Chen Caoyu walked along the road to return home. From time to time, she looked back at Dong Lin as she trotted through the crowd. Dong Lin lay low within the crowd. Ignoring the looks of contempt and disdain, he followed her from a safe distance. As Caoyu skipped in happiness, she bumped into someone.
Qian Weishi kept his books and leaned over to lead her by her hands. He asked, “Why are you in a hurry? Watch where you are going.”
Chen Caoyu smiled at him and gesticulated as she skipped.
Qian Weishi pulled out a candy from his sleeve and stuffed it into Chen Caoyu’s palm. He said, “Are you going for private classes with me?”
Chen Caoyu ate the sweet and shook her head. Qian Weishi did not insist on it. Stroking her fluffy head, he said, “Then go home… he is not at home today.”
Chen Caoyu walked past Qian Weishi and waved happily to him. Hidden within the sea of people, Dong Lin sized Qian Weishi up. The Fuzi was waving back to Chen Caoyu. Dong Lin continued to follow Caoyu. On seeing the little girl entering the lane, he flipped onto the rooftop. He stepped against the tiles as he watched her stop before the courtyard entrance.
Unable to find Dong Lin around, Chen Caoyu turned back anxiously, unwilling to go in.
Dong Lin thought, what a silly girl. He was about to throw a stone down when he saw a woman in the courtyard open the door.
Zhou smilingly uttered a “yo” and stepped out to hold Caoyu’s hand. She glanced left and right but saw no one.
“Why are you back so early today?” Zhou bent over and said. “Our good Yu-er.1 Uncle and auntie were just thinking of you.” Chen Caoyu shook her hand off. She was still looking for Dong Lin. Zhou whispered, “What? Do you still want to go out to play?”
Chen Caoyu shook her head quickly and covered her face with one hand. Zhou pulled her by her hand and dragged the girl inside. The moment the door closed, her expression changed. Raising her eyebrows in anger, she pinched and twisted Chen Caoyu’s skin and slapped her on the head with one hand.
“You are not at home every day. Who are you hiding from? Don’t be a little whore like your mother and get pregnant without warning!” Zhou said meanly. “You’re so young and you’re already a seductress, staying out day and night. What? You still want to go and beg Fuzi? On what grounds would he help you? You must be feeding him nonsense, that why he got suspicious, right?”
Chen Caoyu shielded her face under her palm and cried, “I don’t dare to… I didn’t tell him… Aunt, auntie…”
“Keep your mouth shut!” Zhou yanked Chen Caoyu’s hair, and jabbed her between her eyebrows, “if you dare to say a wrong word to others, father-in-law will not spare you! Your uncle will punish you too!”
Her scalp hurt so much that Chen Caoyu sobbed as she nodded.
“What are you crying for?” Zhou bellowed at her and hit her. “Who are you putting on a show for? Do you want others to think I treat you badly? I treat you as the apple of my eye! New clothes, new shoes and socks. Not one item is lacking! Whatever my son did not have the fortune to enjoy, I gave them all to you. Yet you don’t know how to be content. Why are you crying?!”
Her eyes were wide open in a glare. She pinched Chen Caoyu so hard that the latter cried out in pain. Zhou released her hand and circled around the same spot a few times before grabbing the door bolt. She raised her head to hold up her slightly messed up bun. Pointing to the steps, she said to Chen Caoyu, “Put on a coat and sprawl over.”
Caoyu instantly burst into tears. She retreated and mumbled, “Auntie, auntie… I was in the wrong…”
“I haven’t even started my punishment.” Zhou kicked her and used a rod to smack Caoyu on the waist. But then she heard a swish as her blow was deflected.
Zhou shrieked. “You dare to dodge?!”
The sound of an old lady coughing rang out from the inner chamber. She said, “Keep your voice down. The others can hear you…”
“Let them hear it then.” Chen Ren lifted the door curtain and emerged as he rubbed the peanut with his fingers. He smiled and said, “Which household doesn’t hit their child? Can they interfere in our affairs?!”
Compared to the others, Chen Caoyu was even more frightened to see him. She trembled all over, not even daring to cry now.
Chen Ren flirtatiously raised Caoyu’s chin and studied it for a moment before saying, “My dear Yu-er, you haven’t been beaten silly by auntie, right? Tch. You. How many times have I told you not to hit her face! When she grows up, we can still sell her for a good price.”
