“The Cure” by Mo Yan
A short story by the 2012 winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature
* * *
That afternoon, the armed work detachment posted a notice on the whitewashed wall of Ma Kuisan’s home, which faced the street; it announced the following morning’s executions at the usual place: the southern bridgehead of the Jiao River. All able-bodied villagers were to turn out for educational purposes. There were so many executions that year that people had lost interest in them, and the only way to draw a crowd was to make attendance mandatory.
The room was still pitch-black when Father got up to light the bean-oil lamp. After putting on his lined jacket, he woke me up and tried to get me out of bed, but it was so cold all I wanted to do was stay under the warm covers-which Father finally pulled back. “Get up,” he said. “The armed work detachment likes to get their business over with early. If we’re late, we’ll miss our chance.”
I followed Father out the gate. The eastern sky was growing light. The streets were icy cold and deserted; winds from the northwest had swept the dust clean during the night; and the gray roadway was clearly visible. My fingers and toes were so cold it felt as if they were being chewed by a cat. As we passed the Ma family compound, where the armed work detachment was quartered, we noticed a light in the window and heard the sound of a bellows. Father said softly, “Step it up. The work detachment is getting breakfast.”
Father dragged me up to the top of the riverbank; from there, we could see the dark outline of the stone bridge and patches of ice in the hollows of the riverbed. I asked, “Where are we going to hide, Father?”
“Under the bridge.”
It was deserted under the bridge and pitch-black, not to mention freezing cold. My scalp tingled, so I asked Father, “How come my scalp is tingling?”
“Mine, too,” he said. “They’ve shot so many people here that the ghosts of the wronged are everywhere.”
I detected the movement of furry creatures in the darkness under the bridge. “There they are!” I shouted.
“Those aren’t wronged ghosts,” Father said. “They’re dogs that feed on the dead.”
I shrank back until I bumped into the bone-chilling cold of a bridge piling. All I could think about was Grandma, whose eyes were so clouded over with cataracts she was all but blind. The sky would be completely light once the cold glare from the three western stars slanted into the space under the bridge. Father lit his pipe; the fragrant smell of tobacco quickly enveloped us. My lips were turning numb. “Father, can I go out and run around? I’m freezing.”
Father’s reply was “Grate your teeth. The armed work detachment shoots their prisoners when the morning sun is still red.”
“Who are they shooting this morning, Father?”
“I don’t know,” Father said. “But we’ll find out soon enough. I hope they shoot some young ones.”
“Young people have young bodies. Better results.”
There was more I wanted to ask, but Father was already losing his patience. “No more questions. Everything we say down here can be heard up there.”
While we were talking, the sky turned fish-belly white. The village dogs had formed a pack and were barking loudly, but they couldn’t drown out the wailing sounds of women. Father emerged from our hiding spot and stood for a moment in the riverbed, cocking his ear in the direction of the village. Now I was really getting nervous. The scavenger dogs prowling the space under the bridge were glaring at me as if they wanted to tear me limb from limb I don’t know what kept me from getting out of there as fast as I could. Father returned at a crouch. I saw his lips quiver in the dim light of dawn but couldn’t tell if he was cold or scared. “Did you hear anything?” I asked.
“Keep quiet,” Father whispered. “They’ll be here soon. I could hear them tying up the condemned.”
I moved up close to Father and sat down on a clump of weeds. By listening carefully, I could hear a gong in the village, mixed in with a man’s raspy voice: “Villagers-go to the southern bridgehead to watch the execution-shoot the tyrannical landlord Ma Kuisan-his wife-puppet village head Luan Fengshan-orders of armed work detachment Chief Zhang-those who don’t go will be punished as collaborators.”
I heard Father grumble softly, “Why are they doing this to Ma Kuisan? Why shoot him? He’s the last person they should shoot.”
I wanted to ask Father why they shouldn’t shoot Ma Kuisan, but before I could open my mouth, I heard the crack of a rifle, and a bullet went whizzing far off, way up into the sky somewhere. Then came the sound of horsehoofs heading our way, all the way up to the bridgehead; when they hit the flooring, they clattered like a passing whirlwind. Father and I shrank back and looked at the slivers of sunlight filtering down through cracks between the stones; we were both frightened and not quite sure just what was happening. After about half the time it takes to smoke a pipeful, we heard people coming toward us, shouting and clamoring. They stopped. I heard a man whose voice sounded like a duck’s quack: “Let him go, damn it. We’ll never catch him.”
Whoever it was fired a couple of shots in the direction of the hoofbeats. The sound echoed off the walls where we were hiding; my ears rang, and there was a strong smell of gunpowder.
Again the quack: “What the fuck are you shooting at? By now, he’s in the next county.”
“I never thought he’d do anything like that,” someone else said. “Chief Zhang, he must be a farmhand.”
