I have to admit that, though I did not make it public, I was personally opposed to my Aunty’s marriage plans. My father, my brothers and their wives shared my feelings. It simply wasn’t a good match in our view. Ever since we were small we’d looked forward to seeing Aunty find a husband. Her relationship with Wang Xiaoti had brought immense glory to the family, only to end ingloriously. Yang Lin was next, and while not nearly the ideal match that Wang would have provided, he was, after all, an official, which made him a passable candidate for marriage. Hell, she could have married Qin He, who was obsessed with her, and be better off than with Hao Dashou . . . we were by then assuming she’d wind up an old maid, and had made appropriate plans. We’d even discussed who would be her caregiver when she reached old age. But then, with no prior indication, she’d married Hao Dashou. Little Lion and I were living in Beijing then, and when we heard the news, we could hardly believe our ears. Once the preposterous reality set in, we were overcome by sadness.
Years later, Aunty starred in a TV program titled ‘Moon Child,’ which was supposed to be about the sculptor Hao Dashou, though the camera was always on her, talking and gesturing as she welcomed journalists into Hao’s yard and gave them a guided tour of his workshop and the storeroom where he kept all his clay figurines, while he sat quietly at his workbench, eyes glazed over and a blank look on his face, like a dreamy old horse. Did all master artists turn into dreamy old horses once they became famous? I wondered. The name Hao Dashou resounded in my ears, though I’d only met him a few times. After seeing him late on the night my nephew Xianquan hosted a dinner to celebrate his acceptance as a pilot, years passed before I saw him again, and this time it was on TV. His hair and beard had turned white, but his complexion was ruddy as ever; composed and serene, he was a nearly transcendent figure. It was during that program that we learned why Aunty had married Hao Dashou.
Aunty lit a cigarette, took a deep drag, and began to speak, sadness creeping into her voice. ‘Marriages,’ she said, ‘are made in Heaven. By this, I’m not promoting the cause of idealism for you youngsters, for there was a time when I was an ardent materialist, but where marriage is concerned, you must trust in fate. Just ask him,’ she said, pointing to Hao Dashou. ‘Do you think he ever dreamed of one day getting me as his wife?’
‘In 1997, when I was sixty,’ she said, ‘my superiors told me to retire, whether I wanted to or not. I was already five years past the retirement age, and nothing I said would have made any difference. You know the hospital director, that ungrateful bastard Huang Jun, the son of Huang Pi from Hexi Village. Just who do you think dragged that little shit – they called him Melon Huang – out of his mother’s belly? Well, he spent a couple of days in a medical school, and when he came out, almost as stupid as the day he went in, he couldn’t find a vein with a syringe, couldn’t locate a heart with a stethoscope, and had never heard the terms ‘inch, bar, and cubit’ when checking a patient’s pulse. So who better to appoint as hospital director! He was admitted into the school thanks to my personal recommendation to Director Shen of the Bureau of Health. Only to be ignored by him when he was the man in charge. The wretched creature has limited talents: playing the host, giving gifts, kissing ass and seducing women.’
At this point, Aunty thumped her breast and stomped her foot. ‘What a fool I was,’ she said angrily, ‘letting the wolf in my door. I made it easy for him to have his way with all the girls in the hospital. Wang Xiaomei, a seventeen-year-old girl from Wang Village, had nice, thick braids, a pretty oval face, and skin like ivory. Her lashes danced like butterfly wings, her eyes could talk, and anyone who saw her would believe that if film director Zhang Yimou discovered her, she’d be a hotter commodity than Gong Li or Zhang Ziyi ever were. Sadly, Melon Huang, the sex fiend, discovered her first. He rushed off to Wang Village, where, with a glib tongue that could bring back the dead, he talked Xiaomei’s parents into sending her to his hospital to learn from me how to treat women’s problems. He said she’d be my student, but she never spent a single day with me. Instead, the lecher kept her to himself, his daily companion and nightly lover. If that weren’t bad enough, he even took her during the daytime; people had seen them. Then once he’d had enough fun with her, he was off to the county seat, where he hosted banquets for high officials with public funds, in hopes of being transferred to the big city. Maybe you haven’t seen what he looks like: a long, donkey face with dark lips, bloody gums, and toxic breath. Even with a face like that, he figured he had a chance of becoming assistant director at the Bureau of Health! Each time he dragged Wang Xiaomei along to drink and eat and entertain the officials, probably even offering her up as a gift for their pleasure. Evil! That’s what he was, pure evil!
