Heaven Fire

    Date:2018-06-12 Source:Changde Official Web Portal Fonts:[ large medium small ]

    --By Tao Shaohong

    Chapter 1

    The sunlight poured over the threshing floor to the steps. Li Juan put the bamboo-made lounge chair on the steps from the central room of the house, and then carried her mother-in-law out to have her seated in the sun. Her mother-in-law had become much heavier for Li since she was paralyzed. She felt that her arms were broken. The chair protested under the weight of her mother-in-law. With a long breath of relief, Li swung her arms back and forth. At this time, a shadow of a man appeared over the fence.

    Her eagle-eyed mother-in-law spotted it and said, “Li, Huang Xiaotian comes.”

    Li caught a glimpse. It was him.

    “He must come for you. But he won’t come to our house because he is afraid of me.” her mother-in-law said.

    Li just looked at him. Huang nodded towards her as if he had something to say, but only watching her in silence. Then, he turned and walked away until his figure vanished from sight.

    “Why don’t you go after him?” her mother-in-law asked.

    “Why should I?” said Li, casting a sulky side-look upon her mother-in-law and knocking the dust out of her sleeves. “If he has something to say, he will speak. I have to feed pig and wash the bed sheet for you. You are not a baby, why don’t you let me know when you wanna take a leak!”

    “Don’t you know half of my body is numb?” said her mother-in-law with a piercing stare at her.

    Li didn’t even bother to argue and turned to the kitchen, where she prepared a bucket of swill, which she took to the pigsty and poured into the pig food basin. The pig really enjoyed the meal with the bobbling head and smacking mouth. Nowdays, one could not make a profit from breeding pig since the pig feed became more and more expensive. This pig would be the last one for her to breed. Li looked at the pig with only a vision of Huang. She waved her hand like swatting mosquitoes. Then, she turned to her mother-in-law’s room, put the wet sheet and half pack of washing powder in the tin basket and then headed for the river.

    As she made her way downsteps, her mother-in-law shouted at her back, “ Just wash here! You can’t save much from water!”

    “Saving a little is better than none.” Li answered.

    She walked across the threshing floor and downslope. Her mother-in-law’s eyes stuck to her like an extensible thread until the fence cut it off. The sunlight licked her face softly like a warm tongue. The breeze with a mixed smell of dirt, honeysuckle and cow dung made her warm all over.

    Following the path down to the river, Li squatted on the stone and soaked the sheet into shallow water, swinging it forcefully. There were ripples on the glittering river. A figure flashed across the water. She pretended not to see him although he was the reason she came here. She drew the sheet in, stuffed it into the bucket and made it soaked with washing powder for a few minutes. Rolling up the trouser legs, she took off her shoes and sat there, holding her knees with her hands. She stared silently at the colorful pebbles in the river, pretending to be lost in thought.

     She was waiting for the man to come and talk with her.

    The echo of a cow’s moo in the distance lingered in the river valley. The man waded through the river from the opposite bank, water spraying on his smooth legs. She stayed still until a hand came into sight with a black phone lying in the palm. “What’s this?” she glanced at Huang and asked.

    “It’s for you to keep in touch more convenienly .”

    “It’s not convenient. My mother-in-law has sharp ears. She’ll hear.” she turned away.

    “It will be useful. You can text me if not convenient.”

    “You shouldn’t have wasted your money!” she put one bared foot in the bucket, stepping hard on the sheet.

    “I didn’t spend money for it. I won it by playing cards. Luck went against Bao, and he had no cash, so he left the phone to me as a pledge. I bought a phone card of 100 yuan for you.” Huang slid the phone into her pocket and looked around, about to speak but saying nothing.

    She could smell the sweat and smoke from his clothes, frowning and saying, “Playing cards again? Someday you’re gonna cry for it… Do you have anything else to say?”

    “Last night, when playing cards, Qin Jianjun bet he would sleep with you within a month since you are the only one he hasn’t had.” he lowered his voice.

    “No way!” She spat in the river, stepping harder on the sheet as if it was Qin. Sweats pearled on her forehead. A few more steps, she pulled out the sheet and washed it in the water.

    Huang grabed the sheet, rubbing and washing, “You must be careful.”

    “Are you worried?”

    “That guy’s cunning. You’d better be careful.”

    She said nothing, but merely sniffed and grabed the other end of the sheet, wringing it out together with Huang. Droplets dripped on the ground, glittering and gurgling. “It’s time for planting early rice in your paddy field. Rice is too cheap to make a profit. But if you plant, the rice would be enough for yourselves, better than let the land lie waste. I say you are busy with housework. I will farm it for you so that you don’t have to worry. If they ask, just say we have land contract.”

    She nodded, “Okay, thanks. I will pay you.”

    He said with his face dim, “Come on!”

    Having washed the sheet for three times, Li put the dried sheet in the bucket. Then, she turned round and walked away, carrying the bucket in one hand and the half pack of washing powder in the other.

    He could not help but touch her right wriggling ass.

    Two steps upwards, she turned her head and looked at him, “You still have something to say?”

    Huang raised up his head with a blushed face in the sunlight, muttering, “It’s been over 20 days since last time we…”

    “We what?”

    His face was burning, “Help you with …”

    She said, “Well, it’s helping you. Just wait for a convenient time.”

    He nodded repeatedly. Li went uphill along the path with plump ass wiggling and muscles in her thighs bulging. He could not take eyes off her, immersed in the aftertaste of coded messages between them. With a swallow or two, his heart throbbed.

    Chapter 2

    Huang Xiaotian, Li Juan and her husband Lei Zhihe studied in the same middle school in the town. Li’s parents lived deep in a valley of Thunder God Mountain, 15 li away from the town. Lei and Huang were close neighbors separated only by a hill, but in two different villages. What’s more in particular, there were two dry fields of theirs connecting together. In the third year of middle school study, Li found a love note in the drawer by Lei and then started dating with him. At that time, Lei could laugh and talk with everybody except Huang. They ignored each other. Li was confused and ever asked Lei for the reason. But he, picking his booger, didn’t even bother to explain only with a snort.

    Not until they got married did Li figure out why. It was the two connected fields that were to blame. The two families even fought for the border of them many years ago. Whenever Li followed Lei to the field, he would throw stones and weeds they dug out to the field of Huang’s, or break off some corns of Huang’s and take away. Naturally, Huang would do such things in return. However, no more fights happened since they both knew what was going on. Later, Lei went to Dongguan City in Guangdong Province to work as a security guard in a factory. It had been seven years.  Liu Simao, Huang’s wife who was sharp-tongued, also went to Dongguan to sew clothes on an assembly line of Taiwanese. Since they rarely encountered, conflicts disappeared naturally and smiling faces were seen gradually.

    But things would happen as long as the fields were connected, just like rattans in Huang’s field might crawl to Lei’s field while crop roots in Lei’s field might sneak into Huang’s field. In late autumn of last year, Li was digging up some sweet potatoes alone in the field companied by the lonely sound of hoe. Only her figure could be witnessed in the field ever since Lei went out working. When she bent down, picked up several sweet potatoes and threw them into the basket, Huang approached wearing a black face like the bottom of the pan, breathing heavily while wiping out sweat with the front piece of his jacket. Until he came by her side, she noticed the tears welling up in his eyes.

    He straightened up his neck and shouted, “Li, are you still in the mood to dig up sweet potatoes here?”

    “Why not? Is there anyone who can do this for me?” Li said.

    “Don’t you know that Lei Zhihe slept with Liu Simao?” Huang stamped his feet.

    Li made no reply, looking calm but her brain buzzed. She was already familiar with such gossips, so she was not surprised at all. She raised the hoe, dug hard and pulled back. Some white sweet potatoes were unearthed. Li tucked her short hairs behind her ears and said, “Don't take such rumors seriously.”

    Huang squatted on the loosened field with his head in his hands, saying in a trembling voice, “No. I heard them! Last night, I was on the phone with Simao. When we finished, she forgot to hang up. And I heard Lei Zhihe. He said he wanted to have more…”

    She comforted him, “They are from the same place, out of there for living. They should help each other. It’s no surprise having a meal together. People want to have a meal when they get hungry.”

    Huang jumped up and roared, “Stop playing dumb! What’s he wants is having a such of my wife’s breasts instead of having a meal! I know what I heard!”

    Li wiped out her sweat in silence, looking at the mountain in the distance. What’s on the other side of the mountain? She picked up a plump sweet potato. How much did it look like a breast! She gently cleaned it with her sleeve and bit into it, crispy and sweet. She chewed thoughtfully as if it was not a sweet potato but the thing she heard.

    Then, she chose one sweet potato and gave it to Huang politely.

