by Minglu Zeng
a translation from its Chinese original by Mr. Dajian Wang
In 1970, the Cultural Revolution was in full rampage throughout China.
That year, I was only seven, when my father was suspected of some past politically inappropriate deeds and, for that reason, sent to a so-called “thought-reform” center located in a village in Mt. Puh. The village was in Chinese called Puh-Shan, after Mt. Puh. Mom had once told me that the Chinese word Puh could mean “pure.”
Coincidentally, my aunt’s family had also relocated to the village earlier, due to her husband having been alleged to be a “counterrevolutionary.”
That summer, my mother brought me along for the first time to see my father in Puh-Shan. While we were there, we stayed temporarily in my aunt’s house. The village was surrounded by hills on all sides, with patches of terraced fields far and near, creating the sceneries I had never before encountered in the city. I particularly remember a small hill-side area where I dared not even tread, for the grass was literally knee-high even for grown-ups. I heard folks say that there were snakes in there.
One day around noon time, I was alone taking a stroll up a hillside path when my eyes were caught by a huge banyan tree some distance ahead by the roadside. From its rugged trunk, gigantic boughs spread out to form a canopy of thick twigs and leaves, blocking the sun from scorching the ground underneath. I casually glanced over the shady area around the tree and noticed something wiggling down there.
As I walked closer, I recognized that that was not something, but somebody, a young boy to be exact. He was squatting there, his head drooping over the ground, doing something I could not figure out. That somehow aroused my curiosity, so I stepped quickly over to take a closer look. It was not until I walked up right beside him that I found out that he was drawing something on the ground with a dried twig. He was so absorbed in his art that I did not dare to interrupt him but squatted down by his side, quietly watching him draw.
After a while, I figured out that it was a bird that he was sketching. “So you are drawing a little birdie?” I could not help but ask.
Soft as I thought I sounded, my voice still startled him a little. He looked up at me briefly and then went back to drawing again, his eyes seeming to suggest that my question was too far fetched for him to understand.
“It is a little birdie you are drawing, isn’t it?” I asked a second time.
“It’s not a bird,” he broke his own silence. “I’m drawing my older brother.” “…your older brother?” I was puzzled.
“This is the bird my brother once gave me,” explained the boy.
At last, I was beginning to get onto the sense of what was going on.
The boy raised his head again and gazed into the distance. Only then did I catch a complete view of his face, a thin and narrow type. He was about my age, yet his eyes were gleaming like a grown-up’s.
“My brother once climbed over the gable to catch a bird for me,” he began to extend his story a bit, as if telling it to me, but at the same time, to himself. “Mom stopped him, afraid the mama bird w’d be sad; but brother told her he’s catching the bird for me. . . He slipped off the ladder and injured his left arm . . .”
“Your brother, where is he now?” I jumped in.
The boy stopped talking but kept randomly scratching the ground.
“Where’s your brother？” I looked around. “Where has he gone?”
“Your brother died? How come?” I gasped, totally unprepared for the answer.
“A bunch of people came over, yelled and screamed . . . he was hit, by a wooden stick . . . Gosh! Don’t ask no more!” the boy abruptly threw up his palms onto his ears.
I was so taken aback that I did not know what to do but turned to look at the towering main peak of Mt. Puh.
Later back to my aunt’s house, I saw Cousin Qingquan whittling a tree bough into a part of a farm-tool. So I asked him, “Cousin Qingquan, a wooden stick could kill someone?”
“Sure, you swing it on one’s head, the person is dead.” he demonstrated with a swing of the bough.
As a reflex, I quickly closed my eyes and covered up my ears with hands.
That night, I did not sleep well but had a nightmare. I dreamed of crowds of people in a strange place fighting one another with sticks and fists…
Waking up the next dawn, I noticed for the first time the chirps of birds outside the windows. I tried hard to figure out which of those were from the mother bird and which were from the young ones.
After my mother and aunt left for the fields, my thoughts again went back to the boy and I simply could not hold myself in the house, so I hurried out toward the banyan tree. I followed the path I had strolled the day before and made two turns, and there the tree stood. Sure enough, the boy was squatting in the shade. When he saw me, the frown on his forehead relaxed a bit, and the gleam in his eyes softened, as if he had recognized a friend he had known all along.
“No one is playing with you?” I asked.
He shrugged. So I took his approval for granted and sat down on the ground to make myself the only spectator of his artistic performance. There he was drawing nothing but straight lines, many of them, some in parallel, others in sequence.
“What are these?” my curiosity arose.
“This’ a song,” he explained.
A song？I felt lost again.
“These are the songs mother used to sing for me.”
Songs, how come they look like straight lines? I turned the question over in mind, but I didn’t dare to pose it
“Mom w’d often sing a song about a small river. When she’s a little girl, mom lived by that river,” his eyes squinted as he talked, seemingly grabbing at a mental vision of the river.
