by Minglu Zeng
A Descendant of Emperor Shang Tang’ is translated from Chinese to English by Dajian Wang
Shang Jing went over again to turn on the tap — this was his tenth try within thirty minutes
—, and this time, there wasn’t even the gurgling sound in the pipe. “Damn it, damn it!” his voice sounded husky when squeezed out from between his quivering parched lips. For several weeks, the city only gave water on every third day, and the amount was cut less and less with constantly shortened supply time.
Shang Jing felt that itch again that had developed on his back and refused to go away due to the droughty weather; it was a spot that his own hands were unable to reach. He held his breath when he passed the bathroom, because the toilet, which got flushed only once or twice a day, was giving off a terribly sickening odor.
At this moment, what did he miss the most? Did he miss Shasha, his high school sweet heart? No, he was not in the mood. Or did he think of the first pay check he had received? That was irrelevant. He did not even miss his favorite pie, which his mother would sometimes prepare with air-dried mean curd chips and green onions cooked in veggie oil. At this moment, all he missed, or desired, was a day of rain. He normally disliked rainy weather, particularly when he was driving on the freeway. On the freeway, even a sprinkle of shower would spread a blanket of mist over the landscape. “How come it always rains while I am driving on the highway?” he would ask, not knowing whom he was asking. “Why can’t it hold the rain till I am home?”
He would keep grumbling like that.
It had been five years up to that day; for five years, not a single drop of rain had befallen this city with a name of ‘Rainbow’. The city government had once coordinated efforts with the adjacent municipal districts to find water supplies from there. But those efforts had not gone far, as the other districts soon encountered droughts in their own areas and had to look after their own needs in the first place. Since the end of the second year after the last rainfall on Rainbow, Shang Jing had turned to miss the dear old days when there had been rain. Whenever a rain came, it would start with a strong wind gust; gradually the wind would die away, leaving behind a fuzzy mosaic of trees and roads, buildings and landmarks, the surrounding plains and hills; when the rain finally came to a full stop, one could still see and hear the rainwater dripping and dwindling from the roofs and eaves . . . .
As if one woe was not enough, there came another. While the city of Rainbow was literally waiting for a raindrop in a drought, what did begin to drop was the supply of gas. As a result, the gas prices soared, even higher than those of the most expensive cosmetic creams that only the movie stars could afford to use.
Shang Jing went into the garage and took a bucket of gas out of it. He had stored several buckets of gas before the gas panic on the streets. That was one of the goods he had stored for which he was rather pleased with himself. He was pleased because that showed not only his prophetic vision but also his ability to actually store gas. In fact, he had made those iron buckets himself, which were not available on the market.
Shang Jing coughed when he barely came out of the garage door. According to the doctor, he was born with some minor problems in his lungs, and that was why he would habitually cough in dry weather. He inclined to accept the doctor’s explanations rather than his mother’s. Not long before, his mother who lived in China had e-mailed him a letter, trying to impose on him her own idea that Shang Jing should get married sooner. “So to balance your yin and yang in your system,” reasoned the mother. “Your yang has overdeveloped and tipped off the balance, how can you avoid those health problems?” Shang Jing came from China, but he had never trusted the rationale and practice of yin yang and feng shui.
He passed several households: Tony’s, Mr. Chen’s, Jack’s, all of whom he had talked to the day before and asked whether he could trade a bucket of gas for a bucket of water. “I still have some gas,” replied Tony in a muffled guttural voice. He had lost his job as his company temporarily closed down, because the drought had added to its accumulating costs.
Mr. Chen lived next to Tony. He was a short little man and immigrated to the states from Hong Kong several decades before. When Shang Jing walked up to him, Mr. Chen was putting up a wire fence around his small yard. The yard was on a higher terrace where a kumquat tree grew. Despite the rainless period, the tree still managed to bear a few tiny kumquats. At that point, Mr. Chen was swinging a hammer on the top of a post, trying to drive it into the ground. The new wire fence was forming a defensive circle around the kumquat tree.
