Touch Paper

By Jia Pingwa

After four months the teahouse was flourishing. All the boats from the Han River and all the rafts from the Xun River would stop at Gourd Town and come to the teahouse to drink tea. However Ah Ji found that the people around the town did not treat him with the proper respect. When he met them on the street they would say, “Ah Ji, business is booming, eh?”

Ah Ji would laugh and say, “Only with everybody’s help!”

Then the other person would say, “Now that Erniang is dead, you can look for a wife!”

Ah Ji still laughed, but immediately felt something was wrong, that the person meant something he did not yet understand, and so he asked, “What are you driving at?”

“Well, you accompanied her right to the end. You’re smart, and you’ve got foresight!”

Ah Ji became angry, and ven by the time he got back to the teachous he had still not regained his cool. He knew people in the town were jealous of him and spread ugly rumors about him and about Sun Erniang.

But all Ah Ji did was clean and above board. His anger only ade him want to improve the teahouse even more. He worked harder and harder at upgrading the running of the teahouse. He bought a new boiler, twenty new cane deck chairs, and began to sell cigarettes, candy  and fruit. Business grew even more.

He decided to hire a waitress, and found one in the daughter of an old lady who lived in River Street. This girl had a flattish face, but a pretty waist, and was good with her hands and soft and gentle by nature, besides which she had a good voice.

However after only a wek had passed, rumors began flying wildly. It was said Ah Ji had an improper relationship with this new waitress, and that he’d done the same thing when Erniang was alive. The waitress felt so humiliated that she left without giving notice. This gave the townspeople even more cause for gossip.

When Ah Ji went out in the street he could feel people were talking about him behind his back. Thus the reputation of the teahouse declined. Ah Ji went and threw himself beside the portrait of Erniang and howled in despair, particularly as he had brought so much trouble upon the teahouse.

Ah Ji closed down the teahouse for a while and went to the town government to have them investigate this case and clear his reputation. Officials went to interview the daughter of the old lady, who denied anything had ever happened between her and Ah Ji, even saying they could take her to the hospital and examine her if they wished.

Then the officials interviewed the people who had been spreading the rumors only to find it was all based on hearsay. Thus the town government told Ah Ji not to worry as they were only rumors, and that he should go back and open his teahouse again.

However, although he had been cleared, one hand cannot cover the mouths of thousands and when he was really busy and offered good money for a new waitress, nobody responded. It was only at this juncture that Ah Ji understood what Pockmarks had said – that people’s morals were on the decline and they were not as kindhearted as they used to be.

Ah Ji now also hated these repugnant trends, but at the same time he was hated by Pockmarks. Ah Ji now felt Chouchou was the only decent person in the world and he desperately wanted to see her. He wanted to think of a way to marry her and bring her back to Gourd Town, where they could manage the teahouse in peace and prosperity.

So the teahouse was closed again, and Ah Ji left Gourd Town, taking all his savings with him and went to Seven Mile Flat. ON arriving at the Seven Mile Flat crossing, Ah Ji jumped on to the stone bank, but to his surprise noticed the channel water flowed straight down. This was the channel that Pockmarks used to divert water from the stream to drive the waterwheel, after which the water flowed down by the village into the Han River. Now water ran all over the stones in front of the village.

A doubt grew in Ah Ji’s mind, “Has Pockmarks given up the mill?” Ah Ji’s heart raced. If the mill was no longer running, and Chouchou was not sitting there day after day working the bamboo crusher, it should have been easier for him to take her to Gourd Town!

In front of the mil, all was deadly silent. Ah Ji suddenly became afraid, as the silence somehow seemed eerie. Dog came running out of the mill and made straight for Ah Ji, but he neither bit nor barked. Ah Ji though, “Could it be that in the four months of their not seeing each other, Dog had become docile?” He said to the dog, “Dog, where’s Chouchou?” Suddenly, Dog became frightened and let out a long terrifying howl, which filled Ah Ji with consternation.

Thereupon he saw Pockmarks and the mute old uncle sitting on a pile of stones outside the paper pulp room. They were sitting in silence tying up dried touch paper into bundles, and when they heard Dog’s wild howl, they looked up and gazed woodenly at Ah Ji as he walked over, then looked down again and continued tying their bundles.