“Your mother likes singing?” “She used to, but now . . .”
“Now what?” no sooner did I spit out the words than I began to regret, for fear of hearing his answer.
“My mother’s missing. One morning after brother died, we woke up and found she was gone.”
His voice was hardly audible, as if only buzzing inside his own chest.
That question of mine proved to be one too many! A feeling suddenly grabbed me, the feeling that I could no longer bear to stay with him. I turned and ran off, all the way back to my aunt’s house. Ever since then, for forty years, I have felt the regret that I had not stayed to be his company; I still remember his choking voice, he must have broken into tears after I was gone.
“Hi you, what’s the hurry? Have you seen anything?” my aunt was washing clothes in a stone trough.
“Has my mother come back yet?” I asked, still trying to catch my breath.
“She can’t be back so soon,” aunt responded. “Perhaps you may keep an eye on it here while I go and help your cousins in the fields. This is the ‘harvest and sow’ time you know, while the sun shines.”
It was indeed the time for harvesting the rice and sowing the fall crops before the rain set in, and my cousins and others even worked for long hours into the nights.
Aunt hurried off, leaving me alone and bored. Seeing the clothes soaked in the trough, I got on where Aunt had stood and began to scrub and knead the clothes on the washboard the way the grown-ups would. While doing the washing, my mind was still on the boy, his brother, his mother, and his drawings. After a while, I squatted down, picked up a reddish piece of gravel, and started drawing on the ground.
“What’re you drawing, Ying?” mother came back in.
“Mom,” I jumped up and cried, “why took you so long? I thought you had got lost!” “My silly girl, how could I have got lost? How about you? How’s your day?”
“I’ve had a good day . . . and …and I…met a boy…” I stammered at the beginning, but then I quickly told mother the whole story, my voice betraying my anxiety.
Before I quite finished it, mother promptly responded, “Let’s go back there. Let’s see how he is doing now!”
So I led mother up the hillside path the fastest I could toward the banyan tree.
The boy was still there. He was sitting on a sect of the tree roots protruding through the ground, gazing toward the foot of the hill, as if in a trance. Mother walked over with a light step. “So well done!” she remarked on the sketches the boy had made. At the presence of my mother, the boy rose to his feet and turned to leave.
“Please don’t go away, kid!” mother tried to stop him.
The boy kept walking off.
“Kid, next time, I’ll bring you some paper sheets and crayons for drawing.”
On hearing that, the boy stopped and turned round. “My brother had once given me some colorful crayons,” he spoke shyly. The soft gleam returned to his eyes. At that very moment, how I wished I had been an older boy there!
“My mother is a teacher. She has a whole bunch of crayons and paper sheets for drawing,” I added, trying to further reassure him.
Mother stepped over and gently patted him on the shoulder. “Tell me your name and where you live, so we can send them over to you.”
“My name is Hang. I live at 3 Rongxia Lane in the village,” he pointed toward the foot of the hill.
“Uh-huh, I see,” Mother stared down where Hang was pointing, and then she looked up. We’ll pay you a visit sometime if you don’t mind. Well, it’s really getting late today. Let’s all go home, ok?”
Several weeks later, mother and I went back again to Mt. Puh from the city and we brought with us some crayons and books of sheets for drawing. We went to 3Rongxia Lane to pay the boy a visit. It was one of the common houses dwelled by the villagers, with a few pots of flowers by the door, but they were withered. The door was open, revealing the simple furniture and stuff scattered inside. We went in and called “Hang” several times. Hang came in from outside with his pants rolled up to the knees.
“No one is home?” asked mother.
Hang shook his head.
“Where’s your father?”
“Working in the fields on a hillside.”
“You have anyone else in the family?”
“My sister, she has sent lunch over to father; he has stomachache these days.”
As we were chatting, a girl came in, her hair tied into two brush-like braids, and her face, ruddy and tanned, showed unmistakably that she was Hang’s sister.
“How are you, young lady?” mother greeted her. “You must be Hang’s sister. We live at the other end of the road. We got to know Hang only a few weeks ago.”
The girl nodded as she laid a bamboo basket on a table and then hurried to leave again.
“You’ve been so busy, huh?”
“Yeah, I have to work in the fields.”
I knew she’d been as busy as my cousins with the harvesting and sowing.
“Can Hang come to our place and have supper with us? We’ll let him draw. He likes drawing.”
Hang’s sister hesitated for a moment, and then she moved up to Hang and touched his face; her lips gave a slight twitch, as if she wanted to say something to him.
“Don’t be afraid. We’re good folks,” I squared my shoulders to the sister.
“We’ll take good care of your brother,” added mother with a grin.