“Hi, Mr. Chen,” Shang Jing started to engage Chen’s attention. He looked up at the kumquats and continued in a slightly envious tone, “You’re lucky to have those fruit to quench your thirst.” But Mr. Chen merely responded with a stiff nod.
Shang Jing tottered up the steps of the terrace. With some effort, he lifted the bucket of gas in front of Mr. Chen. “See, if you have another bucketful of gas, you can afford to drive back to Home Depot to buy more stuff for your fence. Can I trade this for some water, please? I need water for dermatologically required moistening, and I am suffering from such a burning sore in the throat.”
“If you talked less, you would save some of your saliva,” said Mr. Chen stolidly, waving him away.
At Jack’s, Shang Jing was simply ignored. “Jack, I have an acute sore in the throat, please spare me half a bucket of water. You can have this whole bucket of gas,” he repeated the words to make sure that they had been heard.
“Bang!” Jack simply slammed the door on him.
On the other side of Jack’s house lived a widow, whose name was Maria. Shang Jing had skipped her place the day before. Now he hesitated for a moment and then went on to press the doorbell. The door opened. “Maria, I wonder . . .” he faltered and swallowed the rest of his words — he noticed Maria’s tightly knitted brows and sensed the sniffs from her nostrils. He began to blush, realizing he had not taken a shower for four days in a row. He must be stinky enough to knock someone off!
Shang Jing dragged his feet on with the bucket of gas in his hand. As he was passing the empty house that had been on sale for a while, he wondered who the occupants were of that house further up the street. He decided to try his luck. When he reached the doorway, he laid down the bucket on the ground. It was then he felt the ache in his wrist and hand, which had been carrying that bucket for so far and so long. He knocked on the door and waited. After a few seconds, the door creaked ajar and a stalwart man was standing behind it. The man had bristly cheeks and chin, and a mess of darkish brown hairs, giving the stereotypical impression of an adult male from the Middle East. The man did not say a word but his eyes unmistakably stared the question at Shang Jing: “What do you want?”
“I live in that yellow house down there,” Shang Jing pointed his still shaky forefinger
to his house sitting about 30 yards down the street and asked, “I would like to . . . could
I trade this bucket of gas to you, for half this much water?”
The stalwart man poked his arm from behind the door at the lawn in front of the house and retorted, “Can’t you see all the flowers and plants are gone? You don’t drink gas, do you?”
Who said anything about drinking gas? Shang Jing lifted the bucket, whose content was not even worth half that much water, and walked back home the way he had left it earlier. The sore was like a burn in his throat. He knew there was still a small bottle of life-saving water in a corner, but that was for the absolutely critical moment, so he would not touch it. A rumor went that there would be an earthquake anytime, so the bottle of water and several jars of canned food had been reserved for the absolute life-threatening situation. He went up to the water tap again, but he knew even without turning it that no water would come out.
Suddenly, a thought crossed his mind. Shang Jing grabbed a chair, placed it under the cupboard, and got to stand on it. He opened the cupboard and stretched his neck to look inside the top space . . . . Sure enough, that small box of desiccated sour plums, which he had once bought and placed there, was still there. Wow, his memory had not cheated him this time. He took the box out and blew off the dust it had collected on its top.
He then sat down at the kitchen table and opened the box with ritualistic deliberation. While looking at the desiccated sour plums, he did not feel any taste inside his mouth. He bent over and smelled them. Bingo! His jaws gave a little quiver and his gums responded to a point when saliva began to ooze out. He smelled the plums a second time, and then a third . . . . Soon there was enough saliva for a hearty swallow which soothed the sense of the burn in his throat.
Just like Tony had lost his job, Shang Jing was also temporarily between jobs, hence temporarily without income. It would be a consequential matter when life was normal — when the water supply was normal — how could one survive without income? But now, it didn’t seem to matter that much, since income wouldn’t buy the life-saving water. Fortunately, for some reason or other, he had bought that box of dried sour plums, and it was undeniably another indication of his prevision for the need. Yet, it did not matter whether that was a prophetic act or not; the key was he must obtain some water.
