Starting about twenty or thirty years ago, the land in our village became more and more barren. Stones of all sizes sprouted continuously from the earth, and the stones divided the land into irregular shapes. This was incomprehensible. Our region was hilly, and the land had never been that good to begin with. It was suitable only for growing some sweet potatoes, potatoes and beans. Harvesting anything at all required painstaking effort. Once the stones began sprouting from the ground, one could never be sure of a harvest, and sometimes there was a total failure of crops.
To avoid starvation, people of my parents’ generation went elsewhere to work. When I was a child, most people went to fluff cotton. A few people sold maltose. The ones selling maltose didn’t earn as much as those who fluffed cotton. But fluffing cotton wasn’t good for one’s health: most workers suffered from lung diseases, and some had asthma.
There wasn’t much to do in the village. Most of the land was abandoned, except for growing vegetables we ate ourselves. But no one felt bad about this situation. Because of the stones growing all over the land, our large village came to be known as was later called ‘Stone Village’.
Only women and children stayed behind. The men – even old men – went away to work, except for those who were ill or dying. As a child, I stayed at home with Mama and my younger sister, while Dad and my older brother went to other provinces to fluff cotton. In fact, I secretly yearned to go to another province, too. Staying in the village was boring. Day in and day out, we did the same things: fed the pigs, watered the vegetables, went up the mountain to cut firewood. Day after day, all we saw was the same few worried old faces; all we heard was neighbors quarreling and cursing. Once, when I forgot to feed the pigs, Mama chased me and beat me. I felt so disgraced.
I started talking with my little sister about running away.
‘Tater, you don’t have a trade. How can you leave? You might starve to death out there,’ Yinxiu said. She spoke exasperatingly slowly.
Starving to death was what we feared the most, and so that’s what Yinxiu thought of the moment I brought up the idea of running away.
‘I have no trade, it’s true. But I’ve heard that in Yunnan, you can clear the land on the mountains. Also, there’s a lot of wild fruit on the mountains, and fish in the creeks. It’s easy to find food.’
Yinxiu burst out laughing and said, ‘Tater, you’re a dreamer.’
We came to the vegetable field. I carried water on a shoulder pole, and she ladled it out to water the beans.
I noticed that another stone had grown in the bok choy field. It was huge: it occupied almost a quarter of the field. The day before yesterday, bok choy had still been growing on the spot occupied by this rock. Now, who knew where the bok choy had gone? Only this offensive, gray rock stood there.
‘Look – look . . .’ I said, stammering, pointing out the rock to Yinxiu.
‘It isn’t new – I saw it a week ago,’ Yinxiu sneered.
So she had known some time ago that the stone was growing. She kept watering. Nothing ever surprised her: she and I were very different that way. In this moment, I started to doubt whether I could survive if I went to another province.
Yinxiu finished with the beans and walked over to me. We stood side by side.
‘Are these stones driving us away?’ she whispered.
‘Don’t worry, Yinxiu. I’m not going to go immediately. I have to think it over,’ I comforted her.
‘Tater, you have to think carefully about this.’
Yinxiu stood up and went back to the house by herself. I ached at seeing her lonely, thin frame. For years, our family of five had never had enough to eat. Why were we keeping watch over these stones? Was there really nowhere else we could live? Dad and our brother had traveled far and wide, they must have looked for other places. Yinxiu was a clever girl, and she must have given this a lot of thought. Ai, ai, it was truly hopeless. Ever since I was little, I had learned to listen carefully to the sounds the stones made as they sprouted from the land. I was influenced by my dad, who listened closely every day. We would sit in the yard where Dad was making straw sandals in the dark, and he would suddenly say, ‘Tater, listen, there’s another one. It came out yesterday – over there where the soy beans are drying.’ Or: ‘Tater, there are more and more pebbles in the potato field. But potatoes are so hardy that they can grow the same as before.’ I knew that rocks grew fairly slowly, and they made an extruding noise ‘zha-zha-zha’ in the fields. Pebbles, though, were agile, scuttling all over and making cheerful ‘diliu, diliu’ sounds. The next morning, Dad would ask me to look at what had grown during the night. But in all these years, this was the first time I had seen such a large rock in the bok choy field. This rock looked imposing, like a giant: it wanted to take over our whole vegetable plot.
While I was chopping pig feed in the kitchen, I heard Mama heaving deep sighs. After a while, I couldn’t bear it any longer: I put down the knife and went into the main room to ask what was wrong.
‘Mama, what are you worried about? We’re all grown up now.’
