My home, a big house with a tiled roof, was so cold and dank that the walls were covered by a layer of frost and my breath left a film, like fine salt, atop the blanket as I slept. They'd finished building the house in time for the first day of winter, and we moved in before the plaster on the walls was dry. After Mother got out of bed, I scrunched down under the covers to escape the cold air knifing into the room. Ever since my father ran off with his slut, Mother was determined to be a strong woman and make a living through her own hard work. Five years passed like a single day and, thanks to that hard work and her native intelligence, she'd put aside enough to build the tallest and sturdiest five-room, tiled house in the village. Any mention of my mother gave voice to the respect in which she was held by all the villagersthey called her a fine example of womanhood. And when they praised her they never forgot to criticize my father. When I was a boy of five, he ran off with a woman known in the village as Wild Mule; where they went no one knew.
'Predestined relationships exist everywhere,' the Wise Monk mutters, as if talking in his sleep, an indication that, even though his eyes are shut, he is paying attention to my story. The woman in the green dress and the red flower behind her ear is still sprawled in the breach in the wall. She fascinates me but I cannot tell if she knows that. The powerful feral cat, a pretty green bird in its mouth, glides up to the temple door like a hunter parading a trophy. It stops in the doorway and, cocking its head, tosses a glance at us, its expression like that of a curious schoolboy
Five years passed and, while we received no reliable news, rumours about Father and Aunty Wild Mule came every now and then, like the beef cattle that arrived at our tiny station on the local freight train, that were then slowly herded into the village by the yellow-eyed beef merchants and then finally sold to the village butchers (our village was in truth a glorified slaughter- house). Rumours swirled round the village, like grey birds wheeling in the sky. Some had it that Father had taken Aunty Wild Mule into the great forests of the northeast, where they'd built a cabin out of birch logs, complete with a big oven in which they burnt crackling pine kindling. Snow covered the roof, hot chilli peppers were strung on the walls and sparkling icicles hung from the eaves. They hunted game and gathered ginseng by day and cooked venison at night. In my imagination, the faces of Father and Aunty Wild Mule reflected the burning fire, as if coated with a red glaze. Others claimed that Father and Wild Mule, wrapped in bulky Mongolian robes, roamed the remote stretches of Inner Mongolia. During the day, they rode their horses, sang shepherds' songs and tended herds of cattle and sheep on the vast grassland; at night, they slipped into their yurt and made a fire with cow chips over which they hung a steel pot. The fatty stewing lamb entered their nostrils on the wings of its fragrance, and they washed the meat down with thick milky tea. In my imagination, Aunty Wild Mule's eyes sparkled, like black onyx, in the light of the cow-chip fire. Yet another rumour alleged that they'd secretly crossed the border into North Korea and opened a little restaurant in a little border town. During the day they made meat-filled dumplings and rolled noodles to feed the Koreans; at night, after the restaurant closed, they cooked a pot of dog meat and opened a bowl of strong white liquor. Each of them held a dog's legtwo legs out of the pot, and two more insidewith its bewitching aroma, waiting to be eaten. In my imagination, they both hold a fatty dog's leg in one hand and a glass of strong liquor in the other, and alternate between drinking and eating, their cheeks bulging like oily little balls . . . of course, I also think about what happens after the eating and drinking, how they wrap their arms round each other and do you know whatThe Wise Monk's eyes flash and his mouth twitches just before he laughs out loud. He stops abruptly, the lingering echo sounding like the tinny reverberation from a struck gong. I 'm momentarily dazed, unable to determine if that bizarre laugh means I should continue speaking honestly or stop. Honesty is always best, I figure, and speaking honestly in front of the Wise Monk seems appropriate. The woman in green is still sprawled in the same place. Nothing has changedwell, hardly anything. She's playing a little game with her spittle, easing bubbles out between her lips until they burst in the sunlight. I try to imagine what those little bubbles taste like'Go on'.
Excerpted from Pow! by Mo Yan. Copyright © 2013 by Mo Yan. Excerpted by permission of Seagull Books. 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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