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Photograph by Fan Ho (何藩)

The Ventriloquist

IN THE YEAR of Keng Shen, I happened to visit Yangchow. One evening a friend introduced me to a famous ventriloquist named Kuo Mao-erh. I invited Kuo and my friend to my quarters at the inn, where we dined and drank together until a late hour. After the meal, Kuo agreed to favour us with a display of his talents. A large silk screen was placed to the right of our table. Kuo took his position in the shadows behind the screen, while my friend and I sat in pleasant anticipation…

A long silence is broken suddenly by voices; two men are meeting on the road. The greetings are loud and boisterous. One of the men, older than the other, invites the young man to his house. They walk down a rough road, enter a gate and cross a small courtyard to a house. A door slams shut. Wine is poured. The two men talk and joke.

The young men protests. “Too much drink,” he pleads. The other laughs. More wine is poured. Cups clink. The wine is sipped and guzzled. The guest gets to his feet. He moves unsteadily and his host assists him to the gate. Laughter. Goodbyes. The young man staggers down the road. The gate is closed. The bolt slips into place.

The young man stumbles along. He slips, sprawling to the ground. Silence. A second set of footsteps approaches. The newcomer’s foot strikes something soft. A curse. A drunken groan. The newcomer reaches down, assisting the drunken man to his feet. He helps the man walk down the road.

They halt. The drunken man is half-dragged forward, then propped against a wall. The other steps back. “Ho! Watchman! Open the city gates!” No reply. Somewhere in the distance a dog barks. Others join in. Still more dogs add to the chorus – some young, others old; some close by, others a long way off.

The watchman shuffles along the wall. He climbs down. A large gate swings open. The newcomer assists the drunken man along. At a house, they pause. The newcomer pounds on the gate. Nothing stirs. He pounds again. Louder. The gate creaks open. A man curses. Wrong house. More dogs join in the barking.

The drunken man is helped to a second house. The newcomer pounds again. The gate opens. A young woman thanks the man for helping her husband home. The man chides the drunkard and then he takes his leave. The gate closes. The bolt slides into place.

The young woman, panting, struggles with her drunken husband. She drags, pushes, cajoles him across the courtyard and on into the house. She helps him into bed.

“Tea!” he moans.

The woman goes into the kitchen. A fire crackles; the tea hisses and it steams. It is poured into a cup. The woman returns to the bedroom. The drunken man has passed out. He snores. His snores rise and fall with a thunderous din. The woman sighs. She grumbles. She returns to the kitchen where she pours the tea back into the pot. Back to the bedroom. She blows out the lamp. She slips off her clothes. Now there are two sets of snores.

A temple gong breaks up the serenade of snores. The hour of the Rat. A cow moos. The bed creaks. The young man groans. He vomits, groans again, then he vomits again. “Tea!” he wails. The woman snores on. He mutters. Curses. The bed creaks a second time. Once again – two sets of snores rise up.

The cocks crow. First one, and then another, and finally many others, each one crowing in a different key. The bed creaks. The woman yawns. She pulls her slippers from next to the bed. They squish. She shakes them and a slippery, watery bile plops onto the stone floor. An angry cry. Curses. The woman reaches over; finds a second pair. She gets up, dresses and goes into the kitchen. Kettles clack, fire crackles and food is sliced and chopped.

Outside a pounding, on the gate. “Almost dawn,” a voice shouts out. “Get that lazy son of mine up. It’s time to slaughter the pigs.”

The woman shakes her husband. He grumbles, dresses and leaves the house to accompany his father to the pig pens. Food is thrown in for the swine. Grunting and squabbling, they fight over the slops. Sounds of slurping and of gulping. Water being drawn up from a well. Water being poured into a kettle. A fire crackles. Later, water boils.

A pig now squeals. The young man grunts and curses. The squeals grow louder. “Tie him good!” the old man warns. A knife is being sharpened on a whetstone. Now an axe. A desperate final squeal – cut off midway. Silence. The soft sound of blood flowing. Now an axe chopping bones. Now a knife slicing meat. Finally, meat being washed.

“Dawn,” the old man announces, “Time to set up the counter.”

Silence.

In time, there are sounds, distant at first, then growing nearer. The shuffling of feet. Loud voices rise. “I’ll have the ribs.” “How much?” “Did you save the feet?” “No, too much!” “Where’s the kidney and the liver?” “No, not that cut.” “When was the pig slaughtered? Last week?”

Coins clatter on the wooden counter. “Where is the head?” More coins clatter. “Some pork for a roast?” Fresh meat slaps against the wood. “Yes! That’s the piece.”

The sounds grow in intensity. Many voices join in. The voices and the sounds all blend – cutting, chopping, the clatter of coins, questions, answers, laughter, cries, insults – until they are all running together in a great, unintelligible jumble. Then…

Nothing.

Silence.

At last the act of the ventriloquist is finished.

Master of the East Pavilion

Translated by Gene Z. Hanrahan

50 Great Oriental Stories, Bantam, 1965

‘Master of the East Pavilion’ is a nom de plume, which has successfully cloaked the identity of the author ever since this tale was written; shortly before the end of the nineteenth century.

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