‘Tater, always thinking about me, such a good boy. Yes, you’re all grown up, but this place is so barren and wild. Staying here, you don’t even have enough to eat. What kind of future do you have?’
‘Sometimes when I talk of leaving here, Yinxiu urges me to “think carefully.”’ She is more insightful than anyone.’
‘Did Yinxiu really say that? My God, this child Yinxiu – I have to say she says exactly what’s on my mind! I feel like crying.’
She wiped away tears. I begged Mama not to cry: We weren’t leaving. There were plenty of reasons to stay here. It was clear that Yinxiu knew these reasons. If I didn’t know, it didn’t matter. It was enough for her to know; she could tell me later.
But Mama didn’t listen; she went to her bedroom broken-hearted, but I could still hear her sobbing. Ai, my mama. She wept because of Yinxiu’s precocious sense of responsibility. I immediately remembered that our life as children also had another side to it. This wasn’t necessarily unfortunate, for it gave us pleasure. Back then, when Yinxiu was eight and I was ten, she invented a game called ‘storing nice things.’ I saw a deep hole in a newly sprouted rock on the land. You could reach all the way to the bottom of it. Yinxiu said she wanted to go home and get a nice thing to store in this hole. I was excited about Yinxiu’s game. But what nice things did we have in our poor home? We thought about it, but couldn’t come up with anything. If we stored food, then someone in our family would go hungry; if we stored Mama’s bright golden thimble, Mama would be angry. Just then, I had a great idea: ‘We can store gold bars, and when there’s a famine, we can trade them for food.’ ‘Gold bars?’ Yinxiu opened her eyes wide. I guided her to a firewood shed, where we chose some attractive beanstalks from the pile of sticks. Then we furtively slipped into the field and put the beanstalks into the hole in the rock. This top-secret game kept us excited for days. We were giggling all the time. Later, we stored tiles, date pits, unripe wild chestnuts and other things. Each time, it felt like an unexpected novelty. However, after three or four years, as the rock continued growing, the hole in it actually closed up by itself. By then, we were a few years older and no longer cared about the game.
Oh, those stones! So many nights, they filled the deep ravines in my brain. When I shook my head in the dark, they made all kinds of noises. I knew the stones inside me were the same ones that were outside: they were colluding with each other. One time, in the middle of the night, I rubbed my head on the pillow and then suddenly opened my eyes and saw a shadow bending toward me. ‘Who is it?’ I asked, panicked. It was my little sister. She grumbled sadly, saying that the stones had blocked our livelihood. To console her, I said that if we thought of ourselves as stones, and stayed with the stones and moved with them, we would go on living. Maybe we’d also be able to generate joy. ‘Really?’ Yinxiu said hesitantly. Then she went back to bed. I had no way to know if she had taken my advice. But I do know that she changed after that– she became extremely hard to understand, even for me.
Back to Mama: after crying for a while in her bedroom, she pulled out a shoe sole that she was making. She started working on it, but I knew that her thinking had flown to a distant place.
‘Sooner or later, your dad and brother will die somewhere far from here,’ she said gloomily.
‘If they find somewhere better, can our whole family move?’ I asked.
‘I don’t think there is anywhere better,’ Mama said indifferently.
‘What if they found a place where we could eat until we were full?’ I went on.
‘But we aren’t starving now, either, are we?’ She smiled oddly.
Hadn’t she just been complaining earlier that we had no future, that this place was barren and wild – that we didn’t even have enough to eat? How could she change her mind so quickly? Did she mean that she, like Yinxiu, disapproved of my running away from home? Did they think that as long as we weren’t starving we should stay here? It seemed so. And the way she spoke of Dad and my brother seemed to confirm that they still considered this village their home, though they did hard labor elsewhere all year long. What was so special about our village that we wanted to stay here?
I accidentally discovered a medium-sized stone sprouting from the foundation of our old home. It was pushing upward, splitting open a wide crack in the foundation. This happened when my dad and brother came home to celebrate the New Year. I sensed that everyone noticed this, but they pretended nothing was happening. And so I was too embarrassed to mention it. Maybe this was a trivial, ordinary thing – there was no need to make a fuss over it. Two months later, I noticed that our two-story house was tilting. By then, Dad and my brother had once again gone away from home for work. Mama and Yinxiu must have also noticed the tilt, but they didn’t say a word – it was as if there were not the slightest danger. Once, Yinxiu pushed over a large cupboard on the second floor. At the time, I was asleep on the ground floor; I thought it was an earthquake so I jumped up and ran outside barefoot. I ran all the way out of the courtyard and stood there watching our house. The house was spinning like a top (or maybe my vision was blurry). Then it stopped where it had been before. After a while, Yinxiu opened the door and walked out slowly. I ran over and asked if she knew that our house was falling apart. She smiled calmly and said, ‘That would be great. The old house has to collapse before a new one can be built.’ She told me she didn’t like our red-brick house. She dreamed of living in a cave – that was the only place she would feel safe. But our village didn’t have this kind of gigantic rock, and so there was no possibility of chiseling out a cave to live in. I asked her: Wasn’t she even a little afraid that our house would collapse? She said that couldn’t happen. She said if I looked carefully, I’d see that our house had already formed an integral whole with the rock growing underground, so it didn’t matter how much the house tilted, it wouldn’t collapse. The rock was huge, but wasn’t yet gigantic. ‘Where could there be a gigantic rock?’ she muttered to herself.
