyone was tired and hungry. My oldest aunt cooked for everyone. Her husband drained a glass of water, leaning his head back.

My sister’s face was expressionless, as if her only task was to co-operate. She and the guy didn’t speak. They were like strangers.

My youngest aunt, dozing on the sofa, suddenly sat straight up. She said slowly, ‘That sort of boy working in a bar, they’re all like ducks waiting for customers to feed them. That’s not the sort of place someone about to be a father should go.’

Ignorant of the euphemistic use of duck common among adults here – and having never heard of a gigolo anyway – I felt that what my aunt said was not right. A duck was fluffy and quacked. It didn’t seem anything like that fellow, sitting there, cold as ice.

‘It’s not a place decent people go. Bright lights, liquor and noise… And you want to let her go there to work!’ my uncle said.

‘It’s just temporary,’ the guy said. ‘You see, I’m still in my work clothes. I didn’t even ask for time off. What is it you want from me anyway?’

My uncle slapped him on the head. ‘Damn! When a man does a thing, he has to take responsibility. You ditched her here, then disappeared. What’s that about?’

‘I didn’t say I wouldn’t take responsibility,’ the guy said nervously. ‘She’s staying at home for a while so I can get settled in, then I’ll come back and get her.’

‘How old are you?’ my youngest aunt asked.

‘I’ll be twenty soon.’

‘And you want her to have this illegitimate kid?’ she asked.

‘Wait till we’re of age, then we can register our marriage,’ he said.

‘Why do you keep hiding the truth?’

‘Aren’t I telling you now?’ the guy stretched his neck back and forth. ‘If I’d known it would be like this, we could’ve just gone somewhere and had the baby first, then told you. What could you have done about it then?’

My youngest aunt walked over to him. ‘Look up, please.’

He did so, looking disdainful.

‘Can you repeat what you just said?’ she asked.

‘If I’d known it was going to be like this, we could’ve just gone away and had the baby first, then told you about it. What could you have done?’

There was a loud pop when she struck his face. ‘That’ll make you remember. Being an adult requires showing at least a modicum of respect for other people, including your own parents.’

He fidgeted in his seat and gritted his teeth, trying to control his temper.

‘You’re acting like a scoundrel. Give me your identity card,’ my uncle said.

‘I didn’t bring it,’ he retorted.

As my uncle prepared to frisk him, the fellow quickly produced some rubbish from his pocket, tossing it on the coffee table. ‘I told you I didn’t bring it! There’s nothing to discuss!’

My uncle slapped his head with some force. ‘What’s with this attitude? Be honest!’

My oldest aunt had just put the food on the table. Hearing this phrase, she chuckled, calling my sister’s name. ‘Take a good look. You see what he is now?’

My sister was standing on the balcony, leaning on the railing and looking at the blue sky. Dawn had come and the birds were already singing their morning song from their perches in the trees. She turned and glanced into the house to indicate her compliance. But she still wore the same indifferent expression.

‘My father just sent me a message. He said he’ll come tomorrow to talk about wedding arrangements…’ The fellow’s voice suddenly turned tearful. ‘Now that you’ve all gone overboard like this, what’s there to talk about? You’ve made such a mess of our love!’

The word love jabbed everyone. The whole house instantly fell silent.

My youngest aunt said, ‘All right. Let’s talk about love. Do you love her?’

‘Yes!’ he said fiercely.

‘You do? If you love someone, how could you let her tote around so much luggage when she’s seven months pregnant? In thirty-eight degree heat, no less, and sitting in the back of a bouncing vehicle for hours? If you love someone, why don’t you let her wear a beautiful wedding gown and take her back to your own home?’ My aunt fired this series of questions. ‘Why degrade her? Why let her be a poor, abandoned woman? Do you have any idea the sort of shame and anger we’ve had to bear?’

My aunt paced back and forth as she spoke. Her gestures and expression made her look like the instigator of a revolution.

