Baldy Li, our Liu Towns premier tycoon, had a fantastic plan of spending twenty million U.S. dollars to purchase a ride on a Russian Federation space shuttle for a tour of outer space. Perched atop his famously gold-plated toilet seat, he would close his eyes and imagine himself already floating in orbit, surrounded by the unfathomably frigid depths of space. He would look down at the glorious planet stretched out beneath him, only to choke up on realizing that he had no family left down on Earth.
Baldy Li used to have a brother named Song Gang, who was a year older and a whole head taller and with whom he shared everything. Loyal, stubborn Song Gang had died three years earlier, reduced to a pile of ashes. When Baldy Li remembered the small wooden urn containing his brothers remains, he had a million mixed emotions. The ashes from even a sapling, he thought, would outweigh those from Song Gangs bones.
Back when Baldy Lis mother was still alive, she always liked to speak to him about Song Gang as being a chip off the old block. She would emphasize how honest and kind he was, just like his father, and remark that father and son were like two melons from the same vine. When she talked about Baldy Li, she didnt say this sort of thing but would emphatically shake her head. She said that Baldy Li and his father were completely different sorts of people, on completely different paths. It was not until Baldy Lis fourteenth year, when he was nabbed for peeping at five womens bottoms in a public pit toilet, that his mother drastically reversed her earlier opinion of her son. Only then did she finally understand that Baldy Li and his father were in fact two melons from the same vine after all. Baldy Li remembered clearly how his mother had averted her eyes and turned away from him, muttering bitterly as she wiped away her tears, A chip off the old block.
Baldy Li had never met his birth father, since on the day he was born his father left this earth in a fit of stink. His mother told him that his father had drowned, but Baldy Li asked, How? Did he drown in the stream, in the pond, or in a well? His mother didnt respond. It was only later, after Baldy Li had been caught peeping and had become stinkingly notorious throughout Liu Townonly then did he learn that he really was another rotten melon off the same damn vine as his father. And it was only then that he learned that his father had also been peeping at womens butts in a latrine when he accidentally fell into the cesspool and drowned. Everyone in Liu Townmen and women, young and oldlaughed when they heard about Baldy Li and couldnt stop repeating, A chip off the old block. As sure as a tree grows leaves, if you were from Liu Town, you would have the phrase on your lips; even toddlers who had just learned to speak were gurgling it. People pointed at Baldy Li, whispering to each other and covering their mouths and snickering, but Baldy Li would maintain an innocent expression as he continued on his way. Inside, however, he would be chuckling because nowat that time he was almost fifteenhe finally knew what it was to be a man.
Nowadays the world is filled with womens bare butts shaking hither and thither, on television and in the movies, on VCRs and DVDs, in advertisements and magazines, on the sides of ballpoint pens and cigarette lighters. These include all sorts of butts: imported butts, domestic butts; white, yellow, black, and brown; big, small, fat, and thin; smooth and coarse, young and old, fake and realevery shape and size in a bedazzling variety. Nowadays womens bare butts arent worth much, since they can be found virtually everywhere. But back then things were different. It used to be that womens bottoms were considered a rare and precious commodity that you couldnt trade for gold or silver or pearls. To see one, you had to go peeping in the public toiletwhich is why you had a little hoodlum like Baldy Li being caught in the act, and a big hoodlum like his father losing his life for the sake of a glimpse.
Excerpted from Brothers by Yu Hua Copyright © 2009 by Yu Hua. Excerpted by permission of Pantheon, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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No Man's Land
by Simon Tolkien
Inspired by the experiences of his grandfather, J. R. R. Tolkien, during World War I.
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