Translated from the Chinese by Karen Gernant and Chen Zeping
THE YEAR OF THE THOUSAND-YEAR DROUGHT, the days were baked into ash. If you twisted them, the days stuck to your hands like burning charcoal and roasted your palms. The sun hung constantly overhead. From morning to night, Uncle could smell the bright yellow charred odor of his hair. Sometimes when he stretched his hands heavenward, in the blink of an eye he could also smell the foul black odor of his singed fingernails. Fuck. Damn this weather. He was always cursing like this. Coming out of the empty village, he stepped into infinite loneliness. He squinted at the sun, and said, Blindie, let’s go. Listening to his old master’s indistinct footfalls, the blind dog followed along behind, and like a shadow, left the village.
Walking up on the ridge, Uncle kicked the sunbeams underfoot. The stinging rays of light coming across from the east mountain range were like pole after pole of bamboo spearing his face, his hands, the tips of his toes. He felt a hot slapping pain on his face. In the channels of wrinkles at the corners of his eyes and on the part of his face that was toward the sun, the red pain felt like countless red-scorched pearls hidden under his wrinkles.
Uncle had to pee.
Uncle was taking the blind dog along to pee.
For a fortnight now, after Uncle and the dog woke up, the first thing they did was to go to the cemetery at Baliban more than two miles away to piss. In the cemetery facing the sun, Uncle was growing one stalk of maize. Just one. All alone in this drought. It was green enough that even this one stalk made the ash-like days look a little moist. Urine was fertilizer. And in urine there was water. What the maize needed was all in the urine he and the blind dog stored up overnight. Maybe last night the maize had grown two fingers taller and maybe its four leaves had now become five. In Uncle’s heart, something was beginning to wriggle fuzzily. A languid buoyancy warmed his chest, and his smile poppled like red powder. Maize grows leaves one at a time. Uncle thought, Why is it that locusts, elms, and trees of heaven all grow leaves in pairs?
Whaddya say, Blindie? Uncle turned to the dog. Why do trees and plants grow leaves in different ways? He rested his gaze on the dog’s head, but without waiting for an answer, he turned around and pondered as he walked on alone. His hands canopying his forehead, he looked up. Following the sunbeams, he gazed due west. Far in the distance, the bald land on the mountain ridge seemed purplish gold, as if a thick layer of red soot were still spread upon the land. Uncle knew it was the ground vapor from a night of rest. It was driven out of the earth by the long hours of sunshine. If you were a little closer, you could see that the cracks webbing the ruptured land had turned all the plots of land into potshards that had been roasted red and then smashed on the mountain ridge.
The villagers had long ago made plans to flee. The wheat had died from the drought. The mountain ranges had become wasteland: the whole world was the color of dry rot. The villagers’ hopes had begun to shrivel. The hardships continued until time for planting, and then all of a sudden the sky held heavy clouds, gongs rang out on the village streets, and people shouted planting time—planting time—Heaven is letting us plant our crops. Old people shouted. So did the children. So did the men and the women. The shouting brought joy to people’s hearts, and converged like a flowing river on the village streets—from east to west, from west to east, and then from one end of the village to the top of the mountain ridge.
—Rain will fall from heaven and let us plant.
The glutinous-thick sounds of shouting from young and old stirred the whole mountain range. The sparrows resting on branches were so taken aback that they began flying every which way, their feathers floating down like snowflakes. At the entrances of homes, chickens and pigs were dumbstruck. An extra layer of numb white appeared on their faces. The cows penned up in their sheds suddenly fought to break free of their halters, their noses cracking as they struggled. Black-colored blood streamed into a trough. All the cats and dogs climbed up to the roofs and, terrified, watched the villagers.
Dense clouds covered the villages for three days.
In those three days, all the people in Liu Gully Village, Wu River Village, Front Ridge Village, Back Ridge Village, and Horse Village took out the maize seeds they had stored and hurried to plant them before the rains came.
After three days, the black clouds dispersed, and as usual, the burning sun grilled the mountain ridges.
A fortnight later, some villagers locked their doors and courtyards, and shouldering their luggage, ran from famine and drought. Two days later, the crowds following them in fleeing calamity were like ants moving away: day and night, large groups of them swarmed out from the ridge behind the village to the outside world. Without beginning or end, the sound of their footfalls reached the village, thrumming at the doors and windows of each home.
Uncle was among those fleeing with the last group. On the nineteenth day of the lunar calendar’s sixth month, he was walking with dozens of villagers. They asked which way to go. He said to head east. The villagers said, What’s in the east? He said, Xuzhou is due east. After walking a month or two, we’ll get there. People there live well. And so the people headed due east. The sunlight shone on the bridge like red chilies; underfoot, soot rose and fell with a putong, putong sound. Uncle stopped when they reached Baliban, and went to take a leak on his family’s land. When he came back, he said to the villagers, The rest of you go on. Just head due east.
—What about you?
—A stalk of corn has appeared on my land.
—Can it keep you from starving to death, Uncle?
—I’m seventy-two. I wouldn’t make it three days before I’d die of exhaustion. Either way, I die. I’d rather die in the village.
The other villagers left, a group of black walking into the distance. Under the burning sun, they slowly disappeared like a puff of soot. Standing on his family land, Uncle waited until they were out of sight. A desolate dreariness pounded his heart. At that moment, he was trembling all over. Only he—an old man of seventy-two—remained in the village and the mountain range. A boundless void suddenly rose in his heart. Like the depths of autumn suddenly descending, a deathly stillness and desolation planted itself on his body.
On this day, when the sun passing over East Mountain turned from golden yellow to brilliant red, Uncle and the dog reached the plot at Baliban just as they always did. From a distance, he saw the center of this sixth of an acre of land. In the chestnut-colored sunlight, the maize seedling—already taller than a chopstick—was greening like a jet of water. Smell it? He asked the blind dog. He said it was so fragrant that the moist, fresh, tender seedling could be smelled from far away. The blind dog lifted its head briefly, rubbed against its master’s legs, and then without a word ran toward the seedling.
Straight ahead was a deep ditch, filled with dry heat that always gushed up to scald Uncle’s face. He took off his white shirt, crushed it into a ball, and mopped his face with it. He smelled a thick layer of stinky sweat. Even better fertilizer, he thought. After the stalk of maize has grown for another fortnight, I’ll wash this shirt, carry the wash water over from the village, and feed the maize a meal fit for a holiday. Uncle squeezed the precious shirt under his armpit. The maize was just in front of him—a hand span tall, it had four leaves, but the leaf buds hadn’t divided as he’d imagined they would. He looked at the top of the seedling and lightly flicked away a few specks of dust. Heartfelt disappointment soaked his torso.
The dog rubbed against Uncle’s legs a few times, then circled the maize stalk once again. When Uncle said, Blindie, keep a little farther away, the dog just stood there without moving, let out a few green husk-like barks, and fixed his eyes on Uncle as if there was something urgent that he couldn’t wait to do.