The guy curled his lip. ‘That’s how you see it. But I love her.’

‘You love her? You don’t even have basic respect for her. You haven’t paid your respects to her parents or relatives, and you haven’t introduced her to your parents. Your father just came to know about this situation himself. You don’t care about her at all!’

‘Anyway, whatever you say is right, and I’m wrong,’ he muttered as he started to light a cigarette.

My uncle interrupted, ‘Please don’t smoke in front of me.’

That fellow threw the lighter away, tossing it in a small arc.

My youngest aunt called my sister and asked her to come in. Then she said, ‘Tell me, what do you see in him?’

My sister looked at my aunt blankly.

‘What’s good about him? Name three things.’

My sister seemed lost in thought. Right up to the end of this ordeal, she offered no answer.

ASIDE FROM MOTHER, everyone thought the guy was a lousy character, rotten to the core and from a bad family – clearly not marriage material. Especially Father, a resoluteness suddenly rearing up in him.

‘Abort it. Abort it and start fresh.’ Father took my sister’s hand, removing the hangnails from her fingers, ‘I’ll take care of you. And you can rest as long as you want when it’s done.’

My sister’s hand was plump and had a few dimples on the back of it. Because of that, Mother had early on concluded that my sister was fated to be rich in the future.

‘She’s so far along. Abortion will be harder on her body than giving birth. She’ll suffer physically.’ A note of bitterness entered Mother’s voice. ‘What if some worse complications arise?’

She was worried my sister would turn out like one of her friends, unable to have any more children after her abortion.

‘If that fellow was honest, reliable… We can still make do… But she’s so young. She doesn’t know anything about having a baby. Is there any thought more terrifying than to be stuck with a debauched, irresponsible husband and father?’

My oldest aunt agreed, ‘There’s still a long way to go. The girl’s life has just begun. It’s not worth letting it get consumed like this.’

My sister’s eyes followed the voices, watching whichever mouth was speaking at that moment.

My youngest aunt sighed and said to my sister, ‘The worst of it is, I don’t have the slightest idea what you’re thinking. You’ve been back for a few days, and we’ve not heard you say a word. Do you feel we’re stifling you, or interfering with your life?’

My sister looked at Mother.

Mother said, ‘How could she think that? She knows we’re only looking out for her best interests.’

‘Don’t answer for her,’ said my aunt. ‘All these years, it’s always been you speaking on her behalf. That’s why she’s in this situation now, looking at her own life like an outsider! In the end, she’s going to have to face up to it!’

All eyes were focused on my sister now.

To my memory, no one had ever said my sister was pretty. She wasn’t tall, nor was she fair. Her performance at school was average, and she never talked back at home. Throughout her life, my sister had never been the centre of attention like this, the object of everyone’s concern and the topic of discussion. She seemed to enjoy the moment, like a spectator quietly appreciating everyone’s performance and rating the way they played their roles.

Father, Mother, my oldest aunt, her husband and my youngest aunt all eagerly waited for her to speak. My sister’s composure was admirable. She glanced around, then finally stared at her toes, still as a statue.

My oldest aunt and her husband had had enough. They left the room.

My youngest aunt finally said, ‘If you want to suffer with him, to be partners in crime, to be cheapened, then say so. We’ll just leave you to live your own life.’

My sister lifted her face and stared straight ahead, eyes set. She still did not reply.

‘Okay, I’ll take that as your consent.’ Then my aunt said to Mother, ‘I can’t be bothered. Tomorrow I’ll go back to Beijing. You wait and meet his relatives. The guy’s a little rogue, and his old man’s a wily old bird. You’ll be jumping into a fire pit.’

THE CICADAS CALLED loudly, and the sun shone white-hot. The branches were still, and not even the wind generated by the fan was cool. Sweat dripped from every pore, covering our bodies with a sticky film.