    He took it over but dropped it into her basket, “I don’t want your sweet potato! Your husband screwed with my wife! I want you to pay! ”

    She was astounded, staring at him without a sign of weakness, “Your wife seduced my husband. I haven’t gone to get even with her. How dare you come to get even with me! Your wife makes you a cuckold and you take it out on me? If you have some balls, why don’t you go to Dongduang for them? ”

    Huang stunned and shrank back, saying, “I would have gone there but things here tie me up. Who else can I turn to except you? You…well, at least make a phone call to him.”

    “You think that’ll make a difference? At such a distance, a phone call will stop them from staying together?”

    “So…what should we do?” he squatted again with his face in his hands.

    Li despised Huang. As a man, he couldn’t even bear it! She was sick of talking with him, picked up all sweet potatoes in the basket and walked downside carrying the shoulder pole with the hoe hanging on it. It was not heavier than usual, but she felt her legs weak and shivering. She gritted her teeth and got on with it. Huang, who dared not to cry loudly, was sobbing like a beaten dog.

    Oddly, her legs were better on hearing his sobbing and she was also relieved. She felt herself strong and tough. Nothing could bring her down. With that thought, she made for home with those sweet potatoes in a minute, puffing and blowing from the burden.

    Li told it to her mother-in-law when feeding noodles to her. A bite of noodles, a sentence. When noodles were eaten up, the story was finished. Although her mother-in-law was paralyzed, her appetite was good. She slurped all noodles but didn’t give Li any comfort except two sentences. One was that “a male dog would never climb on the back of a bitch if she doesn't wag her tail”. After a sigh, the other one came out slowly, “They live a difficult life there, exhausted but with no one to talk to after work. That’s how it works. It’s as if you got somewhere itchy on the back, but cannot reach it and you have to turn to someone for help. Just let it go as long as he sends enough money back.”

    Her mother-in-law’s words were like a back scratcher, scratching all over her. Gradually, she felt much better and had nothing to complain about.

    The next day, Li went to the town fair and specially checked the balance of her deposit card on ATM. The balance was more than before. Lei sent part of his salary on time. It was something real. “What else do you want?” The thought made Li feel peaceful and contented. Anyway, Lei still cared about the family.

    Passing by the teahouse, Li noticed lots of people playing cards there, including Huang with a red face. He must have drunk a lot. She stopped and watched for a while quietly. Several rounds, he had lost more than 300 yuan. She felt really sorry, thinking that bad luck would not stick with Huang without that affair. He was not playing cards but playing with his own upsets. Watching his tousled hairs and red eyes, Li started to pity him out of the blue.

    At dusk a few days later, Li spotted Huang down the threshing floor. He was sitting by the roadside and stinking of alcohol, his face flushing with intoxication, with some midges flying around.

    “Alas! You are torturing yourself.” Li raised him.

    Huang reeled and said, “Is there anyone I can torture other than myself?”

    “Go home and sober up.” she said.

    Huang staggered forward a little and might have fallen if Li had not steadied him. He leaned against her with all his weight. She had to hold him to the threshing floor, climbed the steps, and then put him in the lounge chair.

    Li poured a bowl of tea for him and comforted him in a low voice, “You are a man. Don’t take things too hard. Such thing is so common in our town. They live hard out there, working for money, and having no dear ones. Just think they feel itchy and help scratch each other. That’s how it works. Don’t make a mountain out of a molehill.”

    Huang grumbled gloomily, “But who can help me scratch?”

    Li blurted without thinking, “Me.”

    Both of them froze.

    Anyway, Li did not regret it. What had been said was said. She did not push Huang away when he held her tightly and tried to kiss her in spite of the unpleasant smell of liquor. The lounge chair was not perfect for this because of the loud sound. They fell down on the ground.

    Her mother-in-law asked from the room, “Li, who are you talking to?”

    She replied loudly, “ Nobody, just me. I’m talking to myself.”

    It was getting late. Her eyes stared at the corner of the path. Every Saturday night, Lei Ying, her daughter in the third year of middle school, would come back from the town. As expected, the pleasant shadow of her daughter appeared at the end of the winding path. Li pushed quickly away the groaning man on her.

    Chapter 3

    Every day Li Juan got up as soon as the sun was streaming in through the window. First, Li would brush her teeth and wash her face, check whether her mother-in-law had wet the sheet or not, and then help her mother-in-law wash up. Next, Li would cook some rice noodles, eat them first herself and then feed her mother-in-law. Then, she would feed pig and chickens, sweep the floor, wipe tables over the decoction of Traditional Chinese Medicine and feed it to her mother-in-law later. Finally, she would hold her mother-in-law to the lounge chair on the steps to enjoy sunshine and scenery. When all of these were done, half of a morning had passed and she began to sweat. Despite tiredness, she did not want to stop in case of any loneliness and emptiness.

    She finished all these things as usual, and then went to the vegetable garden with a bamboo basket.

    Capsicum tree extended the third branch with green leaves moist with dew. Cucumber stem climbed onto the bamboo rack with small yellow flowers blooming and some scarabs crawling on the fluffy leaves. Asparagus lettuce remaining to produce seed next year had grown up to the waist of man. Li bent over among Capsicum treesto pull out some weeds that always made her annoyed.

    Dew dripped on her insteps as she passed by Capsicum trees. She felt like the bug was biting her insteps.

    Li went to the side of bamboo fence, rolled up her sleeves and picked some honeysuckles using her fingertips. Several years ago, Li noticed there were people in the town planting honeysuckles and asked for some seedlings. It was unexpected that they were so vital that within two years they just had covered the whole fence. At this time of every year, bunches of small yellow-and-white honeysuckles would burst into bloom with their fragrance lingering along the hillside. Whenever she was sleepless, she could smell the bittersweet fragrance.

    Honeysuckles that Li picked up had piled up in the basket, weighing about two to three jin. She stretched herself and turned around, looking out toward the horizon. The sky was overcast but the air was fresh. Down in the valley, there was someone driving a cultivator around in her paddy field with fresh and pleasant smell of mud drifting in the air. Of course, it couldn’t be someone else but Huang. The cultivator was chugging along, low but clearly, as if Huang was talking to her, “I will help you with the paddy field, no worries, no worries, no worries…”

    Li took a deep breath along with which the sound of the machine seemed to be absorbed in her belly. On the opposite hillside, an old wooden house stood with a withered camphor tree at the back. Both of them looked like on their way to falling down anytime. Li kept staring at them for quite a while, sighing.

    “Who are you sighing for? Me or my house?”

    A voice of a man rang in her ear. Looking sideways, Li found it was Qin Jianjun across the fence, wearing a face shining with fat and a cigarette in the mouth.

    “I am too busy to care about your business!” Li tucked her hairs behind her ears and said, “Anyway, your house should be repaired in case of collapsing someday.”

    “A house can be repaired but your life can not. Let it be. If it collapses, I will go to the city for a living.” Qin said.

    “If you repair your house, quit gambling, and perhaps your wife may come back to you.” Li said.

    “If she ran off, she will never come back. Even if she will, I don’t want her. She is not pretty and well-behaved like you.” Qin said, leering at her.

    “I won’t buy your flatter. I know what you want.” Li turned away and picked flowers with her right hand quickly.

    “Alright. Let's make it clear. I like you. Come with me to Lotus City. I will bring you for movie, coffee and karaoke. It’s useless to pick these flowers! It’s only seven to eight yuan per jin. All these flowers on your fence just weigh several jin at most. What can you do with the little money from them? It will be much easier to make money in the city!”

    Qin grabbed her hand across the fence, but she threw his hand off forcefully.

    “You can pick money in the city? You think you are a city guy just in a pair of jeans? I am and will be just the way I was, as a busy countrywoman. If I were like you, having no cares or problems, I would be hanging around too. Don’t play with me. I know you had bet with someone on me. It’s useless to flirt with me.”

    Li snorted and looked at the figure of Huang ploughing in the distance. Just now, it was moving but now frozen as if he had heard something.

    “Well. Don’t you know that if you sleep with me, someone will lose me 1000 yuan? Fortune favors the lazy! You won’t let me down, will you?” Qin said grinning.

    “No way! You’d better drop the idea forever!” Li said.

    “Who am I? I am Qin Jianjun! I will figure out a way. I am good-looking, right? Maybe someday, you will come to my house tamely.” Qin turned away and left, blowing out a ring of smoke. The back of his head looked like a giant taro.

    Li felt upset. Although he did not take advantage of her, but she still felt offended, like a bunch of thatches stuffed in the chest. The fragrance of honeysuckles also turned suddenly into bitter smell of Traditional Chinese Medicine, making her suffocated.

    Li was not in the mood to pick flowers and turned back into the house.

    “Li, is it Qin Jianjun flirting with you?” her mother-in-law reclined in the chair with bright eyes.

    “How long are your ears? Is there someone he doesn't flirt with?” Li said.

    Her mother-in-law made no reply and managed to push herself up with one hand, looking down at the slope and saying, “Is there someone ploughing for us?”