Uncle knew that the dog couldn’t hold its urine any longer, so he went over to the withered locust tree and picked up the hoe that was hanging there (he hung all his farm tools there after he was finished with them). He went back and dug a hole by the west side of the maize stalk (yesterday, it was the east side), and said, Go ahead and piss. Before the dog had finished, all of a sudden something pricked Uncle’s seventy-two-year-old eyes. He felt pain tearing and pulling at the corners of his eyes, and then came the sound of cracking in his heart. He saw little spots on the lowest two leaves of the maize stalk. They were round, as if wheat hulls had formed on the leaves. Was this dry rot? I pee here in the morning, and at dusk I water the maize: how can it be dry? As he bent over for a closer look, the silver-yellow sound of the dog’s pee knocked on Uncle’s brain. I’ve got it: those charred spots aren’t because of the drought, but because we’ve overfertilized. Dogs’ urine is stronger than people’s, and it’s also much hotter. Blindie, you’re fucking still peeing. Uncle kicked the dog five feet away: it fell to the hard ground like a sack of millet. How dare you fucking burn the maize? You deliberately burned it, didn’t you?
The dog stood there at a loss, its eye sockets—like dried-up wells—suddenly misting over.
Uncle said, Serves you right. He glared fiercely at the dog, and then he squatted down, pulled at the tender leaf, and looked at the withered spot on the jade-green transparent leaf. He hurriedly pulled out any dog pee that hadn’t already seeped into the hole, and also dug out a few hands full of pee mixed with mud and threw them to one side. Picking up the hoe, he covered the piss hole and tamped the earth down. He said, Let’s go, we’ll go home and fetch some water to irrigate. If we don’t dilute this fertilizer right away, it won’t be two days before this stalk burns to death—all because of you.
The dog then went along the ridge they’d taken to get here, Uncle following behind. Their warm footfalls were like dried, charred leaves whirling and floating and falling under the burning sun.
Uncle and the dog left and came back. So did the crisis with the single maize stalk. When it produced its sixth leaf, Uncle went to fetch water. At the well, a light gust blew his straw hat away. The hat rolled around on the village street, Uncle chasing after it.
The sieve-like gust moved slowly for a time and then faster, always keeping a ten-foot distance. Uncle chased the hat straight to one end of the village. A few times, he managed to touch the hat, but the small gust ran with even more urgent strides, leaving Uncle behind. Uncle was seventy-two. His legs and feet weren’t what they used to be. Uncle thought, I don’t care if you’re a good hat or not. I’m the only person left in this village. I could go into anyone’s house and not find a straw hat. Uncle stopped and looked up. On the mountain ridge, the solitary thatched hut stood like a shrine at the roadside. When the gust of wind bumped into its wall, it got stuck and couldn’t continue.
Uncle arrived at the wall, and kicked the weakened wind a few times. He bent over and picked up the straw hat, then tore it into bits and threw them to the ground. Stamping his feet as hard as he could, he howled:
—How dare you?
—How dare you run away with the wind?
—Go on, run if you can!
The straw hat was ruined. The pure white fragrance of wheat straw dissipated, and on the mountain ridge that had been dry and charred for many days, other odors appeared. Finally, Uncle crushed the part of the hat that couldn’t be torn up and threw it to the ground. Trampling it, he asked, Aren’t you going to run off? You can’t run anymore in your lifetime. Sun and drought have cheated me. You also want to fucking cheat me. As he was talking, Uncle exhaled slowly and flung his gaze toward the sloping land outside Baliban. As he was looking into the distance, he stopped grinding the hat with his foot, and his soliloquy snapped suddenly like a length of hemp rope.
Outside Baliban, all over the mountains and plains was reddish gray dust like a translucent, staggering wall. Uncle was dumbstruck: in an instant he knew that it wasn’t a small gust of wind blowing in over there, but a mighty windstorm. He stood erectly in front of a corner of the wall under the burning sun. In his heart was a blaring sound, as though the wall behind him had collapsed and struck him in the chest and back.
He began striding rapidly toward the hill outside Baliban.
In the distance, the translucent dusty gray—like a wobbling wall—was becoming increasingly dense. It rose and fell, swung and stirred like a flood’s cresting waves—one wave rising, another falling, submerging the mountain range in a flood’s vastness.
Uncle thought, It’s over. I’m afraid it’s really going to be over.
Uncle thought, The small gust of wind that blew my hat away just now drew me up the mountain. It was telling me that a gale was rising on the sloping land ahead of me. Uncle said, Pardon me, little gust, I shouldn’t have kicked you three times. And then there’s my straw hat: only because of its kindness did it roll along with the wind. Why the hell did I have to crush it? I’m getting older, I’m really getting older. Uncle said, I’m all mixed up—I can’t tell good from bad. His remorseful tone kept spilling from his mouth like an unbreakable vine. As he started calming down, off in the distance the yellow, turbid wind stopped. All the warlike phhhtt sounds buzzing in his ears also stopped. The sudden falling silence made his ears vaguely sore. The sunlight also came back to life—strong and forceful, exacting from the land a blazing white creaking sound, as if beanpods were exploding under the scorching sun. Uncle slowed his pace. When he reached the slope, he just stood there: the cruel, bloody scene in front of him took his breath away.
The maize seedling had been snapped by the wind. The broken stalk was like a quivering finger. The imperceptibly dense grief of the green was like delicate silk floating in the harsh sunlight.
Uncle and the dog moved to Baliban.
Uncle didn’t hesitate: he was like a farmer who had to live on the land to protect the ripening melons. Next to the stubble of this maize seedling, he buried four planks to act as pillars. In the middle of each pillar, he tied two door planks; he covered the pillars with straw mats, thus moving his home to the sloping land. He pounded nails into the pillars, and hung pots, ladles, and brushes from the nails. He filled an old flour sack with bowls, and hung this under the pots. Below a cliff, he dug out a small stove. Now he just needed to wait for the maize seedling to shoot up again.
After suddenly moving to a different place, no matter how hard he tried, Uncle couldn’t sleep at night. In the sky, burning white heat flowed with the moonlight. He took off the only thing he was wearing—a pair of undershorts—and sat naked on the bed smoking a pipe. In the light and shade of the smoke, he was subconsciously looking at the thing between his legs, hanging there like a scaldfish. It was so ugly that he put his undershorts back on. He thought to himself, I’m downright old, it’s no use to me anymore. It won’t bring me even a little cheer any longer. Having it isn’t even as good as having the maize seedling. Each of the maize seedling’s leaves gives me joy, just as much joy as when I was young and stood chatting with a girl I adored at the well-side or in the village. As he thought of this, every inch of his body filled with calm and peaceful moisture. When he tapped the ashes from his pipe, sparks fell on the night color of the field, jolting the dog awake.
Uncle said, Are you awake?
He went on, You’re blind and sleep soundly. I have my eyesight, but I can’t sleep.
