Sample text for Red poppies / Alai ; translated from the Chinese by Howard Goldblatt and Sylvia Li-chun Lin.
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It snowed that morning. I was in bed when I heard wild thrushes
singing outside my window. Mother was washing up in a brass basin,
panting softly as she immersed her fair, slender hands in warm milk, as
if keeping them lovely were a wearisome chore. She flicked her finger
against the edge of the basin, sending tiny ripples skittering across
the surface of the milk and a loud rap echoing through the room.
Then she sent for the maid, Sangye Dolma.
Acknowledging the summons, Sangye Dolma walked in carrying another
brass basin. She placed the milk basin on the floor, and Mother called
out softly, "Come here, Dordor."
A puppy yelped its way out from under a cupboard. It rolled around on
the floor and wagged its tail at its mistress before burying its head
in the basin and lapping up the milk, nearly choking on it. The
chieftain"s wife, that is, my mother, loved the sound of someone
choking on the little bit of love she dispensed. Amid the noise of the
puppy greedily lapping up the milk, she rinsed her hands in fresh water
and told Dolma to check on me, to see if I was awake. I"d had a low-
grade fever the day before, so Mother had slept in my room.
"Ah-ma," I said, "I"m awake."
She came up and felt my forehead with her wet hand. "The fever"s gone,"
Then she left my bedside to examine her fair hands, which could no
longer hide the signs of aging. She inspected them every time she
completed her morning grooming. Now that she"d finished, she
scrutinized those hands, which were looking older by the day, and
waited to hear the sound of the maid dumping the water onto the ground.
This waiting was always accompanied by fearful anxiety. The cascading
water splashing on the flagstones four stories below made her quaver,
since it produced the shuddering sensation of a body splattering on the
But today, a thick blanket of snow swallowed up the sound.
Still, she shuddered at the moment that the splash should have sounded,
and I heard a soft muttering from Dolma"s lovely mouth: "It"s not the
mistress hitting the ground."
"What did you say?" I asked.
Mother asked me, "What did the little tramp say?"
"She said she has a bellyache."
"Do you really?" Mother asked her.
I answered for her. "It"s okay now."
Mother opened a jar and scooped out a dab of lotion with her pinkie to
rub on the back of her hand. Then another pinkie brought out lotion for
the other hand. A spicy, pungent odor spread through the room. The
lotion was made of marmot oil and lard, mixed with mysterious Indian
aromatic oils presented to her by the monastery. The chieftain"s wife
had a natural talent for looking disgusted. She displayed one of those
looks now, and said, "This stuff actually smells terrible."
Sangye Dolma offered up an exquisite box containing a jade bracelet for
her mistress"s left arm and an ivory bracelet for the right. Mother put
on the bracelets and twirled them around her wrists. "I"ve lost more
The maid said, "Yes. "
"Is that all you know how to say?"
"Yes, Mistress. "
I assumed the chieftain"s wife would slap her, as others might do, but
she didn"t. Still, fear turned the maid"s face red.
After the chieftain"s wife started downstairs for breakfast, Dolma
stood by my bed and listened to the descending steps of her mistress.
Then she stuck her hand under my bedding and pinched me savagely. "When
did I say I had a bellyache? When did I ever have one of those?"
"You didn"t, "I said. "But you"d like to fling the water with even more
force next time."
That stopped her. I puffed up my cheek, which meant she had to kiss me.
"Don"t you dare tell the mistress, "she said, as my hands slipped under
her clothes and grabbed her breasts, a pair of frightened little
rabbits. A passionate quiver erupted somewhere deep inside me, or maybe
only in my head. Dolma freed herself from my hands and repeated, "Don"t
you dare tell the mistress."
That morning, for the first time in my life, I experienced the
tantalizing sensation of pleasure from a woman"s body.
Sangye Dolma cursed, "Idiot!"
Rubbing my sleepy eyes, I asked her, "Tell me the truth, who"s the real
"I mean it, a perfect idiot. "
Then, without helping me dress, she walked off after giving me a nice
red welt on my arm, like a bird"s peck. The pain was absolutely new and
Snow sparkled brightly outside the window, where the family servants"
brats were whooping it up, throwing rocks at thrushes. But I was still
in bed, wrapped snugly in a bearskin quilt and layers of silk,
listening to the maid"s footsteps echo down the long hallway.
