"They just walk around like that every day?"
"So this is what polygamy's about."
"But invariably there comes a day, I mean, when a man can't go on. What then?"
"The question is very simple. If you were a young woman, I'd answer more subtly, but as we're an older gentleman and an older lady, I'll say that when a man's body no longer exudes the passion, he calls a halt."
The woman's face reddened a little.
The gentleman was fifty-five, the lady forty-nine. They wore light clothing and reclined on wicker chairs alongside a river, their eyes drawn to the people on the opposite bank.
The river was the Pala, a tributary of the Lancang. It was wild without a trace of tenderness, one murky wave giving way to another. This ferment had its beauty, though. On the opposite bank the polygamous men of the Suomo tribe followed along the beach briskly. The Suomo men's torsos were bare, and a few had only a white loincloth around them. They went about their own business and paid no attention to each other, singing a few notes in a masculine voice.
"I understand now. This is communal marriage, a last vestige of matriarchal society."
"That's right. History texts say as much."
"Well, I'm not altogether clear on it. Have they no jealousy? I mean between man and woman."
"It seems not, at least from what I've heard. To be a Suorno man is quite satisfying, I think. He has neither the time for nor the need of jealousy. He never knows who his father is, which is a terrific benefit for a child. Take the case of a severe father. Quite possibly the child would over a lifetime receive not a little castigation — a circumstance I have felt keenly myself. The last time I took a beating from my father, I was thirty. He said he hit me to love me more thoroughly. He had seen that you and I were involved and that there was an immediate danger that we would share a bed. The old fellow alternately wept and instructed me: 'She is a dancer, a harlot as shallow as she is heartless, my son, who will bring you a lifetime of tears.’”
The lady couldn't help laughing. "Which unfortunately for you was the truth."
"Let me finish about the jealousy. The birthplace of the Suomo man is his mother's home. All his life he will work to support it. At night, work over, he must leave — he must not pass the night there. This means that he must go to a woman; otherwise he will have no place to put up for the night."
"Surely that is where the problem might arise, at least if there were already a man there. Isn't that the stuff of jealousy? There would be room for profound secret competition."
"There you are wrong again. If there is already a man there, the last to arrive must immediately leave and continue along until he finds somewhere else. I've yet to hear of two men coming to blows over it."
"So much for the complexities of jealousy, but when he is old and must call a halt" — the lady's face reddened again — "who cares for him then?"
"Simple. He returns to his mother's. Of course, younger ones wait upon and take care of those in their declining years. Only at this time can the Suomo man return and live at his mother's home, until at last he seeks out, well, death. Is there anything else you want to know about their movements?" His eyes had already withdrawn from the flesh on the opposite bank. He mused on something else.
The lady was remorsefully apologetic. "I've made you uncomfortable. I am terribly sorry."
The golden rays of the setting sun gouged and flayed the fishtails the women were chopping off and cast female silhouettes on the water. The river reeled a little. The setting sun ever more fawningly licked at the trees on the distant mountain peak. The tropical cicada, unlike its northern relative, twittered perfunctorily and listlessly. A. boat, not risking the waves midstream, hugged the bank, stealthily rowing on, looking from a distance like a drifting, irresolute olive. Above their heads on the gourd trellis ash-coloured monkeys — now solemn, now teasing, now grabbing ears and now scratching cheeks — emulated humour. A boar imperatively climbed onto a sow to do his business, but the sow had no such inclination and immediately threw him to the ground, and not in the least flustered scorned him with a switch of her tail. A huge mango smashed to the ground, and fermented juice seeped through the broken peel. And an over-heated brown dog vigorously rubbed its fur against a tree, obviously wishing to be done with this sweltering weather.
"The strange thing is that since you arrived yesterday, I haven't felt the least pain."
"Good. I've said before you would slowly get better." The lady spoke warmly.
The gentleman gave a wry laugh. "Myself, I'm quite sure that this is the last hurrah. In any case, I shall have Zhang the Carpenter to haul that Nanmu log down in the next few days. I told him where it was wedged in a crevice of the mountain crater. It's more than enough for a coffin, and his are renowned along the Pala."
