People Mountain, People Sea
The Year of the Snake. The year good things will come to Ya Ya and her son. In the village, families decide which animals to slaughter. Soft clucking from farmers as they wrap hands around hens, the thud of the cleaver notching the tree stump. The stump ringed with blood for the dogs to lick.
Ya Ya squats by the door of the white hut and helps Little Hu into the arms of his quilted jacket. He sways while she tugs it into place. Grandmother packs tins of rice congee, pickled radish, and tea-soaked eggs for the trip into Changsha, where the boy’s father will be, finally home for the New Year’s celebrations.
“What do you think?” Ya Ya reaches under his cuffs to adjust his sweater. “Do you want ba ba to have a skinny hen when he gets home, or a big, fat pig?”
“Da fei zhu!” says Little Hu, and he blows air into his cheeks to demonstrate a rotund animal.
“That’s right.” She rises and buttons her own boxy wool jacket, then ties a gray scarf over the braided pigtails hanging past her shoulders. The excitement is in her fingers, pinching the fabric, closing the knot.
Grandmother hands her the linen pack, tins clanging, and says, “Be safe.”
Glowing against the wood of every door, red squares of paper with the character for fortune, fu, in gold. Taped upside down: Fu dao le. Fortune has flipped. Fortune has arrived. Good omens glittering in the cold blue morning like autumn leaves turning and flashing in the wind.
Crickets call, call in the courtyard. Chickens skitter underfoot, losing dun feathers to the red dirt. The long grass rustles against Ya Ya’s trousers as she approaches the main road. Little Hu’s breath warm on her throat. Light returns the mountains to their humming greenness.
Ya Ya and her husband Hu Jinhai grew up in neighboring homes. Sent to milk the cows, they found each other every morning, their shy talk mingling in a sunlit fog. “I didn’t fall in love with you,” she told him later. “I remembered that we were in love in a past life.”
The mountain wedding. The whole village attended. She wore a full red skirt with embroidered roses and a gold fringe that grazed her ankles as they danced to plucked lute strings, struck drumskin. Hu’s face grew flushed from drinking bai ju. Hers too, alive and full of heat.
He had a plan, he said as he released the pearl buttons at her back. He would find work by the sea, and when he was ready he would send for her. In Shanghai, she would live like a princess. Spend her afternoons at the movies, her nights at fine restaurants having sweet tapioca soup for dessert.
Silk blouse peeled back to reveal brown shoulders. She couldn’t make herself believe it.
Hu departed in the bed of a truck full of cabbages and other men. He clung to the raised wooden slats, body swinging like a puppet’s. Loneliness sifted into her. Dust settling on the abandoned road.
He spoke country words. He was dark skin, dark intention. He pulled rickshaws and sold chestnuts in paper bags. Pushed counterfeit bags. L-V, Gucci. Follow me. Four times the cheng guan came, white gloves on the wind, drawing blood from the vendors. He slept on cardboard mats dissolved by rain and gutter water. He ate congee. He went hungry. Followed purses under bridges and let them trot away. He made a friend, a man with skin puckered by fire, who worked at a restaurant on the Bund. He waited tables. He had views of the Huangpu River and cargo boats passing on the yellow water, foreign bankers with yellow hair.
He called home. Ya Ya gave birth to Little Hu on a bamboo mat with Grandmother gripping her hand and Sister urging at her feet.
Soon, he said. Here, the way is lit with neon. Illumined city of glass and steel. Streets and parks and shops alive with people. Ren shan ren hai. People mountain, people sea.
At the train station, Ya Ya waits on a plastic bench. She peels eggs for Little Hu, the fleshy whites marbled from soaking in black tea. He chews silently in reverence for the throngs around him, a spectacle he absorbs with quick, glittering eyes. Singing under her breath, Ya Ya lulls him to sleep in her lap. All sensation drains from her legs.
Returning migrant workers swarm the station at intervals. They tumble out of train cars with burlap bags and old suitcases swinging, the brims of their cloth caps misshapen from nervous folding. Men and women yip and form staggering, four-legged creatures on the platform.
Hu Jinhai’s train comes and goes. She stands on the bench and surveys the platform before a policeman barks. Hands going cold. The world paling. She buys a bag of White Rabbit candy from the snack cart and shares them with Little Hu, who sucks on the sweet nougat and asks where ba ba is.
“He’s coming,” she says. “He’ll be here soon.”
Inhabited by a white fear. She prays the next train will bring him, then the next. In a future life she will gladly be a stone, if in this one she can be his wife.
“That’s enough,” says Ya Ya when Little Hu reaches for another candy, and the child begins to screech.
Grandmother picks up when she calls. “Hui lai ba. Hu Jinhai couldn’t get a train.”
It was going to happen; it has happened. Migrants overwhelming the rails in Shanghai, havoc on the platform. Ya Ya grips the pay phone and watches her son press his cheek against the booth’s plastic walls. She catches him by the jacket collar. She hangs up but doesn’t let him go.
Late night. Ya Ya wipes the dust from their faces and puts Little Hu to bed, pitted by another year alone. How long before time is inconsolable, before his father is a stranger?
She is out by the pen where the pigs lie. Nostrils filling with dark, fecal musk. Moonlight reveals their bristly backs and the brown markings on their skin. Four of them twitch on the ground. Silkworms huffing and grunting in sleep. Ya Ya toes the mud in her blue cloth shoes, the earth soft and pungent below her. O, merciful god that protects this swine. Protect me, too. She places her hand on the warm animal and shuts her eyes.