Authors: Bi Feiyu
Translated from the Chinese by
Howard Goldblatt and Sylvia Li-chun Lin
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
BOSTON NEW YORK
Copyright Â© 2010 by Bi Feiyu
Translation copyright Â© 2010 by Howard Goldblatt and Sylvia Li-chun Lin
ALL RIGHTS RESERVED
For information about permission to reproduce selections from this book,
write to Permissions, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company,
215 Park Avenue South, New York, New York 10003.
Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data
Three sisters / Bi Feiyu ; translated from the Chinese by Howard Goldblatt
and Sylvia Li-chun Lin.
1. SistersâFiction. 2. ChinaâFiction. I. Goldblatt, Howard, date.
II. Lin, Sylvia Li-chun. III. Title.
8613 2010 895.1'352âdc22 2009027930
Book design by Melissa Lotfy
Printed in the United States of America
10 9 8 7 6 5 4 3 2 1
ITTLE EIGHT WAS
barely a month old when Shi Guifang handed him over to her eldest daughter, Yumi. Outside of taking him to her breast several times a day, she showed no interest in her baby. In the normal course of events, a mother would treat her newborn son like a living treasure, cuddling him all day long. But not Shi Guifang. The effects of a monthlong lying-in had been the addition of some excess flab and a spirit of indolence. She seemed to sag, albeit contentedly; but mostly she displayed the sort of relaxed languor that comes with the successful completion of something important.
Shi Guifang savored the guiltless pleasure of leaning lazily against her door frame and nibbling on sunflower seeds. She'd pick a seed out of the palm of one hand, hold it between her thumb and index finger, and slowly bring it up to her mouth, her three remaining fleshy fingers curling under her chin. She demonstrated remarkable sloth, mainly in the way she stood, with one foot on the floor, the other resting on the doorsill. From time to time she switched feet.
People did not mind Shi Guifang's indolence, but sometimes a lazy person will appear proud, and it was this that people found intolerable. What gave her the right to look so superior when all she did was crack sunflower seeds? She definitely was not the Shi Guifang of earlier days. People had once praised her as a woman who eschewed the usual prideful airs of an official's wife. She smiled when she talked to them, and when eating made that impossible, she smiled with her eyes. But now, as people thought back over the past decade, they concluded that she had been putting up a front all that time. Embarrassed that she'd had seven girls in a row, she had suppressed her true nature with a show of excessive courtesy. That was then. Now the birth of a son, Little Eight, had given her the right to be haughty; she was as courteous as ever, but there's courtesy and then there's
Shi Guifang typified the amiable, approachable manner of a Party secretary. But her husband was the Party secretary, not she, so what right did Shi Guifang have to be so indolently amiable and approachable?
Second Aunt, who lived at the end of the alley, often came out to rake the grass that was drying in the sun. She sized up Shi Guifang with a sneer:
She had to open her legs eight times before a son popped out
, Second Aunt said to herself,
and now she has the cheek to act like
a Party secretary.
Shi Guifang had come to Wang Family Village from Shi Family Bridge. During the twenty years she was married to Wang Lianfang she had presented him with seven girls, not counting three miscarriages. She was often heard to say that the three who didn't make it had probably been boys, since all the signs had been different; even her taste buds had undergone a change. She spoke of her miscarriages as if they were missed opportunities; had she managed to keep just one of them, she'd have carried out her life's mission.
On one of her trips to town she visited a clinic, where a bespectacled doctor confirmed her suspicions. His scientific explanation would have had the average person scratching his head in bewilderment. But Shi Guifang was smart enough to get the gist of it. Put simply, being pregnant with a boy demands more care, the pregnancy is harder to hold on to, and spotting is unavoidable, even when the woman manages to keep the baby. Shi Guifang sighed at the doctor's sage words, reminding herself that a boy is a treasure, even in the womb. She was consoled to learn that fate was not keeping her from having a son, which was more or less what the doctor was really saying, and that she must have faith that science also plays a role. But this did little to lessen her feelings of despair. On her way home she stared for a long moment at a snot-nosed little boy on the pier before she tore her eyes away, dejected.
