When I woke up, it was broad daylight and the door of the clan hall was wide open. I discovered I had slipped down from the heavy, wooden chair, though my hands were still tied behind me, suspended from the high chair back. They had gone completely numb. I carefully inched my way up off the brick floor, till I was sitting on the chair. Agonising pains shot up my arms as the sensation started to come back. Number Two Orderly was squatting in the doorway, propping himself on a bolt-action Type 38 rifle which he held in front of him. He looked round and regarded me with keen interest. Outside, Deputy Wang stood under the eaves of the east-side building, holding an enamel mug and cleaning his teeth. He tipped his head back and gargled noisily. Then he bent forward and spat the water forcefully onto the ground in front of him. It was his loud spitting noise which had woken me up.
The big sandy dog was pottering round the compound. He cocked one hind leg and there was a hiss of urine on the grating which covered the old well. Then he trotted out through the gate.
The clan hall where I was being held was a brick-built, tiled building in a square compound. The hall faced the entrance gate and was slightly raised, so I could see right down through the gate to the village street. Shadows bobbed back and forth across the doorway; Deputy Wang’s Civil Defence Team must have been strolling around, enjoying the freshness of early morning in the countryside. There was nothing peaceful about the cowsheds, however. Girlie appeared to be too sick to get up, and anyone could see she wouldn’t be pulling the plough this morning.
Suddenly it occurred to me I wouldn’t be spending today in the fields either, bent double cutting the wheat. I felt a little surge of happiness, but it quickly vanished. My aches and pains and tiredness reminded me that, for some unknown reason, I was tied to this chair instead. Dammit, reaping would have been a lot better.
The interrogation took place in the same room. One end of the rope was untied and then re-tied to one leg of the big, heavy offerings table. I was put on a bench and the chair (there was only one) was given back to Deputy Wang. He sat down, facing the entrance. Beside him sat the scrawny orderly who had waited on Deputy Wang the evening before. A stack of papers lay on the table in front of them. There was a scraping of fountain pen on ink bottle. A big, burly orderly stood behind Wang, his swarthy arms folded across his chest, muscles rippling. Every now and then during the interrogation, he would twist the fingers of both hands together making the bones crack loudly. Orderlies numbers Two and Three, guns slung over their shoulders, were outside and could be seen passing back and forth in front of the window. Sandy the dog lay under the table, joined to it by a length of rope. No, it wasn’t rope, it was a leather belt.
Deputy Wang asked me if I’d thought things through and was ready to confess.
I asked him why he’d arrested me. What crime had I committed?
‘Why would we arrest you if you hadn’t committed a crime?’ Wang answered. ‘I don’t know. Why have you arrested me?’
I asked him, then he asked me … It was like guessing a riddle. Backwards and forwards we went. And at the end, I still didn’t know why they’d arrested me.
In those days, trouble could erupt over just about anything. While I was alone the night before, I’d been over and over it in my mind. The possibilities were endless. The most likely one was that they’d got the wrong person.
Deputy Wang lost patience and banged the table. ‘I’m giving you a chance and you’re throwing it back in my face!’ he roared, making me jump out of my skin. Then he went on: ‘You’re a hard nut to crack! If you won’t say what you did, I will. What made the Production Team cow break down?’
So that was it! I felt tremendously relieved. They must be thinking that a class enemy had sabotaged Girlie. But even if someone had, it couldn’t possibly be me. I said confidently: ‘The cow broke down because it got sick.’
‘What did it get sick from?’
‘How do I know? I’m not a vet,’ I said.
Wang banged the table again with such fury this time that the ink bottle jumped.
Scrawny, who was taking notes, hurriedly steadied it. ‘I’ll tell you why,’ he shouted. ‘You fucked it!’
Before I could recover from my astonishment, he spelled out the accusation: ‘It was you, Luo Xiaofei, who raped the Production Team’s cow!’
A snort of laughter exploded from my nostrils. I couldn’t help myself.
‘Deputy Wang, you are joking. Do humans do it with farm beasts? Girlie was poisoned by eating yam stalks. If you don’t believe me ask Lijiu.’
‘Then why did you just say you didn’t know?’
Now I was completely confused … I was still wondering how to answer when Ren Jun came in carrying an enamel wash bowl. Clouds of fragrant steam rose from it. What a good smell. Baldie was behind him holding a stack of bowls in one hand and chopsticks in the other. ‘Deputy Wang,’ Ren Jun began. ‘The Production Team is so poor, we haven’t got anything good to offer you. The Team Leader just said to do some noodles. They’re freshly made from this year’s wheat.’