What my sister said shocked me, and put me in a bad mood for a little while. I sensed my ignorance and also realized that I wasn’t very insightful. What’s more, I had absolutely no ability to predict anything. Later, I dreamed that all the land in our village had turned into various kinds of stones, leaving no place to grow anything. In the dream, I complained to Mama: ‘You like stones so much, and now you have them – all the land has turned into stones!’ Mama criticized me, saying that I was mistaken in what I saw, and that my vision wasn’t nearly as good as Yinxiu’s. This made me feel bad, and so I stuck my neck out and quacked like a duck – until I woke up.
When I was cooking pigswill in the kitchen, my sister walked over and said, ‘Tater, you’ve learned how to erupt, and that’s a good thing. Have you seen rocks rupture?’
I said I hadn’t.
‘Okay, I’ll show you tomorrow.’
But what she wanted to show me wasn’t in the wilderness, nor was it in the vegetable fields. It was a stone in the back of her head, under her hair. She pushed her thick hair away so that I could see, and sure enough, I saw a round stone protruding from my sister’s scalp. It was about the size of a quail egg. I pressed it with my finger; it was hard.
‘It’s always rupturing,’ my sister said proudly as she raised her head. ‘My head is changing into a stone.’
I was horrified by what she said, and a little sorrowful, too. But she seemed unperturbed. Probably this stone didn’t affect her, and maybe it even helped her think. I hid my reaction and did my best to reply lightly: ‘This is like growing a horn. You’ll turn into the devil!’
‘I always want to carve out a grotto to live in, and the outcome is that I’ve changed like this. At midnight, a “pipi papa” sound echoes incessantly, and dissipates some of the fear. Tater, do you remember our storehouse in the bok choy field? After that cave disappeared, I was broken-hearted for a long time.’
‘I see. Yinxiu, there seems to be a game for every age.’
We laughed out loud. We were sad, yet vaguely excited about something.
Mama obviously knew about this, but she wasn’t worried about my sister. She had said that if we stayed here we would have no future. When she said that, she was probably testing me. Mama and my sister had unique opinions about the ways of the world, and they were very careful about what they said; I had to ponder over and over. What about the stones sprouting on the land? Was this a bad omen or was it auspicious? Thinking about this, I always came to a dead end.
Because the land was barren, it was harder and harder to find pigweed on the hills. Discouraged, I sat on the bare slope and swept my eyes over the entire region where almost all the hills had turned into stones. I recalled my nighttime adventures. There was no longer much wild pigweed. Should I plant more vegetables for the pigs to eat? But there was also less and less soil where vegetables could grow. Everyone in the family was waiting for something to happen. I was waiting, too, but I had no idea what the something would be. I thought they knew, and sometimes I couldn’t keep from asking Yinxiu. She said, ‘It’s what you’re doing every day.’
Did she mean patrolling in the cracks in the rocks at night? What would that lead to? Sprouting a horn on your head just like hers? For several nights, I purposely didn’t think about the rocks, because I was still a little afraid. The strange thing was: recently I hadn’t thought any more about running away. Because night after night I was in contact with the rock on my head, I could gradually predict changes in my body. No. No, I’m not hinting that my head might sprout a horn like my sister’s. The changes in my body were another kind. Precisely what kind, I didn’t yet know. I just vaguely felt that my wanting to stay in my village was probably connected with this.
One day, I got up early to tidy the vegetable plot before the sun rose. I kept digging down with a two-toothed hoe, but the more I dug the more pebbles there were. What did this mean?
‘Where is the soil? Where is the soil?’
Someone beside me kept asking the same question, but I couldn’t see him. After a while, I got a little spooked and shouted, ‘Who are you? Let me see you!’
‘You may look at yourself and ask the same question.’