Apparently, she had no intention of coming back to wait on me, so I
kicked off the quilt and screamed.
Within the territory governed by Chieftain Maichi, everybody knew that
the son born to the chieftain"s second woman was an idiot.
That idiot was me.
Except for my mother, just about everybody liked me the way I was. If
I"d been born smart, I might have long since departed this world for
the Yellow Springs instead of sitting here and thinking wild thoughts
over a cup of tea. The chieftain"s first wife had taken ill and died.
My mother was bought by a fur and medicinal herb merchant as a gift to
the chieftain, who got drunk and then got her pregnant. So I might as
well be happy going through life as an idiot.
Still, within the vast area of our estate, there wasn"t a single person
who didn"t know me. That"s because I was the chieftain"s son. If you
don"t believe me, become a slave or the brilliant son of a commoner and
see if people know who you are.
I am an idiot.
My father was a chieftain ordained by the Chinese emperor to govern
tens of thousands of people.
So if the maid didn"t come to help me dress, I"d scream for her.
Anytime servants were late in responding, I"d send my silk coverlets
cascading to the floor like water. Those Chinese silks, which came from
far beyond the mountains, are much slicker than you might think. Since
earliest childhood, I never understood why the land of the Chinese was
not only the source of our much needed silk, tea, and salt, but also
the source of power for chieftain clans. Someone once told me that it
was because of weather. I said, "Oh, because of weather. "But deep
down I was thinking, Maybe so, but weather can"t be the only reason. If
so, why didn"t the weather change me into something else? As far as I
know, every place has weather. There"s fog, and the wind blows. When
the wind is hot, the snow becomes rain. Then the wind turns cold, and
the rain freezes into snow. Weather causes changes in everything. You
stare wide-eyed at something, and just when it"s about to change into
something else, you have to blink. And in that instant, everything
returns to its original form. Who can go without blinking? It"s like
offering sacrifices. Behind the curling smoke, the bright red lips of
golden-faced deities enjoying the sacrifice are about to open up to
smile or cry, when suddenly a pounding of drums in the temple hall
makes you tremble with fear. And in that instant, the deities resume
their former expressions and return to a somber, emotionless state.
It snowed that morning, the first snow of spring. Only spring snows are
moist and firm, able to resist the wind. Only spring snows blanket the
earth so densely that they gather up all the light in the world.
Now all the light in the world was gathered on my silk coverlet.
Worried that the silk and the light would slip away, I felt pangs of
sorrow flow warily through my mind. As beams of light pierced my heart
like awls, I began to sob, which brought my wet nurse, Dechen Motso,
hobbling in. She wasn"t all that old but liked to act like an old
woman. She"d become my wet nurse after giving birth to her first child,
who had died almost at once. I was three months old at the time, and
Mother was anxiously waiting for a sign from me that I knew I"d arrived
in this world.
I was firm about not smiling during the first month.
During the second month, no one was able to elicit a flickering of
understanding from my eyes.
My father, the chieftain, said to his son in the same tone of voice he
used to give orders, "Give me a smile, will you?"
He changed his gentle tone when he got no reaction. "Give me a smile,
"he said sternly. "Smile! Do you hear me?" He looked so funny that I
opened my mouth, but only to drool. My mother looked away, tears
wetting her face as she was reminded that my father looked just like
that on the night I was conceived. This memory so rankled her that her
milk dried up on the spot. "A baby like this is better off starving to
Not terribly concerned, my father told the steward to take ten silver
dollars and a packet of tea to Dechen Motso, whose illegitimate son had
just died, so she could pay for a vegetarian meal and tea for the monks
to perform rites for the dead. The steward, of course, knew what the
master had in mind. He left in the morning and returned that afternoon
with the wet nurse in tow. When they reached the estate entrance, a
pack of fierce dogs barked and snarled at them. The steward said, "Let
them get to know your smell." So the wet nurse took out a steamed bun,
broke it apart, and spat on each piece before tossing it at them. The
barking stopped immediately. After snapping the food out of the air,
the dogs ran up and circled her, lifting her long skirt with their
snouts to sniff her feet and legs. They were wagging their tails and
chewing their food by the time the steward led the now familiar wet
The chieftain was immensely pleased. Although a trace of sadness clung
to Dechen"s face, her blouse was damp from the flowing milk.