"What nonsense you do talk!" said the lady compassionately. "You'll soon recoup your health, just you see."
The gentleman laughed again, quite cheerlessly.
"I begin to doubt your sincerity again. Surely you haven't come all the way from Shanghai just to play the anaesthetist, to tell him he'll get better, better and better until he's as robust as a Suomo? You'll give me a physique like a polygamist?"
The lady entreated him with her eyes.
"Let me tell you, that's not friendship. I'll give you two examples of friendship. You're familiar with one of them: Dr. Lu of Kunming Hospital, who also came out here from Shanghai. We've been friends now for only three years. He checked the diagnosis I brought from Beijing and then gave me two bottles of Maotai and said eat what you like, whatever you please. I asked him how long I had. He looked down and said not very long, enough to put the funeral arrangements in order. I suddenly felt quite ashamed of having asked him, when I already had the diagnosis from Beijing. I am a coward. And then there's Zhang the Carpenter. He gave me a pot of black lacquer, to use on the coffin, you understand. He would seem to rate as a friend too."
Tears formed in her eyes, but the lady remained silent.
He suddenly became excited. "I adore to see you like this. You were always so lovely when you were sincere." He exerted himself to stand, and she rushed to support him.
"I think we ought to prepare for dinner," he said.
The servant provided for him by the tropical research station carried out a dining table, spread out a table-cloth and laid out a few simple dishes. The servant was an exceptionally gentle and ripely pretty girl of twenty, whose best feature was her mouth.
The servant smiled at them and then went off.
He watched her until she disappeared into the shadows of a banana grove.
"Everyday she attends to my meals and cleaning. She is immaculate, and I must say it is not unpleasing to have a young girl bustling around."
She had to laugh at him.
She served him a little coriander and noticed a moment of excitement in him that she felt would not have been there five years before. He went into the hut, brought out a bottle of wine and poured her a glass, then went back inside and returned with two more, white this time.
"I think you'd do best not to drink," said the lady.
"I rather think you'd do best to join me, given that days like this are numbered."
"Cheers!" She raised her glass and drained it first.
He tapped his with a fingernail and stared fixedly at her.
"Five years on the border have made me wonder idly at times whether I should have divorced you just like that, releasing you to seek the happy life."
"So you released me, did you? You're off target. We each released ourselves, or more accurately, we were a man and a woman tied face to face and bored stiff. I loosened my rope first and then turned to yours. I think in fact you relied on me to do so, didn't you?"
He laughed and refilled her glass tossing the empty bottle at the river.
They finished their drinks. "You're thinking again."
"Probably scolding me all over again," the lady said.
Ever so faintly. Still, it's passed," he said.
A breeze started up. A fishy smell came off the Pala, and to those breathing it, it seemed as if they held fish scales in their palms. The waves raged devilishly, only to meet the embankment with apparent grace. A bird, lost to the flock and obviously quite happy in its rejection of parental love, flew as the mood took it or perched in the fork of a mango tree to twitter in fine regard for itself.
Night fell. The mountains on three sides threw the couple into shadowy ambiguity, making them feel as though a profound might lay within the shadow. It was calm except for the sound of water, which touched everything. Slowly across the river appeared two droplets of dim green flame, following steadily along the bank with blood-sweet, steadfast joy, always turned across the river, stirring languidly to and fro. Then they stopped and for a long while stared out from one place.
"What's that, the men on their rounds again?"
"No." He was perspiring heavily and mopped himself. "A leopard."
She cried out in alarm and inched the wicker chair backwards with her hips.
He closed his eyes. "It's related to the Bengal leopard and as large as the South China tiger. The local people call it a Bengali."
"Might it come across? I've — heard leopards can swim.”
”Who knows? But I shouldn't think it will just yet awhile.”
It might, though. It frightens me."
He opened his eyes, chuckled and closed them again.
"Me too. But I don't care any more. You know, it has crouched there every day for a month. It's a quiet fellow, quieter than a tiger. It hasn't growled. It began showing up about a week after I came back from Beijing terminally ill, and every night since it has come without fail."