The person said this very calmly and then said no more. Maybe he was a ghost who had long ago learned about things of the human world. I reflected on his words. I thought, since I didn’t even understand basic things about my village, if I really ran away from it, I probably still wouldn’t understand, and it wouldn’t lead to anything good. I wasn’t worried for myself; rather, my village had so many problems hemming me in. Something inside me was changing, and I was curious about this change. So I wanted to stay here and wait quietly until one day it emerged.
As I pondered my problems, I slowly dug stones out of the ground. When the sun rose, I saw that what I had done was useless, because there were still just as many stones as before. Actually, even more. Yinxiu came out and said, ‘You don’t need to scoop out all these stones. I’ve discovered that our vegetables, sweet potatoes and beans are all doing fine. They can take root and grow on the stones, they’ve been doing it for several months. Tater, we’ll have enough to eat from now on.’
‘Really?’ I was excited. ‘Are you sure?’
‘After a while, we’ll harvest the carrots, and you can see for yourself how they’ve penetrated the stones.’
‘My God! Good lord….’ I murmured.
When Yinxiu and I were eating breakfast, we noticed that Mama looked very happy.
‘Your dad and brother are coming home. I didn’t think this day would ever come,’ she said.
‘Tater, your expression resembles those stones more and more,’ Yinxiu said admiringly as she looked at me.
‘Do stones have expressions?’
‘You have to stare at them before you can see that. I think you do always stare at them.’
‘I never – Ai, why do I always overlook important things?’ I was very annoyed with myself.
‘It doesn’t matter whether you see them or not, Tater. You resemble them.’
Yinxiu had answered my question. We pulled carrots up out of the ground. Each one had a pebble attached to it. These carrots’ hard lives had ended; now they had been reprieved.
‘All the vegetables’ – Yinxiu gestured in a large circle – ‘and all the other crops are so lush this year.’
No wonder Dad and my brother were coming home. How wonderful! But how did these things happen? I had never heard the villagers comment about the land and the stones, or the produce from the land. They seemed rather apathetic, just silently accepting their lot. Perhaps what I saw was superficial; maybe only Yinxiu knew the inside story. Was every villager like me – dreaming about stones? Everyone was hanging on persistently. No one emigrated. Perhaps they had long ago had a premonition of what was going to happen. The more I thought about this, the more complex it was. I was even a little afraid. Thinking of those carrots in the field just now, my hair suddenly stood on end. I wondered what I looked like now. I took out that small old mirror and looked – ah, my face wasn’t reflected in the mirror. I could see only the wall behind me.
Late at night, I heard another kind of rustling sound. It wasn’t the sound of stones; it came from the plants. Yes, it was the power of growth. These undernourished plants in our village looked weak and spindly, but they concealed a bizarre ghostly force. Years had gone by. Now, today, they had begun to change the world bit by bit. My sister’s voice reached me from upstairs: ‘Pigweed is growing again on the hill. Tater, you’re so lucky.’ She seemed excited. Ai-ai, this family of ours, ah. I rubbed my head again on the pillow; I wanted to hear what response would come from those stones deep under the earth. But they seemed vigilant; they stayed below, motionless.
The wind rose, and the house shook a little. I remembered that my sister had said this tilted house formed an integral whole with the large rock underneath. If so, our shaking house was like a baby’s swaying cradle: sleeping in it, we had nothing to worry about. But I didn’t feel sleepy. With wide open eyes, I was wondering if my sister was asleep upstairs or not. She wasn’t: she was pacing back and forth upstairs, her footsteps light. Just then, I looked out the window and saw a huge bird flutter down from above and land on the ground. It was my sister! I reacted at once and ran outside, shouting as I ran.
‘Shh, don’t shout! You’ll wake Mama up,’ she said.
‘Yinxiu, when did you learn acrobatics?’
‘It’s easy. It just takes a little practice. What’s difficult is digging into the ground.’
‘Do you want to do that?’
‘You mean you never thought of that? Then what are you doing when you rub your head back and forth on the pillow? Come, I’ll take you to see something. It’s something Dad showed me when he came back.’
Yinxiu said we needed to go into the mountains. Because it was a bright moonlit night, it wasn’t too hard to walk.
What she wanted to show me was in a place near the foothills. We saw it after we climbed up a small path. It was a gigantic rock that had just sprouted. I had never seen such a large rock in this region. I hadn’t come to this hill for a long time, and its change surprised me.
‘Follow close behind me.’ Yinxiu said, ‘Don’t stop.’