    “It’s Huang Xiaotian. He has contracted for it.” Li said.

    “Well, good, or you will be overwhelmingly busy. It is a very tiring work. How about we inviting him to have dinner together?” her mother-in-law offered.

    “No need. We have contract anyway.”

    “That’s true, though. There should be some manners.” her mother-in-law said.

    Li thought about it and agreed. She went back to the room and texted Huang, inviting him for dinner. It was the first time that she had used this phone he gave to her.

    Huang replied in one word, “Okay”.

    After lunch, Li walked to the dry land with the hoe on her shoulder and dug for a while. The season for planting sweet potatoes had come. At present, the sweet potatoes were rocketing in price in the city, more worthwhile than vegetables. The field of Huang was cultivated soft enough for sweet potatoes. Everything was ready except the raining weather. Having a man around was much better. The soil was hardened a little, after a while, she sweated with two arms ached. Li had no choice but to slow down and still her shirt was drenched through soon. Later, the sun was setting, so she put the hoe in the field, went to the town market for one jin of pork and one jin of rice wine, and then came back to prepare dinner.

    She cooked twice-cooked pork, kidney beans along with tomato and egg soup. Besides, she took some pickled allium chinense out of the jar. The moment the dishes were ready, Huang came in the threshing floor with a bag of pig feed on his shoulder He went upsteps, turned to the pigsty and threw off the bag, making the ground shaking. Li hastened to pass a towel and asked in surprise, “How do you know our pig feed is running out?”

    Huang took the towel over, flicking the dust away and wiping the sweat away on his face, grinning, “I am not an immortal. How can I know? I just know you feed pig and you must need pig feed. Moreover, there is a free ride to the slope, so I bring one bag for you. That would save you a trip.”

    Li was grateful. Without further talk, she stuffed the money into his pocket and grabbed his hand gently, asking him to have dinner. Huang was the guest and sat above the salt. Li held her mother-in-law into the specially-made round-backed armchair, settled her on the left and seats herself besides so as to take care of her. Li even put a pillow on the back of her mother-in-law for comfort. Li poured a glass of rice wine for Huang, and another one for her mother-in-law. Her mother-in-law was a fan of rice wine and also needed medicinal liquor for her illness. Whenever there was a guest, her mother-in-law would enjoy some. Despite that her mother-in-law had to lie down for most of time and needed Li’s help to eat, she would try her best to sit by herself if someone came to visit. Shivering, she managed to use chopsticks or held cup by one working hand for eating and drinking. What’s more, at those moments, her hand became much more agile.

    Li said some pleasantries to Huang. Hearing this, Huang took a sip of the wine, saying genuinely, “It’s really good having a woman around!”

    Over putting food onto the plate of her mother-in-law, Li said, “Just now, I was digging in the field and noticed that yours has already been cultivated. I also thought that it’s really good having a man around!”

    Her mother-in-law rolled her eyes and said, “Either man or woman is a must in a family.”

    Huang nodded his agreement but was afraid to put his eyes on her mother-in-law.

    Her mother-in-law asked, “Huang, how many years haven’t your wife come back?”

    Huang thought for a while and said, “Well, she came back during the Spring Festival of the year before last year.”

    Her mother-in-law said, “So did my son. He came back on the 27th day of the twelfth lunar month the year before last year and left as soon as the celebration of the New Year was over. It is hard to get ticket. Moreover, it’s too far away and costly, so he seldom comes back. Life is not easy for them outside, and we have to understand them.”

    Huang merely said “Hmm”, with a sweating forehead and unpleasant smell of perspiration.

    Li sniffed as if it smelled good. She drew a piece of napkin and wiped carefully out the foam on her mother-in-law’s mouth. It was getting darkere. Subconsciously, Li wanted to wipe the sweat for him, but on the half way, she pulled back her hand.

    There were footsteps outside. A black shadow flashed into the room. It was Li’s daughter Lei Ying carrying her backpack.

    Li stood up delightedly, “Ying, it’s not weekend today, why do you come back?”

    Lei Ying took a look at Huang, biting her lips, “Am I interrupting you?”

    Li tugged on her arm, “What are you saying? Say hello to Uncle Huang, put your bag down and join us!”

    “I have no appetite.” Lei Ying said while walking sideways into her room.

    Li wrinkled her brows, “How rude!”

    Huang said, “Most children of her age behave like this. My son only comes back home in holidays and never calls unless he is broken.”

    Thoughtfully, Li put down chopsticks and bowl, and went to the room of Ying.

    Lei Ying kept taking things out of her bag huffily without a glance at her mother.

    Li asked, “Ying, who are you angry with?”

    Lei Ying said, “I am angry with myself, can I?”

    Li poked her daughter in the forehead, “What? I know you too well. You are angry with me, right? Speak. What’s on your mind?”

    Lei Ying held up her head, “Fine. I don’t wanna hear any gossip about you!”

    Li blushed and stamped her feet, “Are you crazy? You are definitely too obsessed with those TV shows. Your mother is just a countryside woman, not a star! I’m tired to death and not in the mood to have love affairs!”

    “Well, why did you invite that guy to have dinner and even let him seated above the salt? That used to be my dad’s seat!” Lei argued.

    “He is helping us plough. What’s wrong with it to invite him to have a dinner?”

    “It makes me uncomfortable! Anyway, I am gonna make that clear. If you really have love affairs, don’t expect me to have a good performance in the exam. If you don’t save my face, I won’t save yours!”

    Li was stunned and speechless by those words, only to go back to the central room and to have dinner in silence, wandering whether her mother-in-law and Huang had heard something due to Ying’s loud voice. Her mother-in-law’s look was like a worm creeping around her face, too itchy to stand. She could do nothing but to put on a poker face.

    The room was so quiet that only the sounds of chewing and pig in the pigsty could be heard. A hoot of owl arose suddenly from the back of the house and Li shuddered and even got goose bumps.

    Huang praised the good taste of dinner, put down chopsticks and bowl and then left.

    Li was a little bit mixed up. Not until Huang got to the threshing floor did she break the silence, “Wait! Take some pickled allium chinense!” She found a clean plastic bag, opened a jar in the kitchen, grabbed some pickled allium chinense and chased into the threshing floor for Huang, saying under her breath, “Did you hear Lei Ying’s words just now?”

    Huang said, “No worries. I won’t put you in trouble.”

    Li nodded and was relieved with those assuring words.

    “Oh, your mother-in-law asked me to be nice with you, and told me that I could use your help if I have something to wash or mend. What did she mean?” Huang said again.

    Li said, “Just leave her alone. She has got real weird ever since she was ill. Anyway, do you have anything to wash or mend?”

    Huang said, “Of course.”

    Li said, “Okay. If it’s fine, I would go to your place.”

    Huang said “Okay”, squeezing her hand and then turning away.

    Chapter 4

    Li sold those honeysuckles in the town for 46 yuan and then bought with it a bottle of blend oil and two packs of washing powder. On her way home, she was stopped by the village head who gave her a form, asking her to fill it out and return it to him after finishing it. It was a Recommendation Form for Good Daughter-in-law from the Women's Federation in the county. Li gave it back, “I am not gonna fill it out. I’m not qualified.”

    The village head gave it to her again and insisted, “If you are not qualified, there is no one else. Is there anyone who takes care of her mother-in-law and never plays cards? Everybody knows that. Life isn’t easy for you. We recommend you, not only for you, but also for our village. Don't hide your light under a bushel.”

    Li had no choice but to take it back home.

    Her mother-in-law noticed and grabbed the form using the working hand, looking at it again and again and pressing Li, “Li, fill it out quickly. It’s good.”

    Her mother-in-law was ever the captain of the Iron Girls’ Team in People's Commune when she was young. Drilling blasting hole, blasting, making paddy field and building reservoir, she could literally do everything. With a strong sense of honor, she had been awarded many times, and some award certificates were still on the wall. But Li was the opposite. She took no interest in it.

    “Am I a good daughter-in-law?” Li muttered to herself.

    “Absolutely! Do you remember the year I got stroke? It was you that saved my life and has taken great care of me for so many years. And I don’t have to suffer from bedsore because of you.” her mother-in-law said emotionally in tears.

    Li remembered that she had carried her mother-in-law to hospital, stepping on the shaking ground with sweat running down along the chin, and she could even feel her waist about to break since her mother-in-law was a little fat. Her mother-in-law had remained unconscious for three days and nights. When she was awake, she started messing around, making Li exhausted. Even so, Li had not informed Lei Zhihe of it but gotten through it all by herself. Distant since he was, he could not come back in a second knowing it. Afterwards, Lei had been told about what’s happened, but hadn’t come back as expected. He was not a doctor, so it was pointless. Lei had talked to Li on the phone in Cantonese mandarin, “Honey, thank you for all these.” As for Li herself, it was nothing and she was just born for it. But still sometimes, she felt lonely lying in the bed without someone to talk with. Those dark nights just like a bunch of deep wells buried her in there. No light, and no hope.