Her pupils dilated with fear, and he saw that she didn't dare look directly at the distant flames.
"He thinks to befriend me, that's all." The gentleman turned a jocular eye to the lights on the opposite bank.
It began to feel more like night-time.
"Say something about your success. You know all the papers carried the news that your research had won a national award."
He mocked her, with a mischievous smile, not wanting to answer her question.
"You really should have been a choreographer, the way you match moods."
He had felt tremendous joy at being released from marital bondage.
He wouldn't have to take her or her female conventions again. A desire to brave danger had then heartened him to venture off away from the unclean city of Shanghai, for preference to somewhere sparsely populated and primitive, to taste another side of life. At fifty he had still felt young.
Another pressing reason had been that for a long period his surroundings had made him feel neither alive nor dead. He had been a research fellow, working all day long for crabbed professors pushing eighty, pedantic old fellows nibbling their lives away through their subjects, and he couldn't bear what he felt was a rape of his will and talents. Why were his own projects never given any prominence? When the Southwest Tropical Research Unit had advertised for skilled persons to work down on the border, he had applied immediately. "I'm free!" he had yelled.
High latitude variety of rubber tree. Cold current. Widespread death from frost. Urgent need of research into new varieties.
The wilds, the utter wilds. Swamp gas. Noxious vapours that overtook a man. He had known a kind of aggressive, giant leech the diameter of a fountain pen, with his own eyes seen a woman out collecting firewood die, eaten away by one that had entered her vagina, fled weeping with her on his back. No river without a lurking pangolin; no virgin forest with a virgin's gentle softness. Rugged mountains bursting ever and again into a tumult of curses and so ever aquake: lascivious waters graceful and sweet but full of rocks that bit the feet. He had taken two other men into the primeval forest to set up a nursery. The experiment had commenced. Hybridization had begun — from Malaysia, Taiwan, Singapore, Indonesia and Vietnam, even the Amazon. He had become the leading hybridization and cross-breeding expert.
"That's very moving. I didn't think you'd done anything so moving."
The lady eyed the river, speaking softly. "You succeeded admirably in your work." She gave him a smile pregnant with an amused tenderness from their marriage, openly sentimental and melancholy, which he perceived and accepted with tacit luxury, putting on a pleased expression and winking at her.
"That must be Zhang the Carpenter." He turned around in his wicker chair and looked at the shadowy mountain forest. "I caught the scent of the Nanmu wood."
A stout black ox hitched to a cart carrying a Nanmu log halted at Zhang the Carpenter's call. He was a gloomy, middle-aged man of concealed vigour.
"Have a drink, Master Zhang." The gentleman handed him a glass. "I will trouble you to start tonight. Your health."
Zhang nodded and took a drink, saving a few drops to sprinkle on the ox's head and then on the chill Nanmu, three metres long and thick as an oil drum, which he carefully spanned out before looking the gentleman up and down. With steadfast composure the latter poured him another glass. She half closed her eyes, gripped with nausea. Zhang took the ox aside into the nearby woods and there built a campfire, where the sound of his hatchet scraping off bark gave way after a while to that of chiselling and hammering, deep, ringing and intensely beautiful. The water of the Pala was outdone. Comparison would have been forced.
"A busy night, to be sure," the gentleman noted and drank another glass of wine.
He sensed that things were closing in now, were less vague than they had been. The wine was good wine and wouldn't produce hallucinations, of that he was confident.
