A Weasel & A Rare Swan’s Eggs
Forest covered the surrounding area for as far as the eye could see.
The British officials in neighbouring Burma often sent their people over to survey the land and to build roads and bridges. Thus Britons, Burmese and Indians appeared in Banana Vale with their frequent taxes and other ‘fees’ which the widowed innkeeper had to pay. To her annoyance, unlike the Han merchants and grooms, these tax collectors not only flirted with her but tried to cheat her out of her money, and this disturbed and angered her more than anything.
Then, one day, an opium trader on the border, who was a frequent guest at the woman’s inn and who’d had his eye on the well-to-do widow for a while, took it upon himself to protect her from their demands.
“You cheat! How come she has to pay so much?” he argued on her behalf with a Burmese tax collector, telling him in a foreign language, “I tell you, I’ve been to both Myitkyina and Mandalay! I know how it works! You think that just because she’s a widow, you can take advantage of her like this? Well, listen, you can’t cheat me, can you?”
“It includes some wine money too,” the Burmese tax collector was forced to admit, seeing that the opium trader knew what he was talking about.
“Wine money? Nonsense! Why should there be any wine money? Do you deliver wine? I’ll bloody sue you if you don’t! Besides, even if you did include wine money it still wouldn’t come to that much!”
The Burmese man hummed and hawed but decided not to push his luck and left with only the tax money. The woman was naturally very grateful. From then on, every time she had any trouble with foreigners, she would look for the opium trader who was always helpful and attentive. He even brought back silk for the woman and her daughters from the big cities he visited, and left part of his savings with the woman for safe keeping. Every time the opium trader stayed at the inn and had his meals there, he would say, “Let’s eat at the same table. We’re all one family, there’s no need to lay another one.”
Gradually, he became a member of the family and when he thought the time was right, he proposed to the woman. She didn’t feel upset, on the contrary, she felt that to deal with the British officials and the Burmese tax collectors she really needed someone like him around. She knew he wasn’t a simple person like her second husband, but as long as she kept her money and valuables out of his reach then he wouldn’t be able to do her much harm even if he did decide to make any trouble in the future…
So the woman agreed and he moved in with her.
After he had become the innkeeper, life became much more leisurely for the middle-aged opium addict. He spent most of his time lying in bed like a lazy snake puffing away on his pipe. When he did get up, he would put on a pair of leather slippers and shuffle off to the meadow and the vegetable garden, his pipe dangling from his lips. If he saw the woman and her daughters with sweat running down their faces as they ploughed the fields and cleared the meadow, he would do nothing except say half-heartedly that perhaps the meadow needed to be widened this year or better vegetables ought to be planted.
His work-shy nature soon became insufferable. Fed up of doing everything, the woman decided that things couldn’t go on like this…
Feeling that it was improper to complain directly, she began to moan and groan about the business instead.
Unable to understand what she was getting at, he insisted they hire a man-servant.
The woman inhaled deeply before answering coldly, “You don’t understand. Ours is a small business and we eat what we produce. Things are hard enough today – how do we know how we’re going to manage tomorrow? How can we possibly afford to hire a man-servant? We would have done it a long time ago if we’d had the money, in which case we wouldn’t have needed you here to help.”
The man’s eyes narrowed…
“But I heard that you’ve saved a lot of money.”
“How can you believe that rubbish! To hell with such rumour-mongers! You know that I’ve lost three husbands and I have had to feed and clothe their children all by myself. Yes, OK, I’ve starved myself in order to save a little here and there, but those foreign bastards tax me on everything. Like water, every penny I earn flows their way and I’m left with nothing!”
He fell into a sceptical silence…
“Then you can use my money to hire a servant.”
“You’d be better off saving it for yourself,” the woman sneered, “After all, you’ll no doubt be needing it for that pipe of yours, won’t you? No, we are already lost, don’t you worry about us.”
Time passed but still nothing changed. So, one day, instead of beating around the bush, the woman asked him point-blank to help her with the work.
It didn’t go down well.
“No chance,” he snapped, folding his arms, “I tell you: my family hasn’t touched a hoe for three generations, let alone swept up dung. No, I cannot and I will not help.”
