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from the May 2004 issue

from September’s Fable

A company of moles following one leader roamed everywhere over the ruins that night. In that deeply silent time before the moon had risen, only the sound of their small rustlings mingled with the wind. The black mole in the lead was unconcerned about the dust that sullied his fine satin coat as he pulled away a smoke-blackened tile shard. He had a vague recollection that this had once been the stovepit of a fat woman. . . . Hidden amid the weeds and grass were many cracks and fissures. Who knows how many of the moles tripped and fell into them? They would have to climb for two full days from underground.

They chirped away, discussing the village of yesterday. In those earlier days, they took part in the life of the village without being asked, miraculously digging their tunnels into the middle of the villagers' rooms. In the deepest night they secretly listened to the conversations of the residents. Now they giggled as they discussed what they had heard back then. While they roamed about, the covey of moles smelled something that pricked their noses. Eventually they ascertained that it was the son of the bald engineer sitting there. They groped forward, sticking close to the ground, trying to catch sight of his face under the moonlight.

Ah! Long-departed guest, where have you been all these years? You have come too late. Do any small alleys remain here, any sign of human life? Do you want to know how they all disappeared? Ask this patch of weeds! Nobody knows where they have gone. They are no better than we moles. We are the true natives. They originally migrated here, and before they had put down deep roots they were blown away by a gust of wind. "Swoosh, swoosh, swoosh, swoosh!"

The moles wound around the man's feet, sighing, making a few comments, then roamed off in another direction.

. . . Whenever his father came upon some vexing problem he would always scratch his scalp vigorously, so vigorously that messy red welts appeared. The diagrams he would then sketch out on paper were as messy as those red welts. It seemed as though some thoughts seeped into his father's scalp. His father tapped on the diagram with a pencil, uttering some strange words like "coordinates," "bearing," and "compass."

His mother said, "Son, in all her life your mother has never seen such a desolate place."

His father looked at her through bloodshot eyes, making a few chewing motions with his empty mouth. He had no desire to continue working. In the entire construction zone there were very few women. Most often seen were a husky-voiced broadcast announcer, a fat middle-aged woman selling baked goods, and a rather pitiful little seventeen-year-old hairdresser. None of them were attractive. The hairdresser looked like a small dog. She probably weighed only about seventy pounds and her face was covered with freckles. It was only under the lights that she looked like a genuine little beauty, so it was at night that most workers and cadres went to the hairdressing salon to chat. The little beauty was the most decent girl in the entire construction zone. If she heard any inappropriate talk she would be reduced to tears. Often the engineer needed to sit in the barber's leather chair for less than three minutes before the little beauty was rendered a weeping mess. But she had never let her emotions interfere with her work. Thus in the midst of her sobs she still managed to place the comb in the middle of that bald head and pull it delicately toward the edge of the hair.

The bald engineer randomly drew several maps, then walked out of the construction zone. Mother said to her son, "Go with your dad." So he followed his father. When they got to the little village his father's eyes became as bright as snow. He held his mouth tightly closed, and when he saw someone he asked, "Where is the leader?"

The person who was asked slapped his thigh. "Well now, you're looking for the leader? That must be the village head, Loose Fang." Then that person led him to a small mud house.

His father shook hands with each of the family members. He thought that when his father shook the hand of the chubby woman he seemed a little agitated. It looked as though there was another slightly smaller pair of eyes hidden in this woman's large eyes. They rotated slowly around like a periscope. The engineer introduced his son as a useless, sickly, dark-hearted youth who had no interest in all the beautiful things in the world.

"At least he has a head of black hair, but that naturally is because he inherited it from me. As for his name, he's called 'Tingfang' - it's a little effeminate . . ." The engineer laughed, then waved his hand again. "Don't take offense. Please forgive me, okay?"

Loose Fang had never encountered a person of such refinement and cultivation. For a moment he was flustered. Big Feet Fat Shoulders had already known what sort of a person he was just from the look in his eyes. She was no stranger to his sort, so she spoke to him without the least show of veneration or awe. She narrowed her eyes and laughed as she asked him, "What business does this 'higher-up' have in coming down to our village?"

Loose Fang quickly followed up his wife's line. "Yes, instruct us, instruct us!"

Tingfang looked at his father and felt uncomfortable for him. Although his father had a rolled-up drawing in his hand, he knew that was no more than a pretense. The engineer quickly spread out the drawing. "The masses are the true heroes. Can we afford not to immerse ourselves in the masses?"

Loose Fang cast a glance at the drawing and said, "That's true." He craned his neck, pointing to the word "mine" written in boldface, and said to his wife, "I know this means 'machine.'"

Tingfang turned his face away and smiled. Big Feet Fat Shoulders was so happy that her lips curled in a grin. "Oh dear, these road maps." The engineer's bald head turned slightly red as he told her, "There will be some sinking wherever we dig-aren't you concerned?"

Loose Fang interjected. "Hey, hey, the government'll see to everything. Ain't that right?"

"That's right. The government will." Tingfang heard his father imitate Loose Fang's speech. Loose Fang was extremely happy. He rubbed his hands together quickly as he walked back and forth in the courtyard.