‘Put them down here,’ Wang said.
Ren Jun put the wash bowl down on the offerings table and Baldie put down the bowls and chopsticks. I counted six bowls. Ren Jun divided up the noodles with a pair of chopsticks. Number Two and Number Three had come in behind him. Everyone watched Ren Jun intently, the only sound the clicking of the chopsticks against the bowls.
Suddenly Wang said: ‘There’s a bowl too many.’
Ren Jun looked over to where I sat tied to the table leg.
‘He’s not eating,’ said Wang. ‘He hasn’t owned up to what he’s done yet.’
At that, Baldie stretched out a filthy hand and thrust it into one of the bowls of noodles. He twiddled a strand of the noodles around his fingers, lifted it out and sucked it into his mouth, so quickly it was like watching an anteater. Ren Jun whacked him hard on the back of the head and swore at him: ‘You dumb guzzler!’
Baldie ignored the blow and made a grab for the bowl. Ren Jun put out an arm to block him. Wang said: ‘Give half the bowl to the police guard dog and let him take the other half away!’
Police guard dog? I couldn’t think what he was talking about until I realised he meant the sandy dog. But Sandy was nothing more than an ordinary mongrel, just a bit bigger and fatter than the village mongrels because he got plenty to eat. (We’d even heard he got his own grain rations.)
Ren Jun took the bowl to the doorway and tipped a generous half onto the bricks.
Number Two undid the belt, and the dog sprang out from under the table and skidded to a halt by the door. He opened his mouth and started to gulp the noodles down. Ren Jun thrust the bowl with the remaining noodles into Baldie’s hands. Baldie rushed out of the door, pushing the bowl into his face and sucking up the noodles as he went. Ren Jun picked up the wash bowl and followed him out.
There was gentle slurping sound as everyone, from Deputy Wang and the orderlies to the sandy dog, ate with enjoyment. I couldn’t tear my eyes away from them. My stomach rumbled in spite of myself and I did two long, pattering farts.
Wang picked up some noodles with his chopsticks, blew on them and said to me: ‘Don’t think I don’t know what’s been going on in the village. Fan Lijiu goes off begging every winter and you were the one who fed the cow when he was away last time.’
‘You’re right I fed her, but I never did it with her.’
Wang sucked up the noodles. ‘Theft is often an inside job,’ he said.
‘But I didn’t steal Girlie. She’s still in the cowshed, isn’t she?’
‘I was just giving an example. So you’re not going to own up to what you did?’
‘How can I, when I didn’t do it?’
‘Well, if you didn’t do it, did Xu Shaohua do it?’ He used Big Xu’s formal name.
‘No, he didn’t either.’
‘And Wu Gang? Did he do it?’
‘Wu Gang didn’t do it either.’
Deputy Wang finished his food and pushed the bowl away. Then he opened his mouth, inserted two fingers as thick and stubby as candle-ends, and picked his teeth. With a ‘pah’ he spat out invisible shreds of the meat and vegetables. Scrawny promptly passed him a cigarette and the swarthy hulk struck a match and lit it for him.
Wang inhaled comfortably and said: ‘You say they didn’t do it, but they say you did do it.’
I thought I must have mis-heard him, ‘What? What did they say I’ve done?’
‘Raped the Production Team’s cow.’
‘Big Xu and Wu Gang said that?’
‘Well, the cow couldn’t have said it, could it?’
How had we got to this point, I wondered. I remembered the dog’s melancholy howling in the night and Big Xu and Wu Gang’s comings and goings. We hadn’t actually done it with the cow, I thought, but we had joked about it. But even that was Big Xu and Wu Gang’s joke, wasn’t it? I couldn’t get my head around it at all, and things were going from bad to worse. I heard myself say: ‘I’m the victim of injustice, Deputy Wang, injustice …’
Wang perked up at this. ‘OK, tell us, why are you the victim of injustice?’ He looked at me expectantly.
‘Deputy Wang, I’m reporting that someone did do it with the cow,’ I said, ‘but it wasn’t me.’
‘Well, if it wasn’t you, who was it?’
‘Big Xu and Wu Gang did it, I didn’t do it.’
‘But didn’t you just say they didn’t do it?’ he asked, his eyes full of mockery.
I couldn’t answer that one. I just muttered, ‘The guilty person points the finger first’ and other nonsense that even I didn’t understand.