‘One day the little wretch called me to his office. Other women who worked in the hospital were afraid to be in his office. But not me. I kept a little dagger handy, and wouldn’t have hesitated to use it on the bastard. Well, he poured tea, smiled, and laid it on thick. “What did you want to see me about, Director Huang? Let’s get to the point.” “Heh-heh.” He grinned. “Great Aunt” – damned if he didn’t call me “Great Aunt” – “you delivered me the day I was born, and you’ve watched me grow into adulthood. Why, I could be your own son. Heh-heh” . . . “I don’t deserve such an honour,” I said. “You’re the director of a big hospital, while I’m just an ordinary woman’s doctor. If you were my son I’d die from the honour. So, please, tell me what you have in mind.” More heh-heh-heh, before he got around to revealing the shameless reason he’d summoned me. “I’ve made the mistake all leading cadres make sooner or later – through my own carelessness Wang Xiaomei got pregnant.” “Congratulations!” I said. “Now that Xiaomei is carrying your dragon seed, the hospital is guaranteed leadership continuity.” “Don’t mock me, Great Aunt, I’ve been so upset the past few days I can’t eat or sleep.” Can you believe the bastard actually said he had trouble eating and sleeping? “She’s demanding that I divorce my wife, and if I won’t she’s threatened to report me to the County Discipline Commission.” “Really?” I said. “I thought having ‘second wives’ was popular among you officials these days. Buy a villa, install her in it, and you’ve got it made.” “I asked you not to make fun of me, Great Aunt,” he said. “I couldn’t go public with a ‘second’ or a ‘third’ wife, even if I had the money to buy a villa.” “Then go ahead and get a divorce,” I said. He pulled that donkey face longer than ever and said, “Great Aunt, you know full well that my father-in-law and those pig-butcher brothers-in-law of mine are violent thugs. My life wouldn’t be worth a thing if they found out about this.” “But you’re the Director, an official!” “All right, that’s enough, Great Aunt. In your old eyes the director of a hospital in a piddling, out-of-the-way town is about as important as a loud fart, so instead of mocking me, why don’t you help me come up with something!” “What in the world could I come up with?” “Wang Xiaomei admires you,” he said. “She’s told me that many, many times. You’re the only person she’ll listen to.” “What do you want me to do?” “Talk her into having an abortion.” “Melon Huang,” I complained through clenched teeth, “I will never again soil my hands with that atrocious act! Over the course of my life I’ve already been responsible for more than two thousand aborted births, and I’ll never do it again. Just wait her out until you’re a father. Xiaomei is such a pretty girl, she’s bound to present you with a lovely boy or girl, and that should make you happy. You go tell her that when the time comes, I’ll be there to deliver the child.”’
‘With that, I turned on my heel and walked out of the office pleased with myself. But that feeling lasted only till I was back in my own office and had drunk a glass of water. My mood turned dark. No one as bad as Melon Huang deserved to have an heir, and what a shame that Wang Xiaomei was carrying his child. I’d learned enough delivering all those children to know that a person’s core – good or bad – is determined more by nature than nurture. You can criticize hereditary laws all you want, but this is knowledge based on experience. You could place a son of that evil Melon Huang in a Buddhist temple, and he’d grow up to be a lascivious monk. No matter how sorry I felt for Wang Xiaomei or how unwilling I was to put ideas in her head, I simply couldn’t let that fiend find an easy way out of his predicament. If the world had another lascivious monk, so be it.
‘But Xiaomei herself came to me, wrapped her arms around my legs, and dirtied my trousers with her tears and snivel. “Aunty,” she sobbed, “dear Aunty, he tricked me, he lied to me. I wouldn’t marry that bastard if he sent an eight-man sedan chair for me. Help me do it, Aunty, I don’t want that evil seed in me.”’
