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Early Youth.

for my father and mother
1.
 Summer 1966, crops overflowing the horizon, in their midst tan rabbits
hiding with the secret of the princess and the pea, which I never
believed. As we crossed a country road, the trunk of a big elm displayed
a new banner. Teacher Feng stared at it, kept saying "Revolt,
revolt!" We went up close and read "To revolt is just!"
but didn't understand, nor could we grasp the astonishment
spreading on Teacher Feng's face.
What startled me instead was a wolf dashing from the wheatfield,
plunging like a flame into the river. I was surprised finding a steamed
bun on the road the Red Guards walked. A round stone, I first thought,
and kicked it.
How blue the sky, how big the catfish I hooked by the riverbank. It had
grandpa's whiskers and easy grace. One little flip and it slid from
my hands. Yet the moment I'd pulled the line with all my strength I
felt the whole river.
2.
I'd just turned nine. That grand season my father no longer checked
my summer homework, nor the brushstrokes of my daily characters. Odd, I
thought, then learned the school was already criticizing
"Intellectual Education First."
So we ran pretty wild, all day in the river, lapped by waves, (Mother
said I'd turned dark as a carp), sprinting after dinner for the
bridge to play war. At each end of its stone arch we took turns as
"Nationalist Army" and "Communist Army," charging,
fighting, killing, until a bright, sudden moon wheeled up from the dusky
treetops. A few dogs barked, then one after another, kids hauled home,
grownups tugging at their ears.
A whole glorious summer passed like this, the shouts of childhood still
echoing, dark water rushing past the bridge. Then I somehow swallowed
the wrong medicine, for two days sitting on the door stoop, staring at
nothing. Afterwards I forgot the Mandarin pinyin
 I'd known since four and had to learn all over, the rising drone
of cicadas twisting through my head.
3.
The day autumn came with its sweeping wind I heard a fit of crazy
laughter. On the playground a madwoman; chased by a crowd, tossed her
clothes toward the sky, laughing wildly. Then I saw her snow-white body,
her face and shoulders mud-smeared, her swinging breasts, and between
her thighs a strange black patch. I got closer, staggered to see our
teacher Mrs. Feng.
Only later I found out she'd gone insane when Red Guards broke her
husband Teacher Li's leg. Utterly crazy. After that, daydreaming in
class, I'd hear her mad laughter ring across the playground, close
my eyes, and see that strange dark cloud, my face flushing red.
Whenever I saw Mr. Li, limping, I avoided him. (Where was Teacher Feng?)
One Sunday with my mother, washing clothes in the river, a swift gust of
wind blew the dried clothes and sheets toward the sky. Mother yelled to
snatch them quick, but I somehow couldn't budge. Teacher Feng!
Teacher Feng!, beneath that whirling shirt vanished forever.
4.
Next summer we spent no time in the river. My younger brother was born,
named "Little Soldier." (The first thing he said was
"Grandpa Mao"; only later "Papa" and
"Mama.") At school even more ferment, for a while Red Guards
joining in, for a while much oath-taking. But father's
"problem" kept me from being a Little Red Guard.
For this I refused to lunch at home. Mother found me, spanked me hard,
but still I wouldn't come back. So what? I saw my classmates, one
bunch after another, pin on red armbands. Even Lu Haibo, a playmate
since we were little, no longer came to my door. She'd already
grown two small braids, around her waist a wide leather belt. Walking
past, she'd raise her nose.
So I kept to myself. I loved rolling my steel hoop, loved heaving it
with all my strength up the mountain path. Flead drenched with sweat,
I'd watch it roll back, snatch it fast, heave it higher.
Oh my glinting hoop, don't stumble, don't sail over the edge
into the deep valley. If you do, who'll play with me?
5.
Then came the ice blocks.
I'd gone into town to see my uncle and ran into a demonstration, a
procession carrying a corpse fished from the river. I dared not look,
its swollen legs already thick as buckets, its rotting stench laced with
the reek of formalin. And stacked around the corpse huge blocks of ice
bigger than I'd ever seen.
"Give back our comrade-in-arms!" they howled. "Blood must
be paid in blood!" they bellowed. A dazzling expanse of ice glared
into my eyes sharp enough to blind.
At home, I told my parents. Long silence. "You know," my
father said, "the corpse they carried was a third-year high-school
student of mine. They'd split into two gangs, fighting all the way
to the river. She jumped in, hoping to swim clear, but they pounded her
dead with stones.
"They shouted 'Beat down the drowning dog!'" That
summer I refused to eat meat. (Mother said I was often in a daze.) In my
nose the stink of formalin lingered, and I could still see the ice,
expanding. That summer I cried out in sleep, dreaming of endless maggots
crawling from a dead dog's mouth.
6.
Another autumn. Another new semester. A brand new, grass-green
schoolbag. A shiny pen. Yet on the school registration form the blank
for "family class status" brought more unspeakable bitterness.
Knowing my father's rank was "landlord," mother's
also, I put down "faculty" instead. My younger sister and I
once secretly found a high-school photo of father's, from before
the liberation. On his school cap, hung from a chair, was the badge of a
Nationalist youth league. In the end my sister and I agreed to blot it
with the blackest ink!
I plucked up my courage and handed in the form, but in the
teacher's eyes I saw "landlord," in Lu Haibo's eyes
"landlord." I saw it all, under their cold gaze irretrievably
grown up.
Life changed then, the world no longer magic. After dinner, quiet
solitude. Father was reassigned to a mountain middle-school, home only
twice a week. Yet the ice still loomed before my eyes. Mother said I
grew silent, less lively, though I kept tossing my hoop up one hill and
another. That bright sun falling, that rolling chime, gleaming until the
day time took that too. 


NOTES

pinyin: Since the late 1950s, the standard mainland transliteration system for Mandarin into Roman letters.

Nationalist youth league: The Youth League of Three People's Principles (YLTPP--"San Qing Tuan"), a patriotic youth group established during World War II by the Nationalist Party of China. During the Cultural Revolution, anything linked with the Nationalists would have been reviled by the ruling Communist Party.
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Title Annotation:four poems: A Special APR Supplement
Author:Wang Jiaxin
Publication:The American Poetry Review
Article Type:Poem
Geographic Code:9CHIN
Date:May 1, 2015
Words:1301
Previous Article:Another Landscape.
Next Article:Wang Jiaxin and Winter's Disposition.
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