“Ah Ju’s back!” Ah Ju, the girl from the road crew dormitory. That’s what we all called her, because that’s where she grew up. She disappeared for a quite a while, but now she was back, and she brought two people with her: her fiancé, and her unborn child. I hadn’t seen her pregnant belly yet, so I didn’t know if it was a bump or a peak, if she was going to have a boy or a girl. But if there’s one thing I did know, it’s that women are unpredictable, and that the origin of a woman’s erratic temper is her womb.
They chose to hold Ah Ju’s wedding in October. Taiwanese folks sure do like October weddings. My family gets quite a number of invitations every October. The festive designs on the invitations remind me of all the national flags flapping on every street corner at this time of year. October is a special month. The Wuchang Uprising was launched in October. Taiwan was returned to Chinese rule in October. Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek was born in October, too. No surprise that lovers like to tie the knot in October. To me, it’s almost like October is dyed different shades of red. Our national flag is a dignified red. The fireworks display set off at night on the Tenth of October is a dazzling red. The Cutex makeup October brides apply to their lips and nails is a cheerful red. The wedding invitations that bombard us in October are an irksome red. And I have seen another shade of red—thick and sticky and vital, throbbing imploringly, stiflingly raw on the scorching sandy ground. It gurgled out of Ah Ju’s groin, scaled the fallen leaves of the horsetail she-oak trees, spread beseechingly toward me, but soon seeped into the sandy soil, drawing a final panicked breath as I turned tail and ran.
If I hadn’t seen that shudder-inducing shade of red, I think I would have replied more eagerly when my dad asked me to go attend Ah Ju’s wedding on his behalf. Actually, I don’t mind attending wedding receptions at all, for my own not altogether honorable reasons.
My family had three weddings to attend on the same day. There my father stood, looking down at a pile of October wedding invitations. He could make it, he said, to the two banquets that were close by. “Why don’t you attend the girl from the road crew dormitory’s reception on our behalf?” My dad isn’t too good at giving orders. He says we already have one Fascist in the family, which is why he’s always been Mr. Nice Guy, even though he’s a local official, a County Councilor. But if he actually ordered me to go, I might have refused him outright. What Dad is good at is whining: “They never have anything I feel like eating. Not that I ever get the chance to eat with all the toasting. I always get woozy when I drink, and my finicky stomach will act up for days afterward. But if I don’t go folks will say I’m . . .” Tired of listening to his litany of muttered complaints, I just cut him off in mid-sentence: “Alright! I’ll go!”
Actually, just like I said, I don’t much mind attending wedding banquets. There’s often something in it for me, you know: I get a piece of the action. Of course, if it’s a thousand dollar bill, it’s more complicated. I have to break it into 500s and 100s so I can pocket part of the sum. Nobody’ll know, and what they don’t know won’t hurt them. In any case, my family isn’t going to hold a banquet when me and my sister get married (you know what I mean): my dad says he doesn’t want to inflict the obligation of the red envelope on anyone, so we’ll just keep things simple. Which means we’re never going to get even with all the folks that invited us to their wedding banquets. I figure that by stealing a few bills from the red envelope I can reduce the pain, keep part of the money in the family. But then one time my mother got it into her head to give a plaque instead: “Your colleagues on the County Council give wooden plaques with proverbs on them. It saves money, and the family likes it. Why don’t we just do that?” That time there was no proverbial oil for me to skim. I had to go to the ceremony carrying this plaque. But, strange to say, my mom was right: the family made more of a fuss over the plaque than anyone had ever done over a red envelope. They gathered round me and the plaque and hollered: “Hang it up! Hang it up! Councilor’s son!”
So they chose to hold Ah Ju’s wedding in autumn. Strange that Ah Ju would wait until she was big with child before getting hitched. My mother said that her and her fiancé had been living together, but I still thought it was strange. Especially since I assumed she was the hen that wouldn’t lay any more eggs. How’d she managed to get herself pregnant again?
I decided Ah Ju’s womb would be forever barren when we were reading Chapter 14 in health education class. It was a morning in early autumn. I’d woken up to the sound of a rooster crowing and our hunting dog and wolfhound barking. Ah Ju was carrying a big rooster by the feet and leading her blind father, Uncle Chu, by the arm. The bird spread its wings wide, struggling upside-down in Ah Ju’s clutches and leaving a roomful of feathers floating in the air. Our hunting dog Ding Ding found its weird clucking less than euphonious, bared his teeth, and growled after his own strange fashion.
“Cownsler, this heeere’s fer you.” Supporting himself on his cane, Uncle Chu motioned for Ah Ju to give the fat rooster to my mother. “We raised ’im ussselves. He’s a jenuwine Tah-wan rooster.”