Deputy Wang cleared his throat. ‘I conclude,’ he said, ‘that the rape of the cow did take place, that part is true, there’s cast-iron proof All three of you have admitted that. The next question is who actually did it, aren’t I right?’
‘Well I didn’t do it,’ I said. ‘They did it.’
‘You say they did it, they say you did it. Now I’m really bamboozled!’
‘Whatever. I didn’t do it.’
‘There are two of them and one of you. Who should I believe, tell me that? Or maybe all three of you did it.’
‘I didn’t do it.’
‘Well, I shouldn’t let the minority overrule the majority, should I?’
‘I didn’t do it.’
We didn’t get much further that afternoon, because I refused to admit that I’d done it with Girlie. Wang seemed quite put out. As he said, though the first battle had been won the rest was going to take a bit longer. But anyway, time was something they had plenty of, they just had to keep working away at it.
We finished before it got dark and I was taken to the cowsheds and thrown onto a pile of new straw in a stall at the north end. Here I could finally lie out flat. The straw smelled good. I was unbearably hungry and my hands were still tied behind my back, but I was so happy my eyes filled with tears. After a bit I was overcome by exhaustion and fell fast asleep.
When I woke up, it was getting dark. There was a window in the east wall, overlooking the compound, through which a pale sky could be seen. The lattice over the window made it look like a prison. A rustling sound came from the main cowshed next door, and I recognized it immediately as Girlie. Probably, like me, she was lying on a heap of straw. Man on one side of the wall, beast one the other. One sick, the other in an extremity of torment. I couldn’t help sympathising with Girlie. Somehow we were drawn together in suffering. I even began to feel that mating with a cow wasn’t such an unspeakable crime after all. My thoughts were getting jumbled again.
Someone in the courtyard was calling people to dinner. Not me, of course. I heard footsteps and voices, and someone asked: ‘Where do we go to eat?’
‘To Fan Weiqiao, the book-keeper’s house.’
‘Someone’s got to stay and guard the cow-rapist.’
‘When we’ve eaten, we’ll come and take over.’
Silence fell in the courtyard again. It was completely dark outside the window now, as if a lid had been put on a box.
When I woke up next, a lamp had been lit in the main cowshed, and its dim glow crept under the door. Lijiu the cowman was talking to someone. After a bit I realised it was Girlie. ‘We peasants are rooted in our fields,’ he was saying, ‘and the fields need a cow’s strength. You’re a cow so you’ve got to give your strength. You can’t go on skiving off work and lying around like this all the time. Cows are almost human, they can speak the language of the Six Kingdoms. Don’t pretend you don’t understand. If you’ll just get up, I’ll go straight down to the Ox King’s Temple and burn some thanksgiving incense. Don’t look at me like that! I’ve never eaten a bit of beef in my whole life. If I did, I couldn’t die in peace, and in the next life I’d be re-born as a cow …’
He rambled on and on. What a lot of feudal superstitious nonsense. No answer from Girlie, of course.
At that moment, I heard voices outside the window and switched my attention to them. It was the orderlies, Two and Three. One said: ‘Who’d want to screw a cow? It’s not a dog after all.’
‘There’s a lock in a bitch’s cunt and fire in a cat’s cunt,’ said the other.
‘An ox cunt’s so big, how could you screw it?’ asked the first.
‘You lean to one side!’ said the other.
And they both gave a dirty laugh.
What a strange conversation. I could hardly believe my ears. Even stranger was the fact that they hadn’t mentioned me or the case against me. It seemed like everyone had forgotten me. I lay in the darkness with only the straw for company. If I lay there till I died, probably no one would notice. Maybe that would be just as well.
After a while, Two and Three moved away from the window: Something flew over the partition from next door and landed on the straw. My hands were still tied so I couldn’t pick it up. I had to put my face down instead. It turned out to be a brown-flour mantou, a steamed bun. I called out: ‘Lijiu …’ He stayed where he was but I heard him say: ‘Keep quiet. Eat it quickly.’
I gobbled it down so fast it seemed to hit my belly without ever going through my gullet. As soon as I’d finished, another mantou was lobbed in. ‘Eat it more slowly,’ said Lijiu, ‘or you’ll choke.’
Those two mantou made tears start to my eyes—even though I wasn’t feeling any emotion at all.
