In a small village in China, the Wang family has produced seven sisters in its quest to have a boy; three of the sisters emerge as the lead characters in this remarkable novel. From the small-town treachery of the village to the slogans of the Cultural Revolution to the harried pace of city life, Bi Feiyu follows the women as they strive to change the course of their destinies and battle against an “infinite ocean of people” in a China that does not truly belong to them. Yumi will use her dignity, Yuxiu her powers of seduction, and Yuyang her ambition—all in an effort to take control of their world, their bodies, and their lives.
Like Dai Sijie’s Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress, Arthur Golden’s Memoirs of a Geisha, and J.G. Ballard’s Empire of the Sun, Three Sisters transports us to and immerses us in a culture we think we know but will understand much more fully by the time we reach the end. Bi’s Moon Opera was praised by the Los Angeles Times, the Minneapolis Star Tribune, and other publications. In one review Lisa See said: “I hope this is the first of many of Bi’s works to come to us.” Three Sisters fulfills that wish, with its irreplaceable portrait of contemporary Chinese life and indelible story of three tragic and sometimes triumphant heroines.
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About the Author
BI FEIYU, winner of the 2010 Man Asian Prize for Three Sisters, is one of the most respected authors and screenwriters in China today. He was born in 1964 in Xinghua, in the province of Jiangsu. A journalist and poet as well as a novelist, he has been awarded a number of literary prizes, including the Lu Xun Prize for 1995–96. He cowrote the film Shanghai Triad, which was directed by the acclaimed Zhang Yimou.
Read an Excerpt
LITTLE EIGHT was barely a month old when Shi Guifang handed him over to her eldest daughter, Yumi. Outside of taking him to her breast several times a day, she showed no interest in her baby. In the normal course of events, a mother would treat her newborn son like a living treasure, cuddling him all day long. But not Shi Guifang. The effects of a monthlong lying-in had been the addition of some excess flab and a spirit of indolence. She seemed to sag, albeit contentedly; but mostly she displayed the sort of relaxed languor that comes with the successful completion of something important.
Shi Guifang savored the guiltless pleasure of leaning lazily against her door frame and nibbling on sunflower seeds. She’d pick a seed out of the palm of one hand, hold it between her thumb and index finger, and slowly bring it up to her mouth, her three remaining fleshy fingers curling under her chin. She demonstrated remarkable sloth, mainly in the way she stood, with one foot on the floor, the other resting on the doorsill. From time to time she switched feet.
People did not mind Shi Guifang’s indolence, but sometimes a lazy person will appear proud, and it was this that people found intolerable. What gave her the right to look so superior when all she did was crack sunflower seeds? She definitely was not the Shi Guifang of earlier days. People had once praised her as a woman who eschewed the usual prideful airs of an official’s wife. She smiled when she talked to them, and when eating made that impossible, she smiled with her eyes. But now, as people thought back over the past decade, they concluded that she had been putting up a front all that time. Embarrassed that she’d had seven girls in a row, she had suppressed her true nature with a show of excessive courtesy. That was then. Now the birth of a son, Little Eight, had given her the right to be haughty; she was as courteous as ever, but there’s courtesy and then there’s courtesy. Shi Guifang typified the amiable, approachable manner of a Party secretary. But her husband was the Party secretary, not she, so what right did Shi Guifang have to be so indolently amiable and approachable?
Second Aunt, who lived at the end of the alley, often came out to rake the grass that was drying in the sun. She sized up Shi Guifang with a sneer: She had to open her legs eight times before a son popped out, Second Aunt said to herself, and now she has the cheek to act like she’s a Party secretary. Shi Guifang had come to Wang Family Village from Shi Family Bridge. During the twenty years she was married to Wang Lianfang she had presented him with seven girls, not counting three miscarriages. She was often heard to say that the three who didn’t make it had probably been boys, since all the signs had been different; even her taste buds had undergone a change. She spoke of her miscarriages as if they were missed opportunities; had she managed to keep just one of them, she’d have carried out her life’s mission.
On one of her trips to town she visited a clinic, where a bespectacled doctor confirmed her suspicions. His scientific explanation would have had the average person scratching his head in bewilderment. But Shi Guifang was smart enough to get the gist of it. Put simply, being pregnant with a boy demands more care, the pregnancy is harder to hold on to, and spotting is unavoidable, even when the woman manages to keep the baby. Shi Guifang sighed at the doctor’s sage words, reminding herself that a boy is a treasure, even in the womb. She was consoled to learn that fate was not keeping her from having a son, which was more or less what the doctor was really saying, and that she must have faith that science also plays a role. But this did little to lessen her feelings of despair. On her way home she stared for a long moment at a snot-nosed little boy on the pier before she tore her eyes away, dejected.
That was not, however, how Wang Lianfang saw things. Having studied dialectics in the county town, Party Secretary Wang knew all about the relationship between internal and external factors, and the difference between an egg and a rock. He had his own irrational understanding of boy and girl babies. To him, women were external factors, like farmland, temperature, and soil condition, while a man’s seed was the essential ingredient. Good seed produced boys; bad seed produced girls. Although he’d never admit it, when he looked at his seven daughters his self-esteem suffered.
A man with wounded self-esteem develops a stubborn streak. By initiating a battle with himself, Wang Lianfang resolved to overcome every obstacle on his way to ultimate victory. He vowed to have a son, if not this year, then the next. If not next year, then the year after; and if not the year after, then the year after that. Not in the least anxious that he might be denied a son to carry on the line, he settled in for a long, drawn-out battle rather than seek a speedy victory. Admittedly, depositing his seed in a woman was not all that difficult.
Shi Guifang, on the other hand, endured considerable dread. During the first few years of their marriage, she’d been fairly resistant to sex. On the eve of her wedding, her sister-in-law had put her lips close to Shi Guifang’s ear—she could feel her hot breath—to admonish her not to open too wide and to cover herself if she desired her husband’s respect and did not want to be thought wanton. In an enigmatic tone that hinted at a broad knowledge of human affairs, her sister-in-law had said, “Remember, Guifang, the harder the bone, the better it is to gnaw.” In fact, Guifang had no use for her sister-in-law’s wisdom. But after several girls in a row, the situation changed dramatically. No longer resistant, no longer coy, Guifang turned fearful. She clamped her legs together and covered herself with her hands. Inevitably, the clamping and covering began to rankle Wang Lianfang, who one night slapped her twice—once forehand and once backhand.
“Who do you think you are?” he had said, angrily. “Not a single boy has popped out of you, and yet you still expect two bowls of rice at every meal.”
Anyone standing beneath the window would have heard every word, and if it got around that she wouldn’t do it, she’d have been ruined. Only an ugly shrew would refuse to do it if all she could manage was girls.
A slap now and then didn’t bother Guifang, but Wang’s shouts made her go limp. When that happened, she could no longer clamp her legs shut or cover herself. Like a clumsy barefoot doctor, Wang would set his jaw as he pulled down her pants and, seconds after entering her, spray his seed into her body. That is what really frightened her, his seed, since every one of those little invaders was capable of turning into a baby girl.
Finally, in 1971, the heavens smiled on them. Shortly after the Lunar New Year, Little Eight was born. It was not a run-of-the-mill Lunar New Year, for the people had been told to turn the celebration into a revolutionary Spring Festival. Firecrackers and games of poker were banned throughout the village, an edict that Wang himself announced over the PA system, though even he was not altogether sure just what a “revolutionary” holiday ought to be. But that did not matter so long as someone in the leadership had the courage to make the announcement; new policy always emerged from the mouth of a member of the leadership. Standing in his living room, Wang held a microphone in one hand and fiddled with the switches on the PA system with the other. Neatly lined up in a row, the little switches were hard, shiny exclamation marks.
“This is to be a Spring Festival that stands for solidarity, vigilance, solemnity, and vivacity,” Wang barked into the microphone, his words like the gleaming exclamation-mark switches he pressed while he spoke: vigilant and solemn, adding a harsh and mighty aura to the cold winds of winter.
