April comes and April goes, and May, and June, all passing by without shedding a drop of rain. The sky has been a blue desert since spring. The sun rises every morning, a bright white disk growing larger and hotter each day. Cicadas drawl halfheartedly in the trees. The reservoir outside the village has shrunken into a bathtub for the boys, peeing at each other in the waist-deep water.
Two girls, four or five, stand by the main road, their bare arms waving like desperate wings of baby birds as they chant to the motionless air, “Come the east wind. Come the west wind. Come the east-west-north-south wind and cool my armpits.”
Now that July has only to move its hind foot out the door in a matter of days, we have started to wish, instead of rain, that no rain will fall and the drought will last till the end of the harvest season. Peasants as we are, and worrying about the grainless autumn as we are, the drought has, to our surprise, brought a languid satisfaction to our lives. Every day, from morning till evening, we sit under the old pagoda tree, smoking our pipes and moving our bodies only when the tree’s shade threatens to leave us to the full spotlight of the sunshine. Our women are scratching their heads to come up with decent meals for us at home. The rice from last year will be running out soon, and before that, our women’s hair will be thinning from too much scratching until they will all go bald, but this, like all the minor tragedies in the world, has stopped bothering us. We sit and smoke until our daily bags of tobacco leaves run out. We stuff grassroots and half-dead leaves into the bags, and when they run out, we smoke dust.
“Heaven’s punishment, this drought,” someone, one of us, finally says after a long period of silent smoking.
“Yes, too many deaths.”
“In that case, Heaven will never be happy again. People always die.”
“And we’ll never get a drop of rain.”
“Suits me well. I’m tired of farming anyway.”
“Yeah, right. Heaven comes to spank you, and you hurry up to bare your butts and say, come and scratch me, I’ve got an itch here.”
“It’s called optimism, better than crying and begging for pardon.”
“A soft persimmon is what you are. I would just grab His pants and spank Him back.”
“Whoa, a hero we’ve got here.”
“Because we were born soft persimmons. Seen any hero coming out of a persimmon?”
“Lao Da? They popped his brain like a watermelon.”
Lao Da was one of us. He should have been sitting here with us, smoking and waiting for his turn to speak out a line or two, to agree or to contradict. When night fell, he would, like all of us, walk home and dote on his son, dripping drops of rice wine from his chopsticks to the boy’s mouth. Lao Da would have never bragged about being a hero, a man like him, who knew his place between the sky and the earth. But the thing is, Lao Da was executed before this drought began. On New Year’s Eve, he went into the county seat and shot seventeen people, fourteen men and three women, in seventeen different houses, sixteen of them dead on the spot and the seventeenth living only to see half a day of the new year.
“If you were born a soft persimmon, you’d better stay one,”
someone says, repeating the comforting old wisdom.
“Persimmons are not born soft.”
“But they are valued for their softness.”
“What then if we stay soft and ripened?”
“Heaven will squeeze us until He gets tired of squeezing.”
“He may even start to like us because we are so much fun for Him.”
“We’ll just have our skins left by then.”
“Better than having no skins.”
“Better than having a bullet pop your brain.”
“Better than having no son to inherit your name.”
Silent for a moment, we all relish the fact that we are alive, with boys to carry on our family names. Last year at this time, Lao Da’s son was one of the boys, five years old, running behind older boys like all small kids do, picking up the cicadas that the older boys shot down with their slingshots, adding dry twigs and dead leaves to the fire that was lit to roast the bodies, waiting for his share of a burned cicada or two.
“Lao Da’s son died a bad one.”
“As if there is a good way to die!”
“Those seventeen, weren’t theirs good? Fast and painless.”
“But in the city, they said those seventeen all died badly.”
“Mercilessly murdered—wasn’t that how they put in the newspapers?”
“But that’s true. They were murdered.”
“True, but in the city, they didn’t say the boy died badly. They didn’t even mention Lao Da’s son.”
“Of course they didn’t. Who would want to hear about a murderer’s son? A dead son, not to mention.”
“Even if they had written about him, what could they have said?”
“Drowned in a swimming accident, that’s what was written in his death certificate.”
“And accidents happen every day, they would say.”
“The boy’s death wasn’t worth a story.”
The seventeen men and women’s stories, however, were read aloud to us at Lao Da’s trial, their enlarged pictures looking down at us from the top of the stage of a theater, a makeshift courthouse to contain the audience. We no longer remember their names, but some of the faces, a woman in heavy makeup who looked like a girl we were all obsessed with when we were young, a man with a sinister mole just below his left eye, another man with a pair of caterpillar-like eyebrows, these faces have stuck with us ever since.
So have a few of the stories. A man who had been ice-swimming for twenty years and had never been ill for one day of his adult life.