The Old Man From Highwater

Swann Li


            In the early morning when Father Fan came home, on his back a bamboo tub of newly dug-up peanuts, muddy and wet, the rain was still falling. Shafts of water were beating on the stone slabs in the yard, splashing up into hundreds of fuzzy dandelion blossoms, wetting the feathers of two black-dotted black-feet hens tied and lying on the porch, eyelids stretched thin over tiny fast-blinking eyes, as if they were thinking hard about their situation.

            “What are those for?” Father Fan asked.

            “For you to take to Suying.” Mother Fan, a small fifty-year-old woman wearing an old-style side-buttoned shirt and a modern short haircut, forced on her by the barber in town, was sitting on a stool, counting a stack of brand new bills.

            “I know that’s what you’re thinking.” Father Fan shook his head in disapproval, setting down the bamboo tub. “But, Granny, use your head, what can Suying do with them?”

            “Can’t she cook them for herself? Nothing more delicious than newly-slaughtered chickens.”

            “You think she has a kitchen? And even if she has, you expect Suying to hold a knife to a chicken? Ever since she was five, every time I was to kill a chicken, she would grab it and run away. I had to chase her all over the village. Silly girl.” Despite the criticizing tone, Father Fan was smiling over the memory of his daughter, his gray goatee quivering in the white mist from his mouth.

            “Silly girl.” Mother Fan’s eyes curled as she smiled in agreement. “Should I kill the chickens, cook them and put them in an earthen jar? She can still have them on the same day.”

            “No,” Father Fan said decisively.

            Mother Fan smoothed the red rubber band from her wrist onto the wad of bills and handed them to her husband. “One hundred. Not one fen more, not one fen less.”

            Father Fan took it, unbuttoned his blue shirt, and put the bills in his watch pocket. “What can she buy with one yuan nowadays?”

            “No, she won’t spend it. She’ll just hold on to the bills and count them from time to time, like she always did with her Spring Festival money. Said she loved the feel of brand new bills.”

            “But she’s not a little girl anymore.” Father Fan sat down in his bamboo chair, wondering what his daughter would look like in city-girl clothes. A match had been made for her at fourteen, but she’d run away at fifteen. Six months later she’d written, saying she had found a job in a performance troupe and was getting closer to her dream of becoming a famous singer in the country. Father Fan had apologized to the young man’s family, but still felt uneasy whenever he ran into one of them at the fair, despite the fact that it had been more than a year since she ran away. She seemed to be doing well in the city, as she had sent them money for a few months. But it had suddenly stopped two months ago.

            “Shall we do fifty or one hundred?” Mother Fan came in to ask.

            “Mmm…one hundred.”

            “You can carry that many?”

            “Of course I can.” Father Fan looked almost angry now.

            He smoked a pipe and walked out onto the porch. It was all ready. In a wooden crate, one hundred yellow-mud-swaddled duck eggs, Suying’s favorite food. Her parents had bought these eggs from families who kept their ducks in a private pond, instead of having them waddle and swim among water fields sprayed with pesticides and fertilizers. They had gathered pine branches from the mountain behind the home, burnt them, and mixed the ashes in the cleanest yellow mud, rolled the eggs in the mixture, and set them aside for one hundred days. Now they were perfect for eating: the alkali had dwindled away, the egg whites congealed and translucent, the egg yolks golden and sticky smooth. After chipping away the dried mud, Suying could wash one egg, crack it open, peel it, and count all the pine-flowers on the egg white before nibbling and sucking on it with a silly smile.

            Mother Fan laid a plastic bag holding the washed raw peanuts on the eggs, straightened up, and looked timidly at her husband. “Are you sure? One hundred?”

            Father Fan bent down and lifted the crate. His arms slightly trembling, he put it over a shoulder. “Soon I’ll be on the bus,” he said.

            Mother Fan draped a clear plastic cloth over him, put one on herself, and they stepped down into the yard, descended the stone steps, and walked into the fields.