My youngest aunt was asleep, and my uncle had gone to his work unit to attend to some business. Mother and my oldest aunt were in the kitchen cooking.

The guy was helping my sister hang the laundry to dry. Mother signalled with pursed lips, wanting my aunt to look.

‘Whether you choose to have the baby or not is up to you,’ my aunt said, glancing at the couple. ‘A seven-month-old foetus is also a life… It’s just that bloody rascal,’ she said, pointing to the guy. ‘He’s not reliable at all.’

‘Wait till his father gets here. Let’s see what they intend to do.’ Mother cut some red and green chilli, preparing to fry spicy pork. ‘We’ll be polite for now, in case we become relatives.’

As soon as Mother started cooking, she perked up. Now she had everything under control. She could discern things; she had a firm handle on what was what. And, maybe she still held out some hope for the guy’s father. Things had progressed this far, making it impossible for him to ignore the situation.

She tipped the sliced chilli into the wok and it sizzled. At the same moment, the doorbell rang. It was my uncle, carrying a case of beer. He seemed afraid he had made things worse, so he threw himself into doing minor tasks.

‘When will your father be here?’ He put the beer in the refrigerator, then poured a cup of iced water and drank it.

‘He’s bought a ticket for the afternoon train,’ the guy said, much more at ease now that the atmosphere was amicable.

Before long, Father came home, red-faced and sweating. He carried a bag of fruit for the guests.

The smell of frying chilli pork wafted over us all, making Mother cough. My aunt laughed, and suddenly the whole house had a holiday feel, as if we were celebrating.

My sister and the guy silently wiped the table and set out the dishes.

‘Smells good.’ my youngest aunt said, lazily coming out of the bedroom. She deliberately ignored the couple. ‘Aiyoh…spicy pork, braised fish, steamed egg, amaranth, eggplant and beans.’

‘Have some beer,’ my uncle offered. ‘Let’s all have a glass.’

‘She can’t drink,’ the guy said, taking my sister’s glass.

‘Of course,’ said my uncle. ‘Drinking isn’t allowed for pregnant women. She’s on the protected species list now.’

Everyone laughed. Mother was especially pleased. And so, our lunch started happily. The guy was very attentive, making sure my sister had enough to eat, then pouring more beer for Father. He even stood up and toasted my parents, aunts and uncle, showing off the good manners Mother had always suspected he had.

After we’d been eating for a while, the guy put down his chopsticks and said, ‘I need to ask one favour of you. When my father arrives, please speak gently…so it will be a pleasant discussion. After all, we aren’t adversaries, and certainly not enemies.’

His remarks were not unreasonable, but it seemed a little like lecturing.

My uncle was not happy. ‘Whether people like or dislike what is said depends on the content, not the tone.’

My sister had lowered her head and was eating fish, sipping her soup, gnawing on a bone as if she had the most voracious appetite. All around the table, the only sound was her chewing.At that moment, the guy’s cell phone rang. He stood and went to the balcony to answer. He spoke quietly in his own dialect.

Soon, he came back to the table. ‘My uncle is here,’ he said. ‘He’s at the supermarket in the housing estate. I’ll go get him.’

My uncle seemed to mind this very much. Catching hold of the guy, he said, ‘Sit down. I’ll get him.’

A few minutes later, a bespectacled man of small build came in with my uncle. Mother got up and set another place at the table for him.

‘Sorry,’ said the man. ‘My brother was afraid you would be worried, so he asked me to come over. It might be evening before they arrive.’ He stared sternly at his nephew for at least half a minute.

Then he said louder, ‘Damn you, don’t you know anything? You’ve made a lot of trouble for everyone. When you were two, your mother dumped you on us and ran away. Your grandmother raised you single-handedly, penny pinching for your sake. She doted on you constantly, and now you’ve really let her down. You know, she’s so angry she nearly had a heart attack!’

This early arrival had come to spy out the situation, but he wasn’t a very good actor.