I sat up under the covers and peeked through the crack in the door. Ah Ju was wearing a belted white dress with black polka dots. She looked haggard. Her eyes were all puffy, looking even smaller than they usually did. I bet she was pregnant again. Folks say that a pregnant lady is the most beautiful she’ll ever be in her life, but Ah Ju just seemed emaciated. And her family had to give us a chicken every time she had a bun in the oven. This was the third one. Uncle Chu looked really worried.
“I still want ’er to wed. Doctor says, if she has another one taken out she’ll never have a baby again.”
“Is it the boy in the coastal defense again?” asked my mother, using the Taiwanese idiom for the coast guard.
“That’s the one! It’ll be the end of me. He doesn’t have to want our Ah Ju, but does he have to spoil ’er like this?” Ah Ju just stood there, hanging her head. I couldn’t see the look on her flat face. She was probably expressionless, actually, her eyes dazed or even a bit dull. Expressionless was about the only expression Ah Ju ever wore.
“Are you talking about the boy from the west coast? The same one as before?” my father asked, looking at my mom—Dad doesn’t understand Taiwanese too well (he grew up in China). “Is he willing to do the honorable thing?”
“Same old excuse. He says he’s just a poor recruit, without a penny to his name.”
“What did he say?” said my dad. My mom translated from Taiwanese to Mandarin and my dad asked: “Then what does his family say?”
“They say he’s his own man, and that they can’t afford for him to take a wife!” said Uncle Chu.
Ah Ju was a bit of a dolt to begin with, and now she’d gotten knocked up a few times without ever finding a man who wanted to marry her. All Uncle Chu could do was stand behind her, and help her clean up the mess. He was living off of his savings from a dozen years in the road crew and waiting for Ah Ju to find a good man, even though she was just an adopted daughter he’d purchased from a poor family. Uncle Chu had come to my father to ask him to mediate several times on account of the scandal of Ah Ju’s inflamed womb. Everyone was used to Ah Ju’s blunders. “Yeah! That’s Tits for you!” folks would say, shaking their heads. A few folks got quite worked up over Ah Ju, no one more than Miss Sensitive, my elder sister Min-teh. Every time Min-teh heard about Ah Ju’s exploits she would clench her arms in front of her chest, grind her teeth, and say:
“Has Ah Ju lost every brain cell she ever had?!”
I couldn’t understand why Min-teh got so upset. It reminded me of how she sounded talking about taking part in the Child Prostitute Rescue Parade up in Taipei. I think maybe she’d gotten the wrong idea, and taken Ah Ju for a whore. It wasn’t like that at all. Ah Ju was willing, all right. She didn’t take money; heck, it looked like she wanted it so bad maybe she should have had to pay for it.
Ah Ju and Min-teh used to be elementary classmates, and now they’re both in their early twenties. Min-teh has gone abroad to study, while Ah Ju’s had a hard life: she got knocked up and dumped several times, and here she is pregnant again and about to get married. People’s fates really are thousands of miles apart, even when they grow up in the same place. I never realized that before; I guess I’m growing up.
Later on the bad romance between Ah Ju and the swine of a coast guard recruit just fizzled out. God knows where she got the courage, but she went to the west coast for a while and I heard this trip home she’s gotten a lot more savvy and feisty. Now she understands how people talk dirt about her, and apparently she gives as good in return. But it’s still unclear to me and everyone else why she didn’t get married a few months back, when her belly wasn’t so big. It’s just that with Ah Ju being so savvy and all, nobody dares to ask.
The stupid things Ah Ju did back in the day seem in retrospect like a ridiculous movie played in reverse. Ah Ju was the heroine of the farce. Maybe “heroine” isn’t the right word, seeing as how she was the one who made a fool of herself. At the time I was too young to play the role of the leading man, and I’ve come to realize I was always playing the same bit part. I never got a single line, and the only chance I had to change roles, I got stage fright. As I’ve already told you, I freaked out and fled the scene.
Ah Ju was never a pretty girl. Her appearance was like all those stupid things she did a few years back, less than appealing. But even so there’ve been quite a few men in her life, more than any other girl in the village. Back in the day, Ah Ju’s best quality was that she was obedient. She never talked much or showed her feelings, but if you told her to do something, she’d grunt and do it for you. Uncle Chu’s colleagues in the road crew, old geezers from the Mahjong gazebo, and even little brats playing in the mud got into the habit of ordering her around:
“Ah Ju, go buy me a pack of cigarettes at the store.”
“Ah Ju, get me a pail of water.”
“Ah Ju, Ah Ju, I want a lollipop, go get me one, pretty pleeeeease!”
Ah Ju rarely said no. Of course one reason was that she hardly said anything, and even when she spoke, she mumbled, like her voice was stuck in her throat. Ah Ju’s face was angular and thin, but also flat, and her slitty eyes were suspended in that flat face of hers. She always looked enervated, like she hadn’t slept enough. When she did speak, her thin dry lips would pout outward and expose two rows of narrow, uneven teeth, through which her voice sluiced indistinctly. If you edged closer to her tiny oral cavity to hear better, you might smell organic matter (stuck in the gaps between her teeth) rotting on her breath.