            They waited for about an hour at the mouth of the village. Usually Blacktwo’s minibus would come every twenty minutes. They waited and waited. Someone came out of the house by the road, a hoe in hand, and walked past them.

            “Village fellow, do you know when the bus will come?” Father Fan thought of offering a cigarette, but then decided it was not a good idea in the rain.

            “In this weather?” The man shook his head. “Look at the road.”

            The road had turned soupy. The man left no footprints. The mud had closed soon after he pulled out his feet.

            “Oh, they can’t drive on this road?” Mother Fan mumbled, feeling stupid. “Shall we wait until March?” The minibus was a new business. After being charged ten yuan a person on their first ride half a year ago, they had been saving money by walking to town.

            Father Fan thought about it but slowly shook his head. “Tomorrow is the Spring Festival. It’ll be nice to let the child have these for the Festival.” Mother Fan nodded.

            “It’s just eight li to the town, isn’t it?” Father Fan said to himself. “From there I can take a bus into the city.”

            Mother Fan put a hand under the crate on her husband’s shoulder, lifted it slightly to test the weight. Finally she said, “I’ll just walk with you there and come back.”

            They crossed the bridge and followed the road out of the village. Father Fan set his foot down carefully with every step. The rubber soles of his military-green shoes could slide easily in the mud. He walked on slowly but steadily, head tilted to one side, both hands steadying the crate on his shoulder.

            Soon the rain had drenched the mud on the eggs and the crate felt heavier. More and more often he came to a stop and caught his breath as smoothly as possible, not wanting to alarm his wife.

            “You should have brought just fifty,” Mother Fan complained, “but you have to be so greedy and insist on one hundred. Some student even told me these eggs aren’t healthy. They have some harmful metal inside.”

            “Harmful! Harmful!” Father Fan said loudly in a short temper. “Who has died from these eggs? Have you heard of anyone? Do you eat pesticides? Don’t we use it on our crops? What do you know is harmful? Stupid woman!” His face flushed and he was even sweating. He unbuttoned his shirt with one hand but then quickly rebuttoned it, worried about wetting the new bills.

            Two motorcycles scuttled past them, starting and halting, making deep ruts in the road that quickly filled up.

            “Give us a ride? Give the eggs a ride?” Mother Fan waved a hand at the drivers, sounding a little nervous, as if she were a fifteen-year-old girl excited by motorcycles.

            “Can’t do, can’t do.” One of the drivers shook his head. “This road.”

            “Why exactly did they give up on this road?” Mother Fan asked her husband.

            “Not sure, some things didn’t work out. It’s not for us common folks to know about such things,” Father Fan said, panting, starting to walk again. Half a year ago, the villages had talked about cooperating in building a paved road into the town. Village heads got together, ate and drank and talked, had some unknown disagreements and the project never came into being.

            Half a li later, they stood still and looked at the long winding road ahead of them, blurred by the curtain of rain. Occasionally a young couple dressed in fashionable clothes would trudge past, dragging along the soiled bulging suitcases filled with gifts they had brought back from cities they worked in. They looked out of the place. Still they looked cheerful and content, despite the difficult journey.

            “Grandpa, no doing going on this road, too twisted, too long.” Mother Fan pointed to the small road in the fields. “We should take a shortcut.” Father Fan’s chest heaved slowly up and down. He nodded.

            They climbed down the slope and walked on the earthy bank along the river. About two li later, Father Fan stopped.

            “Granny, take it off my shoulder.”

            Mother Fan grabbed the crate and together they eased it off his shoulder and set it on a bunch of grass.

            They rested for a short while.

            “Did you bring anything to eat?”

            Mother Fan shook her head in guilt. “Thought you were just going to take the bus.” She thought about it and began to untie the plastic bag. “Raw peanuts can be bought in cities, too.”

            “But not as special as those from one’s own soil.” Father Fan stared at the peanuts for a minute, but finally gave in to his hunger. He cracked the shells and chewed on the moist juicy kernels.

            “Girl did the right thing,” he said. “No good being a peasant. Life too difficult.”

