~3,800 words, approx 24 min read time
Two hours after sunrise, the caustic heat burned the skin. The doctor showed up at Little Two’s house with his dirt-worn face on his dirt-worn bicycle. He had jolted across ten miles of rough mountain road from where everyone called “the other side.” The other side had everything the villagers did not: telephones, TVs, a tractor, a doctor.
“They said your mother’s ill,” the doctor greeted. The pity in his eyes convinced Little Two that “they” had said something about his baba too.
“It’s not true, sir,” said Little Two, hopping off the stone rim of the well.
“She’s fine then?”
“No, not my mama, sir,” said Little Two. “I meant my baba—he will come back to us.” A week ago, his baba had left them with a stuffed canvas bag slung across his shoulder and his big straw hat low above his eyes. Rumor had it that he was in Shanghai now—finally—after he’d talked about it for years.
“If you need a diagnosis for it,” said the doctor, “nobody comes back here.”
The doctor had a point. It was March, time for sowing, but it was hotter than midsummer and the land was dry as a bone. Fist-wide cracks divided the earth; reach an arm down and all you touched was a foul odor—dead rodents and reptiles, decomposing in the depthless maze. Even if, at six years old, Little Two could work the plow like the Wu brothers two houses down, he had no water for irrigation. The well was drying up and, with it, the hope inside him.
“It’s fine, because I’m here with ma,” said Little Two, raising himself aloft on his toes so he appeared bigger and older. “And we’re thankful you’re here, sir.”
The doctor patted the dust from the road off his clothes, and followed Little Two through the creaky front door. As they passed through, Little Two noted that the Spring Festival Couplets glued on it had faded from scarlet red to coral pink. Little two showed the doctor his mama, lying like a stiff plank on the four-poster bed. Her eyes were wide open, her dilated pupils gaping like groundhogs’ holes. The doctor snapped his fingers before them. Two rotund tears rolled out a second later, slithering across her cheekbones and scuttling to her dry, hay-like hair.
They looked at each other, the doctor and Little Two.
“She can’t sit or stand, sir,” said Little Two.
The doctor took her temperature and pulse, kneaded her abdomen, and listened to her chest with a stethoscope. “Is she in pain?”
Little Two shook his head. “She hasn’t said a word.”
“Has she eaten?” The doctor shined a flashlight into her ears. Then he moved it directly above her eyes, his brows knitting as her pupils stayed fixed at the blinding beam.
“I killed our hen the day before,” Little Two answered. “She only drank the soup.”
The doctor placed his stethoscope on her chest again. “There is something between her heart and lungs. I can hear it restricting her breathing, but I can’t imagine what it is—hard and ungiving.”
“Could you remove it, sir?”
The doctor turned to Little Two. “If I could,” he said, sniffling with those big, flaring nostrils like he always did, “I would have gone to Beijing or Shanghai.”
“But you can give her medicine? That’ll make her better?”
The doctor sniffled again, then, without a word, he proceeded to pack up his tools.
“How about Old Snail’s trick? Do you think that could help?”
The doctor’s busy hands halted abruptly. “Shh!” He scowled at Little Two. “If you want to live, you’ll stop mentioning Old Snail’s name. The Liberation Army took him away, handcuffs and shackles and whatnot. They are purging your village of feudal superstition, and Old Snail’s just the beginning.”
“What’s feudal superstition?” asked Little Two.
“It’s all of your outdated beliefs and strange tricks. This is 1979, not the Qing Dynasty. Us Chinese need to catch up with the West.”
Little Two bit his lip. He’d first seen Old Snail’s trick at the village fair last summer. Old Snail had himself a small podium laid in brick and topped with a stained red rug. The podium was set right by the big rock carved with the village’s name: “Fortune Joy.” Old Snail’s face was tan like tree bark and his long beard white like snow. It cascaded at a distance from his body due to his severe hunchback, accentuating the impression that his bony, kerchief-wrapped head was floating on its own. Old Snail stood with his cane, puffing a slender pipe in the clamor of the band’s trumpets and gongs. On the bench behind him, a rooster poised haughtily on one leg, flaunting his jaw-toothed cockscomb. The purple feathers on its muscular chest glared under the sun.
Little Two bought a gigantic cotton candy with the coins his mama had given him—she and his baba couldn’t come because they “had things to talk about.” He was licking away the spider web of sugar, about to go home, when he saw the crowd gathering at Old Snail’s podium. A man from outside the village was sitting on Old Snail’s bench. The man was as old as Little Two’s father, but unlike men of such age, he was so pale he mustn’t have worked a day in the sun.
“The guy’s blind,” Auntie Li told Little Two. She’d left her noodle stall unattended. “Mama Kang brought him to Old Snail from the other side. No one wants to marry a man that can’t farm.”