He could have been more tactful, but when he thought about the woman locking all the money away and hiding the keys he couldn’t help exploding.
The woman arched her eyebrows…
“And just who do you think your family is exactly? The royal family?”
“Haha, yes, very funny,” he sneered, “If they were, then what would I be doing here getting all worked up about your damned cheek?!”
Full of indignation he hurled his pipe into a wooden box.
“What, you’re offended?!” the woman glared, “Look at yourself! What kind of man do you think you are? You just lie around all day puffing away on that bloody pipe and eating all our food. With you around, my children and I are doomed! I swear, you’re just a ghost that my children and I had the hellish misfortune to run into when it was dark.”
“It’s not your bloody money I’m smoking is it!” he yelled back at the woman, pummeling the bed with his fist, “Screw you!”
“Oh! So you think you can frighten us with your threats, do you? I’ll have none of your yelling and banging in front of me!”
Although these arguments put a strain on their relationship for a while, they soon made their peace like any other couple, at least superficially. In spite of everything, the woman still felt that, however greedy and lazy the man might be, he was useful in dealing with foreigners. So in the end she let him have his way.
Yet, in less than six months, he had puffed away all his savings in his opium pipe. He had become more and more dependent on the drug and now smoked more than ever. He asked her for money shamelessly, saying that he knew how much money she had and smoking wouldn’t cost her much. She knew she couldn’t keep everything from him, so following his train of thought, she said, “I just want to save some money so that we can hire a servant. You don’t want me to slave away like a horse, do you? Also, look at Fusheng, he’s nearly thirteen now but he just plays around all day. What are we going to do about him? I was planning on picking an auspicious day and sending him to one of those modern schools in the city. We’ve suffered more than enough through not being able to speak another language!”
She had not actually been that keen on sending her son to school and all she really wanted to do was to save the little money that they had. But since she’d been pressed to give a reason, she had to make it sound as if she’d already made up her mind…
“Send him to modern school?!” the man spluttered with disbelief, “You can’t feed a common weasel rare swan’s eggs! How much money are you going to need for that?”
He had always found the boy, who never called him ‘Dad’, a nuisance, which he could well have done without…
“Listen,” he said, “I’ve got an idea: let the boy help you with the work. Isn’t that better than hiring someone else? Look at him: he eats so much every meal and he’s not a small child any more. If he doesn’t want to do it, just give him a damn good beating. Anyway, I don’t think he’ll end up doing any better for himself, even if he does go to school. You know what they say, ‘like father, like son’. I mean, what else is he good for besides sweeping up horse dung? No, don’t look at me like that, I’ve been thinking of telling you that for quite a while, but I knew that you would shield him! Let me tell you this: that lazy little devil has long been nothing but a poisoned thorn in my side!”
“Little devil?” The woman countered, “So what? You don’t take care of him anyway! However much he may eat, you haven’t so much as provided him with a bite. I just don’t want him to sweep up dung, I want him to go to a modern school and make something of himself. Just see if you can stop me. And I’m going to send him there early next month!”
She could and would have kept her anger under control had he not been so foul-mouthed about her son.
“Anyway,” she continued, “Who are you to say that my son’s not school material? Shut your filthy mouth! I tell you: scholar-officials are not born that high and even emperors and ministers come from small cowherds. You’re not going to keep my son down. No, I know what you want: you don’t want me to spend the money on him just so that you can puff it all away in that damned pipe of yours! Well, your plan’s failed again!”
“Bloody hell!” the man snapped back at her, “You really are thick as shit, aren’t you? OK, go ahead, go on, send him there tomorrow, see if I care! You really think he’s going to go far in this world? Right… Of course… I’ll make sure I keep my eyes open because I can’t wait to see that!”
So, to keep his pipe burning, he quarreled with her every day. Sometimes the woman would back down and throw him a wad of notes, which he would grab from her and mutter coldly, “You don’t have to treat me like a beggar, you know? You just wait till I’m doing business again. Yes, you’ll see, just one deal will bring me in a fortune and I’ll pay you back all the money you’ve lent me with interest and not a penny less. Believe it or not, there was a time when more money passed through these fingers every day than you’ve had in your whole life!”