That was not, however, how Wang Lianfang saw things. Having studied dialectics in the county town, Party Secretary Wang knew all about the relationship between internal and external factors, and the difference between an egg and a rock. He had his own irrational understanding of boy and girl babies. To him, women were external factors, like farmland, temperature, and soil condition, while a man's seed was the essential ingredient. Good seed produced boys; bad seed produced girls. Although he'd never admit it, when he looked at his seven daughters his self-esteem suffered.
A man with wounded self-esteem develops a stubborn streak. By initiating a battle with himself, Wang Lianfang resolved to overcome every obstacle on his way to ultimate victory. He vowed to have a son, if not this year, then the next. If not next year, then the year after; and if not the year after, then the year after that. Not in the least anxious that he might be denied a son to carry on the line, he settled in for a long, drawn-out battle rather than seek a speedy victory. Admittedly, depositing his seed in a woman was not all that difficult.
Shi Guifang, on the other hand, endured considerable dread. During the first few years of their marriage, she'd been fairly resistant to sex. On the eve of her wedding, her sister-in-law had put her lips close to Shi Guifang's earâshe could feel her hot breathâto admonish her not to open too wide and to cover herself if she desired her husband's respect and did not want to be thought wanton. In an enigmatic tone that hinted at a broad knowledge of human affairs, her sister-in-law had said, "Remember, Guifang, the harder the bone, the better it is to gnaw." In fact, Guifang had no use for her sister-in-law's wisdom. But after several girls in a row, the situation changed dramatically. No longer resistant, no longer coy, Guifang turned fearful. She clamped her legs together and covered herself with her hands. Inevitably, the clamping and covering began to rankle Wang Lianfang, who one night slapped her twiceâonce forehand and once backhand.
"Who do you think you are?" he had said, angrily. "Not a single boy has popped out of you, and yet you still expect two bowls of rice at every meal."
Anyone standing beneath the window would have heard every word, and if it got around that she wouldn't
she'd have been ruined. Only an ugly shrew would refuse to do it if all she could manage was girls.
A slap now and then didn't bother Guifang, but Wang's shouts made her go limp. When that happened, she could no longer clamp her legs shut or cover herself. Like a clumsy barefoot doctor, Wang would set his jaw as he pulled down her pants and, seconds after entering her, spray his seed into her body. That is what really frightened her, his seed, since every one of those little invaders was capable of turning into a baby girl.
Finally, in 1971, the heavens smiled on them. Shortly after the Lunar New Year, Little Eight was born. It was not a run-of-the-mill Lunar New Year, for the people had been told to turn the celebration into a revolutionary Spring Festival. Firecrackers and games of poker were banned throughout the village, an edict that Wang himself announced over the PA system, though even he was not altogether sure just what a "revolutionary" holiday ought to be. But that did not matter so long as someone in the leadership had the courage to make the announcement; new policy always emerged from the mouth of a member of the leadership. Standing in his living room, Wang held a microphone in one hand and fiddled with the switches on the PA system with the other. Neatly lined up in a row, the little switches were hard, shiny exclamation marks.
"This is to be a Spring Festival that stands for solidarity, vigilance, solemnity, and vivacity," Wang barked into the microphone, his words like the gleaming exclamation-mark switches he pressed while he spoke: vigilant and solemn, adding a harsh and mighty aura to the cold winds of winter.
With an old overcoat draped over his shoulders and half a Flying Horse cigarette between his fingers, Wang Lianfang went on a holiday inspection of the village on the second day of the new yearâa raw, cold day. The lanes and alleys were virtually deserted, with only a few old men and children out, a dreary sight for such an important holiday. Obviously, the younger men had gathered at some secret spot to try their luck at cards. Wang stopped in front of Wang Youqing's door, where he coughed a time or two and spat out a glob of phlegm. The window curtain parted slowly to reveal the red padded jacket of Wang Youqing's wife. She glanced at the lane entrance and gestured toward her gate. The house was too dimly lit and her hand had moved too fast for Wang Lianfang to know what that gesture meant, but he turned to look just as the PA system came to life, carrying the voice of his mother, whose shouts were garbled by several missing teeth and a sense of urgency: "Lianfang, hey, Lianfang. It's a boy. Come home!"