But when Uncle Chu’s cataracts got so bad that he was basically blind, Ah Ju started talking more.
“Step up. Again. Good!”
“Taxi’s here. Give me your cane. Get in.”
“Open your mouth. Today it’s tilapia with rice.”
“Watch out! There’s a dog turd up ahead.”
Uncle Chu chose the right time to go blind, the first year after Ah Ju graduated from elementary school. Ah Ju didn’t continue to junior high, so she could spend the whole day taking care of old Uncle Chu. Ah Ju would hold his arm as he tap tapped his way along with his cane, like a daughter at her daddy’s side. Folks who saw them would drop whatever they were doing. Oh it’s too bad about Uncle Chu: What good has it done him to save all this money now that he’s too blind to see anything? Or they’d praise Ah Ju for being so filial, treating Uncle Chu like her own flesh and blood: “Ah Ju is an obedient child.”
After Uncle Chu grew accustomed to his blindness, and learned how to take care of himself, Ah Ju went to help at the sundry goods shop “Big Sis” Ah Tao operated. Around that time Ah Ju changed fast. And I mean fast. You might find it hard to believe that I was too much of a kid (kid’s not the right word—I was older than a kid, but not quite a teenager) to know the significance of the sudden change that had come upon her. In the past few years, I have experienced a growth spurt myself, along with all the other changes that come with puberty. But at the time I was shocked: it seemed like someone had worked magic upon Ah Ju, giving her a strange aura, a kind of provocative ambiance. It was a feeling I couldn’t imagine getting from my elder sister Min-teh. It was a kind of hazy beauty intellectual girls like Miss Sensitive are bereft of. Intellect deprives women of their feminine qualities. And my elder sister has been an intellectual ever since she was a little girl. I’ll never forget how the alarm would ring at six o’clock every morning, time for her to get up, rummage around for her glasses, and then start reciting English sentence patterns: “Tom is my classmate, Eamon is my friend.” She’d wake me up with the sound of her chanting (I had the rotten luck of having to share a room with her: she slept on the bottom bunk, I on the top), and then enunciate: “‘Stupid’ means dumb. And ‘pig’ is what you look like if you look like Ah Chung.” Ah Chung is my name! Tell me, how was anyone supposed to see feminine mystery in a girl like that?
One day, she was in the bathroom wailing, “Mom! My MC has come.” Min-teh was such a know-it-all in those days. She was just bleeding, wasn’t she? Why’d she need to call it her Menstrual Cycle, like it was Science class or something? When I learned the secret, that she was bleeding from her behind, I couldn’t help staring, like it was some kind of paranormal phenomenon. Min-teh was so pale I even started worrying she might pass out. So it took me completely by surprise when she blew up at me: she kicked me in the groin as hard as she could and shrieked:
“What are you looking at? Huh? Don’t be so smug. The same is in store for you. You know what a wet dream is? Pretty soon you’ll have to wear a diaper to bed. Can you imagine it? Ah Chung in a diaper! You wait and see!”
I was rolling around on the floor clutching my balls, unable to breathe. I can’t help wondering whether she was responsible for the hernia operation I had when I was ten. She used to kick me when Mom wasn’t looking. Had she kicked my guts through my abdominal wall? You get the idea: Min-teh was an ever so slightly imperious girl who threw temper tantrums. It was impossible to imagine a girl (or woman?) like that displaying feminine qualities. Ah Ju was different. She was a lot dumber. But she was feminine in a way I was more easily able to understand. Around her, at least, I never had to defend myself.
Ah Ju’s qualities were mysterious, but on full display. I could stand a few feet outside the sundry goods shop and smell her as she worked quietly and diligently inside, fine beads of sweat forming on her thin and nimble hands. In a warm breeze of early summer, I’d go walking past Ah Tao’s store and hear Ah Tao yelling at Ah Ju to do things, and Ah Ju responding woodenly: Mmmm. There were baskets of eggs, bottles of cola, and wooden crates, and the sun sprinkled down onto a display of candy jars. Ah Ju would often stand by that display wrapping betel nut, and every time I would smell hints of wet heat in the air. Were the eggs rotten? Was there mildew in the crates? I wasn’t sure. So I asked my buddies Ah Ma Lung and Ah Hsin Chung to help me figure it out.
“Smells like a bitch in heat!” Ah Ma said, sniffing.
“It’s basically B.O., but stronger. That means Ah Ju is a total skank!” said Ah Hsin, holding his nose as he walked toward the door of the shop, until big fat Ah Tao chewed him out: “Buy something or beat it, you little beast!”
Soon I was sure that was Ah Ju’s smell. With the warmth of an early summer breeze, Ah Ju started wearing a pastel summer dress with coffee colored stains, and her newly budding breasts were like protuberant brown eyes, sticking out silently and secretly, insistently pendant in the chest of her faded dress. Standing outside, I could always hear Ah Ju working. She didn’t talk much. But I was vaguely conscious that she had her own way of communicating. With those two brown eyes. With that smell, that was none too elegant but nonetheless arresting, wafting from who knows what body part. But who was she communicating with? Can’t be me, I thought.