“Then go back to the old days and stop bloody asking me for money!”
“Ha! You think I’d be sorry if I left you? I’ve been thinking of taking off for weeks!”
“Go on then! Do it! I’ll burn joss sticks to thank Heaven and Earth!”
When quarreling and fighting were of no avail, the man would now just steal. Any money lying around would disappear immediately and inevitably made the woman more vigilant than ever. Locking up every trunk and box which contained her savings, the woman moved them into her elder daughter’s room to prevent the man from finding them. She then gave the keys to the trunks and boxes to her elder daughter, who hooked them on to a belt which she wore underneath her clothes.
With no money now left lying around, he had to get his opium on credit from passing traffickers and, when desperate, he mixed the ashes with water and drank that instead. They certainly weren’t the best of days for the addict and the only way he could deal with his constant craving for opium was to drink the wine that was supposed to be for the customers and send himself into a stupor both day and night. Having had a son by him by then, the woman just ignored him, however intoxicated he was. But the rest of the children cursed him behind his back, calling him ‘the boozer’ and ‘the chimney’ and prayed for his death so that he would stop stinging them like some vicious insect.
Soon the traffickers started leaning on him heavily to pay them back their loans. Scared of what they would do to him if he didn’t, his addled mind could think of only one way out – to steal the keys to the trunks and take it out of her savings…
So, one night, when the inn was quiet and everyone was asleep, he lit his opium lamp and, fortified by wine, went to prize open the daughter’s door. In a tropical place like that, the doors and walls were made of bamboo, in order to let a breeze pass through. It didn’t take much to get the door open…
Carefully, holding his opium lamp, he crept into the room and found the girl in a deep sleep, covered only by a thin skirt that left her legs exposed. He had always loathed the girl, calling her a tramp and other names, but now staring at her lying there, he found her young figure bewitching. And when he lifted up her skirt and looked at her naked body underneath, his intoxicated state made him forget all about their kinship.
The violent urge of his flesh pushed him towards the girl’s body…
“You bastard!… You drunkard!… You beast!… You…”
Her daughter’s loud and desperate cries woke the woman up. Immediately, she realised that the thief in their midst was at work again. Springing from her bed, she grabbed a heavy stick and called Fusheng.
“Fusheng! Get up! Now! That drunken wretch is stealing our money!”
When Fusheng awoke and realised what was happening, he too jumped out of his bed and ran after his mother with a pair of scissors in his hand.
Inside the daughter’s room, the opium lamp sat on the desk gleaming with a faint, yellowish light. The woman thought that if he hadn’t stolen anything then she would just give him a mild beating and then she would let him go. But when she saw what he was actually doing, she was overcome with the most furious anger. Pulling the drunken addict off her screaming daughter, she threw him down on to the ground and gave his vital parts a severe and bloody pounding.
Fusheng, young and innocent as he was, just thought he was stealing their money, so was standing by the door, with an angry look upon his face. It was only when he saw the drunken wretch lying on the floor, groaning with his bare backside in the air, that he realised what had been going on and flew into a rage.
Rushing forward, Fusheng stabbed the man in the back repeatedly with the scissors in his hand, until the drunkard finally stopped kicking and screaming and Fusheng had assuaged his long pent-up anger at the thieving, perverted addict and his nefarious ways.
“Are you in pain?” the woman asked her daughter anxiously, stroking her hair softly.
“Y-yes,” sobbed the daughter, burying her face in her pillow, “Yes Ma, I am…”
Shaking with rage, the woman didn’t hesitate and picking the stick back up again, brought it crashing down upon the back of the man’s head. He let out a moan but soon was quiet and motionless, blood oozing out from his neck, his mouth, his back and groin. Bending down the woman examined him for a while then her face turned white with both shock and fear.
“W-what are we going to do now? The beast is d-dead…”
Tears fell from her cheeks. For an instant, her long stored hate and spite vanished and she found herself forgiving him. Gone too was her courage and her heart sank. But when she glanced at the wide-open, bloodstained, wrathful eyes of the dead addict, she came to her senses.
‘How could it be my fault?’ she thought, ‘It’s all because he couldn’t control himself!’