That night, Shang Jing still did not bathe himself, as he did not have the water for it. He had been busy all day long for nothing but fatigue. He got on to bed, covered his head with a blanket, and soon fell asleep. About midnight, he woke up abruptly. He swallowed as a reflex and felt the sore in the throat. He got out of bed without knowing why, threw a jacket over his shoulders, and walked into his backyard. It was nippy and so quiet that not even a buzz of an insect could be heard. The lamp on the glass door flickered on in response to his stepping there and, almost simultaneously, his eyes flickered as well, for he discerned a few red dots on that berry tree! Those small red balls were named bayberries and were edible. He had learned about the fact from a botanic garden a few years before. Now these few berries were priceless treasures! He would not have to envy Mr. Chen his kumquats that much. Actually, he even enjoyed the advantage of having the tree right within his backyard, so he did not have to bother for building a wire fence around it.
Shang Jing got on tiptoes to reach the red berries and picked one of them. He gently breathed on it and placed it inside his mouth. M–mm, a cool and soothing taste penetrated directly to his lungs! That was a rare moment when he temporarily relaxed his cheeks. He decided to leave the remaining berries for the next day. So he went back to his bed room and lay down again.
The next dawn, Shang Jing woke up and, without waiting even a second, hurried to the
backyard, only to find the berries were gone! Those round red berries could not be found anywhere. What had happened? Was it those damn crows or squirrels who had grabbed them?
How he regretted for his inexcusable inaction to collect those precious gold nuggets at night!
The sore of his throat began to intensify. He opened his mouth wide to the sky, which was but a mass of dehumidified air, without even a whiff of moisture.
“Water is coming!” Someone shouted somewhere near the house. Shang Jing turned on his heels and, like a race horse whipped in the thigh, dashed inside.
Yeah, he heard the sound of the water coming. His body began to itch in reflex. He stripped himself in a second and jumped into the bathtub. It could be that all the taps of the city were turned on at the same time that water only came out in a thin drip. He plugged the drain hole at the bottom of the bathtub to save his bath water for flushing the toilet.
Shang Jing finished his bath-shower in a shortest possible time he could manage. He then stepped out of the tub and took an empty bucket, still all wet and barefoot, to get drinking water in the kitchen. Within less than an hour, he had obtained his water preserve for three days.
What disappointed him was that he had four buckets of water during the supply hour three days before, but this time the drip reduced sooner to a dwindle, then to drops, then to just the gurgles, then to nothing. “Please, don’t stop on me. Please Lord . . .” Despite his prayer, the tap refused to spit any more water when the third bucket only filled up to sevenfold of its capacity.
Shang Jing cooked rice enough for three days’ use, but he did not feel like eating any. There came the bell tolls from the nearby church, as if reminding the residents in Rainbow that it was another Sunday. He had never been to the church, but somehow he became curious about that cross on the roof of the church building.
From the closet, Shang Jing took his grey suit which he had not worn for quite a while
—his company dress-code did not require that the employees must wear a suit and tie while on the floor. He put the suit on, flipped the little dust off the suit, got into his brown snickers, and walked out.
The church was quite near his house, so he decided to take a walk there.
At the church, Shang Jing was astonished to find that there was no worship service on this Sunday. There were only three people there when he entered the building — the deacon, the priest, and a lady sitting next to the priest. She was holding a copy of the Bible. According to the deacon, the folks had not, and would not, come to the church for worship due to the drought and shortage of gas.
“Lisa is an exception,” responded the priest and turned his head to the lady.
Lisa came on foot, and the deacon and the priest came on bike.
“Father, the weather has been so dry and we are dying of thirst. Please pray for God to produce some rain to save us,” Shang Jing said sincerely to the priest.
The priest shook his head and replied, “I don’t pray anymore. It’s no use praying. God is bent to take everything back. The world is coming to its end.”