At the time, I was bawling at the top of my lungs. Even though she had
no milk, the chieftain"s wife tried to stuff her idiot son"s mouth up
with one of those withered things. Father thumped his cane loudly on
the floor, and said, "Stop crying. The wet nurse is here."I stopped, as
if I"d understood him, and I was soon introduced to her abundant
breasts. The milk was like gushing spring water, sweet and satisfying,
though it carried the taste of sorrow and of wildflowers and grass. My
mother"s meager milk, on the other hand, tasted more like the colorful
thoughts that filled up my little brain until it buzzed.
My tiny stomach was quickly gorged. To show my gratitude, I peed on the
wet nurse, who turned her head to cry when I let go of her nipple. Not
long before, her newborn son had been wrapped in a cowhide rug and
buried at the bottom of a deep pond after the lamas had recited the
"Reincarnation Sutra"for him.
Upon seeing the wet nurse"s tears, my mother spat, and said, "Bad
"Mistress,"the wet nurse said, "please forgive me this one time. I
couldn"t help myself." My mother ordered her to slap her own face.
Now I"d grown to the age of thirteen. After all those years, my wet
nurse, like other servants who were privy to so many of the chieftain"s
family secrets, no longer behaved herself. Also thinking I was an
idiot, she often said in front of me, "Master?Hah!Servants? Hah!"All
the while she"d be stuffing things like the lamb"s wool batting of my
quilt or a piece of thread from her clothes into her mouth, mixing them
with saliva, then spitting them savagely onto the wall. Except that
over the past year or two, she didn"t seem able to spit as high as she
had before. And so she"d decided to become an old woman.
I was crying and making a scene when she hobbled into my room. "Please,
Young Master, don"t let the mistress hear you."
But I was crying because it felt so good.
"Young Master," she said, "it"s snowing."
What did the fact that it was snowing have to do with me? But I stopped
crying anyway and looked out from my bed onto a patch of terrifyingly
blue sky framed by the small window. I couldn"t see how the heavy snow
weighed down the branches until she propped me up. I opened my mouth to
cry, but she stopped me. "Look,"she said, "the thrushes have flown down
from the mountain."
"Really. They"re down from the mountain. Listen, they"re calling you
children to go out and play with them."
So I stopped fussing and let her dress me.
Finally, I"ve come to the spot where I can talk about the thrushes.
Would you look at the sweat on my forehead!
Thrushes are wild around here. No one knows where they go when the sky
is overcast, but on clear days they come out to sing, their voices
sweet and clear. Not much good at flying, they prefer to glide down
from the heights. They don"t normally come to low places, except on
snowy days, when it"s difficult to find food in their usual habitat.
The snow forces the thrushes to come down from the mountain, where
People kept coming in for instructions while Mother and I were eating
First it was the crippled steward, who came to inquire whether the
young master wanted to change into warm boots before going out to play
in the snow. He said that if the master were home, he"d want me to.
"Get lost, you cripple,"my mother said. "Hang that pair of worn-out
boots around your neck and get lost."
The steward left, of course, but didn"t hang the boots around his neck,
nor did he "get lost." A while later he limped in to report that the
leper who"d been chased up the mountain from the Kaba fortress had come
down looking for food.
"Where is she now?" Mother asked anxiously.
"She fell into a wild boar trap on the way."
"She can crawl out."
"She can"t. She"s crying for help."
"Then why don"t you bury her?"
"Bury her alive?"
"I don"t care. We can"t have a leper storming onto our estate."
Then came the matter of giving alms to the monastery, followed by a
discussion of sending seeds to the people who tilled our land. Charcoal
burned bright in a brass brazier, and before long, I was dripping with
After Mother spent some time tackling business, her usual look of
fatigue disappeared, replaced by a dazzling glow, a if a lamp had been
lit inside her face. I was looking at that lustrous face so intently
that I didn"t hear her question. She raised her voice, and said
angrily, "What did you say you want?"
I said, "The thrushes are calling me."
The chieftain"s wife immediately lost patience with me and stormed out
in a rage. I sipped my tea, with the air of an aristocrat, something I
was very good at. When I was into my second cup, bells rang and drums
pounded in the sutra hall upstairs, and I knew that the chieftain"s
wife had now moved on to the business of the monks" livelihood.