Later I learned who it was. Ah Tao’s baby brother went to help out at the store, too. His eyes were dark and bright, and his face was like a tasty apple pie. He’d been at loose ends since graduating from junior high. He was handsome and fair, refined and clean. He wore a white T-shirt and faded jeans every day. I couldn’t understand how a guy like that, so crisp and smart, would quit school after finishing junior high, or how someone so good-looking could click with a girl like Ah Ju. Everyone was so surprised when Ah Ju started showing, like a river bursting its banks. Everyone, that is, but me: I knew their secret.
Ah Tao’s kid brother smelled Ah Ju, too. He keened to her secret body language, and then he just reached out his hands. He really did. He rolled up his sleeves, revealing a shy fuzz on his comely, glistening arms, the veins concealed by youth. He sensed Ah Ju’s subtle monologue in the air of the shop, and made a timely response. I saw it with my own eyes. He’d been working around the shop, and then his hands settled on Ah Ju’s protuberant brown eyes and started petting them, or polishing them, like he was polishing a precious gem. All that polishing must have generated heat, because the two of them retreated behind the red curtain at the back of the store to cool off. The sultry southern breeze blew, and the corners of the curtain began to sway. They kept swaying until Ah Ju got pregnant. But that handsome, shy younger brother of Ah Tao’s was all of sixteen years of age. Should they get married or not?
Ah Tao’s brother ended up leaving for the big city to learn to be an electrician or a plumber or something, while that unformed fetus in Ah Ju’s belly disappeared somehow. I think that must have been Ah Tao’s doing.
“Ah Ju really was in heat,” said Ah Ma, winding up his bat over the sandy pitch outside the coast guard, with one of his old man’s President-brand cigarettes dangling from his mouth. “Ah Ju must have seduced Ah Di. How could such a handsome guy see anything in her?” “How do you know she seduced him?” I wasn’t trying to speak up for Ah Ju, just curious to know whether Ah Ma, who was usually so inattentive, had discovered the secret, too. “Take a look at her chest and you’ll see,” Ah Ma said. “What?” “Next time you pass the store, take a good look at her ta-tas. There are two dark pegs just waiting for you to hang your hands on.” Ah Ma and Ah Hsin exchanged a look and sniggered.
Ah Ju kept helping out around the store. Summer left and winter came and the two protuberant orbs on her chest were bundled up in a coat with cotton padding. Come spring, Ah Ju’s eyes seemed to open again after a long hibernation, shining more brightly than ever. I thought Ah Ma and Ah Hsin would have to think of a new word. A peg was too small, too thin. Mushroom? As soon as Ah Ma and Ah Hsin said it they couldn’t stop laughing. “Do you want some mushroom, Ah Chung?” Mushroom was much better. It was like a little mound in the distance, soft and plump.
Ah Ju was working in the sundry goods shop, in her usual diligent, quiet way. She’d always fulfill customer requests promptly, then continue to leaf the betel nut. When Ah Ju bent over, those two mushrooms of hers drooped gently upon the fabric of her dress, and the upside-down peak of each protuberance was even more pronounced. Next time my mom made mushrooms for dinner, I couldn’t help it: I curled up in my chair in silent mirth.
It was right around then that the coast guard got a troop of raw recruits. The procurement sergeant chose Ah Tao’s shop, and would spend the longest time there with a team of recruits, because the proprietresses of the other shops were old and ugly. Ah Ju wasn’t exactly pretty, but at least she was young. I’d heard that when guys go into the military they turn into pigs. And the coast guard boys who helped buy supplies would surround Ah Ju and flirt with her and generally behave like beasts: they told dirty jokes that weren’t funny at all, and then laughed themselves silly, while Ah Ju would just hang her head and smile. You never knew whether she got the joke, because she was always smiling, no matter what. The recruits offered her lots of invitations, and she didn’t nod or say no. One square-faced fellow with a nose like a clove of garlic and skin like pig flesh laughed and said: “Not saying no means yes! Where’s a good place for a date around here?”
Ah Ju actually started seeing the vicious swine. Ah Ma, Ah Hsin, and me would be playing baseball on the sand by the coast guard barracks, and there was Ah Ju off work, leaning on the wall topped by glass shards, waiting for her lover, the biggest pig private of them all. He’d come out, sweating furiously and wearing a stinky white singlet and a pair of red shorts slit high. He’d reach out and take Ah Ju by her delicate waist and lead her into the horsetail she-oaks in the dense windbreak; then we’d put aside the game we were playing and follow them with our eyes until they disappeared into the depth and darkness of the grove. “When a bitch is in heat, she’ll do it with anyone,” said Ah Ma, with the solemnity of a wise man. (Do what? I thought.) Then we’d finish playing our game. After not so long, maybe half an hour (none of us had brought a watch), we’d see the private and Ah Ju come walking out of the grove, and we’d put our game aside another time to stare at them. Sometimes the ball would slide under the private’s thick and solid legs, and he would say:
“Whacha lookin at? Never seen it before? You little runts ain’t got no manners. Get rollin!” Or something like that. He’d toss our ball back over, and I was never sure if it was us he wanted to get rolling or the ball.