“Jesus Christ is coming soon, and we’re waiting for him to bring us to the heaven,” added the deacon.
Shang Jing was very disappointed. He walked out of the church and sat on a tree stump he saw.
Lisa came over and asked in a soft voice, “Shall I read you a few lines from the Bible?”
“The Bible?” Shang Jing had never read the Bible but nodded “ok”, seeing the earnest look on her face.
“Where were you when I laid the earth’s foundation?” Lisa began to read aloud. “The life
of mortals is like grass… the wind blows over it and it is gone…”
“God opposes the proud，but shows favor to the humble.”
“All these are from the Bible?” asked Shang Jing. He seemed to have sensed something in those lines but unable to pin down what it was. He noticed the many marks Lisa had made on the pages.
“Yeah, in the future, please come to the church often and I’ll read you more,” answered Lisa.
Future? Shang Jing tittered at heart. He looked up at the sky, which was yellowish grey. Was it true that the world was indeed coming to an end? But he did not want to die yet. How could that be true when he still wanted to live his life? He could not comprehend it, nor could he afford the energy and time to think it over.
As he stepped on to the scorched lawn in his own yard, he heard an unexpected “thud”, as if something had dropped from the air. He walked up to find that it was a little dead bird.
Within a second, he burst into a rage. He poked his fists to the sky and shouted, “God, what are you doing up there? Why don’t you just drop a bomb to nuke us all in seconds, rather than torture us to death by degrees of thirst? What kind of fair-play is this, divine or inhuman?”
His shouts fell to dead silence, where even a breath of breeze was not felt.
Shang Jing broke out in another fit of coughs, which was so uncontrollably intense as if he would throw out his lungs.
When his fit subsided, dead silence resumed.
He felt dizzy. Just at that moment, he heard someone talking to him . . . that was his father’s voice. “We are all decedents of Shang Tang,” father once told twelve-year-old Shang Jing the story of how the emperor had prayed for rain.
“Shang Tang was the first emperor of Shang Dynasty. After he became the emperor,
there began a drought, and no rain came down on his land for seven years running. The people then had tried all they could to beg for rain, but they had failed. As a last resort, Shang Tang went over to the nearby mulberry woods and knelt down there. He cut off a few of his own hairs and bits of his own finger nails, and he arranged those on the ground as sacrifices to the Lord Heaven. Shang Tang then raised his questions as to why the Lord Heaven punished the people by holding the rain back for that long: ‘Is it because I as emperor have not performed well, or I have overburdened the people? Is it because my palace is too costly and luxurious? Is it because I have been influenced by gossip from my wife and concubines? Is it because of the bribery among the officials and officers, which I have failed to discipline? Is it because I have been swayed, without knowing the truth, by the slanders to the advantages of those who spread them?’ Before the emperor had finished his ritualistic prayer, heavy rain began to pour down. You see, the Lord Heaven exercised his heavenly ways as soon as the emperor had held himself accountable for all the human faults,” father added his own comment as he finished the story.
Perhaps it was because he wore the suit that Shang Jing again felt an itch all over his body, but that did not bother him. He then felt an instant rush of emotions from his heart that he had never felt before, so he knelt down on the ground, holding his arms up toward the sky and bellowed, “Lord Heaven, God, I am not an emperor, but a man without a job. I think all humans behave more or less the same way. Have I also contributed a share to whatever has caused you to let the drought last? If so, it’s been five years already. You have punished us enough. Please resume your usual benevolence and give us rain! Please let there be rain!”
The sky still looked yellowish grey. Shang Jing remained in that kneeling posture—his head high, eyes closed, arms stretching out—and he continued, “I am not an emperor and cannot speak for others. But I myself am dying of thirst, my lips are parched with cracks and I am losing my voice. The priest is not doing anything for us. God, please take care of us, save us, give us some rain!”