"God, ain't that something! That stuff is under the ground. Our ancestors really had some eyes in their heads choosin' t' set foot on this piece of land. From now on the little village's bound to get livelier, ain't it?" The engineer stared at him. "This will also become a construction zone later on . . ."

Loose Fang pulled at the front of his jacket and looked at his wife.

"They gonna put me on the government's payroll, too?" The engineer nodded his head. Only Big Feet Fat Shoulders' facial expression grew colder, as her thick purple lips pressed together.

The second time they went to Loose Fang's house, only Big Feet Fat Shoulders was home. She showed a level of forced amiability toward the engineer and his son. After shaking her hand the engineer sat down and said, "You are a very experienced woman comrade. We have a lot in common to talk about." Big Feet Fat Shoulders was cutting dried yam into thumbnail size pieces with a pair of rusted scissors. Tingfang found this fascinating. Big Feet Fat Shoulders said that this was lunch for her whole family. She clicked away with the scissors, so skillful that she didn't even need to look.

"You really have the hands of the laboring masses." The engineer flattered her and shifted closer. As Big Feet Fat Shoulders cut one piece, he passed over another. He turned around and shouted to his son, "Go outside to play!"

Tingfang also thought it was getting boring so he got up and ambled out to a corner of the small courtyard to look at the fresh dirt dug out by the moles. Rows of mole tunnels wove a pretty pattern along the courtyard wall. He opened up one of the tunnels. By this time the engineer had begun to read Big Feet Fat Shoulders' palm. He evaluated her fate in a slow methodical voice. He held her palm firmly, then forcefully turned it over.

"And this line here, it's called the 'life line,' or the 'longevity line.' It says that you will live to the ripe old age of ninety-five and a little longer. One hour before you die you will still be drinking wine. It's obvious that you are a person of extreme composure . . . And this line here tells as clear as day that a few dozen years ago you were seriously sick on two occasions. Both were illnesses in your abdomen, but I can't tell if they were diarrhea or miscarriages. At that time you almost died, but it so happened that a one-eyed person hurried along to save you." Big Feet Fat Shoulders stood up and then sat down again. "Ah!" she marveled time and again.

"If we look at this 'love line,' I dare say, ah . . . before the age of thirty-five emotions burned in your heart. Probably you embraced young men twelve or thirteen times. But you ended up becoming the wife of an outsider with loose teeth and a voice like a barking dog. Can you see the unusual markings on this line? This is a startling manifestation! It shows that in the latter half of your life you are going to encounter a strange person, someone who seems to have flown in from outer space. This man's hair couldn't be considered thick, but his heart is exceptionally good, and he has a pair of round, sentimental eyes. The difference between you, whether it is in position and clothing or background and upbringing, will be vast, but don't assume that he looks down on you because of this difference-what I mean is that you must maintain a long-lasting, absolutely sincere, and completely unbiased friendship with him. That you are so well-developed is to him a kind of blessing, 'A burden of one's choice is not felt.'"

He said this phrase in English, then continued, "There's nothing wrong with that. The most memorable things always arrive suddenly. However, materialism tells us that matter is the primary thing. We must stress the importance of matter-do you value matter?"

He fixed his eyes on Big Feet Fat Shoulders. Her entire face turned red for a time, then white, and her teeth chattered together making a sound like a mole gnawing on something. Her chest heaved sharply, making a loose patch on her jacket flutter like a whitecap on flowing water. The bald engineer took out two bills and several coins from his pocket and placed them on top of a dried yam. Big Feet Fat Shoulders' eyes lit up as she picked them up and thrust them into the lining of her jacket.

"Do you value the material?" the engineer asked once again. Big Feet Fat Shoulders' large eyes momentarily lost their gleam and undulated like turbid water. She nodded her head. The engineer began to sing.

Big Feet Fat Shoulders flattered him in a soft voice. "You really are a man of learning, such a beautiful voice." The engineer took the scissors from her hand and grasped both of her hands in his.

Big Feet Fat Shoulders said, "Did you know that I lived through the old society? In those days women were trodden down so hard they couldn't even turn over. At home Loose Fang holds women up high. If I were married to someone else, huh, I'd probably have blown my top and stabbed him to death with an awl!" Her dark, cold eyes scrutinized him as she picked up the scissors. The engineer tucked his hands deep in his sleeves as if he felt a chill. His chin rested on his knees.

Tingfang continued to uncover the mole tunnels. They seemed to have endless crisscrosses. In some places there were three-way intersections-these mole tunnels were all over this desolate stretch of plains. He had seen moles before and most were fat, black and shiny, with small gleaming eyes. Whenever they saw humans, they dug swiftly into the ground with their front paws. They dug with unbelievable speed. They didn't eat grain, just tiny insects. Most amazingly, they had constructed an intricate network of underground paths, virtually a complete underground village, all by themselves. While he was musing over this he heard Big Feet Fat Shoulders almost shout. He turned his head and saw Big Feet Fat Shoulders taking aim at his father with the scissors. His heart froze and he couldn't move. But his father just closed one eye and casually made a face.

He continued to study the complex system of underground tunnels.

From Jiu Yue De Yu Yan (September's Fable). By arrangement with the author.

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