            “Girl did the right thing,” Mother Fan nodded, not eating any peanuts.

            Father Fan felt the sap of peanuts traveling all around in his body. He stood up and grabbed the crate. His arms trembled in straining but he could not lift it up.

            “Too old, too old.” He straightened up and sighed in defeat.

            “We’ll wash the mud away, what do you think?” Mother Fan proposed, to which her husband agreed.

            They lifted the crate together and tottered to the river. They each found a twig and began chipping away the mud on the eggshells. After finishing that, they swished the crate in the water until all the eggs looked clean, the yellowness of the insides showing through the shells. They did not say a word, but both felt the pity that the girl could not enjoy chipping away the mud herself and feel the expectation of the delicacy inside.

            They started walking again, but the journey felt much longer than usual with the eggs weighing Father Fan down. Four li later, Father Fan felt his chest tightening and closing in. In panic, they removed twenty eggs and planted them by the road for whoever would be lucky enough to find them. They had to desert more eggs along the way. By the time Mother Fan helped set the crate on the luggage rack of the bus in feelings of relief and security, there were only fifty eggs left.


            Fatty Wang’s snack shop stood alone on the road from South Hill into the city. In twenty years the goods had changed, from the hand-made twenty-fen and thirty-fen flour pastries wrapped in coarse wax paper to colorful aluminum wraps of various snacks manufactured by joint enterprises: sugared black currants, cashews, pistachios; fruits and nuts growing in far regions of the world that Fatty Wang felt curious about. Just the small mundane details. Do their dogs bark the same way as the Chinese dogs? What do they ask each other when they meet on the road? Instead of “Did you eat?” do they ask “What soup did you drink?” or, what? Fatty Wang always felt frustrated about how limited his imagination was. At one time he thought about moving to Canton to see more of the world outside, but had to give up his plan.

            Some of the other snack shop and tea shop owners had taken their businesses to a fancy level: replace the bamboo chairs and stools with stainless steel chairs and leather sofas, selling fancy teas at up to three hundred yuan a cup. One cup! Fatty Wang often felt angry at how ridiculous things could be. And it was more ridiculous that no matter how absurd things were, it seemed no one other than himself found it ridiculous. Maybe he was just too idle. Everybody else was too busy with making a living to think too much about the world.

            More or less he was lucky. The shop had a steady flow of business. In the mornings the high school students rushed in to buy pancakes and boxed drinks on their way to the school. In the evenings and weekends the migrant peasant workers came to make the place really rowdy. They drank bottle after bottle of rice liquor, munched on plate after plate of cold cuts, played mahjong and cards, and shared their city adventures. Fatty Wang played rock music for them, adding to the happy-happy atmosphere, even though he never liked the dizzying music himself. He was an easygoing man. As soon as the workers came, he would remove the scenery calendar on top of the swimsuit calendar and let the blonde almost-nude girls flash their smiles at these pent-up men. Across the wall, a yellowing picture of Chairman Mao showed him standing on the Gate of Heavenly Peace, declaring to these girls that a new China had been born and the Chinese people had finally stood up after being trampled down by Emperors and Imperialists for hundreds of years. The city had steadily looked more and more modern; tall buildings shot up almost every month. Most of the migrant workers were working on a great stadium nearby, designed to host the seventh Provincial Sports Meet.

            Nearing the Spring Festival’s Eve, the snack shop was quiet. The school was silent from the winter holiday and the migrant workers had gone back to their homes in the countryside. Fatty Wang read a newspaper during his meal and felt sleep coming on. He took a look outside the shop, hoping to wake up in the cool wind and drizzle. From around the bend in the road, he saw a slanted small figure hobbling near, a crate by his head.

            He saw the person come closer and closer until he could see clearly a peasant about fifty years old.

            “Ah, village fellow, where from?”

            “Highwater, not far, a few hours by bus.” The old man set the crate on the wet ground and wiped his eyes with a sleeve.

            “Highwater?” Fatty Wang suddenly straightened up, eyes opening wide in radiant delight. “I’m from Highwater too.”