The dog shifted itself to lick Uncle’s hand. He stroked the dog’s head, combing its hair with his fingers. Just then, he saw two bright teardrops roll out of the blind dog’s deep-set eyes. Uncle brushed away the tears and said, That damn sun is so black-hearted that it’s blinded this dog with its rays. When he recalled the day the dog had been blinded by sunlight, Uncle’s heart twisted. He pulled the dog into his arms and rubbed its eyes. Like two springs, the dog’s tears wet his hands. Nobody could have imagined that. Uncle thought, whenever there’s been a drought, a sacrificial altar has been erected at one end of the village, and three plates of offerings and two jars of water have been placed there. The jars were filled to the brim with water, and pictures of the Water Dragon King were drawn on the jars. Then a dog was tied up between the two jars, and forced to look at the sky. When it was thirsty, it was given something to drink; when it was hungry, it was given something to eat. When it was neither hungry nor thirsty, it had to look up at the sun and bark like crazy. In past years, within three days—or at most a week—the dog snarled the sun into retreat. It was replaced by wind and rain or overcast skies. But this year, when they tied a homeless dog that had fled from another village onto the sacrificial altar, and forced it to snap at the sun for a fortnight, the sun kept burning as fiercely as ever. It rose and set right on schedule. At noon on the sixteenth day, Uncle had passed this altar, and discovered that the dog—burned by the sun—had drunk almost all the water. One jar was empty, and you could also see to the bottom of the other. He took another look at this black dog: its hair was all matted together, and it had lost its voice.
Uncle freed the dog, and said, Run off. There won’t be any rain.
After taking a few steps, the dog suddenly ran straight into the wall. Turning around, it then ran into a tree. When Uncle looked at the dog more closely, his heart thumped in fright as he realized that the sun had burned the dog’s eyeballs away, leaving only two dried-up sockets below its forehead.
Uncle took the dog in.
Uncle thought, It’s a good thing I took the blind dog in. Otherwise, stuck alone on this mountain range, who would I have to talk with? The weather was beginning to cool off, the dry heat beginning to subside. The stars and moon over the shed were also beginning to withdraw their light as if pulling back a fishing net. There were some tip-dap-tip-dap greenish pale watery sounds. Uncle knew this wasn’t the sound of water, or trees, or weeds, or the sound made at intervals by worms. It was a night empty of everything. In the stillness the dreary sound of something astir was squeezed out. He kept combing the hair on the dog’s head, and following the ridge of its spine, stroked its tail and then once more combed the hair on its head. The dog had stopped crying. As Uncle combed its hair, it licked his other hand. At night, they were marinated in one another’s warmth.
He said, Ah, Blindie, the two of us should be a family. What do you say? Living with a companion is much more interesting.
It licked his palm repeatedly.
He said, I won’t live many more years. If you can keep me company until I die, it will be a good death.
It licked his hand again—a long, long lick from his fingertips all the way up to his wrist.
He said, Blindie, how do you suppose our maize plant is still able to grow? The dog didn’t lick his hand this time. Facing him, the dog nodded its head. Will it spurt up tonight, or tomorrow or the next day? I’m sleepy. Don’t bother nodding your head—I can’t see. If you have a voice, just say something. Do you say it’ll spurt up tonight or later on? Uncle lay down and closed his eyes. The dismal shadow of the shed covered his face like damp flimsy gauze. He didn’t pet the dog on the back again: his hand resting on the dog’s head, he peacefully fell asleep.
When Uncle woke up, it was already late morning. His eyelids hurt so much it was as if they’d been pricked by fiery hot needles. When he sat up and rubbed his eyes, he looked up at the golden yellow orb hanging there as always. Inwardly, he swore at the sun: Damn you, damn your whole family, and damn your ancestors, too! Then, he looked at the blind dog lying next to the maize seedling in the center of the plot. He asked if the seedling had sprouted. The dog nodded slightly at him. He climbed down from the shed, and sure enough he saw a tender radish-like seedling that had sprouted a tiny water-like, greenish-red shoot. It was exactly like the seedling of a new tree—half a finger long, and so tender that it seemed if you touched it, it would fall over. In the sunlight it was as smooth as jade.
He wanted to find a leaf to cover it, so he circled around the ditch beneath the cliff, but returned empty-handed. He stood next to the stove again, then—taking his hoe—he went over to the locust tree to get a twig. He placed the twig carefully on top of the seedling. Then he climbed up to the shed, got his cotton undershirt, and put it over the twig, thus shielding the seedling with shade.
He said, We can’t afford any more accidents!
He said, Blindie, Let’s eat. What do we have to eat?
Then he said, What is there to eat early in the morning? Let’s cook some maize and make a soup. We’ll make something better for lunch.
When the new maize had grown two leaves, Uncle went to the village to look for food. There wasn’t even a grain of food in his home. He thought, In such a large village, there should be a handful of wheat spilling from each home’s crock of grain. And some flour in each jar: that would be enough for the blind dog and him to get through the drought. But all the houses were locked and cobwebs crisscrossed the village. First, he went back to his home: he knew all too well that the grain had already been used up, but he still bent over the crock and looked and felt inside the flour jar. After pulling his hand out, he licked his fingers: the pure white scent of the flour melted swiftly in his mouth and flowed all through him. He inhaled deeply, swallowing the flavor, and then left his home and stood on the village street. The slanting rays of the sun flowed through the village like golden liquid: in the deathly quiet, you could hear sunlight dripping onto the eaves. Uncle thought, The mountain people have all fled. If there were any thieves here, they’d all have died from dehydration or starvation. Damn all your grandmothers: did you lock your doors to keep me out? The more you want to keep me out, the more I intend to force the doors open and scale the walls. Uncle said, Wouldn’t every family have left a little grain behind? If they didn’t, then what would they eat when they came back after the drought ended? And if they didn’t leave some grain behind, then why bother locking their doors? Uncle halted in front of the home of a nephew, then went on to an old widow’s door. When the old widow was young, she’d made him a pair of multi-layered wool-lined shoes every winter. Now she was dead, and her son lived in this old house. The sweet feeling that came over him as he thought of this house was stationed forever—like the past—in the empty chambers of his heart. Uncle riveted his eyes on that entrance, and then quietly walked on. The sound of his lonely footsteps—like the sound of logging deep in the forests at the beginning of time—reverberated in the village. The locked doors of the houses were like dilapidated boats being rowed from under his feet. Finally, he had walked all around the village once. The sun was directly overhead: he had to cook lunch. I wish Blindie were here with me. The old man muttered, If the dog would just decide which wall to scale, I’d do it.
Uncle shouted toward the mountain ridge: Blindie—Blindie—Whose home do you think might still have food?
Answering Uncle was a vast, infinite silence.