    Li allowed herself to wander out of herself and for no reason she said, “Mom, can you stop talking about me with someone else?”

    “I didn’t!”

    “I know what I want to do and what I should do. I know it.”

    After a moment’s silence, her mother-in-law went on speaking, “I just want to make it easier for you.”

    Li said, “Don’t worry! I promise you that I won’t run off like Qin’s wife, no matter how hard or tired. She has no cares. But I have. I have to send Ying to college and to take care of you.”

    Her mother-in-law said nothing but sighed a low sigh.

    Li filled that form out on the table, but left the Stand-out Deeds empty. She thought those characters alone were a little sarcastic. That’s it. She didn’t want the reputation of Good Daughter-in-law at all.

    It had been a long while since she used pen and her handwriting looked like nothing on earth.

    After dinner with all things done, it was almost 9 o’clock in the evening. Li put her mother-in-law in bed and turned on TV. The old 14-inch TV had always been in her mother-in-law’s room and it was the only boredom killer for her. Then, Li felt sleepy due to tiredness. She threw herself all over in the bed and drifted off to sleep. For Li, sleeping was good and sleeping tight was kind of a blessing. Because she always experienced a light sleep and it was difficult to fall asleep again as long as she woke up.

    As usual, she might have snoozed a little and woke up. TV was still on. It was almost midnight. Her mother-in-law had dozed off with some saliva coming down the side of her mouth. In TV, Little Swallow (character from the show The Return of Pearl) played by Zhao Wei (a famous Chinese actress) was acting like a spoiled child. She turned it off, wiped out her mother-in-law’s saliva, made herself a cup of tea and sat on the threshold, staring at the hazy valley with nothing on her mind.

    Lights in the town were twinkling. It seemed that there were lots of people awake. The dark mountain ranges rose and fell. Stars scattering in the deep-blue sky were like sesames. A hoot of owl came from afar, which sounded sad and familiar. It might be the one that she usually found in the backyard. But why was it there?

    A figure showed up in the starlight, soundless. It went through the threshing floor and came upsteps. Li didn’t move a muscle and asked calmly, “What are you, human or ghost, so soundless?”

    “Of course I am your type. Anyway, have you seen such a handsome ghost like me?” that man laughed.

    The face of Qin was lit up by the light from the central room.

    “What do you come for?” Li moved a little.

    “Can't I just come to see you? I wanna chat with you.” Qin said, taking a bench and siting beside Li.

    Li poured a cup of tea for him, looking at the mountain on the left and Qin’s house down on the opposite where light was still on. Why didn’t Huang think of coming to chat with her? For whatever reason, she sighed. Sometimes, a sigh was more like a comfort. She sighed so that she could find the inner peace.

    Li wanted to send him away with a few words and go back for some sleep. But her mouth seemed out of control and she asked impetuouly, “Qin, you must have chatted with many married women, right?”

    “Yeah. I love playing cards. It is my life. But if I got any chance to chat with women, I can give up my life.”

    “Who have you ever chatted with?” Li knew perfectly well that it was no good to provoke him, but she just was out of control.

    “Well. Mingfa’s wife, Zhuzi’s wife, and Laoguai’s wife…” Qin counted with his head leaning near Li’s ear, “Oh, including the lover of Town Head Mao.”

    “Don’t brag!” Li felt she couldn’t brake, “What are you even chatting about? Just nonsense?”

    “Hey! Hey! Everything they like. Human talks, and is afraid of loneliness, right? As long as they are entertained, then I can be entertained in bed.”

    “Bah!”

    “I never force others. I like you, so I come to chat with you.”

    “Hum. You just want to win 1000 yuan on your bet.”

    “I love money. Who doesn’t? But I love chatting with you, too. Lei Zhihe and Liu Simao have been together. Why do you keep faithful to him?” Qin grabbed her hand and moved puckering his lips close to her face for a kiss.

    Li seemed to be roused from sleep and thrusted him away. But such was his strength. She was trapped by his right arm and struggled to free herself but failed. His left hand wormed its way into her clothes like a snake, and bit her boobs. She could feel the coldness on her back but somehow she enjoyed an unspeakable comfort. This was not the right thing to do. She grabbed his hand, drew it away and bit moderately on the smelly arm. 

    “Ouch,” he lowered his voice, “Why are you so stubborn? You want me too, don’t you?”

    “I have someone.” she was puffing.

    “I don’t care! Try me!”

    “I do care. Leave, or I am gonna call people!”

    She finally wriggled out of his arms.

    “Fine. I won’t force you. Let’s remain friendly even if the business fails. But you have my money lost. It’s 1000 yuan. You pay me 500 and I will leave.” he clapped his hands.

    “Can't you stop acting so shamelessly? I don’t owe you a penny.”

    “But you owe me my face. It’s worth more than 500 yuan. Well, you can pay me later, okay?”

    “Leave! Now! Or I will call 110!”

    Qin didn’t want to go and wanted to hug her again.

    At that moment, there was a splash back in room and her mother-in-law was screaming, “Li, Don’t be afraid. I’m coming!”

    Qin was taken aback and stood up. Li turned around and noticed that her mother-in-law actually fell from the bed and crawled to the door. Without any second thought, Li hurried to hold her. Her mother-in-law raised her right hand with all her strength and threw a bucket for rice right on the head of Qin. Qin rubbed his head, jumped to the threshing floor and ran away. Soon, a splash came from the path.

    Li held her mother-in-law back on the bed, puffing, “Mom, you’re awesome!”

    “Living in this world, if you are not awesome, you will suffer.” hearing the sound outside, her mother-in-law said again, “Go have a look. It sounds like that he stumbles into the ditch.”

    Li went out with the flashlight. About ten steps away, she found Qin sitting beside the ditch and rubbing his shoulder. His face was covered with dust with blood on the forehead. What a mess!

    “Well, now you know ‘go for wool and come back shorn’.” Li pulled him up, gave him the flashlight and then went back to the room in the dark.

    Chapter 5

    There was a light rain last night and the dry field turned wet. It was suitable for planting sweet potatoes. Early in the morning, Li rushed to the town to buy sweet potato seedlings without having breakfast. She had stored sweet potato seeds at first, but they were rotten due to the water leakage of the sweet potato cellar. Without producing sweet potato seedlings on her own, she had to buy some from others. However, Li couldn’t find any of them although she had walked throughout the town twice. An old man said, “You are late, Huang Xiaotian bought all my sweet potato seedlings a moment ago.”

    Li felt uncomfortable and thought, “Why is him?”

    She had to wait for another rain and come again to buy.

    The old man said, “You are so awesome! No one can crack down on Qin Jianjun, but you did it.”

    Li didn’t know what he meant, “How did I crack down on him?”

    The old man said, “He said himself that he wanted to flirt with you, and you got him bleeding on the face.”

    “That’s what he deserves.”

    “Did he succeed to stick to you?” the old man asked with his eyes narrowed.

    Li straightened her face and walked away.

    She went to the restaurant to have a bowl of rice noodles, and also took back one for her mother-in-law. Her mother-in-law was in a good mood that day, so she ate all by herself, bending over the table with her trembling right hand picking up the chopsticks. She ate one by one patiently. After finishing the trivial housework, it turned to the noon and Li had to cook again. Li got annoyed suddenly and thought, “When will this kind of days be over?” She sat on the steps and didn’t want to do anything. She was dispirited, looking in a daze at the distant mountain.

    Her mother-in-law looked at her face and said gently, “Don’t bother about making lunch, we still have yesterday's rice porridge. It's quite delicious.”

    Li hummed and went to the kitchen to reheat the remaining porridge. She served one bowl of porridge for her mother-in-law and herself respectively, and added some pickles. She finished the porridge absent-mindedly. Several chickens crowed around her heels, and she realized she forgot to feed them, then she grabbed a few bunches of millet and scattered them in the threshing floor.

    The clouds in the sky dispersed quietly, and the sunlight poured over them straightly. The plants of early summer were growing rapidly and their greenness was bright and vigorous throughout the mountain and valley. The warm wind with muddy smell blew through Li’s body, like a gentle touch. The weather was really good. It was time to mend some clothes for Huang. Li helped her mother-in-law on the toilet seat for a while, and settled her down. Then, Li changed her clothes and set off.

    She didn’t walk along the main road but stepped on the obscure path up to the mountain. She could make it to Huang’s by simply climbing over the hill, or she would have to detour if she followed the main road. There was still some dew on the grass and her trouser legs got wet soon. As the sun shone on her through leaves, she smelt the straw smell from herself.

    Passing by her own field, Li stunned.

    The field that she had dug for two days was already planted with sweet potato seedlings. The mud marks on the leaves had not dried yet, which showed that the person who planted these seedlings must have just left. This field was not big, slightly over 130 square meters, but it took at least half a day for only one person to work on.