My uncle laughed. ‘Don’t scold him. It’s no use saying anything now. Let’s finish eating. Every problem has a solution.’

The guy’s uncle lowered his head and ate. When he had drunk tea and had his fill he announced that he would go back to his hometown to visit his mother in the hospital. We knew it was an excuse just to get away.

BY THAT AFTERNOON, three men and a woman had come to the house – the guy’s father, a friend, the short uncle and his stepmother. The latter had a straight face, like a wicked character.

Mother stuttered over a few words of introduction, but was interrupted by the guy’s stepmother.

‘This is too sudden,’ she complained. ‘We were caught completely unawares. She knew about our family’s circumstances. I’m not working, and my husband only makes a couple of thousand a month. Our home’s no larger than your asshole. What are we supposed to do? She’s been to my house a few times, and hardly had a thing to say. They just go about their own business. Even now, I don’t know her name. I only know her surname is Wei, so I call her the Wei girl.’ Her voice croaked.

They were not, as the guy had indicated, coming especially to discuss wedding plans. They were here to absolve themselves of responsibility.

Mother listened gravely. Her mouth moved, but she didn’t seem to know what to say.

My youngest aunt stood up, looked at the guy’s stepmother and, enunciating clearly, said, ‘Well, you and your lover have lived together for over a decade, so you should have a good understanding of what it’s like to be denied proper status. You have to know its importance to a woman. Our girl will not bear an illegitimate child. Do I need to remind you of your own illegitimate position in this family? You don’t have the right to speak here. If you’re the boy’s mother, I have to say you’re a pretty incompetent one. You don’t care about your son, and you don’t like “the Wei girl”. You don’t even know her name! One might say you have no real concern for your boy. You knew he wasn’t serious and yet you just left him to his shenanigans, creating trouble for everyone else.’

The guy’s stepmother was ready to blow her top earlier, but she wilted in the face of my aunt’s attack. She sat and did not speak again. She looked a little pathetic.

My aunt refilled her teacup and pushed a plate of fruit in front of her, as if wanting to make amends. ‘Well. The parents of a girl are always more anxious than the parents of a boy,’ she said. ‘There are so many more problems to bear. Before we contacted you, our nights were sleepless. Please forgive me if I said too much.’

Everything was quiet, except the sound of the fan turning.

My sister sat in the centre, bracketed by a family on either side. My sister was like a tick mark between the brackets, an answer to a question. That fellow sat across from her, the person answering the questionnaire. He strained toward her with his eyes, but when my sister looked at him, it was like she was looking at a stone. He could only grit his teeth and lower his head, his hands fidgeting.

Mother said that the couple had agreed to have the baby, and that my sister had promised to wait until the guy was old enough to marry. The guy dropped whispered hints, reminding my sister to keep her promise and stand up and declare her position, but she was like a pagoda buffeted by the winds, planted serenely on the ground.

The guy’s father looked very young and fashionable, as if he had not yet sown all his wild oats. He was a little coarse, and did not seem very educated. He put down the workbag he held clasped under his arm. His Adam’s apple slid up and down for a long time. When he finally spoke, his words were hardly different from his partner’s. He pointed at his son. ‘You little bastard,’ he scolded. ‘I’m always telling you to be careful and not let accidents happen. Now you’ve got someone pregnant again–’

‘Again?’ my oldest aunt screamed. ‘Got someone pregnant again?’

The guy’s father was stunned. ‘No, no. You misunderstood! I didn’t say “again,” I said, “and then”–’

‘Oh, I understand! No wonder your wife didn’t bother to learn the name of the girl he brought home.’ My youngest aunt snorted loudly, then said to the guy, ‘I already suspected you were a player, I just didn’t know you were such a veteran. You’ve obviously been around the block before. You mentioned at one point you never imagined she was a virgin, didn’t you?’