If I hadn"t been an idiot, I wouldn"t have disappointed her at moments
like that. She"d been enjoying the prerogatives of a chieftain"s power
over the past few days, ever since Father had taken my brother, Tamding
Gonpo, to the provincial capital to file a complaint against our
neighbor, Chieftain Wangpo. It had all started with one of Father"s
dreams, in which Chieftain Wangpo had taken a coral ornament that had
fallen from Father"s ring. The lama said that was a bad omen. Sure
enough, shortly afterward, a border headman betrayed us by taking a
dozen servants with him over to Chieftain Wangpo. Father sent a
messenger with lavish gifts to buy them back, but his request was
turned down. A second messenger was sent with bars of gold in exchange
for the traitor"s head; Wangpo could keep the remaining servants and
the land. The gold was returned, with a message that if Chieftain
Wangpo killed someone who increased his wealth, his own people would
run off like Chieftain Maichi"s servants.
Left with no choice, Chieftain Maichi opened a case inlaid with silver
and beads and took out a seal representing the highest official title
conferred by the Qing emperor. With the seal and a map, he went to the
provincial capital to file a complaint with the military government of
Sichuan, under the control of the Republic of China.
Besides Mother and me, the Maichi family included Father and a half
brother from Father"s first wife, plus a half sister who"d gone off to
India with an uncle, a businessman. She later went to England, even
more distant, which everyone said was a huge place, known as the empire
where the sun never sets. I once asked Father, "Is it always daytime in
He just smiled, and said, "You"re such a little idiot."
Now they were all away somewhere, and I was lonely.
So I said, "Thrushes," got up, and went downstairs. As soon as I
reached the bottom of the stairs, I was surrounded by servants"
children. "See them?" my parents often reminded me. "They"re your
livestock." No sooner had my feet stepped on the courtyard flagstones
than my future livestock came up to me. They weren"t wearing boots or
fur coats, but they didn"t seem to be any more bothered by the cold
than I was. They stood there waiting for me to give an order. My order
was: "Let"s go catch some thrushes."
Their faces glowed with excitement.
With a wave of my hand and a shout, I made for the estate entrance with
the servants" brats, a pack of young slaves. We stormed out, alarming
the gate dogs, which began barking like crazy, a racket that lent the
morning an air of happiness. And what a snowfall! It had turned the
world outside vast and bright. My slaves shouted excitedly, kicking the
packed snow with their bare feet and stuffing their pockets with ice-
cold stones. The thrushes, their dark yellow tails sticking straight
up, hopped around looking for food at the base of the wall, where there
was less snow.
My little slaves and I ran after the thrushes. Unable to fly to a
higher place, the birds flocked toward the orchard by the river as we
slogged through the ankle-deep snow in hot pursuit. With no escape, the
thrushes were pelted by rocks and, one by one, their heads burrowed
into the fluffy snow as their bodies went limp. The lucky survivors,
sacrificing their tails for their heads, stuck their tiny heads between
rocks and tree roots before they too fell into our clutches.
That was the battle I commanded in my youth, a successful, very
I sent some of the slaves back to the estate house for kindling and
told others to gather dry branches from our apple and pear trees. The
bravest and quickest among them was sent back to steal salt from the
kitchen, while the rest stayed behind to make a clearing in the orchard
big enough for a dozen people and a bon fire. The salt thief was my
right-hand man, Sonam Tserang, who returned in no time. Taking the
salt, I told him to help the others clear the snow. Which he did,
breathing hard and kicking it away with his feet. Even at that he was
more adept than the others. So I didn"t say anything when he kicked
snow in my face, though I knew he"d done it on purpose. Even with
slaves, some are entitled to favoritism. This is a hard and fast
principle, a useful rule of thumb for a ruler. And that was why I
tolerated his insubordination and giggled as snow slid down my neck.
A fire was quickly built, and we began plucking the birds" feathers.
Sonam Tserang didn"t kill his thrushes before he began plucking their
feathers, drawing horrible cries from the flapping birds. Everyone had
goose bumps, everyone but he. Sonam Tserang didn"t seem at all
troubled. Fortunately, the aroma of roasted bird quickly rose from the
fire to soothe our feelings. And before long, each of our stomachs was
stuffed with four or five wild thrushes.
Copyright © 1998 by Alai. Translation copyright © 2002. Reprinted by
permission of Houghton Mifflin Company.
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