Ah Ju came to the coast guard really, really often, so often that Ah Ma and Ah Hsin got tired of telling the jokes about picture pegs or mushrooms. We’d keep playing ball, listening to what they were doing in the windbreak. Occasionally we’d hear the private shout like a crazed beast in that rough, ugly voice of his:
“Fuck yer mama! I’ll kill ya! See if I don’t!” Or, in a different tone of voice: “I’ll make ya cum! You’ll cum so hard!”
I didn’t understand why the pig yelled at Ah Ju in such a nasty way, or why she never talked back. I wanted to sound cool or wise like Ah Ma when I said:
“At least Ah Ju should tell him: ‘Fuck yer Mama’s cunt!’ in return.” The C word was so nasty. It sure hadn’t been easy to say; my folks never let me use profanity. I thought Ah Ma and Ah Hsin would applaud my awesome insult, but they seemed unimpressed. Ah Ma put his mouth close to my ear and said: “Ah Chung, I’ll tell you a secret.” “What’s that?” “You’re a complete moron.” What? A moron?
At first I assumed Ah Ma and Ah Hsin stopped telling jokes about pegs and mushrooms because they were tired of them, but then I discovered that at some point they’d turned against Ah Ju. “Ah Ju’s a ‘ho.’ Anyone can have his way with her. Anyone.” “Ah Chung, don’t buy stuff from Ah Tao’s store no more. Aren’t you worried about getting sick if you eat something Ah Ju’s touched?” Ah Ma and Ah Hsin warned me. Every day after school when the line passed by the store, Ah Ma and Ah Hsin would spit and say “Bitch!” “Slut!” But when Ah Ju was really in trouble, they stood up for her, and spoke up on her behalf.
The fiery red sun was sinking behind the tips of the she-oak trees. We were on the sandy ground near the gate to the coast guard barracks, playing our last game of ball before dinner. As usual, Ah Ju was off work, her ass tucked in a gap in the pile of firewood by the wall, waiting for her swinish lover, who didn’t pay her much attention anymore. He came out, his brutish face needing a bat to the head I thought, and as soon as he saw Ah Ju he lost his temper and said: “Didn’t Ah tell ya not to come round here no more?” He turned and walked a few steps, then looked back and saw Ah Ju hadn’t moved a muscle. She was still looking at him with a dazed expression in her tiny eyes. That pissed him off even more:
“Whaddya want? I told ya. I’m not going to marry ya. So what the fuck do ya want?”
Ah Ju never replied, just stared woodenly at her swinish loverboy, with no sadness in her eyes. She squatted on the dry wood pile, the hem of her dress covering her skinny lower body, her right hand ceaselessly peeling the bark of the dried she-oak logs beneath her butt and tossing the peels on the sandy ground.
“Roll on home! Quit harassin' me!” Before he got on his way, he added: “Fuck yer mama! Since when did my luck turn so bad?” Then he picked up a rock and tossed it at her. Who knows where he found the courage, but Ah Ma walked over and stood in front of the guy, who seemed many times bigger than he, looked up and said: “Hey! You think we easterners are easy to push around? You’re the one who should roll on home!”
“Ho ho ho, look who’s talking!” laughed the private in a creepy voice. “You talk pretty big for such a little guy. Must be a little big man!” Then he used his right index finger to push Ah Ma on the head, hard, several feet away. Then it was Ah Hsin’s turn to say in a high-pitched, trembling voice that was loud and clear: “Hey, you smelly westerner! My dad was a commander in the civil war. He fought the commies before you were even born. I’ll get him to tell your superiors what you’ve been up to. They’ll put you in solitary!”
I was scared speechless, especially when the pig started laughing his head off.
“If yer daddy was a commander, then I was the President of the R.O.C. Ya little shit!”
Ah Ma gathered up the bat, gloves, and balls and said: “Let’s go home.” When we passed by Ah Ju, Ah Ma petulantly spat on the ground and said: “Bitch!” Ah Hsin did the same. When it was my turn I took a look at Ah Ju, who was staring blankly, her hands covered in wood shavings. I didn’t say a thing. Actually, what I wanted to say was: “Come on home, Ah Ju.”