    Li certainly knew who did that. The seedlings she had failed to buy were all planted in the field. But she was not grateful at all. On the contrary, she was very angry and thought how he could plant it without telling her! This was her field! She was so angry that her face turned red and it itched like ants crawling on it. She didn't want to help him to make any stitches anymore. She took a few steps back. However, since she made a promise, she still had to do it. She climbed up the mountain with anger. She was not only to help him with his clothes, but also to question him.

    Li climbed over the mountain, crossed through a shrub, and walked straight to a black wooden house. The house had been there for many years, but it still stood firmly. The veneers of the side roof were covered with green moss, and a palm tree was standing by the side. Several chickens were foraging in the gutters. She had been married to this place for more than ten years and never entered this house.

    She asked out loudly, “Anybody here?”

    There was no response. Li entered the central room, where there were buckets, hoes, benches, baskets, and shoes scattering everywhere. The table was covered with thick dust. She turned to the kitchen, and things were all the same. The bowls and chopsticks that had been used were in the basin, but they hadn't been washed yet. She couldn’t stand this mess, so she rolled up her sleeves and washed the dishes first. Then, she went to the central room, putting everything in order and cleaning the table.

    “What brings you here?”

    Huang’s voice sounded at her back.

    Li turned around and said with a bad temper, “I can't come? I've come to ask you who allows you to plant sweet potato seedlings in my field without letting me know?”

    So what? Are you afraid that they can’t survive?”

    You don't have to be nice to me. I don't want to owe you.”

    I know what you mean. You don't want me to be too close to you. You’re afraid of my sticking to you. But I just want to do more for you. I’m such a fool.”

    I’m a fool too, or do you think why I did come to your house voluntarily?”

    So, we’re birds of the same feather, so no one has to be blamed.”

    Save it, just hand me the clothes that have to be mended!"

    I've sorted out my clothes. The sewing machine hasn’t been used for many years. I made it work again.”

    Huang brought Li into the bedroom. She glanced at his bed immediately, only to see the quilt and clothes piled up in a mess, exuding a stinky smell of masculinity. The smell was not distasteful to her. She couldn't help taking a deep breath and then sat in front of the sewing machine under the window. In fact, the clothes could be delivered to the sewing shop in the town, but they were just Huang’s excuse to ask Li to come. The sun was tilting toward west, and the room turned a little dark. Huang opened the window. Li began to mend his clothes, skillfully stepping on the sewing machine with her feet, and the shiny needle tip moved quickly. But she was a little absent-minded, because she felt that someone was staring at her back, which made her uncomfortable. After finishing a piece of clothes, she turned back and noticed the wedding photo of Huang and Liu on the wall. She felt like Liu’s eyes were staring at her like a thorn.

    “Can you take down the photo for now? Your wife is staring at me.” Li said lightly.

    “She is in Dongguan, what are you afraid of?” Huang muttered, but still took the photo down.

    Li felt a little more comfortable, and worked more smoothly. Huang stood close to her and his smell of sweat surrounded her like fog.

    “Li, I want to take you to Lotus City and hang out in the park when we have time.” Huang said.

    Li stopped and looked back at him, “Why do all men want to take women to the city?”

    “Did Qin invite you too?” Huang was very sensitive.

    Li hummed.

    “You won’t go with him, will you? ”

    “Absolutely won’t!” Li gave him a serious look.

    “He is just flirting with you, but I’m the one who really wants to live with you, comfortably and romantically. You are so tired all the year round, and there have to be a time for you to take a break. Even the criminals in the jail have to breath some fresh air, we cannot be so cruel to ourselves.” Huang gently shook Li’s shoulder as he said.

    Li was a bit moved. When in middle school, she went to Lotus City with her classmates from time to time. They didn't have to buy anything or play anything particular. They simply took a look at the scenery and felt the atmosphere of the city, which was pretty much enough for them. Since her mother-in-law was ill, she had never left Thunder God Town. She didn’t even know what the current Lotus City looked like. But she still shook her head and refused, “I never have time off.”

    “It is not far away. One hour’s drive will be enough. You can prepare lunch for your mother-in-law, and we will come back in the afternoon.”

    “We’d better wait for a free time.”

    Li worked on the clothes and didn’t say a word anymore.

    After the clothes were done, Li folded them carefully and put them into the box one by one. Then, she walked toward the door.

    Huang called, “You are leaving now?”

    “I have to go home to make dinner.”

    “Stay a little longer, it won’t screw up your dinner.”

    Li froze.

    Huang put his arms around her waist and lifted her up. She felt like she was flying.

    Chapter 6

    There was something that you just could not bring it up. If you brought it up, you would keep it in mind. Hanging around the city was an example. Li wondered why she couldn’t let it go since she had that thought. After work, she subconsciously looked at the gray-blue ridge in the distance, the other side of which was Lotus City. In the morning, when Huang invited her to Lotus City over the phone, she didn’t reply, which was taken as a yes. But how could she bring it up to her mother-in-law? That worried her a little. She wrinkled her brows over preparing the meal.

    Her mother-in-law was sharp-eyed, “Li, have you got something on your mind?”

    Li said immediately, “Yeah, you are about to have your 66th birthday, and I’m thinking about buying you something in Lotus City. But leaving you alone at home makes me worried.”

    Her mother-in-law squinted her eyes and said, “I’m fine. You just put me in the lounge chair beside the table, and leave the lunch on the table. Anyway, you going to the city alone makes me worried.”

    Li said, “I have a company. ”

    “Who? Huang Xiaotian is fine. If it is Qin Jianjun, that would make me worried more.”

    “Mom, I am not a teenage girl. I cannot be kidnaped no matter who my company is. Rest assured.”

    “Well. Go and prepare. Come back early.”

    Li had her mother-in-law settled and dressed herself up, in red T-shirt and blue jeans, and set off carrying a bag made of artificial leather.

    When she went in the town, someone asked, “Li, going to Lotus City?”

    It was strange as if her face told everything. Besides, she felt like there were so many eyes focusing on her. She tightened her face and walked straight to the station. A medium-sized bus pulled over at the corner with the door open. She found Huang sitting on the second driver’s seat and sticking his head out of the window. They noticed each other. Huang smiled and put his head back. Li got on the bus and sat in the last row. Huang looked back at her with a lot of words hiding behind his eyes. She just ignored that, of course. She held her bag in her arms and looked out of the window, imaging how thing would be like in Lotus City and hoping for an early start. She could feel her anxiously pounding heart. But the bus wouldn’t depart unless it was full.

    There were more and more people getting on. All of a sudden, Li’s heart got twitched a little. It was Qin Jianjun with a cigarette dangling from the corner of his mouth and wearing a T-shirt with Barack Obama on. He clung to the door and looked inside. It seemed like that he didn’t intend to get on. His eyes lighted up like two little bulbs and stepped on the bus the second he noticed the existence of Li. There were two empty seats left in front, but she had a hunch that he would come to sit besides her.

    As expected, Qin came straight to her, “Well, well, what a tiny world!”

    Li just ignored him and her folded arms hugged herself tight.

    Qin sat down on her left, pretty close on purpose.

    She moved a little to her right.

    Qin flipped the butt out of the window over her, and said with a mouthful of bad smell, “I really don’t know in what aspect I am not as good as him. Just because he helped you with your paddy field? If you were with me, I would do much better!”

    She kept a poker face and squinted forward.

    Huang turned around and stared at them two with a nervous looking.

    Li stood up and wanted to leave. Qin held her back, “Come on. I won’t follow you to Lotus City. You two can do anything romantic you want. I just want to have a word with you.”

    Li couldn’t help saying, “Spit it out!”

    “Hum, it’s not good to treat me in this manner. I heard that you were about to be awarded Good Daughter-in-law. Try to be nicer. You’re not afraid that I open fire in your back? Fine. Actually, I’m coming to share a video with you.”

    Qin took his larger-screened phone out of his pocket and put a video on with a few taps.

    The picture was not clear. She managed to notice there were two naked people having sex. The screen was too reflective to recognize who exactly they were. She was indifferent and didn’t know why he was doing this. Suddenly, she realized something. It felt like she got a bite by a bug on her heart with a sharp pain and her blood froze.

    Qin took the phone a little closer, with an evil smile, “Is it not clear enough? It doesn’t matter. I can dub it for you so that you will know exactly who they are. Baby, how do you feel? Sweetheart, is it good? Hum, hum…it’s amazing! It’s amazing!”

    It was like countless ants crawling over her head. She was stunned and blushed, losing her breath. Li stretched out her hand and wanted to grab that phone. Qin noticed and raised it up immediately, “This is my secret weapon. Don’t you dare take it from me! Or I will call people to have a look.”

    Li lowered her voice, “What do you want?”

    “It all depends on my mood.”