At last, the sister nodded her approval. She then walked up to the bedstead, picked up something from there, and turned to tuck it in Hang’s pocket. I was so glad that I grabbed his hand at once and pulled him out of the door.
“See the kids like to be together. How nice!” I heard mother chatting gladly with Hang’s sister.
“What did your sister give you?” I asked Hang on the way.
“A paper-fold bird,” he showed it to me and tucked it back again.
As soon as we arrived at my aunt’s house, mother got busy tidying things up. She cleared the table and placed the paper and crayons on it. “Isn’t this better than sitting drawing on the ground?” she smiled at us. Hang smiled, too. Only then did I realize that I had never seen him smile until that very moment.
“Who’s taught you to draw?” was mother’s second question.
“She must be an excellent teacher,” mother muttered to herself.
Hang immediately focused his attention onto drawing on the paper. I didn’t know what to draw, so I turned over to see what he was drawing. He was drawing a heart-like shape.
“What’s that you’re drawing?”
“I’m drawing the Buddha.”
“What?” I did not get what he said.
“You don’t know Buddha?” he gave me another question instead of an answer. I shook my head, feeling frustrated.
“When father was still under public criticism, mother once took me to a temple. A statue of Buddha was there, and mother prayed for Buddha to bless my father. She knelt down and told me to do the same. I saw her light three sticks of incense and said some words. After brother died, people said my mom had lost her senses. But even then she took me to the temple one more time. I saw her crying then. If she’s sick, how come she cried?”
I bent over to the table, holding my breath, listening to him with all my attention. His mind was trying to grab at something while he was talking, his brows knitting together, looking like an adult.
“Did Buddha look like that?” I inquired, pointing to the heart-shape of pale red color
“The folks at the temple said that Buddha lives in the hearts of people. After mother was gone, I often in my heart talk with Buddha. I feel I’ve heard him speak. I feel Buddha has heard me speak; he also talks to me. So I have drawn this heart. Drawing a heart is drawing Buddha.”
I didn’t know since when mother had stood behind us. I turned round and saw mother wiping her eyes.
At noon time, mother cooked lunch and arranged for us to eat at the table. She then went with aunt to send food to the folks in the fields. We were eating the yam-porridge with fish-pickles.
“Is it good?” I asked Hang.
“It’s so tasty,” he replied. “I wish my sister could also eat this.”
That evening, when escorting Hang home, mother also wrapped up for Hang’s sister a bowl of yam-porridge with fish-pickles.
Two days passed and Hang came to be our guest again. This time, he offered to draw a portrait of me. I was so excited and immediately sat down to be his model, without even blinking my eyes. He observed me for quite a while before starting sketching my hair, my two twisted brushes, then my face. Wow, he was a real artist! But when working on my eyes, Hang fumbled a bit as he kept erasing and drawing again several times. At last he said he had to finish it the next day. “Take your time. The eyes are the hardest part to draw,” mother remarked on the side. I was a little disappointed, but I believed mother made sense.
I had no idea that that would be our last time of being together. I returned to the city and stayed for some time. When I went back to Mt. Puh again, my aunt passed me a picture, saying it had been sent by the boy at 3 Rongxia Lane. I took it over and looked at it. Wow, it was a portrait of me! I liked it so much, particularly the eyes and mouth. Mother was also astonished to see it.
“He said he was not coming back any more, because they were moving elsewhere.”
“What!” I almost fainted at aunt’s words.
“Lord! Where else can they possibly go?” mother exclaimed. “His father has that poor health, and he is such a young kid.”
“They say his father has been turned to another center. No one knows why,” aunt prattled with a sigh.
After that, several times when mother went to see father in Puh-Shan, I clamored to go with her in a hope to see Hang again. Each time I went, I would go and wait under that banyan tree, expecting that Hang would miraculously show up, that we could together draw and eat . . . nevertheless, I have never seen him again, I have never again seen his tears in the eyes and the sketches of his soul . . . .
Forty years have elapsed, yet Hang, the boy of Mt. Puh, with his eyes gleaming but filled with sorrows, his oversensitivity and instinct in grasping the events of life, the Buddha he had sketched in the shape of a heart . . . all remain vivid in my memory, and that portrait he had drawn of me is still in a frame on my desk; no other artist could have done it better.
Hang must have married and had his own children already. I do not know who the woman is with so kind a heart as to have become his companion through life. He might have become quite an accomplished artist these days. Perhaps, he still remains single, for no one has truly perceived and appreciated his inner-self, his exceptional sensitivity, and his artistic talents; or, for some reason, he has chosen to stay that way, so as to be spiritually connected with his own lost dear ones, and the Buddha, in his heart.
The paper bird his sister gave him should still be tucked in his pocket …
Editor’s Note on The Boy of Mt. Puh:
The Boy of Mt. Puh is not the first piece of Minglu Zeng’s work published by Eastlit. Previous work includes: