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THE VILLAGE TEACHER
TRANSLATED BY ADAM LANPHIER
He knew he’d have to teach his final lesson early.
He felt another shot of pain in his liver, so strong he almost fainted. He didn’t have the strength to get out of bed, and, with great difficulty, he pulled himself closer to the bedside window, whose paper panes glowed in the moonlight. The little window looked like a doorway leading into another world, one where everything shone with silver light, a diorama of silver and frostless snow. He shakily lifted his head and looked out through a hole in the paper window, and his fantasy of a silver world receded. He found himself looking into the distance, at the village where he had spent his life.
The village lay serenely in the moonlight, and it looked as if it had been abandoned for a hundred years. The small flat-roofed houses were almost indistinguishable from the mounds of soil surrounding them. In the muted colors of moonlight, it was as if the entire place had dissolved back into the hills. Only the old locust tree could be seen clearly, a few black crows’ nests scattered among its withered branches, like stark drops of black ink on a silver page.
The village had its good times, like the harvest. When young men and women, who had left the village in droves to find work, came back, and the place was bustling and full of laughter. Ears of corn glistened on the rooftops, and children did somersaults in the piles of stalks on the floor of the threshing ground. The Spring Festival was another cheerful time, when the threshing ground was lit with gas lamps and decorated with red lanterns. The villagers gathered there to parade lucky paper boats and do lion dances. Now, only the clattering wooden frames of the lions’ heads were left, stripped of paint. The village had no money to buy new trains for the heads, so they had been using bedsheets as the lions’ bodies, which worked in a pinch. But as soon as the Spring Festival ended, all the youths of the village left again to look for work, and the place fell back into torpor.
At dusk every day, as thin wisps of smoke rose from the chimneys of the houses, one or two elderly villagers, their faces grooved like walnuts, would stand and gaze down the road that led beyond the mountains, until the last ray of gloaming light got caught in the locust tree and disappeared. People turned their lamps off and went to bed early in the village. Electricity was expensive, at ¥1.8 per kilowatt hour.
He could hear a dog softly whimpering somewhere in the village, whining in its sleep, perhaps. He looked out at the moonlit yellow soil surrounding the village, which suddenly seemed to him like a placid sheet of water. If only it were water—this year was the fifth consecutive year of drought, and they had had to carry water to the fields to irrigate them.
His gaze drifted into the distance, landing on the fields on the mountain, which looked in the moonlight like the footprints of a giant. Small, scattered plots were the only way to farm that rocky mountain, covered as it was with vines and brush. The terrain was too rough for agricultural equipment—even oxen would have had no good footing—so people were obliged to do all the labor by hand.
Last year, a manufacturer of agricultural machines had visited to sell a kind of miniature walking tractor, small enough to work those meager fields. It wasn’t a bad little machine, but the villagers weren’t having it. How much grain could those tiny plots produce? Planting them was detailed work, more like sewing than sowing, and a crop that could feed a man for a year was considered a success. In a year of drought, as it was, those fields might not even produce enough to recoup the cost of planting. A five-thousand-yuan tractor, and on top of that, diesel fuel at more than two yuan a liter—outsiders just didn’t understand the difficulties of life in these mountains.
A few small silhouettes walked past the window. They formed a circle on a ridge between two fields and squatted down, inscrutable. He knew these were his students—as long as they were nearby, he could detect their presence even without seeing them. This intuition had developed in him over a lifetime, and it was particularly keen now that his life was drawing to a close.
He could even recognize the children in the moonlight. Liu Baozhu and Guo Cuihua were there. Those two were originally from the village and didn’t have to live at school; nevertheless, he had taken them in.
Liu Baozhu’s father had paid the dowry for a bride from Sichuan ten years before, and she had come and given birth to Baozhu. Five years after that, when Baozhu had grown a bit, his father began to neglect his wife, the small bit of closeness they’d had slipping away, and eventually she left him and returned to her family in Sichuan.
After that, Baozhu’s father lost his way. He began gambling, just like the old bachelors of the village, and before long he had lost everything but four walls and a bed. Then he began drinking. Every night, he sold roasted sweet potatoes for eighty fen a kilogram and drank himself useless with the money. Useless and angry: he hit his son every day, and twice a week he hit him hard. One night the month before, he’d nearly beaten his son to death with a sweet potato skewer.
Guo Cuihua’s home life was even worse. Her father had found a bride for himself through decent channels, a rare thing here, and he was proud. But good things seldom last, and right after the wedding, it became apparent that Cuihua’s mother was unwell. No one could tell at the wedding—she’d likely been given a drug to calm her. Why would a respectable woman come to a village like this in the first place, so poor that even the birds wouldn’t shit as they flew over? Nevertheless, Cuihua was born and grew up, and her mother got sicker and sicker. She attacked people with cooking knives in the daytime, and at night she would try to burn the house down. She spent most of her time laughing to herself like a ghoul, with a sound that would set your hair on end.
The rest of the children were from other villages, the closest of which was at least ten miles away on mountain roads, so they had to live at school. In a crude village school like this, they would spend the whole term there. The students brought their own bedding, and each hauled a sack of wheat or rice from home, which they cooked themselves on the school’s big stove. As night fell in the winter, the children would gather around the stove and watch the cooking grain bubble and purl in the pot, their faces lit by straw-orange flames. It was the most tender sight he’d ever seen. He would take it with him into the next world.
Copyright © 2020 by ??? (Cixin Liu)