The End of the Game: A sawmill built on what was once a cemetery proves too tempting to a group of children in Xie Hong's story of childhood in a monotonous Chinese town.
"What took you so long?" they asked quietly. I grimaced and shot a glance at the "little tail" behind me, but said nothing. I hadn't wanted to bring my sister, but the little imp had seen me slipping out the door. "Elder brother, I have something to tell you," she had shouted. I had turned and looked at her mistrustfully.
"Take me with you, or I'll tell our parents," she whispered threateningly in my ear. "How dare you!" I glared at her. She glared back. "Haven't you had enough?" I said at last. She smiled smugly, the two braided buns on her head shaking back and forth as if to cheer us on.
Now, seeing the tension on my friends' faces, I couldn't help but grow nervous and excited myself as I peered into the surrounding darkness. One of the windows of the sawmill was creaking in the wind. I caught myself breathing quickly again, despite my efforts to stay calm.
The sawmill was built on what had once been a cemetery bordering the fields. Most of the time, this cemetery had been overgrown with weeds; only once a year, on Tomb-Sweeping Day, would it be tidied up, the tombs covered with fresh earth, and the sounds of noisy mourning again disturbing its stillness. Later, the township government decided to relocate the tombs and build a factory on that site, though not without difficult negotiations to settle disputes with the townsfolk whose kin were buried there.
Thus, a remnant of the past was sent on its way with an enthusiastic round of firecrackers. The sharp, grating sounds of the new sawmill gradually became ingrained in every nerve of the little town, becoming an integral part of its monotony. With the exception of the deaf man Chen, every townsperson, including the blind Ah Shan, was jarred by the ear-splitting sounds of woodcutting emanating from the mill.
"It sounds like pigs being slaughtered." Every morning, Pig-head Bing the butcher would sharpen his knife on the grindstone in his meat stand and then wipe it on his greasy apron. Having endured a customer's nagging, he would give the pork on display a vigorous slap, asking, "Which one do you want?" and glaring at his customer with eyes bloodshot from lack of sleep. "Your words are harsher than the noise from the sawmill!" the customer would grumble without looking at Ah Bing, carefully flipping the pork chops on the board with his fingers.
But the sounds of the sawmill didn't bother us--we were more afraid of the sound of our teacher's chalk squeaking against the blackboard. Besides, we could use iron drills and a wood cleaver to peel off the bark, fragrant with pine resin, from the stacks of chopped wood near the mill. At home this bark could provide fuel for cooking for nearly half a month.
We ignored the scolding of the workers who loaded and unloaded the wood: "Are you trying to get killed? We'll run you over, you little brats!" Anxious as they were, they were powerless to drive us off, and none of us children paid any attention; we were busy peeling bark. "Look, a fat worm! Three of these will feed my family's chickens," Pock-face would cry with excitement every time he found one, rapping on the logs with his knife so that they resounded with dull thuds.
"What's that? My left hand was half chopped off and I didn't feel a thing!" Carpenter Lao Huang set a brass teapot beside the wood fire, mumbling to himself and turning his murky eyes toward us. The flame greedily licked at the sides of the pot like a cat's tongue, and the water gurgled as it began to boil; Lao Huang got up, walked slowly toward a corner of the room, and opened his toolbox. Inside, the blades of his axe and knife seemed to wake, gleaming coldly in the light as the lid rose. He took out a tea box, poured a handful of leaves into the little teapot, and after a while took a sip, smacking his lips with satisfaction.
In response, a cold shudder ran through us, and we shookourselves briskly. As he had in previous winters, Lao Huang added a few logs to the fire with hands yellowed by smoke, then wiped the gunk from the corners of his eyes and flicked it away with his fingernail.
"A weasel stole my chicken, so I chased it here and saw it run under the wood chipper, but then I lost sight of it. Isn't that strange? I started walking back, dissatisfied.... Then, when I looked back, my goodness! There was a white shadow flickering where the weasel had been. It made my hair stand on end. I drew a circle with urine around myself and looked again--the shadow had disappeared. It was unbelievable! The next day ..."
In fact, rumor had long had it that the sawmill was haunted. In the factory, several workers had injured their hands to varying degrees when using an electric wood planer or chainsaw. After the accidents, people invented many strange and fantastic stories that filled us with inexplicable curiosity and fear. But on summer and autumn nights, we were still drawn to the sawmill to play.
The sawmill workers would pile logs haphazardly into large stacks, in which there were crevices large enough to conceal a person. It was Pock-face who came up with the idea of playing hide-and-seek among the woodpiles. We enjoyed the game so much after playing for the first time that we soon became addicted to it. On rainy days, or when we were stuck in class, we often thought of this game and itched to play it again.
"Little Fatty's as dumb as a bear! He can't find me even when he's three steps away," Pock-face would boast; every time we played, he would dress in black, and with his dark face and thin, monkeylike build, he really was hard to find.
"With your face all covered in black pockmarks, it's no wonder I can't see you," Little Fatty retorted, exasperated.
"And I always have to look for you in the bigger gaps, Fatty!" Pock-face tried to burst through, but his friends lined up to form a defensive wall, bouncing him backward. We often argued until we were red in the face along opposite sides of a dividing wall. Nevertheless, when a game began, everyone forgot about their arguments.
One day, my little sister fell off a woodpile and broke her arm, putting an end to our games of hide-and-seek. This incident also earned me a sound thrashing from my father. Of course, we were still allowed to go to the sawmill, but only during the day, to collect the wood shavings for kindling, or bark for cooking fuel, or sawdust to use as bedding for our geese. We were forbidden to visit the sawmill at night. But tonight, seeing that my father had gone to a town hall meeting, I slipped out of my house to meet my friends at the mill.