“He’s a paid running dog of the landlord class, if you ask me,” the duck quacked.
Someone walked to the railing and started pissing over the side of the bridge. The smell was rank and overpowering.
“Come on, let’s head back,” the duck quacked. “We’ve got an execution to attend to.”
Father whispered to me that the man who sounded like a duck was the chief of the armed work detachment, given the added responsibility by the district government of rooting out traitors to the Party; he was referred to as Chief Zhang.
The sky was starting to turn pink on the eastern horizon, where thin, low-hanging clouds slowly came into view, before long, they, too, were pink. Now it was light enough to make out some frozen dog turds on the ground of our hiding place, that and some shredded clothing, clumps of hair, and a chewed-up human skull. It was so repulsive I had to look away. The riverbed was as dry as a bone except for an ice-covered puddle here and there; clumps of dew-specked weeds stood on the sloped edges. The northern winds had died out; trees on the embankments stood stiff and still in the freezing air. I turned to look at Father; I could see his breath. Time seemed to stand still. Then Father said, “Here they come.”
The arrival of the execution party at the bridgehead was announced by the frantic beating of a gong and muted footsteps. Then a booming voice rang out: “Chief Zhang, Chief Zhang, I’ve been a good man all my life…”
Father whispered, “That’s Ma Kuisan.”
Another voice, this one flat and cracking with emotion: “Chief Zhang, be merciful… We drew lots to see who would be village head; I didn’t want the job… We drew lots; I got the short straw-my bad luck… Chief Zhang, be merciful, and spare my dog life… I’ve got an eighty-year-old mother at home I have to take care of…”
Father whispered, “That’s Luan Fengshan.”
After that, a high-pitched voice said, “Chief Zhang, when you moved into our home, I fed you well and gave you the best wine we had. I even let our eighteen-year-old daughter look after your needs. Chief Zhang, you don’t have a heart of steel, do you?”
Father said, “That’s Ma Kuisan’s wife.”
Finally, I heard a woman bellow “Wu-la-ah-ya-“
Father whispered, “That’s Luan Fengshan’s wife, the mute.”
In a calm, casual tone, Chief Zhang said, “We’re going to shoot you whether you make a fuss or not, so you might as well stop all that shouting. Everybody has to die sometime. You might as well get it over with early so you can come back as somebody else.”
That’s when Ma Kuisan announced loudly to the crowd, “All you folks, young and old, I, Ma Kuisan, have never done you any harm. Now I’m asking you to speak up for me…”
Several people fell noisily to their knees and began to plead in desperation, “Be merciful, Chief Zhang. Let them live. They’re honest folk, all of them…”
A youthful male voice shouted above the noise, “Chief Zhang, I say we make these four dog bastards get down on their hands right here on the bridge and kowtow to us a hundred times. Then we give them back their dog lives. What do you say?”
“That’s some idea you’ve got there, Gao Renshan!” Chief Zhang replied menacingly. “Are you suggesting that I, Zhang Qude, am some sort of avenging monster? It sounds to me like you’ve been head of the militia long enough! Now get up, fellow villagers. It’s too cold to be kneeling like that. The policy is clear. Nobody can save them now, so everybody get up.”
“Fellow villagers, speak up for me-” Ma Kuisan pleaded. “No more dawdling,” Chief Zhang cut him short. “It’s time.” “Clear out, make some room!” Several young men at the bridgehead, almost certainly members of the armed work detachment, were clearing the bridge of the kneeling citizens.
Then Ma Kuisan sent his pleas heavenward: “Old man in the sky, are you blind? Am I, Ma Kuisan, being repaid for a lifetime of good with a bullet in the head? Zhang Qude, you son of a bitch, you will not die in bed, count on it. You son of a bitch-“
“Get on with it!” Chief Zhang bellowed. “Or do you like to hear him spout his poison?”
Running footsteps crossed the bridge above us. Through cracks between the stones, I caught glimpses of the people.
“Kneel!” someone on the southern edge of the bridge demanded.
“Clear the way, everybody” came a shout from the northern edge.
Pow-pow-pow-three shots rang out.
The explosions bored into my eardrums and made them throb until I thought I’d gone deaf. By then, the sun had climbed above the eastern horizon, rimmed by a blood-red halo that spread to clouds looking like canopies of gigantic fir trees. A large, bulky human form came tumbling slowly down from the bridge above, cloudlike in its shifting movements; then when it hit the icy ground below, it regained its natural heft and thudded to a stop. Crystalline threads of blood oozed from the head.
Panic and confusion at the northern bridgehead-it sounded to me like the frantic dispersal of villagers who had been forcibly mobilized as witnesses to the executions. It didn’t sound as if the armed work detachment took out after the deserters.