We stood in front of a round hole in the rock. She crawled in first, and I followed. We crawled slowly on all fours. There were several bends in the cave. Yinxiu picked up speed, and I couldn’t keep up with her. My trousers felt worn at the knees from crawling, but I couldn’t straighten up. Ai, she had left me behind: this was too scary. I wanted to retreat, but I didn’t how to move backward. Fatigued and fearful, I lay down. Why had Yinxiu led me into an eerie cave like this? Surely she didn’t mean to harm me; she was good-hearted and loved me. I lay on my back, rubbing the ground with my hands and heels, trying to inch back and get out. But when I reached the bend, I couldn’t turn the corner because it was blocked and there was no longer a path. It seemed this wasn’t the way my sister had led me before; I had come to another cave. I was terribly dizzy.
‘Yinxiu!’ I shouted.
She answered immediately. She seemed to be nearby, but separated by a thick wall. She and I were no longer in the same place. How could I exit this creepy cave? I called to her again, and she answered again. She said, ‘Tater, take a nap here. What a great opportunity! This is the cave I mentioned.’
As it turned out, this was the cave she had yearned for. Had she chiseled it out? Not likely. Not even my brother or I could do this kind of work. It had been here all along. It was so cramped inside, and there were so many twists and turns, and yet Yinxiu found it appealing. Now, it was probably still dark outside; I closed my eyes, trying to sleep. No, this was impossible. I was too wide awake. It was dazzling inside my head; even those deep ravines had disappeared. But I still couldn’t appreciate Yinxiu’s fondness for this cave. I called out to her again.
‘Tater, you’re too impatient. You need to calm down and appreciate it in your heart. A cave – this kind of house – a lot of villagers would like to come and live here, but they can’t find the entrance. That’s what Dad showed me.’
Following her instructions, I gradually calmed down and then I realized something: this kind of rock wasn’t at all gloomy and cold; it was even slightly warm, as though its temperature hadn’t changed since it bubbled up from underground. Actually, as long as you weren’t impatient, lying in this warm, dry cave was quite comfortable. Why would I be concerned? Yinxiu was nearby. There was no way she would abandon me, and I would eventually find a way out. There must be an easy way. As soon as I relaxed, drowsiness attacked me.
I woke up in the foothills, surrounded by dry leaves on the ground; Yinxiu was beside me. I wanted to ask about the cave, but she was evasive, unwilling to answer me. I’d better just shut up.
We went home together. Yinxiu promptly headed to the kitchen to cook breakfast.
I sat down and shucked soy beans. After a while, Mama came downstairs. She seemed happy.
‘Tater, I got some good news during the night: your dad and brother are on their way home for good. It’s just like the legend says – “coming home in glory.” I never imagined I’d see this day! Did you expect this, Tater?’
‘I did, Mama. Last night, I thought this would happen.’
‘Last night – oh, I see. That’s wonderful.’
‘What do you mean, Mama?’
‘What I mean is: good things are coming to everyone in the family.’
When Dad and my brother came into the courtyard carrying tools for fluffing cotton, Yinxiu and I had just emerged from the cave. We had become used to sleeping there, so we were in high spirits after we woke up.
‘I could hardly wait for this day to come.’ Dad said excitedly, sipping his tea.
‘Dad, you and brother won’t leave again, will you?’ I asked.
‘No, we won’t. Because of these stones. Tater, do you know where that cave leads – the one where you and Yinxiu stay overnight?’
‘Ah, it leads to – no, I won’t say. It’s a secret. Now the family is reunited and we won’t be separated again. We went to so many places. There were stones everywhere – more in some places, fewer in others. Each stone is a messenger, and so we got news very quickly.’ With that, Dad closed his eyes and fell silent.
We knew that he was still roaming in the world of stones. Mama couldn’t hide her happiness: she was smiling from ear to ear. After a while, she wanted everyone to look again at the huge rock under the foundation.
‘See how nice it is. A strong wind blew in yesterday, but we had this roly-poly toy. What I mean to say is that our house has become a roly-poly toy. It’s fascinating! Just think, this wondrous thing has occurred in Stone Village,’ she said.
We started laughing, remembering how the house swayed when it was windy. The house and the huge rock beneath it had become an integral whole. Why did it still sway? Could it be that below the huge rock, at the deepest spot, there was boundless liquid?
‘Ha – roly-poly toy . . . roly-poly toy – ha!’ The more Yinxiu thought about it, the funnier she thought it was. She doubled over in laughter.
‘Wherever there are stones, there’s good fortune!’ I said. This remark crossed my mind all of a sudden.
At first, everyone stared blankly, and then they started applauding.
‘Tater has grown up!’ they said in unison.
My face flushed red.