The guy’s expression was extremely cocky throughout the conversation. ‘Auntie, you’re misunderstanding what I said. What I meant was that, in this sort of society, a girl as pure as her…’

‘You little fucker. I should’ve never brought you into this world.’ His father moved as if to punch him, but the friend who had come with them stopped the older man.

‘You didn’t come here to discuss marriage at all,’ my oldest aunt said.

‘She knew our family’s situation,’ the guy’s father said. ‘Now the conditions have been laid out. Our son is still so young, and he doesn’t have a place to live.’

My youngest aunt said to the guy, ‘You really are a liar. Even your tears were false.’

Father stood to one side, muttering, ‘All right, forget it. Anyway, you don’t consent to the marriage and, to tell the truth, I’m not quite sure it’s a good idea either.’

EVERYTHING WAS SILENT, as if even time had stopped moving.

The friend who came with the family suddenly smiled broadly and said to the guy, ‘You have to listen to your elders. You’ll soon become a father. You’ll mend your ways and not pick up any new bad habits. Your grandmother is seventy years old and in poor health, yet she’s still cooking and cleaning for other families just to earn a little money each month, all because she doesn’t want to increase everyone’s burden. The key is to rely on yourself. You’ve got two hands and a sense of responsibility, so you should be able to feed your family, right?’

The guy took his cue. ‘I swear, I’ll work hard to make a living. Even if I have to haul sand bags or lay cement, I’ll do it. I’ll work a hundred times harder than others.’ He looked at my sister, as if looking at a camera, and said, ‘Please believe me.’

My sister bowed her head and looked at the dimples on the back of her hand.

The guy burst into tears. ‘Why won’t you speak to me? Tell me, what does my love mean to you? I never imagined our love would be put on the table and discussed like this.’

At the word love, everyone felt a little uncomfortable. Watching someone say ‘I love you’ to another person really made our flesh crawl.

Even so, the scene was a little poignant.

My uncle, who had remained quiet through all this, now spoke up. ‘You little brat. Do you think getting a girl pregnant, sneaking around like that, is something romantic? You’re toying with girls.’

‘She consented. Something like this can’t be all my fault.’ The guy turned and wiped his tears.

My oldest aunt said, ‘If she has an abortion, there are two lives at stake. If something goes wrong, how can you repay that?’

The situation immediately took on a grim tone.

The guy’s uncle nudged the boy with his knee.

As if he’d had an epiphany, the boy knelt on the ground, facing the right parenthesis. Weeping, he said, ‘Father, support our marriage. I know I’m not a good son, but I’ll change.’ Then, still on his knees, he turned to the left parenthesis and said, ‘Uncles and aunties, I’m begging you, please give way a little. I promise I’ll be good to her.’

At this point, if both sides had nodded in agreement, it would have been time to sound the gong and cymbals to celebrate a happy ending. But neither of the bracketing families was moved. They were indifferent, having seen through the fellow’s game. Father held my sister’s hand the whole time, looking for hangnails, inspecting the thread marks on her fingertips, and touching to see if there were calluses on her palm. Then he said, ‘I have two conditions. The first is that you must stay nearby, here in our city, and we can look after her. The second regards the purchase of a house. You can make a down payment, then take out a loan for the rest.’ Father was actually agreeing to let my sister marry the guy.

‘Isn’t that backwards? As if he’s marrying into your family?’ the boy’s father objected. ‘I have several brothers, but my son is the only boy in our family. We can’t let him marry out of our family and
into yours.’

‘Maybe they can stay in Changsha. There are plenty of job opportunities there. And it’s halfway between you and us. That’s convenient.’

‘We’ve really got no money. There’s no reason to even think of buying a house in Changsha.’

