The valley below shimmered in the early afternoon sun, the view distorted by the layer of suspended dust made humid by the sweat of men and women working the fields. Each field laid out in a haphazard patchwork of no particular geometric shape, Min Li pretended she could make out the field claimed by her family and imagined she saw her mother hoeing the rows of waist-high corn. From her childhood hiding place atop Pàotǎ Shān, a small hill outside her home village of Shangguang, Min Li easily surveyed what was once the extent of her known world, an alluvial plain near the Bohai Sea in Liaoning Province.
The landscape had changed little since Min Li lived in Shangguang, the summer sky constantly grey by the suffocating humid heat of Northeast China, the ever-present dust in the air, the sounds of summer insects eagerly eating crops before harvest, and the smells of what few livestock shared the village with the villagers, and the outhouses. Now, however, the smells were mixed with those of the factories from the nearby city of Huludao, and the skies seemed a different shade of grey. Min Li thought of the novel by the English writer Thomas Wolfe You Can’t Go Home Again. She added to that title her own thought, because there is a reason you left. And so long as home never changes, the reason for leaving will always be there.
The last time Min Li returned to Shangguang was during the lunar New Year holiday four years earlier. Before that, she returned home every year, the filial obligation of every Chinese, the second day of the holiday being reserved for wives to visit their own parents. That last visit was also the last straw, and Min Li could no longer tolerate her father lording over the family household, ordering her mother about, being waited on hand and foot, and spending evenings with his friends, coming home drunk every night. Had he at least contributed in some way to the household, she might have felt differently. But her father lived in faraway Panzhihua in Sichuan Province, coming home every year only for the lunar New Year, the Spring Festival, to remind his family that he was in charge.
Throughout the year, Min Li’s mother, Lian Min, and her sisters Hong Qi and Hai Tian, worked their small field growing corn. What corn they sold, and what meager earnings her older brother Xiong Yong brought in from doing odd jobs, was the only money the family had. Lian Min used this money to support the family and to pay for Min Li’s school fees while she was in high school. There was not enough money to pay for her sisters’ school fees, so they stayed home and learned to farm. Their father, who by now was a supervisor at an iron ore mine in Panzhihua, often bragged about the money he earned and the bribes he took to assign workers to less dangerous jobs. But none of that money ever made its way to Shangguang.
Min Li remembered that lunar New Year four years ago which found Lian Min disabled with pneumonia. She had purchased a small pig which she planned to butcher for the upcoming holiday, but Hai Tian had left the gate open one evening when she went out with her friends. The pig escaped, and Lian Min spent most of the evening looking for it in a freezing winter rain. She found the pig, but by the time came to butcher it, was so sick she could not leave her bed. Hong Qi, who was married by then, offered to do it, but it was the first time for her. When she had finished, the pork had been butchered poorly, and some of the meat had been wasted.
Min Li’s father, Zhang Zhi Hao, arrived the next day and saw evidence of the carnage in the small front year. Lian Min, too sick to meet him at the door, remained in bed, but Zhang Zhi Hao would not tolerate a lazy wife and ordered her out of bed to make dumplings. He reasoned that if Hong Qi had no skills to kill a pig, she could not properly make dumplings.
Lian Min would not argue with her husband, and complied with his wishes, remaining out of bed to prepare the traditional food for the New Year celebrations. When Min Li arrived from Shenyang, she found her mother bent over a bench rolling dough for dumplings, pale as a ghost, drenched in sweat from the fever. Min Li ordered her mother to bed and finished preparing the dumplings.
Min Li was making the dumplings when her father entered the house following an afternoon of drinking with his friends.
‘Where’s that lazy wife of mine?’ demanded Zhang Zhi Hao.
‘In bed where she belongs.’
‘That’s not where she belongs. She belongs in the kitchen cooking for her husband.’
‘She’s sick,’ responded Min Li.
‘She can’t be that sick,’ retorted Zhang Zhi Hao. ‘She’s still breathing and she’s my wife.’
‘Leave her be,’ Min Li warned. ‘Give her a chance to get better. You’re lucky she’s still alive.’
Her father merely grunted and entered the other room where he scolded Lian Min for being lazy and for allowing his ungrateful daughter to make his dumplings. Before he came back into the main room where Min Li was working, she had already grabbed her still-packed suitcase and left the house. As she walked to the bus station, she amused herself with her father’s slight limp resulting from the time she stabbed him with a pen while he beat her for refusing to marry Cao Hong Bo.
By now, Hong Qi worked her own small field with her husband Liu Yuncun, and Xiong Yong worked in the local granite quarry as a stonecutter. Lian Min continued to work the family field with the help of Hai Tian, except at harvest time when all the neighbors, all former members of the same production team, helped each other bring in the ripened corn. During the Cultural Revolution, most of the villagers worked in production teams farming huge tracts of ancient farmland, nearly sterile from the centuries of farming, and benefitted from none of the harvest, but for ration coupons with which they could exchange for food and other essential items. When that era ended, the government disbanded the production teams and divided the land between the individual members, each receiving about an acre. Some families received two acres, because both husband and wife worked on the production team. Lian Min received only one acre, because her husband worked in another province. She had to make do with that.
Min Li refused ever to be a farmer and immersed herself in the urban world of Shenyang, the capital of Liaoning Province. It had been fifteen years since she ran away from Shangguang, and the memory of that night never left her. In an attempt to court favor with a local Communist Party official, Min Li’s father sold her into a marriage with the official’s son, Cao Hong Bo, who had twice before attempted to rape her. Min Li should have gone to study at a university and had won full scholarships at both Beijing University and Xinhua University. Her father smashed her hopes when he told her she was marrying Cao, so she ran away to Shenyang. College now out of the question for her, she could at least do what she could to avoid marrying the scum that wanted to rape her.
Now she sat on a stone atop Pàotǎ Shān and allowed more pleasant memories of her childhood to seep into her thoughts. She came here often with her brother to play. Then, the young trees were too small to climb and very few animals disturbed them. But now, the trees had grown tall enough to provide shade, giving Min Li a respite from the hot sun, and rabbits, squirrels, and many varieties of birds abounded. Min Li pondered the absence of animals before and could think of no reasonable explanation. Maybe her memory had changed. Over time, Pàotǎ Shān had become a more pleasant place. It gave Min Li a chance to relax and to review the problems she faced in her daily life. She came here to gather her thoughts. Climbing through the thicket that had overgrown the trail she and her brother had often used scrubbed the troubles from her mind. She needed to think, to gather her inner strength before she returned home to meet her father, and Pàotǎ Shān gave her what she needed. For that, it was the perfect place.
Min Li’s mother asked her to come home this weekend. Her father had just retired and the family would celebrate his sixtieth birthday, a momentous occasion in China representing the culmination of two life cycles when the twelve animals of the Chinese zodiac coincided with the five elemental cycles for the first time since a person is born. Chinese custom obligates the adult children to plan a large celebration, the first major birth celebration after a child’s first. Guests will bring red eggs, red envelopes with money, and steamed buns shaped to look like peaches. Her father would be the guest of honor, an honor that he expected, and he will look forward to spending his retirement with his family. As his eldest daughter, Min Li will cook him long noodles representing a longer life.
Min Li steeled herself from her hilltop hideaway and pushed through the bushes along the old trail. She had to go to her family’s home to celebrate her father’s retirement and his sixtieth birthday. Her mother expected her. Her brother and sisters expected her. The whole village expected her. Zhang Zhi Hao would lose face if his eldest daughter failed to return for his occasion. That would cause shame to her mother, and Min Li would not allow her mother any more shame.