With an old overcoat draped over his shoulders and half a Flying Horse cigarette between his fingers, Wang Lianfang went on a holiday inspection of the village on the second day of the new year—a raw, cold day. The lanes and alleys were virtually deserted, with only a few old men and children out, a dreary sight for such an important holiday. Obviously, the younger men had gathered at some secret spot to try their luck at cards. Wang stopped in front of Wang Youqing’s door, where he coughed a time or two and spat out a glob of phlegm. The window curtain parted slowly to reveal the red padded jacket of Wang Youqing’s wife. She glanced at the lane entrance and gestured toward her gate. The house was too dimly lit and her hand had moved too fast for Wang Lianfang to know what that gesture meant, but he turned to look just as the PA system came to life, carrying the voice of his mother, whose shouts were garbled by several missing teeth and a sense of urgency: “Lianfang, hey, Lianfang. It’s a boy. Come home!”
It took Wang Lianfang, who was still looking toward the lane entrance, a few minutes to comprehend what he was hearing. When he turned back to the red jacket in the window, Youqing’s wife, her face resting against the sill, was gazing at him impassively, her shoulders slumped. He thought he saw a trace of resentment on her bewitching face, which was framed by the stand-up collars of her jacket as if it were cupped in the palms of her hands. From the clamorous background emerging from the loudspeaker, Wang could tell that his living room was swarming with people. Someone put on a record, which filled the village with the valiant, sonorous, and rhythmic strains of “The Helmsman Guides the Ocean Journey.”
“Go on home, you,” Youqing’s wife said. “They’re waiting for you.”
Shrugging the old overcoat up over his shoulders, Wang laughed and muttered to himself, “Well, I’ll be damned.”
Yumi ran in and out of the house, her sleeves rolled up to expose arms that had turned purple from the cold. But her cheeks were fiery red, generating an irrepressible glow, a sign that she was trying to suppress both an excitement and a shyness of unknown origin. The strain of mixed emotions had turned her face smooth and shiny. She bit her lip the whole time she was running around, as if she, not her mother, had delivered Little Eight. At long last her mother had a boy, and Yumi could breathe a heartfelt sigh of relief. Happiness took root in her heart. As eldest daughter, Yumi was, for all intents and purposes, more like a sister to her mother. In fact, she had assisted the midwife in the birth of the sixth girl, Yumiao, since certain things were too awkward for an outsider to handle. The arrival of Little Eight constituted the third time she’d watched her mother give birth, and that made her privy to all of a woman’s secrets, a special reward for being the eldest. The second sister, Yusui, was only a year younger than Yumi, and the third girl, Yuxiu, two and a half years. But neither of them could match Yumi’s understanding of the ways of the world or her level of shrewdness. Age among siblings often represents more than just the order of birth; it can also signal differences in the depth and breadth of life experience. Ultimately, maturity requires opportunity; the pace of growth does not rely on the progression of time alone.
Yumi was outside dumping bloody water in the ditch when her father walked through the gate. He assumed that on such a happy occasion his daughter would say something to him or at least glance his way. But she didn’t. She wore only a thin knit top that, because it was a bit on the small side, showed off her full breasts and thin waist. Wang was surprised at the sight of her curves and purple arms; Yumi had grown into a woman.
Yumi normally did not speak to her father, not a word, and he figured that had something to do with what went on between him and other women. Sure, he slept around, but his wife didn’t seem to mind; she even continued to be friendly with those women, some of whom still called her Sister Guifang. But not Yumi. Though she never talked about it openly, she had her way of dealing with the women, something that Wang Lianfang learned later during a little pillow talk. Zhang Fuguang’s wife was the first to let on, several years back, when she was a newlywed. “Yumi knows,” she said, “so we have to be careful.”
“She doesn’t know shit,” Wang replied. “She’s just a kid.”
“She knows. I’m sure of it.”
It was not something Fuguang’s wife had dreamed up. A few days before, she had been sitting under a locust tree with some other women sewing a shoe sole when Yumi walked up. Fuguang’s wife’s face reddened as soon as she spotted Yumi, and, after a quick glance, she looked away to avoid the girl’s eyes. But when she stole another glance, she realized that Yumi was standing in front of her, staring holes in her. Totally calm, totally composed, Yumi sized her up from head to toe and back as if they were the only two people present. Since she was only fourteen at the time, Wang Lianfang refused to believe she knew anything.
But then a few months later, Wang Daren’s wife gave Wang Lianfang a real scare. He had barely climbed on top when she covered her face with her arms and arched upward as if her life depended on it. “Party Secretary, work hard and get it over with quickly.” Unsettled by her plea, he did finish quickly—too quickly. After which Wang Daren’s wife hurriedly cleaned herself without a word. Wang cupped her chin and asked what was wrong. She fell to her knees.