Impatiently, my youngest aunt checked the time. ‘From the outset, you’ve been trying to avoid responsibility. The young ones try to escape, and the old ones try to hide. If not for the fact that we’d gone to Changsha in the middle of the night to get him, you wouldn’t even be sitting here now! It’s two o’clock in the morning and we can’t take it anymore. Let’s be blunt – our girl’s already seven months pregnant. We have to get them married. Put down ten thousand as a down payment so they can have a nuptial home. If they don’t get married, she’ll go for an abortion, and you’ll pay ten thousand in compensation. We’ll be the ones to bear the consequences after that, since you don’t care whether she lives or dies.’

‘There it is!’ The guy leapt up from his stool. ‘So, all along it’s only been about the money!’

My youngest aunt also stood up and, quick as lightning, slapped his face. This pop was even louder than the last time.

Mother’s eyes immediately turned red.

‘She hit me again!’ the guy said, turning to look at his father.

The older man hesitated, then shouted, ‘Good! Beat him to death!’ At the same time he rushed at his son, limbs swinging. It was a chaotic scene.

The family’s friend was like a referee blowing his whistle for a timeout. They all gathered on the balcony to discuss the matter, trying to come up with a strategy to counter us. Our neighbours were not asleep yet. Lights were on in all the houses around us, and heads stuck out the windows, ears opened wide.

‘HE’S SO YOUNG, and he’s motherless. Poor thing. Don’t hit him again, okay?’ Mother was crying as she spoke.

My aunt did not say anything.

Mother went on, ‘He’s only nineteen. His stepmother doesn’t love him and his father doesn’t care about him. His relationship with his father is terrible.’

My uncle laughed. ‘The fellow should win an Oscar. I can tell you what I think, but the final decision is up to you.’

My youngest aunt spread her hands. ‘I don’t have any idea what to do.’

Father just stroked my sister’s long hair, saying slowly, ‘I really don’t feel good about you going off with that fellow. But I can’t stop you. It’s entirely up to you.’

My sister, who had remained silent the entire night, put her hands on her belly. Father patted her head.

The other group came back into the living room and resumed their places. The guy’s father said, ‘As for the house, we bought a small place last year, but it hasn’t been renovated yet.’

‘I told you already, I don’t agree to let her live in your town.’ Father was very insistent on this point. ‘They can either stay here or in Changsha.’

My youngest aunt said to Mother, ‘Let me say one last time, I don’t think they can be trusted. But I won’t stop you from making your own decision.’

Mother looked tired. She glanced at my aunt, and then around at everyone else, as if her eyes could draw energy from each face. The guy’s father exchanged glances with the others.

‘Okay. We’ll meet all your expectations,’ he said at last.
‘Your place really is better than ours. We’ll scrape together ten thousand as down payment for the wedding and marry her into our house properly.’

Mother’s eyebrows immediately shot up, as if she were about to laugh. Father looked like he’d just fallen into a well.

‘No, I don’t want to marry him.’ My sister’s voice came from nowhere.

My sister slowly pulled her hair back and tied it with the black rubber band she had around her wrist, then she tucked the fringe behind her ears. ‘Tonight, I’ve figured out who really loves me.’

The guy hit his knee with his fist. ‘Go on, say what you want to say.’

Finished with her hair, my sister put her hands on her lap and, staring at the dimples on their backs, she said, ‘Before, I listened to him about everything, right or wrong. But now I understand. This isn’t romantic love, or anything special. It’s cheapening myself.’

The guy gritted his teeth, then tentatively asked, ‘Why have you changed? I’m asking you one last time, do you want to marry me or not?’

‘No,’ my sister said clearly.

The guy spread his hands. ‘I did my best,’ he said, addressing the people on his side.

It was a very odd statement.

His father seemed to have got what he wanted. He picked up his bag, stood and walked to the door.

My uncle stopped him. ‘Where are you going?’


‘Just like that, you’re washing your hands of everything and leaving?’

‘I’m going back to raise the money,’ the guy’s father said, revealing his fox’s tail.

‘Sorry, but this has to be settled today.’ My uncle knew what it meant to withdraw from a role.

‘Even if I sit here, I can’t suddenly summon up ten thousand yuan,’ the other man said.