“The other side doesn’t have everything after all,” Little Two said proudly.
He watched Old Snail, who had a silver case laid out on a tall table with carved legs. Before the case was a cast iron cauldron, in which Old Snail had planted three sticks of burning incense. He backed up three steps and knelt, like a timber warping slowly in the fire—Little Two could hear his bones cracking—and kowtowed three times at the silver case. Then he prodded himself up with the cane, shambled forward, and took a pair of chopsticks out from the sacred container.
“That’s what’s in it?” Little Two was disappointed.
“That’s from his grandfather’s grandfather,” Auntie Li told him. “It’s older than the whole village put together.”
The man on the bench had his eyes open: two turbid and lusterless orbs, like Little Two’s old ping pong balls. Old Snail asked him to close his eyes. He held a chopstick in each hand and started rubbing them over the blind man’s eyelids like one might press on a pouch to squeeze out the juice.
“Old Snail should be rolling dumpling skins,” Auntie Li joked.
White specks started to shed from the blind man’s eyes, skittering over his pale face and dropping on the rug of the podium. They looked like fragments of uncooked rice, small and hard. Just then, Old Snail’s rooster trudged over and pecked viciously at where the specks had fallen. That’s when Little Two saw them unfurling to lash-thin maggots, squirming sightlessly.
They scared Little Two. He buried his face in Auntie Li’s thighs. She picked him up, cradled him in her arms, and whispered in his ear that it was just a magic trick. Little Two didn’t believe her. He had nightmares of the worms for weeks on end. One night, they’d been bouncing like froghoppers. Another night, they’d grown into thick, eyeless eels, tangling in a phosphorescent web on Old Snail’s podium.
Before the doctor left, Little Two offered to pay him with a watch his father had left behind. The doctor brushed a finger over the torn seams of its leather belt and put it back in Little Two’s hand. “When the time comes,” he said, “you’re welcome at the other side.”
Little Two knew that “the time” meant the end of something—his mama, his village…Little Two wasn’t sure, so he expunged the phrase from his mind.
Late that afternoon, he scooped out the last bit of rice and made a porridge. His mama didn’t open her mouth the whole time he was feeding her. Everything in the spoon spilled down her cheeks onto the bed, and Little Two licked it clean off the sheet before it dried.
That evening, he waited till sundown. Old Snail lived at the other end where the hundred-year-old elm was, and Little Two was heedful of not being seen heading there. He stole briskly along the band of pigsties and chicken hoops, away from the houses. The poplar woods on his other side were bare and thin, fallen trunks crisscrossing here and there over the dead grass. He could see the lights from the windows of the houses, but only some of them. Whenever it was dark and quiet, Little Two hastened his steps—ghosts like deserted places, his mama had taught him.
When Little Two reached the great elm, its ragged shape outlined by a thin, melting moon, he saw only the bottom of Old Snail’s house. It had been burnt down perhaps just a day ago. The remnants of the walls were still warm to the touch, and cinders blinked among the debris. Little Two took off his straw sandals and stepped barefooted into the bowl of soot. There he shuffled, his feet searching while his hands picked out anything that stuck out of the ground: the carved leg of a table—the same he had seen at the fair, perhaps—the top half of a bodhisattva figurine, a piece of warped metal, but not one from Old Snail’s silver case.
Little Two emerged from the ruin empty-handed, except for a sneeze like a wrecking ball. He rubbed his stinging nose and put on his sandals. The Army would have confiscated the chopsticks, he should have known.
A short clucking sounded behind him. He turned: under the squat crown of the elm was the silhouette of a big bird. As he approached, he realized that it was Old Snail’s rooster, slowly strutting while flapping its regal wings.
Chicken soup for his mama, Little Two thought to himself, perhaps she would like it better than the porridge. He hunched down, then sprinted and lurched at the bird but hit the ground with nothing in his arms. A few stray feathers floated leisurely down as a spurt of soil dried out Little Two’s teeth and tongue. When he looked up, a glint of purple traced a sinuous route into the woods.
The ground Little Two’s elbows rested on was peculiarly soft. The hard-baked soil had been loosened and heaped, as though by a colony of ants. Little Two grabbed a handful of dirt and let it sift through his fingers. Then he pranced upright on his knees and dug at it rapidly. About a foot down, the loosened soil gave way to a patch of silver. Little Two laughed. He scooped out the silver case and opened it. The pair of chopsticks was nestled safely in two grooves lined with a soft silk, mercury-colored in the watery moonlight.
Little Two ran home in one breath, lit up a candle, and found the incense among the fake paper money they burnt every year at his grandma’s tomb. He took out three of them exactly like Old Snail did, burned their tips with the candle and, since they had never owned a cauldron, stood them up in their salt cellar. Then he placed the silver case behind it and knelt, kowtowing three times—at the grandfather of Old Snail’s grandfather, he supposed.