Discouraged, Uncle sat down and smoked his pipe, and then—empty-handed again—headed back to Baliban. When he got back, the blind dog was wagging its tail as usual and running up toward the sound. It rubbed its head against Uncle’s trouser leg. Uncle just ignored it. Uncle got his hoe from the locust tree and a bowl from the shed, and began digging in the ground. On his third attempt, Uncle dug up two kernels of the first maize that had been planted—intact and gleaming yellow, baked so hot by the sun that they burned his hands. Giving his attention to the spaces left between the seeds when they were planted, Uncle dug up one or two seeds with each thrust of his hoe. With painstaking effort, he filled the bowl with maize seeds.
They ate a wonderful meal of maize kernels.
When they ate the fried corn kernels, Uncle and Blindie sat in the shade of the shed. Suddenly, Uncle burst out laughing: In everyone’s plot of land there’s grain just waiting for me. Uncle said, What I dug up in a day will keep us in food for three days. But it wasn’t so easy on other people’s land, for he didn’t know how far down they had planted the seeds. And, in order to beat the anticipated rainfall, several families had let their little boys and girls dig the holes. Nothing was uniform: some hoed deep, some shallow; some exerted themselves harder than others; there was no pattern to the spaces between seeds. It wasn’t nearly as good as Uncle’s even, regular planting. In the past, absolutely no family had let youngsters do the planting. But in this drought year, all the rules had gone by the boards.
Uncle could no longer expect to dig up enough in a day to last him and the dog three days. Now, if a day’s work went well, he could get enough for two days; if not, he could get enough for only a day. The maize seedling was growing higher by the day. In the quiet of the night, its growth sounded remote and tender—like the breathing of a baby when sound asleep. At such times, Uncle sat with the dog next to the maize seedling, resting from a day of digging, listening to the breathing of the maize, and feeling all his bones and joints relax. The moon came out, its face as round as a woman’s, hanging in the void overhead. The stars all around the moon were bright and beautiful: like the buttons on new clothes worn at New Year’s time, they were sewn onto the vast blue silk of the sky. Just then, Uncle had to ask the blind dog, When you were young, how many bitches did you fool around with?
The dog gave him a blank look.
He said, Tell the truth, Blindie. There’s no one else here, just the two of us in the still of the night.
The dog was still blank.
Okay, if you don’t want to tell me, just forget it. Uncle sighed, lighting his pipe rather dejectedly. Looking up at the sky, he said, It was so great to be young—to be full of energy and to be with a woman at night. If your woman was enough in sync with you, she’d serve you water when you came back from the fields, and if you were sweating, she’d give you a fan. When it snowed, she’d warm up the quilt for you. If the two of you got up to a little something at night and in the morning you roused yourself to go out to the fields, she’d say, you haven’t had any rest all night, sleep a while longer. Days like that—Uncle drew deeply on his pipe and blew the smoke out slowly, then petted the dog and said, Are days like that any different from days in paradise?
Uncle asked, Hey, Blindie, did you ever have days like that?
Blindie said nothing.
Tell me, Blindie, isn’t it for days like that that men come into this world? He didn’t ask Blindie to answer, but just answered himself, I say that’s right. Then he said, It’s different when you’re old. When you’re old, you live for one tree, one blade of grass, and lots of grandchildren. Living is always better than dying. With that, he puffed on his pipe, and by its light, he watched the sound of the maize growing pass his ears like a delicate green thread. He gazed over at the seedling: now more than knee high, it had just opened up. A new shoot—cylindrical like a fine willow flute—had struggled out from between the light purple and yellow. Nine leaves were already curved on the seedling like bows. Uncle dug a hole under the seedling, and he and the blind dog pissed into it. After adding three bowls of water, he covered the hole and packed a small ridge of earth around the maize. Afraid a sudden gust of wind might uproot the plant, Uncle went back to the village that same night and brought back four reed mats. Four feet away from each side of the maize, he drove four stakes down, and then placed the mats around the stakes, as if to form a courtyard wall. While he was doing that, he said to Blindie, Go back to the village and find some rope. Any kind will do. The blind dog stumbled and groped its way along the mountain ridge. Near dawn, it returned with Uncle’s tattered straw hat in its mouth. Then Uncle tied some of the mats fast to the stakes with the strap from the hat. He secured other mats with his own black belt. By the time he finished, it was growing light.
The mat enclosure was like a small vegetable plot in front of a rich farmer’s home. The solitary maize seedling stood like a flagpole in the middle of the plot, living a life of riches and honor, drinking water and taking in fertilizer. At noon, Uncle also placed a mat on top of the plot to shield it from the sun. And so it happily grew like crazy. After seven days, it was poking its head out from the enclosure.
But the sun was relentless. In the end, the well water dried up. Every day, Uncle went back to the village for water. He had to draw the bucket up more than ten times in order to just barely fill it with muddy water. Icy cold panic ascending from the bottom of the well soaked every inch of Uncle’s body. Finally a day came when he payed out all the rope he had—several dozen feet of it—before he finally pulled up one bowl of water. For the next bowl of water seeping out from the bottom of the well, Uncle had to wait a long time beside the well.
The spring had dried up: it was like the falling leaves.
Uncle came up with an idea: before dark, he lowered bedding into the well, so that it could soak up water all night. The next morning, he pulled it up and wrung out half a bucket of water. Then he put the bedding back down into the well, and carried the water home. The water from washing pots, the water from washing his face, the water from infrequently washing his clothes: all of it went to water the maize. It seemed he could still cope with the water shortage. When he squeezed water from the bedding into the bucket, the vapor was cool as it dispersed in the midst of the heat from the burning sun. As if they were at war, Uncle and the sun fought over that vapor. He said, I’m seventy-two: is there anything I haven’t gone through? Can a dried-up well knock me down? As long as there’s water in the ground, I can squeeze it out. Sun, if you’re so great, just try drying up the groundwater.
Uncle was always the victor.
One day, Uncle dug in his nephew’s field from morning to night before the land finally yielded half a bowl of maize kernels. The next day, he tried another family’s field, but couldn’t get even half a bowl of grain. For three days, he and the dog ate two meals a day instead of three, and ate a watery soup instead of a glutinous one. Things were getting serious. He couldn’t figure out where the seeds were. Every family had planted them carefully, and since they hadn’t sprouted, they must still be buried in the ground. When he saw Blindie’s ribs sticking out, Uncle felt a shiver whoosh through his heart. He felt his own face: he could pull the skin several inches away. It was as if his skin were simply cloth wrapped around his skull. He had no strength. When he pulled the watery bedding up from the well, he had to keep stopping to rest. Uncle thought, I can’t die like this.
Uncle said, Blindie, we have to scale other people’s courtyard walls.
Uncle said, Let’s call it borrowing. As soon as it rains, after there’s a harvest, I’ll pay them back.
Taking a cloth bag, Uncle staggered back to the village. The dog followed without making the slightest sound. Uncle crooked his big toe, and made contact with the ground with only his tiptoes and his heels. His soles formed bridges, thus avoiding the fiery hot ground. Every few steps, Blindie had to stop and lick his front paws. They’d walked this two-mile route for what seemed like a year. When they reached a cattle pen at the end of the village, Uncle dodged over to the shade of the wall, took his shoes off, and kept massaging his feet.
In the shade of the wall, the dog was panting, its tongue hanging out. It peed at a corner of the wall.
Uncle said, Let’s borrow some grain from this household first. With an axe that he took from his bag, he smashed the lock of the door and walked in. He went straight up to the main room and shattered that lock, too. Walking in, he quickly took in the thick layer of dust on the table and the cobwebs all over the place. On the dust and under the cobwebs stood a picture—a portrait of a wealthy old man in a long gown and a mandarin jacket. A pair of brilliant eyes peered out from the dust, the man’s gaze falling on Uncle.
Uncle stopped, terrified.
This is the old village chief’s home. He’s been dead for three years, and yet his gaze is as sharp as if he were alive. Blindie, you really are blind, Uncle thought, how could you pee at the entrance to the village chief’s home? Uncle leaned his axe against the door, and kowtowed to the village chief three times and bowed deeply three times. He said, Sir, for hundreds of miles all around the mountain range, there’s a drought the likes of which isn’t seen in a thousand years. Everyone has fled. In the whole village—the whole world—only the blind dog and I are left. We stayed to watch over the village. It’s been three days since we’ve had anything like a proper meal. We’ve come to your home first today to borrow some food. Next year, when we give it back, we won’t short you one pound or one ounce. He went on, Sir, you just go on about your business: I know where every household stores its food. With that, Uncle stood up, brushed the dirt off his knees, went into the side room, and hastily looked in the jars and crocks. Needless to say, they were all empty. But Uncle wasn’t deterred: it was as if he knew that no one would store grain in plain sight. He had to look under the beds. By the light coming in through the window, he looked under the bed in the east room especially carefully. When people fled this year, who would spread provisions out for thieves to help themselves to? If it were I, I’d bury the grain under the beds. But under the village chief’s bed was nothing except the green porcelain chamber pot with a gray alkaline stain on it. Uncle shifted the empty crocks and jars again, looked under the table, and peered inside and outside the cupboard. He made a lot of noise turning everything over in the three rooms. He looked over and over again. He was covered with cobwebs and dust, yet he didn’t find even one kernel of grain.
Uncle emerged from the inner room, clapped the dust from his hands, and said, Oh, village chief, village chief, when you were living, I didn’t do anything to you that I would need to apologize for. Even though I’m half a month older than you, whenever I saw you I treated you as my elder brother. If you don’t have any leftover grain, you could have just said so. You’ve let me waste a lot of time for nothing—as if you think my strength is inexhaustible, as if I won’t be able to borrow any grain anywhere else after leaving your home.
Of course, the village chief said nothing.
Since the village chief wasn’t saying anything, Uncle just looked at him disdainfully out of the corner of his eye and said, Really, you let me kowtow to you three times all for nothing. Then Uncle patted the blind dog sleeping in the doorway. Let’s go, Uncle said. Without the moon, there are always the stars to depend on.
He closed the door and hung the broken lock on it. Uncle went into one home after another, smashing more than ten locks. He entered seven homes. In each one, he looked carefully in grain crocks and jars, inside and outside the cupboards, under the beds and under the tables—and in the end he still didn’t find even one kernel of grain. When he left the seventh home, he took a steelyard for weighing food and a horsewhip (this was the home of a driver whom Uncle had helped in the past). When he reached the street, he just stood there. He threw the steelyard down beside the road, and threw the whip on the ground, saying, What am I going to do with a steelyard? If I could find some food, I could weigh it, and then I’d know how much to give back next year, but where is there any food? What am I going to do with a whip? Although a whip—like a weapon—can protect me (Uncle had once killed a wolf with a whip), all the mountain animals have fled. Not even a rabbit is left. Isn’t this whip just useless? The sun had widened all the cracks a lot on every door. Uncle squinted at the sun, and saw that it was already high noon. It was time for lunch again, but he still hadn’t smelled any food. An infinitude of confused feelings rose in his heart. He told Blindie to sit on the street, saying, Wait here. You’re blind anyway. You couldn’t see where any food is hidden. Then he walked toward another lane. He made a point of breaking the locks of affluent homes, but after going into three more homes, his grain bag was still empty and sunken. When he came back from that lane, his face was deathly pale. Bright purple spots appeared on his face. Bad luck—thick and strong—dripped down between the gullies of his face. He was carrying a jar containing half a handful of salt. Uncle put a grain of salt in his mouth, then went over and put a grain of salt in the dog’s mouth.
The dog fixed its blind eyes on him as if to ask, Didn’t you find even a little grain?
Without answering, Uncle suddenly picked up the whip. He stood in the middle of the road, and lashed it in the direction of the sun. Like a snake, the thin pliable rawhide whip flexed and straightened. The end of the whip exploded with the greenish white sounds of thunderclaps: it lashed the sunlight until it fell like pear blossoms. The ground was covered with splintered brilliance. The village was filled with sounds like New Year’s firecrackers. This went on until Uncle was exhausted and sweaty.
Feeling lost, the blind dog stood in front of Uncle, its eyes damp.
Uncle said, Blindie, don’t be afraid. When I have a bowl of food, you’ll get half of it. I’d rather starve to death myself than let you starve to death.
Tears welled up in the blind dog’s eyes, then fell to the ground where they made two little bean-sized holes.
Let’s go. Uncle picked up the jar of salt, the whip, and the steelyard. We’ll go back and dig up some more seeds.
But after he had taken just a couple of steps, his feet were nailed to the ground: he saw a pack of rats heading into the village, each one round and fat the way they were in years of plenty. Shiny black, they stopped in the shade of a wall at the end of the village, and nervously stared at the village and at Uncle and the blind dog. In that instant, Uncle had a brainstorm.
It was the first time he’d laughed out loud since the villagers had fled. His laughter was as husky and crisp as the sound of beans frying over a slow fire. Uncle said, Ha! Everything might starve to death except me!
Leading the dog, Uncle walked over to the rats that were dumbstruck with shock. He said, Blindie, do you know where all the food is hidden? I know, I just know!
On the hillside that night, Uncle dug up three rats’ nests that yielded a liter of maize seeds. The first part of the night, Uncle slept lightly in the shed. After midnight, when the moon was bright and the ground melting with light, Uncle told Blindie to keep watch next to the corn’s mat enclosure. He sat by himself in the center of the field where he’d found no seeds. He held his breath and didn’t move. After waiting quietly for a while, he heard the jiji sound of rats—the sound of merriment or of a tussle over food. Putting his ear to the ground, Uncle got a fix on where the rats’ squeals were coming from; he marked the spot with a stick. He went back for his axe, and then turned over earth one foot deep inside a circle fewer than three feet in diameter. Sure enough, there was a rats’ nest. It actually contained more than half a bowl’s worth of maize seeds. He didn’t take just one kernel, but even put the seeds from the rat droppings into his bowl. Then Uncle went to the second plot of land where he’d found no seeds and followed the same pattern.