“Yumi will be here any minute to play shuttlecock,” she said. Wang blinked nervously; now he believed the rumors. But back at home he saw innocence in his daughter’s face, and he knew this was a subject he could not bring up. That was the day Yumi had stopped talking to her father, and that hadn’t bothered him—you can’t stop sleeping just because there’s a mosquito in the room. But now that Wang finally had his precious son, Yumi quietly made her existence and its significance known to him; it was an unmistakable signal that she had grown up.
Wang Lianfang’s mother’s lower lip quivered, her arms hung down at her sides. She was so old she could not control her slack lower lip. For women her age, unexpected happy events like this were sheer torture, for they were incapable of showing emotions on faces that seemed forever stiff. Wang’s father, on the other hand, was handling it all quite well, having settled on a dispassionate response. He just puffed slowly on his pipe. He was, after all, the former director of security, a man who had seen a thing or two and knew how to keep his cool, even during happy moments.
“You’re back,” his father said.
“Well, pick a name.”
Having thought about this on the way home, Wang was prepared. “He’s the eighth child, so we’ll call him Wang Balu.”
“Balu, as in ‘Eighth Route Army’? Sounds fine,” the old man said. “But ‘Wang’ and ‘ba’ together mean ‘cuckold.’”
“All right then, we’ll call him Wang Hongbing, ‘Red Army’ Wang.”
The old man said nothing more, typical of a head of household in the old days. They showed approval by silence.
The midwife called for Yumi, so she laid down the basin and hurried into her mother’s bedroom. Wang saw that she’d learned to hold her arms close to her body as she ran, although her braids swung briskly across her back. Over the years, he’d been so focused on fooling around and spreading his seed that he hadn’t paid enough attention to Yumi, who had, it was clear, reached marriageable age.
In fact, the issue of her marriage had never been brought up. Wang Lianfang was, after all, a Party secretary, not just anyone—a fact that many families found intimidating. Even the matchmakers had passed Yumi by. All shrewd matchmakers believed the saying that an emperor’s daughter never had to worry about finding a husband. Given her family background and good looks, Yumi could easily spread her arms and turn them into the wings of a phoenix.
Peasants do not have the luxury of taking winters off, for that’s when they have to work on their equipment after the year’s use. Everything—waterwheels, feed troughs, buckets, farming skiffs, pitchforks, shovels, rakes, flails, and wooden spades—needs attention, some to be repaired, others to be mended, sharpened, or oiled. Nothing can be overlooked or put off. The most taxing job, but also the most urgent, is repairing the irrigation system. Didn’t Chairman Mao himself say that irrigation is the lifeline of agriculture? A peasant himself, the Chairman would have been a formidable farmer if he had not gone off to Beijing. He was also correct in pointing out that water is the first and foremost of the eight principles: water, fertilizer, soil, seed, density, care, labor, and management. Irrigation work usually takes place in the winter, and major repairs are especially hard on the peasants, who wind up more exhausted than when they’re out working in the fields.
There is one more thing that must not be forgotten—the Lunar New Year’s holiday. In order to wrap up the current year and obtain good omens for the year to come, all families—from the laziest to the busiest—need a decent New Year’s holiday. No one is spared from the hard work of washing and scrubbing; frying peanuts, peas, and broad beans; popping rice; dusting; repairing walls; and steaming rice cakes and buns. Pleasurable aromas permeate every house, shrouding them in steam.
Then there are the social obligations that require attention. And so, in the middle of winter, and especially during the last month of the old year and the first month of the new, a time when there is no actual farmwork, the peasants are busier than ever. As the saying goes, “Celebrate in the first month, gamble in the second, and till the fields in the third.” The second lunar month is the farmers’ only free time, days when they visit relatives and try their luck at gambling. They must turn to the land for survival early in the third lunar month, right after Qingming, the tomb-sweeping holiday, which falls on April 5 in the Western calendar. However important or involved other matters may be, the peasants’ livelihood is buried in the ground, and it must be plowed up in the first days of spring if the farmers are to survive another year. City folk like to sing the lament, “Spring days are lamentably short,” but theirs is too refined a view, embellished by sentimentality. For peasants, the meaning of that phrase—twenty or thirty fleeting days—is genuine and literal. Those good days of spring are gone so quickly they leave no time for even the briefest lament.
