By Mao Dun
translated by John Berninghausen
It was just turning light to the east when the whistle on that small steamer delivered up its hooting blasts as it came up the narrow river just beyond that village. For five or six years now small inland steamers had been plying this river and the two large waves that curled out in the wake of these river craft to crash resoundingly against the earthen dikes built to protect their rice paddies had brought anguished cries from the local people. Year before last, during high-water season, the river steamer had malevolently hurtled past them at full throttle. Then it had seemed that the water dragon had been roused what with the three- or four-foot waves that swept over their dikes to flood their fields.
It was this which led the villagers hereabouts to fly into a rage everytime they had heard that boat's steam whistle. During high-water season, they had thought up every possible way of preventing that steamer from using this stretch of river. First they walked several miles just to raise a stink at the local office of the Inland Navigation Bureau. There they had been told by someone that they should take a petition to the district government office located in the big market town quite a distance farther away but it had not done any good. After that experience, they resorted to direct action. Mobilizing all fifty to sixty men in the village, they had waited for that steamer to come by and when it did they let loose with a barrage of stones and dirt clods. Hooting like crazy, the steamer beat a hasty retreat. Sure enough, they did not hear the steam whistle's eerie cry all the next day. But the following day, someone was sent out from the district government's office to warn their village of severe punishment for anyone engaging in acts of violence. On the day after that, there it came, chugging up the river, but this time there were guards standing on deck, rifles held at the ready. Naturally the country people well understood that bullets have it all over stones. Add to this the fact that the district government was ready to have people arrested, there was nothing for it but to swallow their anger and rebuild their earthen embankments day after day.
However things were different this year. The steamer had changed its schedule and now it chugged past at dawn, just at the right time to wake them from their slumbers. The boat itself was a smaller one, a very nifty little craft that was called something like "diesel boat." Due to an unseasonably early drought, the river was shallow and only this diminutive boat was able to thread its way up and down the river. Not that the villagers gave a damn, but it also happened to be true that business for the steamer company was down, consequently even the cargo space in the hold of this small vessel was most likely empty. Be that as it may, the little river steamer did come past just at daybreak and the hooting of its whistle was a providential substitute for the cocks that had once crowed there to announce the coming of each new day. To these villagers, who had been living on pumpkins and taro roots since the beginning of spring and who had long since sold off the last of their poultry, the sound of this whistle they had always hated before was now actually of some use.
The sky appeared a bit hazy as no breeze stirred the air. That ear-splitting hoot from the whistle fell upon the village and as if having taken a tumble, rolled into every nook and cranny. Like a heavy great millstone, its reverberations ground and grated the souls of sleeping villagers.
In a cramped and squat little house at the east end of the village flickered some candlelight. An inch and a half of white candle stub as big around as a large copper coin was silently shedding its waxen tears. At the very first blast of the whistle, Wang the Eldest, resident of this squat little dwelling, had leapt up from his bed like a man struck by a stick. He was now hurriedly tying up a small bundle by the light of the candle. Were it not for their desperate sense of urgency, how could Wang and his wife have been willing to burn this precious candle? This treasure had been brought back by Wang the Eldest from the house in the big town where he had gone to help out for three days with the work connected with a funeral for which he had received free meals. Although there had been no wages gained from that piece of temporary work, yet he had been able to fill his belly and this was so noteworthy that the other villagers spoke of it often, even now marveling with no little envy at Wang's good fortune in finding such work, to say nothing of his having brought back such a big thick candle to boot! But it had been three months since that time and the same stomach that Wang had stuffed to the bursting point during those three days working for the bereaved family had long since shriveled up with hunger. Yesterday they had consumed the last remaining pumpkin and taro root. Now he was bundling up several pieces of worn clothing with the notion of taking them to the pawnshop in the big town.
"Take this as well!" said Wang the Eldest's wife dolefully, throwing him a semi-new quilted jacket of homespun cloth.
"This too? What'll you wear?" As Wang answered, he picked up the fairly new quilted jacket and just held it, unable to decide what to do.
"Ai!" was all the woman sighed while hunching up her shoulders in a gesture of helplessness and waving the garment away.
Reluctantly, Wang the Eldest untied the bundle and went through the little stack of used clothes it contained one by one, his fingers trembling uncontrollably as he did so. Each one of these pieces of clothing had its own individual sad story. The blood stains, for instance, on this blue jacket with a lining had been acquired that time last year when he had gone with the other villagers to raise a fuss at the office of the Inland Navigation Bureau and somebody's fist had bloodied his nose for him. Then there were these women's trousers of printed fabric which his wife had begged off the woman for whom she had gone to be a wet-nurse the year before last--in hopes of earning a little money to help out with their expenses and repayment of their debts, his wife had hardened her heart to drown their newborn second daughter at that time-- whenever she saw these trousers of printed fabric, she still could not help shedding tears. Besides these garments, there was that pair of quilted trousers soft as silk which they had stripped from the corpse of their thirteen-year-old daughter,