Immediately after, Little Two unbuttoned his mama’s shirt. Nothing but bones in her bosom. He tried to remember how Old Snail rubbed the blind man’s eyes—with his hands stretched and the chopsticks against his palm. Little Two placed both chopsticks where the doctor had mentioned the blockage was at, somewhere to the left of her heart. Then he laid his palms flat on them and rolled them gently. His mama’s lips quivered. Little Two waited and waited, but no white specks fell off her chest. He kept rolling the sticks, changing directions, shifting to different spots. The two chopsticks hovered like long bridges over the valleys of her rib bones. Perhaps the rain would come and fill them up like it would the cracks of the land, and his mama would be well and happy again.
But, the rain never came, and white specks never fell.
Little Two ran out of food.
He took a bowl to his next-door neighbors every day, who would spare him a ladle of their porridge or half of a steamed bun. Then, no one answered the door anymore. On their windowsill was a pot of rice with pickles and a goodbye note: “Get out before the Army gets to you.”
Little Two continued rolling the chopsticks on his mama. It would take him longer, since he was no Old Snail. In the morning, he walked from house to house with his bowl and begged for food and water. The sun scorched the blood out of him, and his straw sandals were on the brink of incineration. At Auntie Li’s house, she called him to the shadow of her thatched eaves and gave him a bowl of noodles.
“The village is dead,” she said to him, flapping an enormous cattail leaf fan. “They have this thing called moderna—modernition—modernization at the other side. And they said it’s why the other side has rain and we don’t.”
“Who said?” asked Little Two.
“The Liberation Army,” answered Auntie Li. “Do you know that Grandpa Niu’s oldest son, Big Niu, was taken? He was making offerings to the Dragon King, hoping to quench his anger and bring us rain. But someone tipped the Army off and they took Big Niu away. I bet whoever gave the tip got themselves a nice portion of water and rice.”
“Why won’t the Army give that to everyone?” asked Little Two.
Auntie Li laughed. “Because they want the village gone. We stand for feudal superstition; we are in the way of moderna—moderni—”
A uniformed officer plodded by, darting a suspicious glance at them and then at Little Two’s feet, which were still black from shuffling through Old Snail’s ruined home. A cold draft seeped up Little Two’s spine when the heavyset boots landed before him.
“Why’re your feet black, boy?” the officer growled.
Little Two looked conscientiously at the subject of inquiry. “They are…dirty,” he mumbled.
“Particularly dirty,” the officer appended. “From what and where, I’m curious?”
You know from what and where, Little Two thought to himself. “From cleaning the earth stove at home, sir,” he replied, looking directly into the man’s eyes.
The officer chortled. “Then we should take a look at that stove.”
At this, Auntie Li chimed in. “It is true, officer. The dad left and the mom’s ill. The boy is the only one taking care of the house.”
The officer studied the woman cautiously, then he turned to Little Two: “And where do you live?”
“At the south end, sir.”
It was a long way from the south end, and the heat, for once, saved Little Two.
“I will stop by,” said the officer. He rumbled his throat and spat, right before the two of them.
They watched the boots stomp away. Soon, the silence creeped back again—one that permeated the village. No leaves on the trees fluttered in the wind. No birds chimed. No dogs barked. No merchants yodeled on their bikes.
“I’m not leaving mama,” Little Two said, having guessed what was on Auntie Li’s mind. “If I leave, she’s going with me.”
“No one can haul your mama over those mountain roads, can they?” Auntie Li said.
“They can’t,” said Little Two. “That’s why I’m not leaving.”
She heaved a long sigh. “How is she doing?”
Little Two lowered his eyes. He had felt her pulse on her wrist before he left this morning, fainter than a spider’s footsteps. “She just needs to eat more.”
When Little Two got home, he filtered the last cup of water he’d drawn up from the well with a piece of gauze and brought it to his mama’s bedstand. He turned to fetch Auntie Li’s noodles when his foot slid on something round.
His hand grabbed hold of the bedpost, breaking his fall. He took a candle and looked down. On the floor was a purple bead the size of a thumbnail. He held it closer to the light. It was heavy and glass-like, but warm like the human body. He tilted his hand and let it roll off. When it hit the ground, it morphed to a splash of liquid, but then it balled up instantly and was round again.
Little Two inched two fingers around it and picked it up. There was another bead by the nightstand, another by the bedpost. He dropped down on his elbows and looked around. None more in the open, but under the bed hundreds of them rose to a sharp peak, just below his mama’s chest—where he had been rubbing the chopsticks.
The visit promised by the officer was tolling like a bell in his head. It could be the next day—or the next minute.