Yumi scarcely left the house during the second month because she was too busy taking care of Little Eight. No one forced her; she was happy to do it. A girl of few words, she carried out her duties meticulously, especially those involved in looking after the family. Eager to do well in everything, she worked without complaint, tolerated no criticism, and refused to accept the proposition that there could be a better family than hers. And yet, the absence of a male heir had been the subject of gossip swirling around her family. As a girl, she could not make her views on this matter public, though she had been anxious, worried even, for her mother’s sake. But now everything was fine, because with the arrival of Little Eight, people had nothing to talk about. She quickly assumed the care of her brother and took over all her mother’s exhausting duties, carrying them out with quiet, single-minded devotion. Naturally gifted in the business of childcare, she held the baby like a real mother after only a few days, cradling his smooth head in the crook of her arm as she rocked him and hummed lullabies. At first she was a bit shy and performed some of her duties awkwardly. But there are different kinds of shyness; one kind can be upsetting, another kind can be a sign of pride. With Little Eight in her arms, Yumi kept company with the married women of the village, engaging the young mothers in discussions or exchanging ideas on topics such as what to watch out for after burping the baby, the color of the baby’s stool, or the baby’s expressions and what they meant. While these may seem trivial and insignificant, to these women they were important topics of conversation that brought considerable pleasure.
After a while, Yumi stopped looking like a sister caring for her baby brother, and she no longer sounded like one. The proper, steady, and absorbed way she held him put everyone’s mind at ease; she was so tightly bound to the baby that nothing else seemed to matter. In a word, Yumi exuded the air of a young mother, which caused Little Eight to get his kinship wrong, for as long as his belly was full he refused to cling to Shi Guifang. His dark eyes were always fixed on Yumi, and though his focused gaze may not have held any particular meaning, he never let her out of his sight. After gazing down at Little Eight for a while, she too would sometimes slip into a sort of trance for no apparent reason other than a yearning for her own marriage. At moments like that she easily lapsed into daydreams, planning her own future in a vacuum. But she remained single nonetheless.
The village was home to a few passable young men, none of whom she considered to be a good match, who clammed up if she approached when they were talking to other girls. Their eyes darted around in their sockets like startled fish. This always saddened Yumi and made her feel lonely. She believed the old people when they said that a door’s high threshold has its virtues and its vices. Several of the girls her age who had been spoken for would sneak around cutting out shoe soles for their future husbands, and when Yumi spotted them doing this, instead of laughing at them, she’d steal a glance at the size of the soles and guess the boy’s height. She couldn’t help it. Fortunately, the girls never gloated in front of her; in fact, they felt inferior.
“This is the best we can do,” they’d say. “Who knows what grand family Yumi will find.”
Encouraging talk like that secretly reinforced Yumi’s belief that she was slated to have a brighter future than any of them. But when nothing came of it, her happiness seemed like a bamboo basket: Its holes were revealed when it was taken out of the water. At such times, strands of sadness would inevitably wrap themselves around her heart. Fortunately, Yumi was not overly anxious; these were only idle thoughts. Such thoughts are sometimes bitter and sometimes sweet.
Yumi’s mother grew lazier by the day. The physical toll of childbirth had undeniably affected her vitality. But it was one thing to hand Little Eight over to Yumi, and yet another to turn the whole household over to her. What does a woman live for anyway? Isn’t it to run a household? If she shuns even the authority to do that, what besides a rotten egg with a watery yolk is she? But there were no complaints from Yumi, who was content with the way things were. When a girl learns to care for a baby and take charge of a household, she can wake up that first morning after her wedding day fully prepared to be a competent wife and a good daughter-in-law, someone who need not be in constant fear of what her mother-in-law thinks. There was another reason Yumi liked the new arrangement: her sisters—Yusui, Yuxiu, Yuying, Yuye, Yumiao, and Yuyang—had never before bowed to her authority, though they all called her eldest sister. The second girl, Yusui, was slightly simpleminded, so there was no need to worry about her. The key figure was number three, Yuxiu, who had carved out her own territory at home and in the village, employing her intelligence and her native ability to please people. And there was more: Yuxiu, who had large, double-fold eyes, fair skin, and a pretty face, could be cunning when she needed to be. Even a minor slight might send her into their father’s arms to pout. Yumi could never bring herself to do that, which was why their father favored Yuxiu. But now everything had changed. Yumi not only took care of Little Eight, she had also been given charge of the household and had assumed the responsibility for keeping her sisters in line. This would not have been the case if their mother had not relinquished her authority; but now that she had, Yumi, as the eldest, was in charge. That’s the way it always is.