The next day, the interrogation started before breakfast again. Deputy Wang’s opening words were simple: ‘If you own up, we’ll be lenient. If you resist, you’ll be treated severely.’ This was the customary slogan then. For my part, I declared I ‘relied on the masses and the Communist Party.’ Wang’s response was that ‘a dead pig doesn’t fear the pot,’ and that I couldn’t put off confessing for much longer.
‘Own up now,’ he urged me. ‘Stop beating round the bush! Otherwise you’re digging your own grave.’
‘I’ve got nothing to own up to.’
As I spoke, Ren Jun came in carrying the wash bowl. Steam rose from it just like yesterday, only the smell was different. Baldie came behind with the bowls and the chopsticks.
‘The Production Team is so poor, we haven’t got anything good to offer you,’ Ren Jun began. ‘The Team Leader just said to do some soup. The dough strips are made from this year’s wheat.’
‘Put it down here.’
Ren Jun put the wash bowl down and Baldie put the bowls and chopsticks down.
Unlike yesterday, Baldie had only brought five bowls. Ren Jun stirred the soup with a copper ladle and divided it out between the five bowls. I could see it was thick, and full of lumps of dough. There were lots of green vegetables too.
‘We’re a bowl short,’ said Wang.
I was surprised. Was he really going to let me have some soup? Ren Jun must have thought the same, and looked over to me.
‘Isn’t the police dog eating?’ said Wang.
Ren Jun slapped his head with his hand and said: ‘Of course. How could I have forgotten?’ He gave Baldie a shove: ‘Go and get another bowl.’
Baldie dashed over to the east-side building; this was where Wang and the rest of the team were staying and where the soup had been prepared. He was soon back with an empty bowl. Ren Jun filled it with soup and ordered Baldie to put it down by the door. The dog bounded over and sniffed. Baldie stood transfixed until Ren Jun shouted: ‘What the hell are you looking at? Scarper!’ And he picked up the empty wash bowl and shoved the boy out in front of him.
A gentle slurping sound filled the room. Deputy Wang smacked his lips appreciatively as he ate and said: ‘Delicious. There’s nothing like noodles made from new wheat!’
‘Delicious!’ chorused the orderlies. ‘Delicious!’
‘Almost better than meat!’ ‘Definitely beats eating meat!’
I thought it smelled delicious too but didn’t get a chance to say so.
Wang put down his chopsticks and tapped the edge of his bowl. ‘Your old man’s got plenty of time,’ he said to me. ‘After all, the Production Team are providing three meals a day, meat and fish, lots of variety. Would you like to try some?’
Before I could answer, he turned to Scrawny: ‘Young Seven, pick up that bowl off the ground and give it to him.’
He meant the dog’s bowl. The soup was still hot and the sandy dog was shaking its jowls as it ate. It hadn’t finished and, as Young Seven (Scrawny, that is), approached, it bared its teeth, growled and stood guard over the bowl. Young Seven hurriedly pulled back his outstretched hand.
‘I don’t want any,’ I said.
‘Yes you do, but the police guard dog won’t give it up!’ said Wang. The orderlies all laughed loudly.
‘People don’t eat what dogs have been eating,’ I said.
‘You’re having me on! You can screw a cow, but you can’t eat what a dog’s been eating? When did you get to be so fussy?’
‘I never screwed a dog either,’ I retorted.
Wang said nothing, but glared at me. The orderlies all stopped eating. Now I’m really in trouble, I thought to myself. My next thought was that I was already in so much trouble, things couldn’t get worse. Just as I was mulling this over, we heard footsteps, and Shao Na burst into the room.
She must have come straight from the wheat fields—her sleeves were rolled up, she was carrying a sickle and wisps of straw stuck out of her hair. I was astonished and so, apparently, were the Civil Defence Team. We all looked at her in silence. In the few days since I’d saw her, her face had burned berry-brown. She had been running and her chest rose and fell under her thin jacket.
Without looking at me, Shao Na said loudly: ‘I want to speak to Deputy Wang.’
Wang leaned back in his chair. ‘Who are you?’ he asked.
‘I’m an educated youth from Number One Production Team, Da Fan Village. My name is Shao Na.’
‘And why are you here?’ asked Wang.
‘I’ve come to prove Luo Xiaofei’s innocence.’
Wang said nothing, just looked her up and down intently. Suddenly realising she was still holding the sickle, Shao Na let it drop with a clang.
‘How are you going to prove that?’
‘I … I’m Luo Xiaofei’s girlfriend. We’re in love.’