This time Ah Ju didn’t wait until her belly got all swollen up before getting rid of it. And this time folks assumed Ah Ju would wise up, and give up on her brutish beau, but she didn’t. She kept coming to wait for him outside the gate by the windbreak after work. Having had two abortions, Ah Ju seemed headed for an early decline, which didn’t reconcile with her juvenile manner. She looked like a world-weary middle-aged woman. She didn’t take care of herself, didn’t dress up or make herself up. Her hair was thin to begin with, and when she tied it into a ponytail with an elastic band there were always stray wisps at the nape of her neck. Her dress was just old, stained, trailing loose threads, with a rusty zipper. But she acted so naive, like she had no idea how the world works. The private would come out and see her, every once in a while, and it was like she’d never wondered whether or not she’d get to see her loverboy tonight, or what his attitude toward her actually was. Going to wait by the gate every day seemed part of her daily routine. I used to see her squatting on the pile of firewood absentmindedly pulling almost all the bark off the logs, or kicking the sand into a little pile, a pretty little hill.
The private would come out and see her and promptly forget he’d ever knocked her up. He couldn’t wait to stick his hand up her shirt, and take her into the bushes. But when he was done he seldom forgot to remind Ah Ju not to come and bother him, ever again.
The third time she got pregnant, Uncle Chu brought Ah Ju and the private to our house to negotiate again. How could she keep getting pregnant in such a short time span? It was over my head, because I didn’t have a womb. Ah Ju’s complexion got more and more wan and pale on account of all the pregnancies, because her womb was sucking up all the sustenance she put into her body. Women’s wombs are strange places: they can nourish new life and discharge it, over and over again. In that respect, a womb’s kind of like my big sister’s temper. One moment she’d say she wanted to play house hopscotch, the next minute she’d be whacking my head with the wooden spoon saying she’d never speak to me again. Soon she’d forget all about being angry and say: “Ah Chung, want to play again?”
Overall, nobody was satisfied with the result of the negotiation. Last time the pig had paid for the procedure in the end, but he was adamant he wasn’t going to marry her. He couldn’t raise a kid. He’d said:
“Yeah it’s not like I don’t want to do what’s right. But how can I, eh? I’m in the coast guard now. I can’t work. My old mama’s the only family I got. Where am I s’posed to get money to support a child? And you can’t blame it all on me. I told Ah Ju not to come round no more, I told her no girl who’s sweet on me is ever going to be happy, but did she listen? She kept on coming to see me, every chance she got!”
Ah Ma said: “No surprise he wouldn’t marry Ah Ju. Ah Ju’s a busted shoe. Who’d want her? The doctor said, ‘If Ah Ju has this abortion, she’ll probably never bear a child again.’ I heard the doctor even chewed Ah Ju out. ‘How could you make a habit of having abortions?!’”
Now I’ve got to tell you what happened to the baby in her belly, which happens to be the reason why I don’t want to go to Ah Ju’s wedding reception.
Ah Ju continued to make the hike from the village to the gate. And there she would wait. That evening, as usual, I took my bat and mitt and was on my way to hit the ball on the sandy pitch. As I made my way through the windbreak, the setting sun was getting sieved through the foliage of the horsetail she-oaks. Funny that the sun in October could scorch the sand just as well as in summer, burning the bottoms of my flip-flops. A warm wind of autumn was blowing, still too warm to cool the sand down, a wind which would only blow in the southwestern corner of the island. But what I saw in the windbreak that day was anything but typical: on the sand, scattered all around, were ruddy clots of bloody mucus, hot on the sand, raw under the sun. The smell reminded me of this one time when we let Ding Ding off his chain. He barked ferociously, and chased the chickens around the yard. One of those chickens, too fat to fly, met a terrible fate: Ding Ding snapped its neck, and carried it away, then came home, tail between his legs. I followed the droplets of blood all the way to the windbreak.
This time the trail of blood didn’t lead to a dead chicken but to Ah Ju, who was sitting there miserably in a pool of her own blood. It was gruesome! Ah Ju was bleeding from her butt, like my sister Min-teh. But there was a huge amount of blood, and I mean huge. It was all over Ah Ju’s skirt and legs, and it gave off a raw stench. She was holding her tummy with one hand, and supporting herself on the sand with the other. Her hands and fingernails were covered in fine sand and bloodstains. Was she in pain? It was certainly possible. Her flat face was contorted, and her eyes were scrunched into slits. Min-teh sure hurt when she bled from her butt. She used to hole herself up in bed and roll around and cry, even when there were just a few small splotches of blood on her clothes. Most of the blood was absorbed by her Dependable tampons, which she used to toss in the bin in the bathroom. By contrast, Ah Ju was covered in gore.
I stopped and stared. Ah Ju’s head was hanging, and her back was bowed. I forgot to tell you about her chest. Her mushrooms had morphed into jiggly, soft-cooked eggs, sunny-side up, the latest display of her secret fleshy ambiance, but I never knew that much blood could flow out of a woman’s body. I was stunned. “Stunned” has been my excuse, my attempt to release myself from a sense of guilt that has haunted me ever since. In addition to being stunned, I recall three other impressions.