A water drop fell on Shang Jing’s lips. At other times, he would curse his bad luck, as if a crow had peed into his mouth. But now he was completely taken aback, his eyes widely open. It took a few seconds for him to react, so he touched his lips and then looked at his fingers, he saw the moisture! His lips started to quiver, “Lord Heaven, God, I see your existence, I see you live up there, you have heard my voice! Thank you, thank you! . . .”
More people began to gather around watching, some sighing and shaking their heads, others simply thinking that Shang Jing had lost the last of his senses. No matter how he prayed, no more water drop came down, and no one did or said anything to comfort him either.
A boy came and passed him half a cup of water. Shang Jing took the cup, and his dry eyes moistened.
“Thank you, kid.” He felt a searing pain in his throat, but he did not drink the water; he laid the cup down on the ground and went on talking to the sky.
“God, is that you who has sent this boy? I appreciate that. Shang Jing cannot thank you enough!” He clasped his hands and held them high.
A woman came and placed a few oranges in front of Shang Jing. He recognized that the woman was none other than Lisa, the one who had patiently read the Bible to him.
Shang Jing did not react for a moment but gazed at Lisa, her hair ruffled and her fringe covered with dust, her lips looking very parched; but she had the facial lines and features of a classical beauty—eyes like lakes in the heaven, delicate shape of nose, lips barely ajar … he could see her feminine essence and beauty despite her weather-savaged appearance.
Shang Jing was so moved that he felt the pulsations of his heart. He picked the oranges
up and pushed them back to Lisa. “You too need them, you keep them for yourself.”
No sooner had Shang Jing put the oranges back on Lisa’s palms than a strong wind started to blow, so strong and forceful that it almost swept him off his knees.
The wind was sweeping across with increasing force, and the temperature was dropping with the wind. “Look!” Lisa pointed up to the clouds closing in overhead. Shang Jing noticed that the sky was no longer yellowish grey but turning the color of dark ink.
“Wow, we must all thank God, come on and do thank God. It is going to rain, the rain is coming,” Lisa yelled to the others and then murmured, “Thank Lord, thank Lord!”
The torrential rain had poured unceasingly for three weeks, causing all the damages imaginable— mountain floods, tsunami, demolished dams, uprooted trees, collapsed houses, breakdown of communication and transportation . . .
Shang Jing holed up in his house, his body feeling numb. A knock on the door gave him a startle. He opened the door and saw it was Mr. Chen. Chen was wrapped up in his rainproof outfit, only showing his lips and teeth shuddering. “Neighbor, didn’t your prayer work well once? Please make a second prayer and beg God to stop the rain. Wouldn’t that be good?”
Shang Jing had never felt so complicated before. He had drawn inspiration from Emperor Shang Tang and prayed. Now the drought reversed into a disastrous flood. He didn’t know why the reverse had happened, so he didn’t know what to say if he should pray.
The city’s patrol vehicle came to forecast the worsening situation through a loudspeaker: “A hurricane is coming tomorrow with more damaging rain. Please evacuate from this area as soon as possible. . .”
Evacuate from this area? Where can we folks go? No one knew. Shang Jing suddenly
thought of Lisa. He put on his raincoat and boots and ran to Lisa’s house.
Lisa’s house was located in a lower area, and the threshold was low. By the time he arrived there, the water was just overflowing the threshold. He made a forceful knock on the door, “Lisa, Lisa!”
The door opened. Lisa was wearing a scarf on her head and standing in her waterproof boots. The floor was covered with about two inches of water. Shang Jing looked up and noticed several spots from which water was dripping. “Lisa, you cannot stay here. The city has broadcasted a warning that there will be a hurricane storm tomorrow. We must leave this area the soonest we can.”
“That is what the city tells us?” Lisa asked in a weak voice.
“Yes, I think we must hurry before it is too late.”
“My gas tank is empty,” said Lisa.
“Never mind, you ride with me. I have plenty of gas to get us out of here.”
Lisa wasn’t totally convinced, for she knew that gas had been in short supply for a while.
“Don’t hesitate any longer, hurry and pack up, take you bank cards and cash. We will leave at once!”