            The old man also straightened up, got closer, and looked at Fatty Wang carefully.

            “Is it not you, Wang Wei?” he asked.

            “It’s just me, and you are…” Fatty Wang studied the man’s face. “And you are?”

            “See, you can’t even recognize me.” The old man shook his head and grinned in shame. “I’m your childhood friend Fan Jinjun.”

            “Oh, oh, oh! You, you, you!” Fatty Wang threw his fist at the old man’s upper arm. “Jinjun, it’s really you! Come in! Come in!”

            They sat down by the table, which Fatty Wang had quickly covered with plates of fried peanuts, sliced cold beef and sausages, and nuts.

            “What are these?” the old man asked.

            “Jinjun, try, you have to try. These are from a country called America. Cashews: kidney nuts. Pistachios: cracking-smile nuts.” Fatty Wang said the foreign names carefully.

            “We folks in country yards can’t know these.” The old man cracked a pistachio, looked carefully at the green kernel for a minute, and then put it in his mouth. He narrowed his eyes and chewed slowly. He nodded, and then he nodded again.

            “Hmm…” he said. Fatty Wang smiled.

            “You have a, you must have a…?” the old man asked.

            “Yes.” Fatty Wang nodded. “A son. Wife passed away a couple of years ago. Cancer. More cancers these days.”

            “Sorry to hear that, old friend.” The old man chinked his cup of liquor to Fatty Wang’s. “She’ll be good and pain-free on the lunar side.”

            Fatty Wang nodded.

            “And where is the son working?”

            “The son works in Guangzhou.” Fatty Wang gulped down a mouthful of rice liquor, inhaled deeply, and close his eyes for a few seconds. “Canton province.”

            “I guess he’s a government employee.”

            “He is.” Fatty Wang slowly nodded. “He teaches in a college.”

            The old man clicked his tongue and shook his head in admiration. “College teacher! He’s honoring his ancestors. He is!”

            “And you have a …?” Fatty Wang asked.

            “Wife is at home. I’m here to visit my daughter.” The old man produced a slip of paper from his pocket. “But I just can’t find this place. She sent us money every month. But we haven’t heard from her for two months. I decided to just visit her by surprise and see if she’s all right.”

            Fatty Wang took the slip of paper and studied it.

            “Only fifteen years old, but sang as dulcetly as the singers on the TV,” the old man said. “Wants to become a famous singer.” He shook his head in disbelief. “A daydreaming girl. Of course a singer is nothing as dignified as a college teacher.”

            “That’s where she works?” Fatty Wang pointed at the return address on the paper.

            “That’s what I guess.”

            “Carmen Entertainment Troupe.” Fatty Wang thought about it and then shook his head. “No, not here anymore. Moved.”

            “Moved?” A peanut dropped right before the chopsticks reached the old man’s lips. “Moved! Where? No wonder we haven’t heard from her.”

            “Guangzhou, Canton, “Fatty Wang said. “That’s what I heard. They’re doing very well over there.”

            “Are they coming back?”

            “This I’m not sure. If they do really well, they might stay or they might come back, who knows? But I did hear that they moved.”

            “Oh, Guangzhou,” the old man said the name slowly and carefully, looking like he was wondering what the place would look like and what his daughter would look like in it. “The same place as your son.”

            Fatty Wang slowly nodded, putting a piece of beef in his mouth, not chewing.

            “Will he come back for the Spring Festival?”

            Fatty Wang looked at the old man with unfocused eyes for a long moment and then said, “Yes, he’s coming back, for the Festival. He should come back.”

            “Then can you do one thing for your old friend?”


            “Can you ask him to take these pine-flower duck eggs with him? Can he look for Suying in Guangzhou and give them to her?”

            “Guangzhou is a very big city, old fellow. What if he can’t find her?”

            “If he can’t find her, just enjoy them himself. You and me, who and who?” The old man smiled, patting Wang’s arm with a hand.

