By Zhou Li-bo
translated by Joe Huang
The day after the Mid-Autumn Festival, just as the dongnian* turned a ripe yellow and the tea plants were in blossom, a guest arrived in the home of Wang Gui-xiang, a production team leader and Communist Party member. This was soon known to everyone in the team and aroused great interest among them. The old men who no longer went out to work in the field, the women and the children all came by in droves to take a look. The kids were the most dedicated. They hung on the windowsills or thronged at the door, curiously studying the stranger from another village and softly offering their observations. One lad, after standing at the door for a while, walked away, declaring with indifference:
"What's there to look at? The eyes are horizontal and the nose vertical just about the same as anyone else."
People were still watching, some making comments on the guest's looks and behavior and others scrutinizing a flower-painted, oil-paper umbrella she was carrying with her.
The guest, a girl of about eighteen or nineteen, was now sitting on a broad red-lacquered stool in Mother Wang's room. She was dressed in a red jacket printed with small white flowers and blue trousers. This outfit was very becoming, revealing her slim, well-shaped figure. She wore a pair of small blue canvas shoes. Her hair was held with a black clip on each side, and trimmed into loose bangs to cover her high forehead. Seeing so many people outside the window and the door, she casually flung back her long glossy black plait, a smile lighting up her comely face.
"Girls nowadays are really something," an old woman outside the window commented in a low voice. No one knew whether she intended this as praise or criticism.
"So self-assured and unabashed." Sister Guo, the next-door neighbor, was favorably impressed by the girl.
"Too unabashed! In the old days an unmarried girl was not ever supposed to be seen by her future in-laws before the wedding," the first old woman quietly retorted.
"Not supposed to be seen? But what if someone were matching you up with a pockmarked girl?" a boy was quick to ask.
"Then," replied the old woman, "you'd have nothing but your own fate to blame."
"Here comes the team leader." Sister Guo looked in the direction of the threshing ground.
Everyone turned round to see a lean, middle-aged man, a hoe on his shoulder, coming unhurriedly from the threshing ground. He wore his workaday old blue clothes. His pants, although neatly rolled up to the knee, were amply dotted with mud splatters.
"Team leader Wang," a little boy rushed to deliver the message, "you've got company."
"Your daughter-in-law's here," added another.
"You're lucky, team leader," said Sister Guo, "your daughter-in-law is clever, friendly, just smiling all the time."
"By the same token, if the daughter-in-law should happen not to smile, this means the father-in-law is ill-fated, right?" asked one impish boy among the youthful crowd.
"You little devil, you always love to play games with what others say," Sister Guo shot back at him, "just see if I don't go tell your mother!"
The team leader grinned and entered his house with the hoe still on his shoulder. As he was putting down the hoe, he heard a feminine voice clearly calling "Hello, father." He turned round to see a face, its attractive contours like that of the melon seed, beaming at him. He was going to answer but did not know just what he should say, then somebody was throwing a new blue tunic over his shoulders.
"Change into this," his wife, Mother Wang, urged him from behind.
"What for?" Wang Gui-xiang was by nature a modest man, and felt more at home in his old clothes. He often said, "New clothes make you uncomfortable."
Mother Wang faced him, signalling to him by means of a quick glance in the direction of the guest. Getting the message, he could do nothing but put on the new tunic. When he had finished buttoning it up, he grinned at the girl, trying to say something to bid her welcome but unable to think of some appropriate words. While he was absorbed in this effort, somebody outside the paper window inquired:
"Is the team leader home?"
"Yes," he answered and rushed out, feeling quite relieved at being rescued from his predicament.
"Do you know where the broad-bean seedling bed is?" asked the man outside the window.
"The seedling bed is at the outskirts of the village," the team leader answered, "I'll go with you to take a look."
"No, you've got a guest today, you shouldn't leave."
"No, I must go have a look." As always, team leader Wang never forgot his responsibility.
Inside, Mother Wang opened the red-lacquered chest with an award certificate pasted on its cover, took out two new blue tunics and put them on a square stool next to the bed, and then went back to the kitchen to get down to her cooking. The onlookers gradually dispersed. Sister Guo stayed behind, just in case Mother Wang would be unable to cope____________________