‘So that’s how it was.’ Aunty lit another cigarette and puffed away savagely, until I couldn’t see her face for all the smoke. ‘I helped rid her of the fetus. Once a rose about to bloom, Wang Xiaomei was now a ruined, fallen woman.’ Aunty reached up and dried her tears. ‘I vowed to never do that procedure again, I couldn’t take it any longer, not for anyone, not even if the woman was carrying the offspring of a chimpanzee. I wouldn’t do it. The slurping sound as it was sucked into the vacuum bottle was like a monstrous hand squeezing my heart, harder and harder, until I broke out in a cold sweat and began to see stars. The moment I finished I crumpled to the floor.
‘You’re right, I do digress when I’m talking – I’m old. After all that chatter, I still haven’t told you why I married Hao Dashou. Well, I announced my retirement on the fifteenth day of the seventh lunar month, but that bastard Melon Huang wanted to keep me around and urged me to formally retire but remain on the payroll at eight hundred Yuan a month. I spat in his face. “I’ve slaved away enough for you, you bastard. You have me to thank for eight out of every ten Yuan this hospital has earned all these years. When women and girls come to the hospital from all around, it’s me they’ve come to see. If money was what I was after, I could have made at least a thousand a day on my own. Do you really think you can buy my labour for eight hundred a month, Melon Huang? A migrant worker is worth more than that. I’ve slaved away half my life, and now it’s time for me to rest, to go back home to Northeast Gaomi Township.” He was upset with me and has spent much of the past two years trying to make me suffer. Me, suffer? I’m a woman who’s seen it all. As a little girl I wasn’t scared of the Jap devils, so what made him think I was scared of a little bastard like him now that I was in my seventies? Right, right, back to what I was saying.
‘If you want to know why I married Hao Dashou, I have to start with the frogs. Some old friends got together for dinner on the night I announced my retirement, and I wound up drunk – I hadn’t drunk much, less than a bowlful, but it was cheap liquor. Xie Xiaoque, the son of the restaurant owner, Xie Baizhua, one of those sweet-potato kids of the ‘63 famine, took out a bottle of ultra-strong Wuliangye – to honour me, he said – but it was counterfeit, and my head was reeling. Everyone at the table was wobbly, barely able to stand, and Xie Xiaoque himself foamed at the mouth till his eyes rolled up into his head.’
Aunty said she staggered out of the restaurant, headed to the hospital dormitory, but wound up in a marshy area on a narrow, winding path bordered on both sides by head-high reeds. Moonlight reflected on the water around her shimmered like glass. The croaks of toads and frogs sounded first on one side and then on the other, back and forth, like an antiphonal chorus. Then the croaks came at her from all sides at the same time, waves and waves of them merging to fill the sky. Suddenly, there was total silence, broken only by the chirping of insects. Aunty said that in all her years as a medical provider, traveling up and down remote paths late at night, she’d never once felt afraid. But that night she was terror-stricken. The croaking of frogs is often described in terms of drumbeats. But that night it sounded to her like human cries, almost as if thousands of newborn infants were crying. That had always been one of her favorite sounds, she said. For an obstetrician, no sound in the world approaches the soul-stirring music of a newborn baby’s cries. The liquor she’d drunk that night, she said, left her body as cold sweat. ‘Don’t assume I was drunk and hallucinating, because as soon as the liquor oozed out through my pores, leaving me with a slight headache, my mind was clear.’ As she walked down the muddy path, all she wanted was to escape that croaking. But how? No matter how hard she tried to get away, the chilling croak – croak – croak – sounds of aggrieved crying ensnared her from all sides. She tried to run, but couldn’t; the gummy surface of the path stuck to the soles of her shoes, and it was a chore even to lift up a foot, snapping the silvery threads that held her shoes to the surface of the path. But as soon as she stepped down, more threads were formed. So she took off her shoes to walk in her bare feet, but that actually increased the grip of the mud. Aunty said she got down on her hands and knees, like an enormous frog, and began to crawl. Now the mud stuck to her knees and calves and hands, but she didn’t care, she just