Years before he and she had been so young and carefree. Twenty-five years earlier he had just turned thirty and she had been just twenty-four. Even with nothing to eat or drink, they would still have had so much energy to burn. She danced beautifully, a swan mesmerizing the males. All the world's power to bewitch men might have been gathered on stage in those slender feet. Every time she performed, all his friends had gone to watch and cheer. Without the least inhibition they had fawned on her and presented her with flowers and gaily decorated bouquets. Her dance troupe leader had said how well his star was looked after by all the young men in the scientific research unit. The gentleman had taken part in none of the charades, for he had looked down on the largesse of his piteous companions, feeling them a group of unrefined simpletons. He had first associated with others of the troupe and learned about a tiny blemish in her perfection. A slight stagger in her grand jete, a habitual mistake for which there was no hope of redress. Good heavens, he had succeeded. He, a layman, would never have discovered the secret if her pals had not betrayed her by pointing it out to him. He had submitted a short essay to an art publication, treating that stagger with professional sophistication and immediately afterward had looked her up with genuine adoration, showering her with pure passion and esteem. The greater the contact, the greater the passion, until at last she had become pregnant. She had given premature birth to a male child, which had died. Since then the gentleman had always suspected that his blood was diseased, destined not to engender anything whatsoever.
All things considered, there had been this son who had died early.
Had he lived, he would surely now have risen above the crowd, achieved more than I.
In which case I'd now be having to prepare a will for him.
"You've been sleeping." The lady went over to his chair. "It seems so."
"The leopard has left. It's gone."
"Every day at this time it goes away awhile. I'm certain it'll be back before long."
"That carpenter's racket is most disagreeable, quite inauspicious. Can't you tell him to stop?"
"He hammers and chisels pervasively, like the true craftsman he is. I enjoy it."
Zhang the Carpenter, sweating heavily, came up for some wine. He drank dismally, his whiskers sharing the drink.
”There's a miasma drifting in from the mountain slope. Will you be retreating?”
Zhang the Carpenter felt as though their souls were leaving just then, for neither paid him any attention. He went back to the fire to carve and polish the coffin.
"What's a miasma?" She asked him.
"Swamp gas." He let out a long sigh. "It oozes out of the woods in the tropics. It bites you, and you contract malaria and develop a high fever. It does smell sweet though."
"You don't understand. It doesn't matter, really. At night it rises.
It won't get us. Set your mind at ease. I have experience of it."
The night entered that phase when all that the light of day conceals sets up a commotion. Four-footed things sniffed the air, unburdening themselves of the day's stored energy, male and female pairing off to serious discussion. Within the air is the confused vehemence of potency and virility, continually consuming. The forest, mountains, rivers, stars and moon all change places, knowing that they cannot restrain the world at that moment.
"The leopard's returned."
She intoned this to him. She was more relaxed now. The two beady flames were fuller, brighter, matured. A fatally rich, glossy halo emanated from the leopard's eyes.
"I told you it would." He opened his eyes and looked at the opposite bank, silently measuring the distance between himself and the mute flames, then eyeing for a long time the shadowy, empty space between himself and them. Suddenly he was startled to notice that at the same moment her eyes also scanned that void unceasingly.
They looked into each other's eyes and laughed, seeing everything subtly and mysteriously.
A shooting star streaked momentarily.
"It fell into the river, that star." She sat up.
"The world has one more stubborn chunk of stone," he said.
She turned around and went toward him gently. Caressing his shoulders, she gave him a kiss. It was her most affectionate display since arriving.
"Come with me back to the city. There is still perhaps hope for a cure."
He shook his head, sniffing back his tears.
Another shooting star streaked downward to gouge an earthen pit. Blood splashed on the edge of the nearby woods.
The lady snuggled closer to him.
"It's late. Come in. We'll spend the night together," she prompted. him, but still he shook his head.
In the stillness Zhang the Carpenter made the only noise: the fire had little vitality and was almost dying.
Zhang drank alone and carved and polished the coffin.
The Bengali on the opposite bank emerged at last, showing all its spots. It extended a paw to the water's edge and dipped it in. Then breaking the surface of the dead water, it swam across.
Faster and faster.
Chinese to English translation originally appeared in: Chinese Literature, Beijing, Spring 1989, ISSN 0009‐4617
Translated by John Haymaker
About the Author
Ling Yaozhong was born in 1954. After his graduation from college in 1981, he has been researching on the theory of dancing at the Shanghai Dance Drama Troupe. He began publishing short stories in 1980 and The Last Paradise appeared in Shanghai Literature No. 5, 1987.