Like a rascal, he pinched Chen Caoyu’s sharp and thin chin.
“Don’t count on it.” Zhou sneered. “Selling used goods for a good price? You have to refrain from touching her first. What? You still want to play with your dear niece when she has grown up a little?”
“Who said we can’t?” Chen Ren’s gaze was ruthless. “We shouldn’t let one’s own fertile water flow into others’ field.2 You can’t lay eggs, and I have to sow a seed. We should dote on our own family.”
Zhou snorted and pinched Caoyu’s flesh with her fingertips. She said, “Bitch! Did you hear that? Your uncle is concerned! Grow up quickly and give him twins to make him happy. You can have everything when he is happy.”
Chen Ren held her in his arms. His palms restlessly strayed over her. He said, “What are you saying to her? What does she know? It has nothing to do with whether she’s grown up or not. The small ones are more satisfying. I prefer them.”
Caoyu’s tears streamed down as she stared at Chen Ren in fear. Chen Ren patted Zhou’s hand and lingered on the spot between Caoyu’s elbows for a moment. He said. “It’s hard to grab ahold of her. I want to play for a little longer. But the gambling den demands urgent attention. I’ll come back later. Prepare some wine and meat.”
Despite Zhou’s complaint, he stuffed his pocket with silver pearls and left. He walked out of the door, humming a tune. As he was about to leave the lane, someone struck him on the back. He toppled over, incapacitated.
In his dirty clothes, Dong Lin dragged Chen Ren to the narrow corner of the lane. Chen Ren wailed in pain, thinking he had come across a robber.
Dong Lin stomped on Chen Ren’s lower back. Chen Ren’s voice quivered from the pain as he pleaded, “Let’s talk this over! Goodness me! Which hero…”
“You owe me money.” Dong Lin’s hoarse voice pressed in from behind. He held down Chen Ren’s head, not letting Chen Ren look at him. He put the blade of the dagger on the nape of Chen Ren’s neck and wiped it on his skin. “I’ll follow you every second of the day. I’ll watch you. I want not just your money, but your life too.”
“Money! That’s easy…” Stuck to the ground, Chen Ren forced a smile. “My pocket is waiting to pay tribute to you…”
Dong Lin stepped on the pit of his leg and gagged his mouth with his stinky clothes. Chen Ren shivered from the pain. His mouth was stuffed so full that he could only gasp for breath.
“I have a fetish.” Dong Lin said in a monotone. “I love to kill scums who physically and verbally abuse women and children. I’ll boil oil and pour it down here.” Dong Lin’s dagger scraped across Chen Ren’s neck. “Pour oil on the flesh and cook it until it rots. The experience is very refreshing. Do you want to try?”
Chen Ren shook his head frantically.
Dong Lin growled. “I’m watching you… Don’t give me an opening.”
Chen Caoyu was wearing a new hat, while Dong Lin was still in tatters. His beard was so prickly and dirty that one could no longer see his original appearance. Other than sleeping daily on the Chens’ rooftop, he did not seem to have other places to go. The day the snow fell, he had thought of Huadi. That silly woman was still waiting for him at the door.
Dong Lin saw her quarrel with others with her arms akimbo. Then, she turned around and cried on the pillow until it was soaked. It was not that he did not care about Huadi, but he was just too incompetent.
He was a man with no ability. Other than stealing, he knew nothing. Heaven was not blind; that was why Heaven sent someone to abduct his daughter. He was destined to have a short life, so he had never told Huadi to be with him. He would only watch her and Caoyu as if he could make up for it by looking at them. He had never made a promise to anyone because he knew he could not keep his promises.
Chen Caoyu had followed him, from when snow was light until it turned heavy. When Dong Lin was in a good mood, he would carry her on his shoulder and tread lightly. But he was always in a bad mood. However, Caoyu was not afraid of him. She became more and more cheerful, and her voice was loud and clear whenever she greeted “Uncle Dong”.
Dong Lin squatted with her under the archway of the bridge to release the lantern. It was only worth several copper pearls and yet it could keep Chen Caoyu delighted for a long time. She lit the lantern and said softly to Dong Lin, “Fuzi said I can make a wish.”
“That’s a lie.” Dong Lin said.
“Fuzi does not lie to people.” Chen Caoyu meticulously adjusted the rabbit lantern and said, “Uncle must make a wish too.”
