About The Book
Aunt Sishen wouldn’t come by much anymore. Really, she would deliberately avoid coming near our house, not minding the extra length it took to loop back around. And if we crossed paths on the street, she’d shift her eyes away pretending not to have seen me.
There was one time in the evening where I was playing hide and seek with a few friends of mine. Scrambling to find a good hiding spot, I came across a giant pile of straw. Here in the countryside, piles of straw could be seen everywhere you go, but this one really suited my interests – someone had taken away a chunk, leaving a hole a small kid like me could hide in. Boy did it smell like something, having baked out there in the hot sun – I could feel myself swallowed by its fragrance.
My friend Nini’s voice echoed across in my direction, but I saw her before she saw me. I pushed myself into the hole, my heart practically beating out of my chest in a nervous excitement. Suddenly, I heard a faint scurry of steps, stopping right before the pile I was hidden in. My heart was really going then. I thought to myself “Dang, Sansan must have found me”, but then I heard nothing. After a bit, I heard a woman’s voice: “It’s getting dark out”. It sounded just like my Aunt Sishen, and I figured she was by to take some of the straw away. But then I heard a man’s reply: “Of course it is”. My ears perked up – the voice sounded just like my father’s.
My mind raced. I remember mom sent dad over to her mother’s house this afternoon, which is the next town over. What could he possibly be doing here, behind this stack of straw, with my Aunt Sishen? I moved my ears in their direction but didn’t hear anything. The silence seemed to last forever, gradually morphing into something else – a silence sticky with enticing danger, like poisonous mushrooms sprouting slowly in the forest under mist and rain.
After some space of time, I heard steps one after another, gradually fading into the distance before my ears went blank again. It was then that I felt an indescribable pain and confusion. The night darkened until everything around me was shrouded in an empty void. There I stood, an innocent babe, having no scar of life’s hardships; and yet, on that day, in that vast abyss, I felt for the first time that I’d uncovered a secret. Through that silence interrupted by only the briefest sounds, a secret had come tumbling into plain sight. It was such a peculiar feeling, especially for me, five years old and knowing nothing of the world.
Looking back on that day, it must definitely have been a weekend. When I returned home, all of Fang Town was already pitch dark. In my house, a crisp light brought into focus my family as they were seated around a table of steaming food. My father smiled at my arrival, inviting me to sit down and have some. My mother wasn’t as happy though, asking where I’d gone that my clothes could get so dirtied up.
I sat there under the light, eating quietly, my parents exchanging words every so often. My brother didn’t say a word. Really, he’d never said much ever since he was born, but one day he became quiet glib almost completely out of the blue. He was interesting, lively, and had some great one-liners; for anyone who knew him, they’d find the way he spoke quite something. But in my memories, he was always silent; no matter how hard you tried, you just couldn’t hear him. Of course, that’s apart from times we’d argue – arguments don’t count.
At that moment, my parents were talking about who knows what when my dad gave a smile. I looked at him questioningly. Sure, he was calm and straightforward, with faint laugh lines forming around his eyes – handsome, really – but for some reason, something just seemed amiss with him. He was hiding something – he looked calm and composed on the outside, but panic-stricken on the inside. There was some sort of discomfort in his smile, or at least it looked forced to me. He took a sip of his soup, trying best to act natural.
It was then that my mother smiled as well, using her chopsticks to put more food in his bowl. I stopped, looked at my dad, ran behind him, and pulled a bit of straw from his back, it landing on the table. My father looked at it in shock, this teeny-tiny, innocent piece of grain. But then I could feel him quivering inside, as if his world was spinning before him. The light brightened, if but for a minute, to illuminate that sparkling piece of straw as it sat against the rich black table. It seemed as if in that moment everything had been revealed. My mother raised her eyes to the lamp and muttered something about the voltage being not so great. A moth bounced around the lamp, looking both brave and bleak.
Summer had gone, welcoming autumn and the intoxicating scent it brought across the village. Patch after patch of crops were ready for harvest, be they red fields of sorghum, shiny-gold cornstalks and millet, or snow-white cotton – they spanned to the horizon, a tapestry of dazzling colors. Even peanuts, sweet potatoes, and other foods were ready to reveal themselves, having enjoyed a deep hibernation underground.
People all around Fang Town started to busy themselves, especially my mom. My dad, who taught in school, couldn’t take vacation at this time, and me and my siblings were too small to help out, so my mom had to dash all over harvesting those massive fields herself. I remember how tired she’d get, coming home in ratty clothes, covered in sweat and with a look of complete exhaustion on her face.
But when my father came home on the weekends, he saw a completely different woman. She’d be immaculately clean, her hair still a little damp from her shower. She’d have on an off-white blouse and gray pants, pressed neatly from head to toe. She’d set the table smiling, the rich aroma of her vanishing cream wafting towards you as she turned.
But a look of pain crossed my father’s face. After a moment, I knew he must be thinking about back when they were both still young. He would never forget her shiny, black hair, coarse and tied into two long braids coming down to her waist. They would sway as she walked, sweeping up my father’s heart with ever step she took.
It must have been autumn back then, as they marched on those country roads toward the town. A hare suddenly ran out, scaring her; and then… their hands linked. Beauty surrounded them in the fresh ears of corn, in the damp grass, and in the cool breeze that touched her hot cheeks. So many years had passed since then. My mother handed my father a pair of chopsticks. He took them, and after a while, let out a long sigh.