kept crawling. It was at that moment, she said, when an incalculable number of frogs hopped out of the dense curtain of reeds and from lily pads that shimmered in the moonlight. Some were jade green, others were golden yellow; some were as big as an electric iron, others as small as dates. The eyes of some were like nuggets of gold, those of others, red beans. They came upon her like ocean waves, enshrouding her with their angry croaks, and it felt as if all those mouths were pecking at her skin, that they had grown nails to scrape her skin. When they hopped onto her back, her neck, and her head, their weight sent her sprawling onto the muddy path. Her greatest fear, she said, came not from the constant pecking and scratching, but from the disgusting, unbearable sensation of their cold, slimy skin brushing against hers. ‘They covered me with urine, or maybe it was semen.’ She said she was suddenly reminded of a legend her grandmother had told her about a seducing frog: a maiden cooling herself on a riverbank one night fell asleep and dreamed of a liaison with a young man dressed in green. When she awoke she was pregnant and eventually gave birth to a nest of frogs. Given an explosion of energy by that terrifying image, she jumped to her feet and shed the frogs on her body like mud clods. But not all – some clung to her clothes and to her hair; two even hung by their mouths from the lobes of her ears, a pair of horrific earrings. As she took off running, she sensed that somehow the mud was losing its sucking power, and as she ran she shook her body and tore at her clothes and skin with both hands. She shrieked each time she caught one of the frogs, which she flung away. The two attached to her ears like suckling infants took some of the skin with them when she pulled them off.
Aunty screamed and she ran, but she couldn’t break free of the reptilian horde. And when she turned to look, the sight nearly drove the soul out of her body. Thousands, tens of thousands of frogs had formed a mighty army behind her, croaking, hopping, colliding, crowding together, like a murky torrent rushing madly toward her. As she ran, roadside frogs hopped into the path forming barriers to block her progress, while others leaped out of the reedy curtain in individual assaults. She told us that the loose-fitting black silk dress she was wearing that night was being shredded by the assault. Attacking frogs swallowed the strips of silk, and were thrown into a frenzy of cheek scraping before they rolled on the ground and exposed their white undersides.
She ran all the way to a riverbank, where she spotted a little stone bridge washed by silvery moonlight. By then hardly anything remained of her dress, and when she reached the bridge, stark naked, she ran into Hao Dashou.
Thoughts of modesty did not enter her mind at that moment, nor was she aware that she had been stripped naked. She spotted a man in a palm-bark rain cape and a bamboo coned hat sitting in the middle of the bridge kneading something in his hands. ‘I later learned that he was kneading a lump of clay. A moon child can only be made from clay bathed in moonlight. I didn’t know who he was, but I didn’t care. Whoever he was, he was bound to be my salvation.’ She rushed into the man’s arms and crawled under his rain cape, and when her breasts came into contact with the warmth of his chest, in contrast to the damp, foul-smelling chill of the frogs on her back, she cried out, ‘Help, Big Brother, save me!’ She promptly passed out.
Aunty’s extended narration called up images of frog hordes in our minds and sent chills up and down our spines. The camera cut to Hao Dashou, who still sat there like a statue; the next scenes were close-ups of clay figures and of the little stone bridge, before returning to Aunty’s face, focusing on her mouth. She said:
‘I awoke to find myself on Hao Dashou’s brick bed, dressed in men’s clothes. With both hands he handed me a bowl of mung bean soup, the simple fragrance of which cleared my head. I was sweating after a single bowlful, and was suddenly aware of how much I hurt and how hot my skin felt. But that cold, slimy feeling that had made me scream was already fading. I had itchy, painful blisters all over my body, I spiked a fever, and I was delirious. But I had passed an ordeal by drinking Hao Dashou’s mung bean soup; I’d shed a layer of skin, and my bones had begun to ache. I’d heard a legend about rebirth, and I knew I’d become a new person. When I regained my health, I said to Hao Dashou: “Big Brother, let’s get married.”’
Photograph © Gonzalo, Frog, 2012