    Li stood up. She could even hear the sound of her backbone twisting. All colors were drained from the surroundings. Qin’s face was like a ghost hovering before her eyes. She could do nothing but push him away, get off the bus and head back home in panic.

    She started to run to the fullest. She felt the ground going up and down. The sun seemed to be on fire with a smell of burning. There were countless needles pricking her face. She just kept running and running. She didn’t hear her phone ringing until she got to the foot of the slope. She took it out. It was Huang yelling, “Why did you flee away? What did Qin say to you? What about our trip to Lotus City?”

    Li hanged up the phone and wanted to throw it into the ditch. She raised her hand but stopped and put it back to the bag.

    She struggled to climb on the slope with her jelly legs and came back home. As she entered the house, she found her mother-in-law standing by the table and wiping the table. Li hurried to hold her mother-in-law, “How did you make it?”

    With her help, her mother-in-law sat back to the lounge chair, “How strange. I can manage to get up when you are not around. But when you come back, I can’t feel my half body again!”

    “Oh”, Li was distracted and didn’t think too much.

    “You are not going to Lotus City?”

    “Hum, I…I can’t leave you alone.”

    Li went into her room, closed the door and threw herself in the bed. It felt like all of her tendons were pulled out and she missed the power. Various thoughts flashed through her mind like a nest of wasps. She closed her eyes, letting herself drowning in the darkness.

    She didn’t touch her lunch and slept until sun fell behind the mountain. When awake, she felt sane and quiet. Her mother-in-law told her that Huang had come for her and knocked at the door but failed to wake her up. She did housework in good order, taking care of her mother-in-law, chickens and the pig.

    After dinner, she took a look on the steps and found Qin’s house with the light on. So she took 1000 yuan, 500 in the left pocket and 500 in the right. Then, she left.

    When she got to Qin’s, she shouted in the threshing floor, “Qin, are you there?”

    Qin came out and grinned, “Oh, I didn’t expect you. Did the sun rise in the west today? Come in.”

    “Save it.” Li took 500 yuan out of the pocket, “I come here to give you face.”

    Qin went down from the steps, took the money over and counted, “Only 500? If you give me no face, how can I give you face?”

    Li took another 500 yuan out of the other pocket and handed it over, “It’s all yours. Now, please delete that video in your phone.”

    Qin nodded, “Okay, you are sincere enough, and I will keep my words and delete it when I’m free.”

    “Right now!”

    “You don’t believe me?” Qin laughed, took the phone out, tapped a few and handed it over to Li, “Done. You can check.”

    She had no idea of this kind of new smart phone. Even if she didn’t believe him, she could do nothing but leave.

    Chapter 7

    In the morning, Huang got in Li’s way when she was picking vegetables in the garden.

    “What happened to you? You didn’t answer the phone, and you even powered it off. What on earth did Qin do to you?” Huang said with a hurried face.

    “Is it helpful to answer your call?” She picked up a bunch of amaranth and lashed it forcibly, the dew on leaves splashing on Huang’s trouser legs.

    He took a step back.

    Li thought that she should tell him the truth, so she told him briefly.

    “It’s a blackmail!” Huang’s face turned pale.

    “It’s not helpful at all to say this. He did blackmail me, and so what? Do you dare to accuse him? Calm down, it is none of your business, and you are not the one who has to pay him.” she muttered.

    How come your business is not mine? I’ll pay.” Huang said.

    “You pay? Then give me the money! ” Li reached out her hand.

    Huang’s face turned red from pale, “I…I don’t have enough money right now.”

    “Oh, I know you.”

    Huang frowned and said, “You should delete those things yourself. This guy is so tricky that he won’t let go if he catches your vulnerable point. From now on, you must not see him alone.”

    “I know what you are worried about. Anyway, it’s my own business. Let it be! Don’t come to me again if you have nothing special to tell. I’m not in the mood to see you. You can leave now. ” Li said.

    Huang stood dully, and didn’t want to go. Li left first carrying her basket. She could sense an anxious atmosphere from him.

    Chapter 8

    Somehow, it became popular to hold birthday banquet for the elderly aged 66 in places around Thunder God Town. It is said that with this banquet, the elderly and his or her family would be lucky and everything would be perfect. Li didn’t want to hold this banquet or invite guests to come, for there were not many relatives and she was also very busy. But in order to make her mother-in-law happy, she thought she should at least prepare something for the family. Early in the morning, she made a bowl of longevity noodles with a fried egg, and then fed her mother-in-law. After housework, she went to the town, and bought one jin of pork and a crucian. She also spent 60 yuan buying a shirt for her mother-in-law as a gift. Then, she called her daughter who lived in school and asked her to come back home to have dinner and celebrate her grandmother’s birthday together.

    Li took what she had bought and passed by a bustling teahouse. She stopped and glanced at inside. There were about 10 tables being fully encircled by people who were playing cards. Among the crowds, she recognized Qin’s face. Qin smiled at her with an ambiguous expression. Li felt like something attacked her heart and turned away. But someone cried out, “Li, are you looking for your husband or your lover? You have come to the right place!” The crowds burst into laughter.

    Meanwhile, there was a person standing up in front of the table, and turned to her.

    Li was stunned, “What are you doing here?”

    Lei Zhihe put down his cards, picked up a huge sack, and walked toward Li, “I took the sleeping bus, and arrived in the morning. They asked me to play cards with them once I got out of the bus. I hadn’t played it for a long time, and they turned me on. Fortunately, I was lucky and won more than 200 yuan in less than half day.”

    “Why didn’t you tell us?”

    “Do I have to say that? It’s my mother’s 66th birthday. I must come back. There are not many this kind of occasions in one’s life.”

    Li didn’t say a word, and led her husband toward home. She felt sour on her eyes. A huge sense of grievance rolled in her heart. She just couldn’t suppress her feelings. Eventually, two lines of tears trickled down her face silently.

    Lei asked about this and that at first, and then found out that Li didn’t want to talk and wore an unhappy look. He stopped.

    Stepping on the threshing floor of their own after climbing up the hill, she wiped out her tears.

    She finally calmed down.

    Lei went straight to his mother and sat beside her chair to chat with her. Li cleared out the stuff in the sack. The gifts Lei brought to his family were almost clothes and several packages of Guangdong preserved fruits. Li made a simple lunch adeptly. After lunch, Lei stood on the steps, and looked at his own paddy field—the paddy field was full of greenness—then he worked in the vegetable garden. He spent the whole afternoon there, weeding, plowing, fertilizing, building a shelf for loofa, and fixing the loose fence. Li looked at this man being busy with gardening and thought, “Do the vegetables in the garden know he is the owner?”

    Li cooked stewed pork with brown sauce, braised fish, and several other dishes. She poured the rice wine that hadn’t been finished last time into three cups and then took her mother-in-law into the armchair. As soon as they sat down, Lei Ying got home. She had bought her grandmother a birthday cake with her pocket money. After dinner, Lei Ying put the small candles on the cake, lighted them up, and asked grandmother to blow them out. After that, she divided the cake and delivered it to everyone. The cream of the cake was so greasy that Li forced herself to swallow it and kept saying it was delicious. The occasion like this was too rare in this family, and she didn’t want to ruin this moment. Looking at her daughter’s happy face, Li felt inexplicably bitter inside.

    When everything was done, it was late at night.

    When Li entered the bedroom, Lei was lying on the bed with his head resting on his arms and staring at the ceiling. She hesitated for a while before she lay down by his feet. He moved his body to the inner side of the bed and she was also careful not to touch him. Unconsciously, they seemed to reach a tacit agreement about keeping a distance between them. But if he stretched his arms to her, she would welcome it. It was quiet and chilly outside, and the scent of wildflowers faintly penetrated into the window. She pulled the light string besides the bed, and the light went out. The dark night was sprawling in the room, submerging them.

    They kept silence.

    Li thought things should not go like that, so she asked, “So, how are you there?”

    “It’s okay, I don’t have much to do at work. I’m group leader now, but I always have to take night shifts…and, I rented a small shop last month, and it turned out to be a small grocery store. It is just fine, because I can run this grocery store when I return from my night shifts.”

    “It won’t work without a helper if you have to replenish your stock and go to work at the same time.”

    “I don’t hire anybody, I have a friend to help.

    “You mean girlfriend, right?”

    Lei didn’t reply.

    “Actually, all the people in the town have heard about the love affairs between you and Liu Simao.” Li said, turned over and stared at him with her body cuddled up.

    His face was vague and his eyes were glittering, “I also have heard love affairs between you and Huang.”

    “Who told you?”

    “It doesn’t matter. I will know sooner or later. I just saw your cell phone on the table. There is only one number in it, and it is his.”

    Li thought for a moment and said, “I’m all alone at home, mom is in such a situation, sometimes I’m too busy to take care of everything, he did help me a lot…the cell phone was from him, and he won it by playing cards.”