The first sign of Yumi’s authority surfaced at the lunch table one day. Yumi did not possess innate authority, but authority is something you can take in your hand and squeeze till it sweats and sprouts five fingers that can be balled into a fist. Their father had gone to a meeting at the commune, and the fact that she chose this moment to strike showed how shrewd Yumi was. That morning she had fried a new batch of sunflower seeds for their mother and, just before lunch, had fetched water to wash the dishes. She worked quietly, but a well laid-out plan had formed in her head. At mealtimes there were always so many people around the table that their mother had to keep after everyone to eat or the meal would drag on forever, making it impossible to clear the table. Squabbles inevitably resulted. Having made up her mind to follow her mother’s example, Yumi decided that the lunch table was where it would all start. And so it did. With a glance at Shi Guifang, she said, “Hurry up, Mother. I fried some sunflower seeds and put them in the cupboard.” Then she tapped her chopsticks against her rice bowl and shouted, “Come on, girls, eat up so I can do the dishes. Hurry up and finish your rice.” That was how their mother had always done it—tap on the rice bowl and shout at the girls. Yumi’s urging produced results and the speed picked up around the table. But not for Yuxiu, who actually began chewing more slowly—damned haughty and damned pretty. Taking her seventh sister, Yuyang, in her arms and picking up the little girl’s rice bowl, Yumi began feeding her. After spooning in a few mouthfuls, she said, “Are you planning to do the dishes, Yuxiu?” She neither looked up nor raised her voice, but the implied threat was unmistakable.
Yuxiu stopped chewing and put down her rice bowl. “I’m waiting for Father.”
No reaction from Yumi, who finished feeding Yuyang and started clearing the table. When she came to Yuxiu she picked up her sister’s rice bowl and dumped the contents into the dog’s bowl. Yuxiu backed away against the bedroom door and eyed Yumi without a word. The haughty look remained, but the younger sisters could tell that something was different somehow, and that Yuxiu wasn’t nearly as pretty as before.
Rather than wage open warfare with Yumi at the dinner table that night, Yuxiu simply refused to speak to her. But Yumi had only to note how quickly Yuxiu was eating her congee to get a sense of what her sister was up to. Yuxiu, of course, was not about to submit easily, so she began acting up, tangling her chopsticks with those of the fourth girl, Yuying. Knowing what was going on, Yumi ignored her. Acting up like that, she knew, was a sign of desperation; Yuxiu was losing steam and needed to vent her frustration. Yuying smacked Yuxiu’s chopsticks out of her hand and onto the floor, refusing to be bullied by her older sister. Calmly, Yumi laid down her bowl, picked up Yuxiu’s chopsticks, and stirred them in her own congee to clean them before handing them back. Then she gently scolded Yuying: “Yuying, don’t fight with your third sister.” By referring to Yuxiu as third sister in front of the others she underscored the family’s prized hierarchy. Now that Yuxiu was pacified, she looked pretty again. Someone had to be blamed for the incident, and that someone was Yuying, even though Yumi knew it was not her fault. But someone had to suffer an injustice to achieve a balance between two contending forces.
Yumi noticed out of the corner of her eye that Yuxiu was the first to finish her dinner. This time the cunning sister, the fox spirit, had lost her bluster. Fox spirits are known for running wild, but they have their failings. One, they’re lazy, and two, they tend to pick on those weaker than they. All fox spirits are like that. If someone can tolerate those two attributes, foxes are easy to keep in line. Yumi only wanted her sister to obey her once; if she did, she’d do it again and then again. After three times, obedience would become second nature. The first time was the key. Authority is achieved when others obey you, and it manifests itself in a demand for obedience. Having vanquished Yuxiu, Yumi knew that she was now in charge of the household, an awareness that delighted her as she did the dishes. Naturally, she did not show it. Transferring what is in your heart to your face is a recipe for disaster.