"Elder brother, lets play rock-paper-scissors," my little sister urged, tugging on my shirttail impatiently. In the first round, Hong Yan and I lost because we played paper while the others played rock. I faced off against Hong Yan in the second round. She played scissors; I played paper and lost.
Next, we decided to play hide-and-seek. It was my turn to be the seeker. I counted to ten and opened my eyes; it took me a moment to adjust to the darkness.
I could hear the chirping of frogs and crickets in the field behind the sawmill as well as the barking of dogs in town, babies crying, and mothers singing lullabies.... It was quite a lively scene. But that was the world beyond the walls of the sawmill. Inside, it was very quiet, punctuated only by the tap of a windowpane blown open and shut by the wind, or by the sounds of pebbles, kicked up by my feet, rolling into stacks of wood dappled by moonlight.
I looked in one stack after another, from time to time glancing absently into the workrooms for wood-shaving and sawing. When I blinked, I seemed to see a shadow flickering there, but each time I looked harder, it disappeared. I began to sweat on and off and felt myself go hot and cold by turns.
My grandfather once said that a child can sometimes see things that adults cannot. I peered into the darkness where I thought I had seen the shadow; sometimes it seemed there was something there, but I couldn't be sure. I thought to myself that if something were indeed out there, I hoped it might be a female fox spirit, because in my grandfathers stories they were always beautiful.
One by one, I caught my friends in their hiding places.
"Pock-face, come out already, I can see your pock-marks."
"Isn't that space a bit small for you, Little Fatty?"
"Look what I've got here--a cat's tail!" I took hold of my little sister's braid. Pouting, she climbed out of a crevice in the woodpile.
As I passed by another woodpile, I was startled to see Hong Yan's eyes twinkling in the dark like those of a cat. But I pretended not to see her and walked past her hiding place several more times. Every time we played hide-and-seek, I made sure to catch her last of all because I liked to hear the tinkling, melodious laugh she gave when she had "won" the game--a laugh that had colored our summer and autumn nights, and that we would recall with aching hearts for many nights to come.
When Little Fatty, Pock-face, and my little sister had all been caught, I once again approached her hideout, pretending to see her for the first time.
"Ha! I found you." I smiled happily. Hong Yan giggled as well, trying to squeeze herself out of the narrow opening of her hideout.
"Brother, you're such a clown!" I turned toward my sister and made a face. But before she finished speaking, we heard the creak of sliding wood. I turned around just in time to see Hong Yan's flailing arms and was unable to make a sound ...
Little Fatty, Pock-face, my little sister, and I froze our memories forever at that moment.
Afterward, I once again received a severe thrashing. I did not speak a word for a long time after that. At night, I would clutch my textbooks in a daze, interrupted continually by my father's reprimands. I felt numb.
Summer passed quickly. Nobody suggested playing hide-and-seek. Autumn arrived slowly, changing the sky. The woodpiles at the sawmill must have been washed clean by the moonlight. I tossed and turned on my bed for a few consecutive nights and lost myself in my thoughts, looking at the moon from my window.
On the night of the mid-autumn festival, I could restrain myself no longer. Slipping through the bustling crowd, I snuck quietly into the sawmill and soon found Hong Yans hiding place. No trace of our game remained; the pile of logs had long been disassembled and transformed into slabs or planks. And Hong Yans soul must be lingering in them, I thought to myself dully.
On the bare ground, red confetti from fireworks and faded, rain-softened paper money lay scattered like fallen flowers, sad and yet beautiful. Next to a pile of wood I found a small hollow and lay down against it. Suddenly, I saw two points of blue fire in the dark, which frightened me into a cold sweat until I heard the soft meow of a cat.
Grandfather once said that a cat has nine lives.
I looked up at the sky, thinking of my empty worries as I lay in the hollow among the piled wood, and from a hole in the roof I could see fragments of stars in the sky. One, two, three ... I began to count the fireflies above, the thick fragrance of pine filling my nostrils-How strange, I thought, that we had always been too afraid to come here alone at night; and yet here I was, by myself, lying here and thinking about what had happened to Hong Yan that fateful night. I remembered what my grandfather had said about children seeing things invisible to the eyes of grown men, and felt a strange sense of hope.
I waited silently.
"Where did you go?!" Lao Huang's voice sounded from far off ... or was it nearby? There was the sound of something being beaten.
"Are you trying to scare me to death, you bastard?" Lao Huang exclaimed, shining his flashlight on me and holding a brick in his thin, quivering hand.
"That weasel stole another chicken." Lao Huang was panting.
I was about to reply, but Lao Huang stopped me.
"Shh! Don't say a word...." I held my breath and followed his pointing finger. There was indeed a shadow flickering in the shaving workroom. I was afraid to blink. Something really was there, and it was moving!
My skin prickled. I was both nervous and excited--
When Lao Huang worked up the courage to shine his flashlight at the shadow, we saw clearly that it was Hong Yans mother approaching us.
"Hong Yan and I are playing hide-and-seek, where is she hiding?" she murmured to herself, and turned back to the wood-sawing workroom ...
Translation from the Chinese
By Sun Jicheng & Hal Swindall
Chinese poet and novelist Xie Hong (b. 1966) has published six novels, three novella collections, two collections of essays, a nonfiction work, and a collection of verse. He won the Shenzhen Youth Literature Award in 2003 and the Guangdong New Writer and New Work Award in 2004.
Sun Jicheng is associate professor of English at Shandong University of Technology, China.
Hal Swindall is a visiting professor at Pusan National University, South Korea.
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|Publication:||World Literature Today|
|Article Type:||Short story|
|Date:||May 1, 2015|
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