Brilliant sunshine. Someone up there seemed to enjoy making things difficult for the living but got along with the dead just fine, so in the days before Tomb Sweeping Day the weather cleared up and a warm wind blew. It was a fine day for flying a kite or sweeping a tomb. For the entire month before, if it wasn’t cloudy it was rainy, but once the flowers, grass, and trees had finally managed to take the shape they were supposed to take and the sun shone for a couple of days, then the leaves became glossy and the flowers dazzled.
The girl had her grandmother get everything ready: two strings of firecrackers, a hundred sheets of paper money, and a pole with paper streamers. She and her uncle were on their way. She had the same flaws as any child who lacked a mother’s love and had been doted on excessively, but this didn’t get in the way of her working hard and doing well in school. She was a strong and lively lass who liked singing and dancing and was always running around.
The spring breeze was intoxicating. Some boys on a distant ridge were flying kites, one in the shape of a scrawny white dragonfly (a rare sight). Adults around here had never much been in the mood for playfulness like kite-flying. They would occasionally help the kids cut and paste the kites together to liven things up. Normally when the girl saw these things in the sky she would jump with excitement, but she was always in low spirits this time of year. Passersby came and went in threes and fours to honor the dead. Seldom would someone come by alone – an exhausted wanderer who had been struck by a sudden rush of filial piety and hurried home to sweep a relative’s grave. What with all the changes over the years, however, they would look around in confusion, failing to find the grave. Yet once their feet touched native soil, their filial duty was fulfilled. You would bump into them every Tomb Sweeping Day roaming around the countryside, but no matter who they asked, they just couldn’t get any answers. Unlike the New Year Festival when firecrackers in the village make everyone’s ears ring, the sporadic popping of firecrackers now echoed down from the surrounding mountains. Aside from the scent of flowers, the fragrant stench of saltpeter naturally suffused the air.
A few people were preparing the rice fields near the road. It’s easier to feed the dead than the living, who have to grow rice at any cost.
“Hey, where’s she off to? Just a kid and already prettier than her mother,” someone teased the girl, leaning on a hoe. She pretended not to hear, and, glancing back, stopped to wait for her uncle.
“Still remember your mother?” Who could forget the events of five years earlier.
“What a nice guy, coming along with his niece to put the streamers up. Damn, the family’s whole fortune – just gone, and if the police had come a moment later that year, even the house would have burned down.”
The uncle didn’t seem to hear either but continued silently marching forward with his niece. Tractors had torn apart the road, leaving deep ruts in the wet mud – you had to pick your way carefully.
They climbed a gently winding path. Looking across, they saw clusters of people swarming around the graves on the opposite mountain, from where the patter of firecrackers could be heard. Black tendrils of smoke arose from the graves as sacrificial paper models for the dead to eat, wear and use at home were burned. There were gold ingots, refrigerators, and washing machines – all raising the standard of living in the netherworld. White streamers fluttered in front of every grave like the horsetail whip of the goddess Guanyin. Whenever the wind blew, they flew together like a phalanx of small white flags.
This excerpt was translated as part of the Chinese-English literary translation course organised by BCLT and the Foreign Languages Teaching and Research Press in the Yellow Mountains in September 2014. This draft was produced by workshop members Anna Gustafson, Kevin McGeary, Yujing Liang and David Harris, led by Bonnie McDougall, with the participation of the author Li Pingyi.