            “All right,” Fatty Wang said. “Write her name down for me.” He stood up, fetched a ballpoint pen from the counter and handed it to Fan.

            The old man wrote down the three characters carefully on the slip of paper in big bold strokes. Fatty Wang folded it and put it in his chest pocket.

            “And oh, this.” The old man unbuttoned his shirt, took out the wad of bills from his watch pocket and handed them to Wang.

            “All fen bills?” Immediately Wang regretted his reaction.

            The old man smiled, trying to hide his shame. He chinked his cup with Wang’s, downed it, and stood up. “I have to head back now. Granny is still waiting for me at home.” He looked around at the shop and up and down at Wang. “You, Wang Wei, you’re lucky. Carefree life. Not like us country folks.” He stooped down to roll up the wet pant legs.

            “Don’t say. Parents have their own thinking. Can never blame them,” Fatty Wang said. “It’s all right. It’s all right.” Thirty years before, they had both decided to run away from their home village. They would get on a passing truck and go as far as northwestern China. There they would join the army. On that morning in the blue dawn when they quietly stole away to the crossroad in town, at the last moment, Fan was caught by his mother and dragged back. Wang had joined the army and come back with enough money to open a shop.

            “It’s all right.” The old man nodded. He looked carefully one last time at his friend, smiled, nodded and went out of the door.

            After seeing him disappear into the rain, Fatty Wang came back into the room, plopped down into his bamboo chair, and sat as silently as a Buddha sculpture for a long time. He took the old man’s slip of paper out of his pocket and wrote two characters on it.

            A while later he stood up, put a lighter in his pocket, picked up the wet crate, laid a few bags of fancy snacks on it, grabbed a hoe and walked out of the back door. He followed the small trail down the slope until he came to the bank of the creek. There he dug a hole in the wet dirt and buried the crate along with the snacks. Then he squatted below the willow tree and rested. The water was running fast and high. The green grass on the slope looked like long hair that had been combed and then smoothed with hands.

            The girl from Highwater also had long black hair, shiny and smooth. Big darting eyes. Sweet high voice. The youngest ever of the “Pleasures in the Country” in its five-year history. There was never any Carmen Entertainment Troupe in this city. She started out as a waitress but was finally talked into really “working.” Beautiful and young. The demand for her was high. Her boss made her receive ten guests in one night. Passed away in the dawn. Many of the migrant workers lamented that they had not got a chance.

            Fatty Wang dug out the piece of paper from his chest pocket, flicked the lighter and set it on fire. The flame ate down the paper; the ash flew up in the air; the black edge oozed down toward his fingers. Before it reached his hand, he laid it gently on the water and saw it being carried away.

            Maybe he should have told his friend the truth, and maybe the girl’s pimp would have paid the old man some money to make up for his loss. But what could money do for a father? When his son’s school sent him money to make up for his loss, he had preferred that they had never let him know the truth. He would rather believe that his son was still working in Guangzhou, too busy to ever come home. He always worked so hard and took everything too seriously. He had criticized a student’s paper and the young man had brought a knife into the classroom. Got stabbed in the heart when he stooped down to look at the page the young man had pointed at. Why are some people so angry? How can someone have no tolerance for the disagreeable at all? Why don’t people respect teachers as they used to? And why will a man share a woman with others? Why is a man willing to kill a girl for a moment’s pleasure?

            Fatty Wang lit a cigarette and let the blue smoke rise up into the willow, into the sky. He believed he’d made the right decision. He believed the idea of the pine-flower duck eggs and fancy snacks would reach the young dead on the lunar side and bring joy to their Spring Festival. Being both descendants of the Highwater Village, at least they could find each other and not have to greet the New Year alone.

Swann Li was born and grew up in China. She lived and worked in the San Francisco bay area for a few years before moving to Boston. Having lived at different levels of China’s social strata she writes on China’s rapid changes, growing gaps in Chinese society, and Chinese expatriates’ and emigrants’ lives in America. She is a candidate for the M.F.A. in Creative Writing (Fiction) in Boston University

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