When she caught sight of his shamelessly exposed and bloodied privates, hatred and contempt filled her heart again. Her courage returned, she quickly tied his body up with a rope and hooked it to a shoulder pole. She asked her elder daughter to help her carry the corpse and told her son to light the way. They were to bury him in the mountains and that would be that. The woman’s heart was empty now and her only thought was to get it done as quickly as they could.
Outside, it was still pitch-black and the mountain path was slippery with rain. By the time they had reached the mountainside, the heavy downpour had become a torrent, which crashed down on the nearby forests with a terrifying sound. Thunder and lightning silver-plated the valley and the forests, and at every crack, flash and rumble they jumped with terror as if their very souls were being absorbed by the elements.
‘Is Heaven venting its anger because I killed my husband?’ the woman thought, ‘But why? Why?! I did the right thing! He was a beast! He raped his step-daughter! He wasn’t human!’
By the time they had struggled to the top of the mountain with the corpse, she felt as if she didn’t have the strength to even hold the hoe. But thinking once more about what the man had done, she immediately found what little strength did remain inside her, and started digging the grave, when…
“Ma! Ma!” screamed her son and daughter, shivering with fear, “What’s that?! What’s that howling over there? Ma! It’s a leopard! A leopard!!”
Dropping the hoe, the woman lost her heart and strength instantly. Pushing the corpse down the other side of the mountain, she ran home with her children as fast as they all could, and as far away from whatever beast was lurking out there in the darkness, as it was possible to be…
The next morning when the woman got up early to clean up the inn, as well as the dead man’s belongings, she felt little grief or guilt. She only felt the man had got what he deserved and that justice had been done.
Fusheng, who usually woke up late, also got up early to help his mother with the cleaning. When he saw her wrapping up the addict’s paraphernalia, Fusheng walked over and took the pipe and opium cup out of his mother’s hands.
“Ma, let me have these.”
“No!” she replied, “Listen, you won’t learn anything good through them. No, Fusheng, I really am going to send you to one of those modern schools. My son, I would be so proud of you if you worked hard and made a success of yourself.”
Usually, Fusheng would have insisted on having things his way, but today he didn’t. Like a good son, he handed them back to her.
“OK, Ma,” he nodded, “Now, let’s throw these away!”
Banana Vale, Panda Books, 1993
…The mountains in western Yunnan and Burma were originally known as the Savage Mountains. Everywhere was primeval forest with not a human trace. It is not known when the Daying River rushed into the Bamo plains through the Savage Mountains and flowed into the Irrawaddy River – along whose banks a southern silk route was established. It took three or four days to travel along the road on foot.
I worked for six months at a place called Cogongrass Fields, which was situated in a small valley by the Daying River, and from where it took three or four days to get to Ganya. Ships from Bamo penetrated as far as the Burmese hinterland to which the railways reached so that exotic goods could be transported back to Bamo and thence to Yunnan. From Bamo and on into Yunnan Province, transportation of goods relied totally on horses, so some people had set up large horse ranches.
In the morning and at dusk, vendors and their horses would come to the inn for the night, creating a hubbub of noise at the otherwise lonely Cogongrass Fields. I was alone in Bamo with no means of earning a living, so, upon the introduction of a fellow provincial of mine – a sedan-chair carrier – I went back to Cogongrass Fields and became a sanitation worker and part-time shop assistant. The Ganya Flatlands, which the Daying River passed through, were rich farming land. In the slack season, groups of Dais would bring local products to sell in Bamo. My task was to take care of them and ensure they slept soundly and rested well.
Cogongrass Fields and the Daying River were under the jurisdiction of the British, so workers in charge of transportation and the repair of roads were stationed there, but the British officials made one tour of inspection to the Cogongrass fields only every two or three months. Consequently, Cogongrass Fields became a resting place for drug traffickers, smugglers and horse thieves. As I became familiar with them, we talked about everything and kept no secrets from each other. Thus, I witnessed the dark sides of society and at the same time the innate kindness of those living on the fringe.
I wrote down my experiences in the Jingpo Mountains and during my travels, compiling my stories into a collection called, ‘Journey to the South‘…
March 14, 1992, Chengdu
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