    Lei hummed and said, “Mom has just praised highly about you. You have been working so hard these years, and I know it even if she didn’t tell me. Today, it is hard to have a daughter-in-law as great as you. But something is beyond our control.”

    “Does your clothes be mended by Liu?”

    Li was a little bit stunned as she said, and she thought why she asked this.

    “Who mends clothes now?” he answered honestly, “sometimes, she washes clothes for me.”

    Li stopped talking. She felt hurt in her heart.

    He turned over and touched her unintentionally. She moved away a little bit.

    After a while, Li asked, “What should we do in the future?”

    Lei thought for a while and said, “We’d better live in the moment. The most important things right now are to take good care of mother and let Lei Ying go to the college. We cannot let her live in the countryside forever like us.”

    “I think so.” Li said.

    “I will send more money back.” Lei said.

    “Not anything can be bought by money.” she replied.

    “That’s all what I can do” he said.

    Li sighed deeply.

    At the same time, she heard that he also sighed. She reached out her hand and tried to touch his leg, but withdrew it without reaching the leg. There was only a foot distance between them, but she felt there was an inaccessible deep valley, which reminded her of the saying “a short distance away, and yet poles apart”.

    Lei left the following afternoon. He said that the factory only allowed him to take three days off, and he had to take a night bus in Lotus City. Li took his bag and walked with him downhill. She saw the dead tree on the back of Qin’s house, which was shaking and crumbling. She felt a little bit nervous and asked, “You don’t come back for some other reasons, do you? Didn’t Qin say something to you or show you something?”

    “I know he took you to bet with others, this person is a troublemaker, be careful!” he warned.

    “You knew about it…” she lowered her head, “What if he bullies me or humiliates me? I’m only a woman.”

    “You can turn to Huang for help.” He said lightly.

    Li froze, handed over his bag, without a word, and turned back home. The sunlight came down from her back, but she still felt chilly.

    Chapter 9

    Around noon, Li wanted to wash a bucket of clothes. Unfortunately, the washing machine didn’t work, so did the light, which reminded her that she hadn’t paid electricity bills for months. It must be the Power Administration that cut the power. So she grabbed her purse and went to the town for bills in a hurry. The moment she got to the foot of the slope, she saw Huang standing on the ridge fertilizing her paddy field with a plastic bag. Li came to him, and said, “What are you doing now? How can you fertilize my paddy field without a word with me?”

    “No need. We have made agreement.”

    “I will pay you the fertilizer.”

    “If you definitely will. You can put it down to the account and pay me together later.” Huang took a look around, and lowered his voice, “Did Lei Zhihe say anything?”

    “He knows about us. I wander it may be from Qin.”

    “No wonder he left so soon.”

    “But for his mother, he might haven’t come back.” she said.

    “Oh, I would like to tell you something. Last night, Qin lost over 3000 yuan at the card table. Be careful in case he comes to you.”

    “How can I? With your help?” Li glanced sideways at him.

    “I should help, but…I don’t know what to do either…” Huang said looking embarrassed.

    “So you needn’t bother about my business.”

    Li headed toward the town sourly. She felt his eyes upon her back, making her uneasy. Was there anyone that she could turn to on the whole planet? The surroundings became blurry with tears rising in her eyes.

    After paying the bills in the Power Office, she wanted to buy something in the farmers' market. When she turned around, she found Qin standing by the telegraph pole at the intersection, surrounded by Lei Ying and another girl in school uniform. Qin was always acting like a ruffian with a cigarette dangling in the mouth. He seemed to laugh and say something merrily, and handed his cell phone to Lei Ying. Then, Lei Ying started to tap on the phone with animation.

    All of a sudden, without any hesitation, Li rushed to them with all her strength, grabbed the phone, shoved it to Qin, and roared, “What do you want?”

    “Just show off my smart phone. Let them look and accept something trendy.” Qin shook the phone in air.

    Lei Ying tugged at the edge of Li’s blouse, “Mom, what are you doing? Uncle Jianjun’s phone is so cool!”

    “So what? It’s not yours! Go back to school and get some rest!” Li pushed Lei Ying away.

    Lei Ying pursed her lips and left with her friend.

    “Take it easy, Li.” Qin giggled.

    “If you dare show her that video, I will kill you!” Li gnashed the teeth in anger with her face going purple with rage.

    “Impossible! It’s not nice of you to think like that.” Qin was pulling a long face.

    “What in hell do you really want to do?” Li stared at him.

    “Nothing at all. You and me, we’re done already. You thought I would blackmail you? What exactly can I get from you and your daughter? I would rather go for some corrupt officials!”

    “Fine. You’d better delete that video, now! I know you didn’t delete it last time!”

    “Oh, I’m sorry. Either deleting the video or blackmailing you is none of your business. Now that I am that kind of person in your mind, I would live up to your thought.” Qin put the phone in bag, patting, “All your scandal is here. Whether it will be exposed or not depends on you!”

    “What else do you want?”

    “You know it. I give you one day to consider. If I don’t get what I want tomorrow afternoon, I will expose it and you can’t blame it on me! Bye!” Qin turned around and left wagging his head.

    Those words overwhelmed her with chill, her hands shaking.

    Chapter 10

    It was not until 3 o’clock in the next afternoon when Li went out. Her mind went blank without any practical idea. While walking down the steps, she took out her cell phone and wanted to talk with Huang. On second thought, she put it back, because she knew that Huang could do nothing but sigh.

    She kept walking down the slope. The muggy air made her feel faint and hard to breathe. The sky suddenly turned dark with several black clouds covering the hilltop. The wind blew across the valley with a whir, and thatched on the roadside billow in it. When Li came to the corner of the road, Huang ran up to her face and got in the way. He glanced at Qin’s house and said, “You can't go there!”

    “If I don’t go, the whole world will know our thing!” Li said seriously.

    “Then I go with you.”

    “It’s useless! If you do wanna help, you shouldn’t have let me stay that day, then there was no chance for him to video us, and nothing would have happened!”

    “I have no idea that he is so shameless, you cannot blame me on that...”

    “I can!” Li’s face glowed with rage and yelled at him. Then she turned to Qin’s home. Seeing Huang was following her, she glared back at him, saying, “Don’t follow me, you can only make things worse!”

    Huang had no other choices but to stop, watching her back as she departed. Suddenly, an idea flashed in his mind. He turned around and started to run toward the slope. He kept running until he reached Li’s house. Li’s mother-in-law sat up in the chair and said, “Are you chased by ghost? Why are you in such a hurry?”

    Huang gasped and said, “Aunt Lei, things go wrong. Li is heading to Qin’s home. Qin is blackmailing her!”

    “What? Why don’t you go and help? What are you doing here?” the old lady stared at him.

    “She won’t let me!”

    “So you are not going just because she won’t allow? Are you still a man?”

    Huang stupefied for a while and turned back. As he was about to go, Li’s mother-in-law stopped him and said, “Wait, I’ll go with you.” She even stood up from the chair, and walked to him lamely. Huang was so stunned with his eyes widely open. He stood still until Li’s mother-in-law walked to his side and pushed him a little, “Hurry up!” he started to walk. After a few steps he turned back and saw that the old woman couldn’t walk fast because of the physical disability on her legs. He took her on his back immediately with his hands fixing her legs, and walked quickly down the slope.

    At this point, the sky was getting even darker, and sparse raindrops fell down on Li’s face. It was cold. Li walked through the paddy fields and climbed a slope to the front of Qin’s house.

    At the front of the central room, she took a deep breath and pinched the 500 yuan in her pocket. She didn’t have more money and that was all she intended to give Qin. The wind was blowing heavier. The house beam was buzzing. There was crash sound of falling tiles at the back of the house. Qin’s motorcycle was in the main room, but she could see nobody in there. As she was about to shout, the bedroom door opened. Qin leaned out half of his body and said, “If you come later, I'll probably go to the city to have some fun. I'm afraid that this old house will fall apart.”

    She stood still, not wanting to enter that dark room.

    Qin said with his eyes glittering evilly, “If you don’t come in, then you should go.”

    She had no choice but to step into the central room, and went further to the bedroom door. She took out the 500 yuan and said, “Take it.”

    “Are you treating me like a beggar? Who cares your tiny sum of money? I don’t want to brag about myself, but it’s quite easy for me to get money. That’s not what I want from you, you know it.”

    “Give me your phone.” she said.

    “You go to bed first then I will give you.”

    She choked a little and said, “Do you really think it is fun to force me to do it?”

    “I don’t force you. I want you to be willing with it. If you don’t like it, then I don’t want it.”

    Li didn’t talk. After several low sounds of thunder dropping at the roof, the eave shook loudly as wind blew over it. The heavy rain hit the tiles and made some noises. She looked numb, hesitated for a moment, and then entered the bedroom. Qin turned on the light. The pale light poured down and drowned her. She took off her clothes, lay on the bed, and put her clothes on the face, but Qin took them away immediately. He held her on the bed and attacked her violently. She gritted her teeth.