It took Wang Lianfang, who was still looking toward the lane entrance, a few minutes to comprehend what he was hearing. When he turned back to the red jacket in the window, Youqing's wife, her face resting against the sill, was gazing at him impassively, her shoulders slumped. He thought he saw a trace of resentment on her bewitching face, which was framed by the stand-up collars of her jacket as if it were cupped in the palms of her hands. From the clamorous background emerging from the loudspeaker, Wang could tell that his living room was swarming with people. Someone put on a record, which filled the village with the valiant, sonorous, and rhythmic strains of "The Helmsman Guides the Ocean Journey."
"Go on home, you," Youqing's wife said. "They're waiting for you."
Shrugging the old overcoat up over his shoulders, Wang laughed and muttered to himself, "Well, I'll be damned."
Yumi ran in and out of the house, her sleeves rolled up to expose arms that had turned purple from the cold. But her cheeks were fiery red, generating an irrepressible glow, a sign that she was trying to suppress both an excitement and a shyness of unknown origin. The strain of mixed emotions had turned her face smooth and shiny. She bit her lip the whole time she was running around, as if she, not her mother, had delivered Little Eight. At long last her mother had a boy, and Yumi could breathe a heartfelt sigh of relief. Happiness took root in her heart. As eldest daughter, Yumi was, for all intents and purposes, more like a sister to her mother. In fact, she had assisted the midwife in the birth of the sixth girl, Yumiao, since certain things were too awkward for an outsider to handle. The arrival of Little Eight constituted the third time she'd watched her mother give birth, and that made her privy to all of a woman's secrets, a special reward for being the eldest. The second sister, Yusui, was only a year younger than Yumi, and the third girl, Yuxiu, two and a half years. But neither of them could match Yumi's understanding of the ways of the world or her level of shrewdness. Age among siblings often represents more than just the order of birth; it can also signal differences in the depth and breadth of life experience. Ultimately, maturity requires opportunity; the pace of growth does not rely on the progression of time alone.
Yumi was outside dumping bloody water in the ditch when her father walked through the gate. He assumed that on such a happy occasion his daughter would say something to him or at least glance his way. But she didn't. She wore only a thin knit top that, because it was a bit on the small side, showed off her full breasts and thin waist. Wang was surprised at the sight of her curves and purple arms; Yumi had grown into a woman.
Yumi normally did not speak to her father, not a word, and he figured that had something to do with what went on between him and other women. Sure, he slept around, but his wife didn't seem to mind; she even continued to be friendly with those women, some of whom still called her Sister Guifang. But not Yumi. Though she never talked about it openly, she had her way of dealing with the women, something that Wang Lianfang learned later during a little pillow talk. Zhang Fuguang's wife was the first to let on, several years back, when she was a newlywed. "Yumi knows," she said, "so we have to be careful."
"She doesn't know shit," Wang replied. "She's just a kid."
"She knows. I'm sure of it."
It was not something Fuguang's wife had dreamed up. A few days before, she had been sitting under a locust tree with some other women sewing a shoe sole when Yumi walked up. Fuguang's wife's face reddened as soon as she spotted Yumi, and, after a quick glance, she looked away to avoid the girl's eyes. But when she stole another glance, she realized that Yumi was standing in front of her, staring holes in her. Totally calm, totally composed, Yumi sized her up from head to toe and back as if they were the only two people present. Since she was only fourteen at the time, Wang Lianfang refused to believe she knew anything.
But then a few months later, Wang Daren's wife gave Wang Lianfang a real scare. He had barely climbed on top when she covered her face with her arms and arched upward as if her life depended on it. "Party Secretary, work hard and get it over with quickly." Unsettled by her plea, he did finish quicklyâtoo quickly. After which Wang Daren's wife hurriedly cleaned herself without a word. Wang cupped her chin and asked what was wrong. She fell to her knees.