Wang gave a grunt and began to look interested. He pushed his soup bowl to one side, and said: ‘Carry on.’
‘Xiaofei told me he didn’t do those things you said,’ said Shao Na. ‘What things?’
‘The, umm, the things with the cow.’
She was scarlet in the face, and it wasn’t just sunburn. Deputy Wang pressed her: ‘What things with the cow?’
‘The, umm, the …’ She was choosing her words, or maybe giving herself courage. ‘The, what?’
Shao Na seemed to make up her mind and said, raising her voice quite unnecessarily: ‘Mating with the cow!’
Wang burst out laughing. ‘Mating …!’ he chortled. ‘What’s a young woman doing using language like that?!’
The orderlies all followed suit, stamping their feet and guffawing with laughter.
Two and Three thumped their rifle butts on the floor bricks in delight.
‘Shao Na!’ I shouted at her. I wanted to stop her, but she hadn’t glanced in my direction once since coming into the room and refused to look at me now.
Shao Na was quiet. Their mocking laughter seemed in some strange way to have calmed her down. When Wang finished laughing, she repeated coolly: ‘I’m just saying he didn’t do it.’
Deputy Wang took a deep breath. The laughter had softened the lines on his face: ‘Well, if he didn’t do it,’ he said, ‘what made him mention to you about doing it, or rather “mating”, with the cow? Isn’t that like a thief leaving a note saying “no silver buried here”?’
You couldn’t help admiring the man’s cunning.
‘He told me Big Xu and Wu Gang had done it, not him,’ said Shao Na.
‘Did you see them do it?’
‘No, I didn’t. It was Xiaofei who told me.’
‘Well, of course, you’re boyfriend and girlfriend, so you’re going to protect him, aren’t you!’
Wang raised his hand, and Young Seven quickly put a cigarette in it. Swarthy struck a match and lit it. Wang closed his eyes and inhaled deeply, opened them again, and looked Shao Na up and down with an expression of undisguised lechery. Then he ordered Young Seven to get the bowls cleared. Young Seven went to the door and shouted: ‘They’ve finished their dinner!’
Baldie ran in carrying a filthy cloth, piled the bowls up and wiped the table—he was pretty good at this by now. Then he clattered out with the bowls in his hands. Shao Na, meanwhile, stood rooted to the spot, so silent and unmoving that she reminded me of our revolutionary heroine, Hulan.
Wang became thoughtful: ‘Actually, there’s an easy way you can save Xiaofei,’ he said. ‘Tell me, have you two mated?’
He put heavy emphasis on the word ‘mated,’ deliberately mimicking Shao Na. The orderlies greeted his question with loud laughter. I couldn’t let this go on. I pulled myself up straight and broke in: ‘Deputy Wang, please don’t bully her like this!’ Wang looked round and said: ‘Can’t you see I’m doing this for your own good?’ Then he turned back to Shao Na with an unpleasant leer.
‘What do you mean?’ asked Shao Na.
‘If you and Luo Xiaofei have mated,’ Wang explained, ‘then obviously Xiaofei didn’t do it with the cow. He couldn’t possibly have if he had a fine, fair-skinned girl like you to mate with. I wouldn’t, if I were in his place … But of course, if you haven’t …’
Shao Na interrupted him crisply: ‘We’ve mated.’
She’d stopped panting, her face was no longer red, and she spoke perfectly calmly.
Wang and his orderlies burst into howls of hysterical laughter. ‘Shit, oh shit …,’ chortled Wang slapping his bald head with his hand.
I heard myself shout in desperation: ‘Shao Na, don’t talk such rubbish!’
Amid the general din, Shao Na was the only one who was calm.
Wang stopped laughing and said: ‘How did you mate? If you can convince me, I’ll let Xiaofei go. I’m always as good as my word.’
This was really going too far.
Shao Na opened her mouth but no words came out. It wasn’t that she was embarrassed, she simply didn’t know what to say. After all, we hadn’t ‘mated’.
‘I … we …’ She avoided our eyes and looked up at the pitch-black roof beams and tenon joints, then around at the brickwork, as if the answer was written there. ‘I … we … did it on top of Grandpa Fu’s coffin.’
‘If you’re too embarrassed to tell us, you can act it out,’ said Wang. And he got up, and walked around the offerings table towards Shao Na. The orderlies fell back to let him through.
‘Pretend I’m Xiaofei, and this table is the coffin of Grandpa … Grandpa What’s-’is-face.’