For a long time, Uncle enjoyed busy, satisfying days. As soon as he got up, he went back to the village to wring the well water out of the bedding. After coming back and eating lunch, he separated the rat droppings from the seeds and saved them in another bowl. When the bowl was full, he buried them next to the maize seedling. He had to take a noontime nap. Although the sun was hot on the shed, it wasn’t so bad without the steam rising from the land. And sometimes there was also a lukewarm breeze. He slept well, and when he arose, the sun was already beginning to set. He went back to the village to wring out another half a bucket of water. And then, right on schedule, it was dark again. After supper, he and the dog kept the maize company as they sat enjoying the cool in the shady, frightening solitude. He raised some of the questions that he thought about most often, such as why plants always grew one leaf at a time. Neither the dog nor the maize answered, so he lit a pipe and inhaled deeply time after time. So I’ll tell you why: it’s because it’s a plant that it grows just one leaf at a time. It’s not like trees; they grow two leaves at a time. Some evenings, when a gentle breeze was blowing, Uncle would raise more profound questions. He’d say, Do you know that when the village chief was alive, a scholar came to the village? He said that the earth rotates; one rotation is one day. What do you think? Was this scholar full of shit? If the earth rotates, then when we’re sleeping, why don’t we fall out of bed? Why doesn’t the water spill out of the urn, and the well water flow out? Why do people always have their heads on top as they walk? Uncle said, According to that man, it’s the earth’s pull of gravity that keeps us from falling out of bed. But think about it: if the earth pulls us, then how can we still lift our feet when we walk? This kind of deep blurry question was like a black hole. When Uncle talked like this, he looked very earnest. He even forgot to puff on his pipe. Finally, after arraying all the answers before the dog and the maize, Uncle fell over on the ground in utter remorse. He let the moonlight wash his face as he said, I saved too much face for that scholar. He stayed in the village three days and I never asked him these questions. I was afraid he wouldn’t be able to answer and wouldn’t be able to hold his head up around the other villagers. Uncle said, He earns his living by being learned: I couldn’t break his rice bowl.
The maize seedling grew well, the leaves as wide as hands, layer upon layer reaching from the ground to the outside of the reed mats. It had grown two heads higher than the mats. The nighttime sound of its growing had been hoarse and husky. After several more days, it would be grown up. To make it easier to go in and out, Uncle removed one mat. The seedling was as high as his neck. Two days later, it had reached his forehead. Today, its tip had actually grown past the ends of his hair. Uncle thought, after another half a month, it should reach its full height and in another half a month it should have tassels. Three months from now, the maize should be fully ripened. Uncle considered that on this bald uninhabited mountain range he had grown a stalk of corn that would yield a bowl of kernels—each like a pearl. Not long after the drought ended and the rain fell, the villagers would return: they could use this bowl of kernels for seeds. Season after season, this mountain range would again be a vast world green with an infinitude of maize. After I die, they will have to erect a stele before my grave telling of my boundless beneficence.
Uncle was talking to himself, I really am a major benefactor. As he was talking, he fell into a comfortable sleep. Or perhaps he was just talking in his sleep. Still, in his dream, he left the shed and went over to the maize seedling that he’d just hoed, and carefully hoed it again. In the still of the night, the sound of the hoeing was monotonous, yet also loud and clear like a folk song. The sound carried very far. After he finished hoeing, he didn’t go back to sleep but carried his hoe to another spot and held his breath: he was looking for maize seeds in the rats’ nest. When he woke up the next day, he discovered that the bowl that had been empty was now overflowing with maize seeds and rat droppings. For a long time, he stood stupefied beside the bowl.
Maize now filled half of the grain bag hanging on the shed pole, crushing his worries into thin air. When he was asleep at noon three days ago, the blind dog had suddenly groaned and yanked him awake. Gnawing at his shirt, it had led him to a corner of land about a hundred meters away. There, Uncle had discovered a rat hole filled with maize kernels. When he went back and weighed them, he found he had more than four ounces. So the blind dog could find rat holes: it went blindly around the land and sniffed the ground. When it found a rat hole, it would howl happily at the sky.
The grain bag began swelling rapidly. Uncle no longer had to go out to the fields and hold his breath in the middle of the night. He just quietly led the blind dog to the fields, and without missing even one rat hole, he hoed beneath them (half of the rats’ nests had no grain). Anyhow, he now had a surplus of grain. Within a few days, the grain bag was full to the brim. But as he was taking it easy, it didn’t occur to Uncle that he should quickly dig up all the rats’ nests on the mountain range. He didn’t know that the rats had changed their pattern and were no longer seeking out seeds from the ground and carrying them in their mouths back to store in their nests. The dog’s barking and Uncle’s hoeing had alerted the rats. Now they were competing with Uncle to consume their stores of grain.
One day the sun seemed several times closer than in the past: when all the land of the mountain range turned into red-hot sheet iron, Uncle couldn’t sleep. He decided to weigh the grain. Taking out the steelyard, he found its scale weighed an ounce in a shady spot, but when he weighed it in the sunlight, it weighed one and a fifth ounces. Surprised, Uncle took the steelyard to a slope where the sun was even stronger, and found that the scale weighed even more.
Uncle was astounded: when the sun was strong and shone on the scale, its rays could be weighed in pounds and ounces. He ran up to the mountain ridge. There, the scale weighed even more. When he subtracted one ounce for the scale, the sunlight weighed about fifteen grams. Altogether, Uncle went to four mountain ridges, each one higher than the previous one. The sunlight on the highest one weighed more than twenty-five grams.
From then on, Uncle kept weighing the sunlight. At sunrise, the sunlight all around the shed weighed ten grams; at noon, it increased to more than twenty grams; and at sunset, it dropped again to ten grams.
Uncle also weighed the rice bowls and water buckets. Once, when he was weighing the blind dog’s ears, the dog moved and the weighbeam hit Uncle in the face. He hit the dog hard on the head.
Another time, when Uncle was weighing the bag of grain a bowl at a time, it was already four days after he’d weighed the sunbeams and in that time they’d eaten quite a lot of maize from the bag. When he reckoned it up, he was stunned: at most, the remaining grain would last the dog and him half a month. Not until then did it dawn on him that he and the dog hadn’t looked for rats’ nests for several days.
How could he have known that it was already too late? In just a few days, as if responding to a summons, the rats had consumed all the grain they’d stored up in their nests. The whole of one afternoon, Uncle led the dog to seven plots of land, where he dug up thirty-one rats’ nests. He was dead tired before he finally dug up eight ounces of maize kernels. At sunset, the remaining blood-colored sunshine crossing over from the west mountain settled like fiery coals on the mountain ridge. The maize leaves that had been curled up for a day exhaled and slowly began to unfurl. Carrying the bowl half-filled with maize kernels and rat droppings, Uncle suddenly realized that the rats had begun struggling with him and the dog over the grain.