Yumi had lost a lot of weight by the time the second lunar month, solar March, rolled around, and she roamed the village with Wang Hongbing in her arms. She would never call him Little Eight in front of anyone but her family; she always called him Wang Hongbing in public. Village boys normally did not hear their given names except from their teachers. But Yumi called her toothless little baby brother by his full name, investing him with a serious, more formal aura, thus distinguishing him from the sons of other families and placing him above all others. With the baby in her arms, she talked and looked like a seasoned mother, something she had learned from the young mothers on the streets, in the fields, and on the threshing ground. It was not something she came to instinctively; being highly focused, she made sure she perfected anything new before actually putting it into practice. And though she was still young, she differed from the chatty, sometimes sloppy young mothers she met, and she always looked good with her little brother in her arms. She had her own style, her unique inventions. The way she cared for the baby impressed the village women. But what they focused on was not how capably she carried her brother; rather they talked about how precocious she was and what a good girl she’d turned out to be.
But then the village women detected something new as Yumi carried Wang Hongbing around the village. Something that went beyond just caring for the baby, something far more significant. As she chatted with the village women, she’d casually take Hongbing over to the houses of the women who had slept with her father. Once there, she’d stand outside the door for a long time. This was a way to win back her mother’s dignity. But Fuguang’s wife was oblivious to Yumi’s hidden purpose when the girl showed up at her door one day. Without thinking, she reached out to take the baby from Yumi, even referring to herself as aunty.
“Here, let aunty hold you. How would that be?” she asked.
Yumi kept chatting with the others, treating Fuguang’s wife as if she weren’t there, all the while tightening her grip on her brother. After two failed attempts to take the baby, Fuguang’s wife realized that Yumi would not loosen her hold. But with all those people standing around in front of her house, the humiliation was intolerable. So she brought little Hongbing’s hand up to her lips as if it smelled wonderful and tasted even better. Snatching the little hand away from the woman, Yumi licked every finger clean and spat at Fuguang’s door before turning to scold Hongbing: “How filthy!” Hongbing laughed so hard his gums showed. Fuguang’s wife paled with shock. She could say nothing, nor could the other women, who all knew Yumi’s intentions.
Yumi stood in front of one door after another, exposing and warning the women inside, sparing none of them. The mere sight of her threw a fright into anyone who had slept with Wang Lianfang, and her silent accusations were more terrifying than condemnations broadcast over a loudspeaker. Without saying a word, she exposed the women’s transgressions little by little and subjected them to terrible humiliation. This proved to be a particularly satisfying and ambitious feat in the eyes of the guiltless women, who were now jealous of Shi Guifang for having such a remarkable daughter. Back home, they scolded their children with more severity than usual, railing against them for being “useless things.”
“Just look at Yumi,” they exclaimed.
They weren’t worried that their children would overlook Yumi’s qualities, but that they would never match up. Also implied in this simple comment was the serious and urgent business of setting up a model for proper living. The village women’s admiration of Yumi grew and grew; on their way home from work or walking down to the pier, they would crowd around her to coddle Wang Hongbing. When they were done, they’d say, “I wonder which lucky woman will get Yumi for a daughter-in-law.” Expressing envy of a nonexistent lucky woman was a roundabout way of flattering Yumi. Since modesty dictated that she not respond, Yumi merely sneaked a look up into the sky, the tip of her nose glowing.
But Yumi was about to be married, and the women were still in the dark. Where did her future in-laws live? As far away as the edge of the sky, yet right in front of their eyes. Peng Family Village, which was about seven li away. And what about “him”? That was just the reverse: right in front of their eyes, yet as far away as the edge of the sky. This was not something Yumi was going to make public.
After the Spring Festival, Wang Lianfang had one more thing to do, and he sought help every time he went to a meeting—Yumi needed a husband. As the girl got older, it became less and less feasible for her to stay in the village. Though anxiety weighed on him, Wang told himself that his daughter must not become just anyone’s wife. Marrying beneath her station would not serve her well; but more important, this would make her parents lose face. Wang hoped to find a match with a young man from an official’s family, one that was naturally powerful and influential. Each time he found a suitable match in a neighboring village, he told Guifang to talk to Yumi, who reacted with bland indifference. Wang could sense that with a father like him, Yumi, a proud and clever girl, had little faith in any man from an official’s family. In the end, it was Secretary Peng from Peng Family Village who suggested the third son of a barrel maker in his village, which nearly ended the conversation, for Wang knew that the “third son” of a “barrel maker” could not possibly amount to much.