First, “Dirty.” A woman’s period was the waste product of her metabolism or something, and that waste had crawled all over Ah Ju’s unclean body. I had an indescribable sense of disgust.
Second, “You’re not a woman, so mind your own business.” Whenever my sister Min-teh started bleeding there was a step she had to take, to gang up on me with Mother and consign me to the storage shed, where I would sleep on the dusty floor among heaps of stuff, with spiderwebs all around. A woman’s business was her own; but no matter how stupid Ah Ju was, I thought, there’s no way she should have gotten herself in this kind of trouble.
It was at this point my own neurosis kicked in, the consequence of the trauma Min-teh had inflicted upon me. I’d been worried my sister was going to die a pale death, so deathly white she was on account of all the blood flowing out of her behind, and she’d given me that nasty kick. I’d not forgotten. It was excruciating, the pain rising up from my abdomen. Oh no, I thought. I can’t let anything like that happen again.
Third was Ah Ju’s expression. As you’ve probably gathered, Ah Ju must have been sending out an SOS when I hightailed it out of there. I couldn’t make the appointment to play ball with Ah Ma and Ah Hsin. I raced home, a heavy stone weighing upon my heart. When I got there, I hid myself in the shed and pretended to be asleep, but all I could think about was the expression on Ah Ju’s face, which I’d seen the moment before leaving. It was the first time I’d ever seen her flat face expressive. It was as if a wooden mannequin had been given life.
That evening, I was called awake out of fitful sleep. My family had all eaten dinner. I wasn’t hungry, but I tried to eat anyway. I shoveled cold leftovers into my mouth as I listened to my parents and Min-teh shooting the breeze in the cool of the front yard.
“I’ll choose a few fat chickens when I go and see Ah Ju tomorrow morning. She’ll need something wholesome to help her recover her health.”
“Ah Ma and Ah Hsin are usually such slippery customers, but when someone really needed their help they did the right thing. It was big of them.”
“Yeah, when they carried Ah Ju to the clinic they didn’t know how long she’d been unconscious in the windbreak. The blood on her clothes was long dry. She’d been left for dead. If it hadn’t been for them, Ah Ju might not have survived.”
“This time that private is off the hook. He won’t have to make any excuses. He won’t even have to pay to get the baby out of Ah Ju’s belly. It looks like Ah Ju is just not a lucky girl! She’s never known who her parents are, and now she’ll never have children of her own. She has no flesh and blood, and maybe nobody’ll ever want her. The only good that’s come of it is having that man out of her life. He never would have made her happy.”
“Even if she had wanted to keep it, her womb has been scraped out so many times she would have lost it sooner or later.”
“I just can’t understand how she could be so stupid, going back to a guy who didn’t want her. Mom and Dad, let me tell you, if a boy ever insulted me like that, I’d fix him so he’d never be able to carry on the family name: I’d cut his balls off!”
“Min-teh, girls shouldn’t say such things.”
“A miscarriage is never easy to recover from. I still think we should take Ah Ju . . .”
I think I must have given my family quite a scare when I burst into tears, or they wouldn’t have rushed into the house to see what was the matter. My mouth, expanded to several times its original size, was stuffed with sour tasting rice that I wasn’t able to chew, but which somehow was no impediment to the volume of my cries. All I knew was that I was a sinner who’d refused to help Ah Ju in the moment of her direst need. I’d left her on death’s door. The reeking bloody mass that oozed out Ah Ju’s groin was actually the last fetus that would ever form in her womb. And this innocent life had died, almost taking its mother with it.
That anguished cry of self-remorse hadn’t completely died down when Ah Ju reappeared, miraculously pregnant, and planning on getting married.
They chose to hold Ah Ju’s wedding in October. October’s a holiday season, and a wedding season, too. We received three invitations for the day Ah Ju got married, and I was assigned to Ah Ju’s event. My parents kept complaining about getting bombarded with wedding invitations, but they were especially generous to Ah Ju. They gave her a “Match of the Century” plaque and a thick red envelope. Now that I think of it everyone was happy that Ah Ju found someone to spend the rest of her life with and that she was still able to have a baby. Obviously nobody’d forgotten about all the dumb things Ah Ju did a few years back.
Ah Ju’s wedding was just like any other: noisy and boisterous. They put up a temporary awning that shaded part of the courtyard, and brought over a dozen round tables and stools; and the cook set up his stove off to the one side. The catering staff kept bringing out apparently tasty dishes that people had no mind to eat. The flies came, too, buzzing over our table. But at least in autumn, there was a cool in the air. It would have been torture in summer, under a plastic awning, with everyone eating and sweating. We would have had to keep moving to avoid the direct light as the sun made its way across the sky. Anyway, the folks at the festive event weren’t there to fill their bellies, but to eat a meal that would complete the ritual of marriage.