Little Two contemplated where to hide the heap of beads. They had a large wooden barrel by the stove. It was taller than Little Two himself, but he could reach the top standing on their stool. He filled a bucket with the beads only halfway—just heavy enough for him to raise it above his head. Not until a few transfers later did he notice a purple liquid seeping out of the bottom of the barrel, as though from between the fibers of the wood. And as soon as it touched the ground, it divided neatly and sprang into perfect spheres again.
Little Two opened the door and surveyed the yard. The silence had congealed in the night, and he felt it looming like a scarecrow in the vacant farmland, ready to seize the last of all beating hearts. Little Two put the beads back in the bucket and jogged it to the well and dumped them down. They clunked loudly as they struck the bottom, and Little Two clenched his teeth. Several of the beads splashed onto the dirt ground and disappeared quietly into the cracks—the quieter the better, Little Two thought.
He carried the rest of the buckets to their farm. In the moonlight, he started pouring the beads down the wide, meandering cracks, spreading them apart so they flowed down and into the beyond.
Old Snail’s trick must be working, then, Little Two thought to himself as he removed the last of the beads. But when he rolled the chopsticks on his mama’s chest that night, he couldn’t detect a trace of change on her haggard face. Her eyes seemed to be looking at a distant terrain he couldn’t reach. When he pressed his ear on her heart, he heard a muffled howling, like wind trapped in a cave.
A few days passed, and Little Two couldn’t find anyone anymore—no one in the center, no one in the houses or on the road. The patrolling officer must have departed too, now that there was nothing to patrol. Little Two dragged himself mindlessly through the village like the sole survivor of a plague. He was faint with thirst, his swollen tongue choking him. He passed out while picking a dozen rice grains up off the ground. When he woke up, he found a pool of brownish liquid in the gutter of a pigsty and buried his face in it. Then he coughed and gagged till the last foul taste left him in a bloody spit.
A sun-dried radish still tasted of radish. What about a sun-dried little boy?
He crawled onto the bed that night, next to his mama. He put his arm around her protruding ribcage and closed his eyes. Her skin was cold against his fevered forehead, but she smelled warm and musty, a little like the plum sake she used to make for the Spring Festivals.
Little Two did not want to wake up again. He liked his mama’s smell. He was back to when the village was alive, the firecrackers booming for the dragon dance, the ribbons twirling in the air, the confetti falling on his arms and shoulders. His pa was playing the drums in the band, and behind them, in a corner of warm and aromatic steam, his mama was leading the cooking team for the celebration at noon. Because he was her son, he could go over and get himself a treat any time. A slippery dumpling, a slice of sticky rice cake, or a cup of strawberry water.
Strawberry water, that would be just perfect. Little Two was licking his lips when he felt a push on his shoulder. He opened his eyes, and his mama was there—sitting up on the bed right next to him. He opened his mouth but was too weak to make a sound.
“Shhh.” she whispered. “I feel much better now, Little Two.”
She no longer looked like a rickety hanger for her clothes. A lovely color flushed her face.
“I’ll make you something to eat,” she told Little Two.
Little Two shook his head slowly. He thought he was dead, wallowing in the cloud with his dead mother. But no divine vapor obscured his sight, and his back—after the incalculable time lying on the bed—ached like it had been thrashed with a flaming whip.
“Oh, no. Don’t you worry,” his mama said, propping up Little Two’s head and bringing a cup to his lips. Water. Clear, purple water.
“From the well,” she said. “It is full now. All the way up.”
Little Two gulped it down. It had an earthy taste to it, like the smell of minerals on the surface of a sun-baked rock.
“And let me show you this.” His mama stood up—she stood so fine and moved so fine now. She picked him up from the bed with those arms that once swaddled him.
They went out to their yard, and Little Two cringed at the searing heat. It was early in the morning, and half of a gory sun was glowering at the horizon.
But, among acres of barren land near and afar, theirs were no longer so. Water had flooded their land, and rice crops were thriving, tall as his mama’s waist, with fat, crowded kernels bending the succulent stems. A breeze combed through the field, and Little Two saw the shimmer bouncing off the purple leaves, like the feathers on Old Snail’s rooster.
“It’s a wonder,” his mama said.
Little Two held her tight. A soft patter of rain moistened his forehead—but when he looked up, he realized that they were not rain, just his mama’s warm, purple tears.
Yiwen Bu is a first-generation immigrant. She is still catching her own grammar mistakes 11 years after her move to the U.S. She has a PhD in Science and Engineering, but sometimes she’s just so sick and tired of theories and orders. That’s why in the wee hours, the restless, unruly creature in her would be typing away with a sinful grimace, while her husband, 18-month-old daughter, and orange Tabby are soundly asleep.