Lisa looked at him without moving her feet.
Shang Jing was at his wit’s end. “Lisa, if you don’t trust me, you should trust your God. God wouldn’t let a scoundrel take you away.”
Lisa at last made up her mind. She quickly wrapped up a few things into a bundle. Turning back to take a last look around her flooded home, Lisa said with reluctance, “So many things are left behind…”
“This is the only way out, to stay alive.”
Shang Jing and Lisa got out on to the street. As they turned to leave, they found a little boy standing in their way. Shang Jing took a closer look and recognized that he was the same boy who had given him half a cup of water the other day.
“Why are you standing here alone?” Lisa walked over, still in surprise.
“Our house collapsed . . . mother was buried underneath,” answered Tom. He was soaked all over, his face dripping with rainwater.
“Good heavens! When did it happen?”
“Yesterday, the city sent people over. I slept in an empty place last night. Today I wanted to go home to see Mom, but they had sealed the house and would not let me in…” he began to choke with sobs.
Shang Jing went to put his arms around Tom. “Boy, they were right. What if another part fell in? We’ve received a warning that a hurricane is coming tomorrow. So let’s leave here for a safe place.”
Tom did not move.
“Kid, I know how you feel. We all have our homes here. Nonetheless, danger will break out anytime. Let’s find a safer place and stay till the flood is over. We’ll come back again then. Lisa and I will love you and take care of you, just as your Mom did.”
Tom looked at Shang Jing, and then at Lisa, each of whom took hold of his one hand. “Tom, Let’s go.”
The three of them came to Shang Jing’s house. In the flooding scene, Shang Jing saw a stalwart man standing before his garage. He recognized the man was Maria’s neighbor, that Middle-Eastern looking guy.
“Was that you the other day who wanted to trade gas for water?” asked the man humbly.
Shang Jing responded with a chuckle, “You look around. Who still lacks water?”
“I knew you would say that. But you live alone, and I buy your gas with cash. How’s that?”
Shang Jing shook his head and pointed to Lisa and Tom. “You see, I am not alone. I have a woman and a child.”
The man was astonished at his words. He looked at the three and asked with a puzzled look,
“You three, are of one family?”
Shang Jing grinned without answering, but his heart responded, “At this moment, what’s the point of the question?”
Lisa and Tom climbed into Shang Jing’s minivan. Shang Jing had loaded on to the van all the buckets of gas as well as his self-made gas gun. He checked out his wallet, took a look around the house, and locked the door. He got in the van, switched down the garage door, and pulled off his driveway.
The van barely left the block when lightening flashed across the greyish dark sky, followed by the nerve-shattering thunders. The van windows rattled, and Lisa and Tom huddled up together on the back seat.
While driving, Shang Jing was turning some questions around in his mind. “Where should I drive?” he thought to himself, “I should go inland, southeast bound. According to the city forecast, the hurricane is coming from the northwestern coast.” He then pressed harder on the gas pedal.
“Where are we going?” Tom asked Lisa.
“Where are we going to stay tonight?” Lisa turned to Shang Jing.
Hands firmly on the steering wheel, Shang Jing was peering over the barely visible road
stretching ahead. “No idea, but don’t worry. We’ll reach where our Lord, God, will lead us,”
was his answer.
Through the van windows, he could see the wind and the rain in gusts and waves sweeping over the landscape. He began to think of the onion-bean-curd pie his mother sometimes made, and then of his father’s story about their ancestor, Shang Tang, and finally of the Biblical lines Lisa had read him: “I have set my rainbow in the clouds, and it will be the sign of the covenant between me and the earth.”
Shang Tang, the first emperor of China’s Shang Dynasty. During his reign (?-1588 BC), there had been a seven-year drought. People had prayed for rain without success. Shang Tang personally placed himself as sacrifice to the Lord Heaven and held himself accountable for the sins over his own land. The Lord Heaven was touched by his pious self-reproach and released the rainfall.