Dong Lin touched his face and said. “… You make it for me.”
Chen Caoyu kneeled at the edge of the water and said with all sincerity. “I want to leave with Uncle.”
“Oh.” Dong Lin responded in a hoarse voice.
After Chen Caoyu was done wishing, she looked at him. The child’s eyes were pressing, imploring him to answer “yes”. But Dong Lin pretended not to see and averted his eyes. He felt a little downcast.
“It’s fine if you don’t take me away.” Chen Caoyu patted her cheeks and smiled. “Uncle Dong should eat well, bathe well, and live well. Don’t go anywhere else… occasionally go elsewhere.” She wiped her eyes and whispered, “If only you were my father.”
“How can I be your father?” Dong Lin clenched his hands, helpless. “… Where is your father?”
“I’ve never seen him before.” Caoyu picked up the lantern and sent it into the water.3 “Only my mother has seen him. You have a child too. Where is your child’s mother?”
“Dead.” Dong Lin replied.
Caoyu watched as the lantern drifted away. She gripped the hem of her clothes and asked timidly, “Are you going to leave with your daughter if you find her?”
Dong Lin was silent for a moment, then lifted his hand to stroke Caoyu’s head. He stared at the river lantern and replied despondently. “… Uh. Maybe.”
Caoyu nodded her head. The adult and the child both fell silent.
Dong Lin opened his mouth several times, but each time, there was no sound. He heard Caoyu’s soft cries, but no matter what, there was no way he could answer truthfully. He felt as if a knife was being twisted in his heart. His eyes burned. But he only patted the back of Caoyu’s head to comfort her.
This was what was bad about humans. As long as they were together day and night, they would come to care for each other. This concern was not only heartwarming but also dangerous. Dong Lin sensed this emotion growing within him, so he decided to bid farewell to Caoyu.
He could never replace anyone else to be Chen Caoyu’s father, nor could Chen Caoyu erase his past to become his daughter. He could perhaps continue to look at her, but there was no longer a need for any affection. This was his remaining responsibility. All Caoyu had to do was to grow up well. As long as she no longer suffered, he would have done his best in this brief friendship across generations.
“I will leave after the Spring Festival.”4 Dong Lin withdrew his hand and said to Cao Yu. “I want to continue searching for my daughter.”
Caoyu gazed at him. She had cried until her nose was red. She asked meekly. “Can’t you take me with you?”
“… I can’t.” Dong Lin replied. “I can’t.”
Caoyu looked at him blankly as her tears fell. She said, “I don’t eat much. I don’t want new clothes. I won’t bully her… You really can’t take me along?”
There was a lump in Dong Lin’s throat. He said without mercy. “You are not… You are not my daughter.”
Cao Yu said, “I want to be your daughter too.”
Dong Lin nearly let out a sob. He lowered his head and uttered, “Oh.”
I want to be your daughter too.
It was with this sentence that the heaviness in Dong Lin’s chest seemed to dissipate. The warmth it brought him was extraordinary. He spent so many years on an aimless journey all for this sentence. He finally heard it, but it was not what he had expected.
He said with reddened eyes, “If someone bullies you, shout for me. I can fly through the sky and burrow through the earth. I’ll rush back to beat him up. Do you hear me? I’m not your father, but I won’t let others bully you.”
Dong Lin gave her a piggyback home. Caoyu was obedient all the way. She did not cry, neither did she plead with him again. When she landed, she held on to Dong Lin by the hem of his clothes.
“If I shout for you,” Caoyu asked as if seeking confirmation. “You will come?”
“Shout for me.” Dong Lin bumped her little finger and said, “And I will come.”
Caoyu released her hand and gave a soft shout in the snow, “Uncle Dong.”
Dong Lin crouched down and promised, “I mean what I say.”
- 儿 “Er” means son or child. It is a suffix normally used as a term of endearment. Thus, Yu-er is a more endearing form of address for Caoyu.
- 肥水不流外人田 literally let one’s own fertile water flow into others’ field, i.e., to keep the good stuff within the family.
Floating lanterns (or water lanterns). These are usually lit during certain festivals (Yuan Jiao, etc), then set adrift on water (rivers, lakes, etc). Like Kongming lanterns (or sky lanterns), it’s possible to make wishes on them before letting them adrift.
- 过年 celebration period of the Lunar/Chinese New Year; also known as Spring Festival.