Uncle thought, Where have they taken the grain?
Uncle thought, You think you’re so smart! But can you be smarter than I am?
That night, Uncle and the dog went even farther afield to eavesdrop on the rats. They tried three different fields that night without hearing even the faintest sound from the rats. At dawn, Uncle and the dog went back. He asked the dog, Did the rats move? Where did they go? Wherever they went, that’s where there’s grain. We have to find them. The sun shone harshly and mercilessly on the dog’s lifeless eyes. Twisting its head to one side, the dog walked with its back to the sun. It didn’t hear what Uncle said.
Uncle asked, Is it possible that the rats are hiding somewhere trying to fight us?
The dog halted and twisted its head in the direction of Uncle’s footsteps.
When they got back to the shed, Uncle checked the maize stalk which was now the width of a child’s wrist. He had to go to the village and wring water out of the bedding in the well. Carrying two buckets, he told the dog to go with him. But the dog lay next to the shed without moving. Uncle said, C’mon, let’s go to the village and see whose home the rats are living in. Whatever home they’re living in is where we’ll look for grain. Only then did the dog go back with him to the village. Once there, aside from two baby rats that had drowned while drinking water from the well, they didn’t see any evidence of even one rat. When Uncle went back to Baliban with less than half a bucket of water, everything turned upside down. Still some distance from the field, the dog suddenly grew fretful, now and then letting out half-black, half-purple snarls carrying horrible gory colors and smells. Uncle quickened his steps and climbed a mountain ridge: when the field appeared before his eyes, the dog suddenly stopped yapping. As if crazed, the dog shot like an arrow toward the field at the shed. A few times when its forepaws stepped on the side of the cliff, it nearly fell. Along with the sound of its steps exploded an incandescent sound—like a glass bottle shattering from being burned—of the dog trampling on and cracking the sun’s rays on the hard earth. Accompanying the dog’s uncertain steps, its sharp, crazed barking splashed the field like blood.
Uncle was dumbstruck.
Uncle was standing well beyond the field when, in the intervals between the dog’s barks, he heard the dense, drizzle-like squeals of rats. When he looked again at the shed, he saw that the bag of grain had fallen down and was lying open on the ground. On the hard ground, maize kernels were rolling back and forth. Below the shed, a huge pack of ash-black rats—three to five hundred, or maybe even more than a thousand—was fighting over those maize kernels. They were threshing the kernels with their feet. The kernels were also spilling from their mouths. The trickling gnawing noise and the sound of the rats’ merriment splashed like a rainstorm on the ground. Uncle was stunned. The half-bucket of water on his shoulders suddenly slid down. The bucket rolled—dingding dangdang—toward the bottom of the ditch. The sun on the rats’ backs gave off black, ash-colored rays, like a pile of dry firewood in the instant that flames begin roaring. He stood woodenly, watching Blindie pounce. It bumped its head against the shed, and blood flew everywhere. In the shock and terror on the ground, the dog and the rats all fell into a deathly still dizziness. When the dog came to, it thrashed and barked. Because it couldn’t see the rats, it clawed the shed pole in irritation. Since the rats didn’t realize that it was blind, they were so frightened that their blackish green squeals covered the ground. With all the panicky sounds and barking, the mountain range that had been quiet for more than two months was suddenly seething. Uncle ran out from the midst of the rat pack, and trampled a large rat. When he heard the tragic, piercing wail underfoot, he felt fresh blood on his other foot: it was as boiling hot as sizzling oil that has just splashed up. Uncle ran straight to the reed mat and rushed in. Sure enough, two thirsty rats were eating at the maize stalk that was a water-like bluish green. When they heard Uncle charge into the mat enclosure, after a brief moment of terror, they escaped through a crack in the mat.
When he saw the maize stalk still upright in the sunlight, Uncle relaxed. He turned and went outside the mat enclosure and saw that several starving black rats were still wriggling in the grain bag. He tamped the bag with his hoe. At once, things like red beads flew up in the sunlight. He hit the bag a few more times with the hoe. Rat hair fluttered in the air, and the ground was covered with blood. Squealing in fear, the dozens of surviving rats took off aimlessly in all directions. In the blink of an eye, all traces of them had disappeared.
The blind dog stopped barking.
Leaning on the hoe, Uncle stood there breathing heavily.
In the sunlight, the color and smell of blood were everywhere.
The mountain range instantly grew quiet. The dense deathly stillness was many times heavier than before. He supposed that thousands upon thousands of rats were all hidden nearby. As soon as he left, they’d be back. He gazed for a while in all directions at the bright, yellow-gold mountain range. Sitting on the handle of the hoe and picking up the maize kernels from the ground, he said, Blindie, what are we going to do? Can you keep watch here? Facing Uncle as it lay on the sun-scorched ground, the dog was sticking out its thin tongue. Uncle said, There’s no water. You, I, and the maize stalk are all without drinking water.
Uncle didn’t cook today. He and the dog went hungry all day. At night, the two of them kept watch beside the mat enclosure, afraid that a couple of rats might come and destroy the maize stalk’s leaves with just two bites. They kept a tormented watch until daybreak, but didn’t see any rats. At noon the next day, the leaves were curling from the sun. Uncle shouldered two empty buckets.
Uncle said, Blindie, keep watch over the maize.
Uncle said, Lie down in a shady spot, and keep your ears to the ground. If you hear any movement, bark in that direction.
Uncle said, I’m going for water. You must be careful.
When Uncle returned with half a bucket of water, nothing had been disturbed. But when he’d wrung water out of the bedding at the well, there were four rats on the bedding. They had died from drinking too much water. The hair on their bodies was standing straight up, the lice climbing around. To get a meal, Uncle had to crush the maize kernels on two rocks: he was beginning to worry. What the rats had eaten left less than half a bag of maize kernels. Uncle weighed them: six pounds, four ounces. Even if they ate three scant meals a day, he and the dog still needed one pound each day. Six days from now, what would they do?
It was almost time for the sun to set again: the mountain ridge to the west was dyed blood-red. Gazing at all the colors contained in that red, Uncle thought that the day for fasting was already upon them. And soon they would have no water, either. He turned to look at the maize seedling: red and white were beginning to show on the top. He wondered how many more days it would be before tassels appeared, and how many cobs would grow. Suddenly, he remembered that for days and days, he hadn’t known what day it was. He didn’t remember what month or day it was right now. All of a sudden, he realized that except for daytime, nighttime, morning, twilight, moonset, and sunrise, the months and days themselves were lost. He realized that his mind was blank. He said, Blindie, Is it already autumn? But without looking at the dog again, he muttered to himself, Are we already two weeks into autumn? That’s when maize usually has a red and white top.