My uncle made a phone call, and within ten minutes the police arrived. Everyone went to the police station, leaving only Mother to keep my sister company at home. Mother had spent yet another sleepless night, and now she began cleaning the house, a darkly bitter expression on her face.

My sister went into the washroom. The thick walls and door failed to block the sound of her weeping. It was like shattering glass.

My youngest aunt had said to her older sister, ‘A virgin who just can’t wait to be brought into womanhood gives herself a heavy dose of life experience all at once. It’s unbelievable!’ If she had heard my sister’s cries, she probably would have regretted how harshly she’d spoken.

AFTER A WHILE, my aunts returned home, leaving my father and uncle to wait at the police station. After consulting a mediator, the other party had agreed to pay fifty thousand yuan in compensation.

Then dawn came. The birds started singing their morning song.

My sister was resting in the bedroom. Mother sat in the living room as if she were dozing. My youngest aunt, clearly not sleepy, spoke her mind. ‘On the surface, it seems like we’ve found some resolution to the matter, but it may affect her for the rest of her life.’

‘She’s always been a good girl.’ My oldest aunt’s words seemed a little forced.

Mother muttered, ‘Do we really have to go to the hospital? I don’t know if her body can take it.’

My youngest aunt said, ‘Whatever else, the guy is not to be depended on.’

‘Or maybe she should have it?’ Mother asked no one in particular.

As if wanting to hear more clearly, my oldest aunt turned off the fan. It was like the whole world stopped turning. Even the birds
fell silent.

The leaves started shaking slightly in the sultry breeze. A glow of morning light brightened the opposite wall.

The three women lay on the floor, eyes closed, trying to turn off their minds. Somehow, they managed to sleep until my father and uncle knocked on the door. By this time, the sun was already shining onto the balcony.

Father and my uncle, faces sweating and clothes sticking to their bodies, looked as if they’d been baking in the sun for a long time. When they came in, the air inside the house seemed to heat up several degrees.

My oldest aunt turned on the fan. She poured water for them, asking, ‘Is the money in your account?’

My uncle said, ‘We got thirty thousand, after baking in the sun for hours.’ ‘Thirty thousand? You let them get off so cheap?’ My aunt was surprised.

‘To tell the truth, we didn’t even get thirty thousand,’ my uncle said, looking at Father.

Father took out a stack of cash and put it on the coffee table. Two of his fingers were deformed. He had been injured a year earlier in an accident with a truck and, out of pity for the driver, had settled for what treatment he could afford himself, seeking no compensation from the other party.

With a crooked finger, he wiped a bit of sweat from his nose. ‘After turning it over in my mind, I took only ten thousand from them, for medical expenses. They have to at least pay for that. After all, any parent would be furious to see his son in this situation.’

My uncle sounded exhausted when he added, ‘Even if it were life or death, they wouldn’t be able to scrape together fifty thousand.’

Everyone looked at the stack of money. It returned our stare.

‘If my son did something like this, I wouldn’t have fifty thousand, or even thirty thousand, to scrape together,’ Father said. ‘They really did try.’

My uncle said that when Father returned the twenty thousand yuan, the guy’s father’s legs trembled and his eyes filled with tears.

The fan turned noisily.

Suddenly, my sister appeared. Her hands on her belly, she said, ‘These last couple of days he kept kicking. It was like he knew what was happening.’

Everyone looked at her like they did the stack of cash.

‘If…I decide to have the baby, will you support me?’

We were dumbfounded.

Mother was the first to nod.

My oldest aunt started crying. My youngest aunt laughed. My father held my sister’s hand. My uncle shouted for a round of drinks.

In a flash, the atmosphere in the room was radiant. My mother again said that I would be an uncle soon. And this time, I knew it would be so.


Get the latest essay, memoir, reportage, fiction, poetry and more.

Subscribe to Griffith Review or purchase single editions here.

Griffith Review