“He’s the young man who qualified as an aviator a couple of years ago. There are only four in the county,” Secretary Peng explained. Wang bit down on his lip and made a sucking sound, for that changed everything. With an aviator for a son-in-law it would be as if he himself had flown in an airplane, and whenever he took a piss it would be like a day’s rain. So he handed Yumi’s picture to Peng, who took one look and said, “She’s a real beauty.”
“Actually, the prettiest one is my third daughter,” Wang replied, which elicited a silent laugh from Peng.
“Your third daughter is too young.”
The barrel maker’s third son sent a response, along with his photo, to Secretary Peng, who forwarded them to Wang Lianfang, who then passed them on to his wife; and they ultimately came to rest snugly under Yumi’s pillow. The young man was called Peng Guoliang, a name that made him a true standout. Why? Because Guoliang, which means “pillar of the state,” was appropriate for an aviator. Like a pillar, he was anchored to the ground, but his head was in the sky. An uncommon name. He was not particularly good-looking, at least not in the photo. On the skinny side, he seemed older than his age. He had single-fold eyes with heavy lids and a pronounced squint. They did not appear to be eyes that could find their way home from up in the clouds. His lips were pressed tightly together, too tightly, in fact, for that highlighted his overbite, which was clearly visible even in the frontal shot. But he had posed for the photograph in full uniform at the airfield, which gave him a military air that the average person could not easily envision. The Silver Hawk airplane beside him stirred the imagination further. Despite the deficiencies in Peng Guoliang’s looks, Yumi suffered a loss of pride; her self-esteem tumbled for no obvious reason as she sensed her own inadequacy. The man was, after all, someone who traveled between heaven and earth.
Yumi wished the match could be settled right away.
In his letter Peng Guoliang gave his address, including his unit, a clear indication to Yumi that her response would determine the future course of her life. This was important, and she knew she had to proceed with care. Her first thought was to have a few more photographs taken in town, but she changed her mind when she realized that he must have been happy enough with her looks to send a letter to Secretary Peng. There was no need to do anything more.
The issue now was her letter. Peng Guoliang had been somewhat vague in his, not boastful but certainly not modest. He emphasized only that he “had strong feelings” for his “hometown” and that when he was in his airplane all he wanted to do was “fly back home to be with the people there.” The most revealing line was his positive reaction to -Uncle Peng’s suggestion. He wrote that he “would place absolute trust” in “any person Uncle Peng liked.” But he hadn’t stated outright that Yumi was the woman for him. Which meant that she had to skirt the issue as well; being too obvious indicated a lack of class, and that would never do. On the other hand, it would be worse to be overly vague; if he felt she was uninterested, the match would be lost and unsalvageable. Peng Guoliang seemed to be right in front of her eyes, yet truly he was as far away as the edge of the sky. The distance satisfied Yumi’s ego, and yet it brought her sorrow as well.
After much thought, Yumi decided to write a restrained letter. Following a brief and properly worded introduction, she altered her tone.
I definitely am no match [for you]. You fly high in the sky and only a fair[y] woman could be a match [for you]. I am not as good as the fair[y] women, nor am I as good-looking.
Her dignity remained intact, since it was natural for a girl to say she was not as pretty as a fairy. She ended the letter.
Now I look up into the sky every day and every night. The sky is always the same, with only the sun during the day and only the moon at night.
At that point the letter took on a sentimental tone. Somehow, an emotional attachment was building inside her, concrete but hard to pinpoint, persistent and tormenting. As she read what she had written, she began to weep silently; she couldn’t help it, for she felt deeply aggrieved, since none of this was what she really wanted to say. She desperately wanted to tell Peng how happy she was about the match. How wonderful it would be if someone could say that to him for her, to let him know how she felt. She sealed and posted the letter, though she was careful to give the return address as: “Wang Family Village Elementary School, care of Miss Gao Suqin.” Yumi was visibly thinner by the time the letter was on its way.