Narrowing his eyes, Uncle pounded the maize kernels on the slightly concave rock. He saw Blindie sniffing the ground, and then—carrying a rat that had been dead for two days—heading toward the ditch. When it was a few feet from the cliff, it tossed its head and dropped the dead rat into the ditch.
Uncle smelled a faintly hot odor.
The dog took another dead rat to the ditch.
He needed a perpetual calendar. Uncle was staring at the dog, and thinking that without a perpetual calendar he didn’t know what month or day it was. And without knowing that, he didn’t know when the maize seedling would mature. Perhaps the fall harvest was still a month away, perhaps forty days, but what would they eat during these long, long days of waiting? The rats had already eaten all the seeds in the ground. Uncle looked up slowly and listened to the distant west: a tragic cry threw the sunlight down to the farthest place and went between two mountain peaks. Another mountain peak had swallowed the sun. The remaining brilliant red blood flowed straight from the mountaintop to the foothills, then over to Uncle. For a moment, the world was silent. Once more, it was the instant between the most deathly still dusk and the approaching darkness. In the past, this was when chickens returned to their coops and sparrows to their nests. Chirping sounds filling the world would descend like a downpour, but now there was nothing—no livestock, no sparrows. Even the crows had flown away from the drought. There was only deadly silence. Uncle was watching the blood-colored sunset weaken, and listening to the red rays moving farther and farther away from him—like pulling away a red silk quilt. As he tidied up the maize kernels on the rock, he thought, Another day gone. How will we get through tomorrow?
Three more days went by. Even though he was frugal with the maize kernels, only half of them were left. Uncle thought, Where have all the rats gone? What are they eating to stay alive?
On the fourth night, he told the blind dog to keep watch over the maize seedling: if it heard any movement it must bark toward the north. Then, taking his hoe, he went up the ridge and headed due north. He went to the village’s farthest field, set the hoe in the middle of the ground, and sat on the hoe’s handle until daybreak without hearing a peep out of a rat. In the daytime, he brought the dog to that spot. The dog helped him find seven rats’ nests, but after digging them up, he found neither rats nor grain. Except for rat droppings the size of grains of rice, there was only the scalding hot hard earth. He dug dozens more holes without finding one seed.
Uncle concluded that there wasn’t a kernel of grain on this mountain range.
Blindie, I ask you: do you think we’ll starve to death?
The dog turned its deep, withered eyes heavenward.
Uncle said, The maize seedling won’t get a chance to grow to maturity then.
On the fifth evening, as soon as the setting sun vanished, the blackness of night descended. The mountains and plains were mantled with the moonless, starless inky color. Rid of the fierce sunshine, the parched dried-up trees had just found a little moisture: they hastened to emit slender dark feminine plaints. Uncle sat with the dog next to the cornstalk, lifting the leaves to his nose. He gulped down big swallows of its fresh scent. As the scent of the grain reached his belly, he hurriedly drew his belly in and put the brakes on his gut to force the scent to stay there. He swallowed like this until a cloudy moon color fell to the earth. Then he said, Blindie, come over and gulp a few swallows, too. Then you won’t be hungry.
After calling out a couple of times and seeing no movement from the dog, he turned and saw that the dog was paralyzed like sludge beneath the reed mat. When he extended his hand to drag the dog over, he was stunned: the dog’s ribs were protruding brightly from its skin, cutting his hand like knives. Uncle touched his own stomach: first, he felt a layer of dry, cracked grime. He tore it off and threw it on the ground. When he felt his water-weak skin again, he also felt the lower vertebrae on his back.
Blindie, Uncle said, look, the moon is out. Let’s go to sleep. Then we won’t be hungry. Let’s have dreams for dinner.
Just then, the dog stood up. It staggered toward the side of the shed.
Don’t go over to the shed, Uncle said. Just sleep on the ground. Save your strength.
And so the dog came back, lay down, and didn’t move.
The first-quarter moon slowly emerged from behind the clouds, and the mountain ridge shone water-colored. Uncle opened his eyes for a moment in the dim light. Gazing at the tile-blue night, he prayed, God, will I starve to death soon? Quick—give me a handful of grain, so I can live a few more days. At least, let me live longer than the dog so I can give it a decent burial. I don’t want its body ruined by the rats or anything else. The dog deserves at least this much. And after the dog dies, let me also survive a little longer than the maize seedling. I stayed behind just for it. You have to let me harvest the corn. When the corn ripens, don’t let me die then, either. Let me wait for the rain, wait for the villagers to come back to the mountain range, let me give this seedling to the villagers. This is seed for the whole mountain range. As Uncle prayed like this, he was stroking the maize leaves with one hand, and with the other, tearing the grime off his chest and throwing it on the ground. When he was ready to go back to sleep, he pressed his feet lightly on the dog’s back, and said, Let’s go to sleep, Blindie. That way, we’ll forget we’re hungry. Then closing his eyes, he skipped into dreamland.
When Uncle was sound asleep, his feet moved on the dog’s back. Then, the dog’s barking—like black stones—smashed against his ears. He sat up in a hurry, and heard the low squeals of rats on the mountain ridge, as well as their fast running claws. The dog stood up outside the reed mat and barked toward the mountain ridge. Uncle walked over, patted the dog’s head, and told it to come back inside the mat enclosure to keep watch over the cornstalk. When it was almost daylight, with just a little moonlight showing through, a dim damp smell hung in the air. Uncle went into the shed and hunkered at the side facing the mountain ridge. Uncle smelled the strong dark red odor of rat urine, along with the smell of seething dust. Uncle blinked his eyes, and on the smooth surface of the mountain ridge, he saw a cloudlike layer of black scuttling south. He came out of the shed, afraid that the pack of rats would suddenly turn and pounce on the maize seedling. When he looked into the mat enclosure, he saw that the cornstalk was still standing erect and bright green. Blindie pricked up its ears. Whatever you do, don’t bark, Uncle said as he patted the dog’s ears. You mustn’t remind the rats that anyone is here. If they know we’re here, they’ll know there’s food, too.
The storm-like sound from the ridge diminished. Uncle patted the dog’s head and quietly made his way toward the ridge. When he got there, he saw that ten or twenty rats that had broken ranks with the others were squealing and moving toward the south. He couldn’t believe it: the path on the ridge that had been iron-hard now had a finger-thick layer of ash. The rat’s claws clung to the path, now so crowded that you wouldn’t be able to find a spot to insert something even as small as a needle.
Uncle stood dumbfounded beside the road.
Uncle thought, Where is this grand migration heading?
Perhaps this major drought would never let up. Uncle said, If the drought were not going to last indefinitely, would they be moving? Rats won’t starve to death if they have wooden boards and straw mats, but they’re afraid of having no water. Now, with even the rats picking up and moving, it’s plain to see that the drought will last a long time. Just as Uncle was about to go back, he faintly heard again the wet sound of rain falling in the north. He knew it wasn’t rain: it was the army of rats coming past again. He drew back, stood on a high spot, and looked into the distance. His blood curdled.