Ah Ji was used to Pockmark’s unfriendly ways, but sensed something was wrong when he did not greet  Ah Ji with his usual venom and hatred.

“Uncle, why isn’t the crusher crushing bamboo?” Ah Ji asked.

“Because it’s not.”

“And Chouchou?”

“Dead.”

“Dead?!”

“Dead.” Ah Ji was struck dumb, stood for a moment in a daze, then ran to the bamboo crushing room. The water trough had collapsed, and the waterwheel stood still, its paddles dry and split. The square crusher stood in its place, and below it lay a pile of half crushed bamboo.

In a mad fit he rushed back and yelled at Pockmarks, “Chouchou’s dead?! How did she die?!”

But Pockmark had raised his fist and landed a blow right in the pit of Ah Ji’s stomach, sending him sprawling on the ground, then went and sat still as before, and said to Ah Ji, “Calm down. Chouchou is really dead.”

Ah Ji was brought to his senses. He sat on the ground sobbing, and asked how Chouchou died. Pockmarks sat head lowered tying his bundles of paper and telling the story, almost as though he were telling a tale of ancient times.

At first Pockmarks had noticed that for several days Chouchou was not herself, and soon began avoiding her father, going off by herself to vomit in the grass hut that served as a toilet.

Pockmarks thought she was ill and told her to go and see a doctor, but she didn’t go. The next night Pockmarks heard her moaning in her room, but when he asked what was the matter, she said her stomach hurt a bit but it was nothing to worry about, and with that went off to the toilet. Pockmarks guessed she had diarrhea and, thinking nothing of it, went back to sleep.

The next morning when he called Chouchou to go out and crush bamboo, there was no answer. He went into her room and found at the top of her kang a bowl of crushed porcelain and glass, most of which was now gone. Pockmarks panicked. He knew this mixture was for inducing abortions, so he ran to the grass hut, in the doorway of which he found Chouchou lying dead, blood running from her mouth and from between her legs.

When the story finished, Ah Ji broke into uncontrollable tears. Pockmarks said, “I don’t care about the loss of face from having Chouchou die, but tell me, which one of you sleazy characters seduced Chouchou and made her do such a disgusting thing? I am to blame. Why did I start up the touch paper mill and let all those shady people come her? I didn’t look after Chouchou properly!”

Ah Ji said, “You didn’t look after Chouchou properly? Wasn’t it that you ‘looked after’ her to death?!”

“Crap,” Pockmarks said. “It was a good thing she died, for if she hadn’t, how would she have been able to face life? I would never have realized that it served me right for opening that mill. I’m never going to operate it again. Once I’ve sold the last few hundred jin of touch paper I’m not going to do anything! If anybody wants the waterwheel or crusher they can have it for free!”

Ah Ji said, “I want it.”

“Want what? You still want the touch paper?”

“I’ll buy it.”

“How much do you want?”

“All of it!”

He took several wads of money  out from inside his jacket and put it on the ground, then went inside and brought out piles and piles of touch paper, which he put by the channel. Then he took a broad axe and went into the bamboo crushing room. With a crack he smashed up the waterwheel and then the crusher, and piled touch paper on top of it. Then he knelt down and put a match to it all.

Although bamboo relies on water to grow, when it is made into paper it is really flammable; and so once this caught fire it did not take long before black smoke started belching out and flames leapt up towards the heavens. Chouchou had sat there for several years crushing bamboo, and that bamboo had become thousands and thousands of sheets of paper which people burnt for the souls of their dead. Who would have guessed that the last, and the largest, pile of the paper would be burnt for her own soul?

Ah Ji’s hair and eyebrows were singed, but still he knelt there like a pile of wood or stone. Pockmarks and the deaf-mute uncle were completely stunned by all this. They watched the black ashes fly up into the sky, then fall again, blackening the ground and them, until tears started cascading from their eyes.

Just at that time some rafts carrying piles of bamboo went past on the Han River. The rafts were manned by another group of young men, going to a new touch paper mill in another village to sell their bamboo. When they saw the smoke and flames at Seven Mile Flat, they struck up an ancient Han River work song:

Yo, Ao—————Ao, He, Ao——————Ai, Hai—————!

Yo, Ai—————-Yo——————-!

Ao ——————Ai, Hai, Yo————————!

Ao ——————Ai, Hai, Ai———–Ai———Hai————–Ai!

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