    “How do you feel? Is it nice? Say it’s nice!” he yelled.

    She remained silent with her eyes closed.

    “Say it right now, say you feel amazing, come on!”

    Qin shook her shoulders, and she didn’t respond. He slapped her on the face, but she still didn’t say anything. Qin slapped her even harder, and then she felt a salty stuff flowing through her mouth. She suddenly went nuts, tried to disengage from him, and grabbed his neck with her hands. He avoided it as soon as he lifted his body, and in turn grabbed hers. She couldn’t breathe and twisted drastically. He didn’t loosen any and instead grabbed tighter. She felt that everything went black and she was falling into a very deep place…suddenly, she took a deep breath, and the weight on her was gone. With a thud, Qin was being dragged to the floor. Huang sat on him and choked him with both hands. Qin kicked the floor with two feet. Li jumped out of bed, carefully avoided his kicking feet, and quickly searched the pockets of his trousers and his jacket. Finally, she found the phone in the drawer of the bedside table. She slammed it to the floor and then kept stepping on it until it broke into pieces. After that, she finally sat down at the ground and gasped.

    At this point, Li heard Huang’s panicking voice, “He is not breathing!”

    The thunder exploded on the roof, and she trembled with fear. Qin was motionless on the ground. She put on her clothes. Lightning crossed the window and another thunder struck on the top of their head. Immediately, the roof cracked and the tiles fell down to the floor. The tree behind the house was knocked down by a thunder. The burning tree trunk broke the roof and lighted the house. Li rushed out of the room and was surprised to find her mother-in-law sitting on the threshold with face blushing and eyes shining, like a naughty child. Her mother-in-law picked up a burning branch near her feet and threw it to the motorcycle in the central room… Huang also ran out. He took Li’s mother-in-law on his back while she helped stabilize the body. The three quickly ran out of the Qin’s house. The rain covered the sky and earth, and they were all surrounded by whiteness of rain fog. Huang carried Li’s mother-in-law and rushed forward recklessly. Li fell behind and looked back at the smoking house from time to time as she ran. The fire in the room was extinguished by heavy rain. Li froze for a second and quickly ran back to the house...as she ran out again, the wooden house was on fire once again.

    She ran back home through heavy rain. Her mother-in-law was sitting in the chair, wet. Huang had left already. Her mother-in-law asked her a question that she didn’t hear clearly, and also, she didn't know what her answer was. She put on dry clothes for her mother-in-law and herself, and then sat on the steps looking silently at the old house that was burning in the rain.

    When the rain stopped, the fire truck arrived. The house had turned into ruins. Firefighters used several large columns of water to clear the last few smoke. When it was getting dark, firefighters drove away. Li received a text message from Huang: I leave to work. She called back, but the phone was powered off. She threw the phone into the oven without thinking.

    Chapter 11

    Li wrote down the pin of bankbook on a notebook, locked it in the leather suitcase they bought when married and hid the key of the suitcase beneath the pot of orchid on the windowsill. If necessary, she just told Lei Ying so it could be found. Besides, she packed up some clothes and daily supplies, including towel, soap, facial cleanser and sanitary napkins, etc. in a brand new red plastic bucket with which she could go at any moment.

    Then, Li carefully bathed her mother-in-law, changed her clothes and put some prickly-heat powders all over her. Li also did her mother-in-law’s hairs up in a knot so that she wouldn’t get prickly heat rising on her neck due to the messy hairs. The weather was really getting hotter and hotter each day. Li could sense the dry smell of her mother-in-law’s hairs over combing.

    “Mom, I may have to go out for a long journey. I think that my aunt can take care of you for a period of time.”

    “She has her own business and also a bad temper. We two cannot get along well. If you go, take me with you.”

    “I can’t.”

    “You can. Burn me in the crematorium and take the cinerary casket.”

    “Mom, how can I go out if you say something like this. But to go out or not is beyond my control.”

    “If going out is a must, it’s me that should do it. My legs feel much better. It’s time for me to see the world outside. And I have been a burden to you for so many years, and you should be allowed to enjoy life now. Juan, things will eventually sort themselves out. Don’t be worried and panic. I am here for you. Just let nature take its course.” her mother-in-law said, with a calm and serene look.

    Then Li stopped worrying and panicking and put that red plastic bucket down, physically and mentally.

    That day, Li settled her mother-in-law on the steps, picked a gardenia from the side of threshing floor and put it on her mother-in-law’s head, which made her mother-in-law happy to giggle. From the eave, they could enjoy a view of blue sky, white clouds, green mountain and fields. A blue-white police car was crawling slowly toward the black rubble like a beetle. It was no surprise since there were already some here several days ago. Li took back her look and went to the vegetable garden.

    She picked some cucumbers and came back from the vegetable garden, when the village head came with a young police officer. The badge on the black uniform was glowing white like a bayonet. Li offered them seats, tea and fired peanuts politely. The officer took out a pen and a notebook and then asked nicely, “Did you notice anything unusual the day Qin’s house was on fire, like suspicious strangers?”

    “No, I didn’t.” she replied.

    “Do you know who came to contact Qin that day?” the officer asked again.

    “I. I had a talk with him.” Li answered, combing habitually the hairs beside her ears with her fingers.

    The officer smiled, “I know, he made a bet on you.”

    “More than that. He even blackmailed me!” Li seemed to make a slip of tongue.

    “Oh?” the officer’s eyes lighted up, staring at her, “You went to his house that day?”

    “Are you saying I set the fire?”

    “No. We just found evidence of gasoline besides thunderstrike.”

    “Perhaps I lit up the gasoline of motorcycle when I saw the fire which Thunder God had set was dying down, right? ”

    Her mother-in-law sitting beside her shouted, “Nonsense! If someone really lit the gasoline, it was me!”

    The officer glanced sideways at Li and her mother-in-law without speaking.

    “Are you kidding me? You barely can walk by yourself. No one will buy your words. Please take it seriously.” the village head interrupted, “Officer, fire caused by thunderstrike is no big deal. Why is our town named Thunder God Town? Because there is just so much thunderstrike here. Decades ago, somebody died from it. Besides, it says that people will be punished by thunderstrike if they do things against their conscience. Heaven is watching every move of the people. Qin did so many bad things and even screwed with others’ wives. Even Thunder God can’t put up with that. It must be Heaven that set fire to that house, or it wouldn’t end up like that.”

    “Agreed, it must be Heaven. What goes around comes around.” Li’s mother-in-law said with drool coming down the side of her mouth. Li wiped her mouth clean with napkin.

    The officer looked at Li, smiling, “Well, you do have some psychological characteristics of a suspect according to criminal psychology.” his phone rang, so he stepped aside to answer it. Li pricked up her ear carefully not to miss a word.

    “Captain Liu, yeah…emm…really? Cases have been combined? Good! That’s a damn lucky hit. So many birds with one stone! Oh…well…we can be awarded a third-class collective merit this time, right? Okay, I’ll be back in a minute!” the officer took the phone away with his eyebrows dancing.

    The village head asked, “The case has been solved?”

    The officer drew village head aside and shook his hands, “Thank you for your cooperation! From my standpoint, Qin definitely died accidentally from the fire lit up by thunderstrike. Just like what you said just now, his death must be an act of providence. God really helps us. We came to solve his case but found a real bonus that he was involved in not only a robbery but also a blackmail. He was the one who had blackmailed many leading cadres!”

    The head watched open-eyed, “It was him?”

    The officer spoke in a muted voice, “Yes, it was him. The phone we found at the scene saved a lot of naked photos and videos that he used for blackmail. The evidence is irrefutable!”

    Hearing that, Li moved close and asked, “There must be someone we know, right?”

    “Nope. All those were downloaded from the Internet just to scare people. It even worked! Well, those leading cadres can sleep tight now.”

    “Oh.” Li’s head numbing, she pinched her mother-in-law’s hands. The usually stiff hands were extremely soft now. Breeze from the slope brought a smell of burned rice crust. Li couldn't help taking a look at the ruins on the opposite.

    The village head and officer were ready to leave. Li packed the remaining peanuts into a plastic bag, gave it to the officer for the journey and saw them off. The officer said, “Don’t bother to go any further.” Li thereby watched them leave on the side of threshing floor. A few more steps, the village head turned around suddenly and said, “Hey, I almost forgot. Li, you have been awarded Good Daughter-in-law, an inscribed board of honor is on the way! Tomorrow morning, come to me after the breakfast, and we are going to the commendation meeting together by my car.”

    Li nodded.

    But next day, Li didn’t go to take the village head’s car. Instead, she went to the valley for mugworts after finishing the breakfast and nursing her mother-in-law. Dragon Boat Festival was coming. She wanted to pick some mugworts to hang on the door. It was said that mugworts could ward off evil.

     


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