Ah Ju was not a beautiful bride. But thick makeup almost gave her a new face, a face that was painted red. There were red ribbons in her gelled hair. She was wearing pink eye shadow with sprinkles. Her cheeks were flushed scarlet. Her lips were a gorgeous red, her nails a soft vermillion. Her wedding dress was red, of course, a dark and brownish hue. And her belly was conspicuously bulging. Ah Ju’s fiancé was a short guy, even shorter than Ah Ju, and he was bald. He must have been quite a bit older than her, though Ah Ju looked about ten years older than her actual age. The man had a genial air. He appeared satisfied and proud, and he smiled a toothy smile. Uncle Chu was smiling, too, no less toothily and proudly. He was in high spirits.
When Ah Ju came round to toast our table, Ah Ma and Ah Hsin were telling dirty jokes they’d heard in the military. What I’d feared as an adolescent had come to pass: the army had turned both of them into out-and-out swine. I was a bit sad, but also a bit curious to hear Ah Ma and Ah Hsin brag about their exploits in the “military paradise” on Quemoy Island. Ah Ma said:
“That one I always have to do her from behind, and she, well she just crawls around on the ground like a dog, with her ass in the air. Ha ha ha! I give her a thrust, another thrust, and she starts barking like a dog. Christ! Friggin’ doggy-style! It’s sweet.”
“Ah Ma, that’s nothing. There’s this young one, and every time she sees me it’s like she hasn’t gotten any in the longest time. She doesn’t worry it’s not ladylike or demure or whatnot, she just yanks down my zipper, he he he,” said Ah Hsin.
When Ah Ju leaned close, I found it wasn’t just her face that had changed. She was a completely different woman. She actually put her hand on Ah Hsin’s shoulder, pressed a plastic cup of liquor against Ah Ma’s face and started joking around:
“Ah Ma! Why didn’t you ever make a move on me? If you had it’d be you I’d be getting’ married to today.” After her last toast, she would go change outfits, as brides at weddings in Taiwan always did. But then it was like she remembered something. She reached out her bony fingers and fondled my head and said:
“Ah Chung, how many years has it been? You’re getting so big!”
She really had changed completely, in every way. Women were unpredictable. Ah Ju’s transformation must have left me a bit dazed.
Ah Ma and Ah Hsin had finished with the dirty jokes and were now toasting like there was no tomorrow.
“You have to learn how to drink. Otherwise how’re you going to survive in the military?” said Ah Ma.
“Yeah, don’t be so straight-laced, you’re killing me! What’ll you do when it’s your turn to do a tour of duty?” asked Ah Hsin.
The others at the table saw us playing drinking games and laughed. It wasn’t like I didn’t want to drink; but I couldn’t forget the last time I’d gone to a reception. People kept toasting me, and I wasn’t going to refuse, until I barfed all over the table, embarrassing my father and disgusting all the wedding guests. Maybe because they’d heard I couldn’t hold my liquor, Ah Ma and Ah Hsin weren’t too keen on getting me drunk, and soon the conversation switched to Ah Ju’s belly. Ah Ma bet she was going to have a boy, and Ah Hsin was sure it was going to be a girl. I wanted to place my own bet, but I felt sick to my stomach: a nasty gas was gurgling around in my gut. I left my seat and went to find the bathroom, holding my breath.
Ah Ju’s house was dark, except for one room in which a yellowish lamp was lit. The door to the room was half open. And I saw Ah Ju inside, changing clothes. It was the first time I’d ever seen a woman’s body in my whole entire life.
Ah Ju unzipped the back of her dark red wedding dress, which seemed warm under the yellowish light, and slipped it off. Her naked shoulders were thin, accentuating the fullness of her breasts. Pegs, mushrooms, eggs cooked sunny-side up now seem ugly, rough figures for her bosom. No, her breasts were limpid and luminous, like eyes, like an instinctive speech, like a dialogue of desire. Ah Ju slipped the sleeves off her arms, and pulled her dress down, until—
Whoosh—I thought I was letting out a smelly fart, but it turned out I’d lost control of my bowels. I actually shit my pants!
Ah Ju unwrapped the white strap around her waist, revealing a flawless hemisphere of fabric, like a pillow, which she shook out, parting the dusty air. Then, with a practiced hand, she folded the fabric into a perfect half globe and, very carefully, like she was caressing a tiny infant, placed it upon her belly, and wrapped herself up again.
The cheongsam she changed into was also red. Would you believe me if I told you my eyes blurred? The clots of blood upon the sandy ground finally dissolved, and when my vision cleared, I saw the reddest flowers upon Ah Ju’s Chinese-style wedding dress.
While in the air the stink of diarrhea hung.
There’ll be many other weddings in autumn.
But my dad won’t ever let me go to another one.
As for Ah Ju’s breasts, well I finally saw them.
They were hundreds of times more beautiful than I’d imagined.
And as for Ah Ju’s erratic womb, I never managed to figure out what was going on in there.
© Shih Chiung-Yu. By arrangement with the author. Translation © 2016 by Darryl Sterk. All rights reserved.