Once again, footsteps rushed across the bridge from north to south, followed by the shout of “Kneel” at the southern bridgehead and “Clear the way” at the northern. Then three more shots-the body of Luan Fengshan, hatless and wearing a ragged padded coat, tumbled head over heels down the riverbank, first bumping into Ma Kuisan, then rolling off to the side.
After that, things were simplified considerably. A volley of shots preceded the sound and sight of two disheveled female corpses tumbling down, arms and legs flying, and crashing into the bodies of their menfolk.
I held tightly onto Father’s arm, feeling something warm and wet up against my padded trousers.
At least a half dozen people were standing on the bridge directly overhead, and it seemed to me that their weight was pushing the rock flooring down on top of us. Their thunderous shouts were nearly deafening: “Shall we check out the bodies, Chief?”
“What the hell for? Their brains are splattered all over the place. If the Jade Emperor himself came down now, he couldn’t save them.”
“Let’s go! Old Guo’s wife has fermented-bean-curd-and-oil fritters waiting for us.”
They crossed the bridge, heading north, their footsteps sounding like an avalanche. The rock flooring, creaking and shifting, could have come crashing down at any moment. Or so it seemed to me.
The quiet returned.
Father nudged me. “Don’t stand there like an idiot. Let’s do it.”
I looked around me, but nothing made sense. Even my own father seemed familiar, but I couldn’t place him.
“Huh?” I’m sure that’s all I managed to say: “Huh?”
“Have you forgotten?” Father said. “We’re here to get a cure for your grandmother. We have to move fast, before the body snatchers show up.”
The words were still echoing in my ears when I spotted seven or eight wild dogs, of a variety of colors, dragging their long shadows up off the riverbed in our direction; they were baying at us. All I could think of was how they had turned and fled at the first gunshot, accompanied by their own terrified barks.
I watched Father kick loose several bricks and fling them at the approaching dogs. They scurried out of the way. Then he took a carving knife out from under his coat and waved it in the air to threaten the dogs. Beautiful silvery arcs of light flashed around Father’s dark silhouette. The dogs kept their distance for the time being. Father tightened the cord around his waist and rolled up his sleeves. “Keep an eye out for me,” he said.
Like an eagle pouncing on its prey, Father dragged the women’s bodies away, then rolled Ma Kuisan over so he was facing up. Then he fell to his knees and kowtowed to the body. “Second Master Ma,” he intoned softly, “loyalty and filiality have their limits. I hate to do this to you.”
I watched Ma Kuisan reach up and wipe his bloody face. “Zhang Qude,” he had said with the trace of a smile, “you will not die in bed.”
Father tried to unbutton Ma Kuisan’s leather coat with one hand but was shaking too much to manage. “Hey, Second Son,” I heard him say, “hold the knife for me.”
I recall reaching out to take the knife from him, but he was already holding it in his mouth as he struggled with the yellow buttons down Ma Kuisan’s chest. Round, golden yellow, and as big as mung beans, they were nearly impossible to separate from the cloth loops encircling them. Growing increasingly impatient, Father ripped them loose and jerked the coat open, revealing a white kid-skin lining. A satin vestlike garment had the same kind of buttons, so Father ripped them loose, too. After the vest came a red silk stomacher. I heard Father snort angrily. I have to admit that I was surprised when I saw the strangely alluring clothing the fat old man-he was over fifty-wore under his regular clothes. But Father seemed absolutely irate; he ripped the thing off the body and flung it to one side. Now at last, Ma Kuisan’s rounded belly and flat chest were out in the open. Father reached out his hand but then jumped to his feet, his face the color of gold. “Second Son,” he said, “tell me if he’s got a heartbeat.”
I recall bending over and laying my hand on the chest. It was no stronger than a rabbit’s, but that heart was still beating.
“Second Master Ma,” my father said, “your brains have spilled out on the ground, and even the Jade Emperor couldn’t save you now, so help me be a filial son, won’t you?”
Father took the knife from between his teeth and moved it up and down the chest area, trying to find the right place to cut. I saw him press down, but the skin sprang back undamaged, like a rubber tire. He pressed down again with the same result. Father fell to his knees. “Second Master Ma, I know you didn’t deserve to die, but if you’ve got a bone to pick, it’s with Chief Zhang, not me. I’m just trying to be a filial son.”
Father had pressed down with the knife only twice, but already his forehead was all sweaty, the stubble on his chin white with icy moisture. The damned wild dogs were inching closer and closer to us-their eyes were red as hot coals, the fur on their necks was standing straight up, like porcupine quills, and their razor-sharp fangs were bared. I turned to Father. “Hurry, the dogs are coming.”
He stood up, waved the knife above his head, and charged the wild dogs like a madman, driving them back about half the distance an arrow flies. Then he ran back, breathless, and said loudly, “Second Master, if I don’t cut you open, the dogs will do it with their teeth. I think you’d rather it be me than them.”
Father’s jaw set, his eyes bulged. With a sense of determination, he brought his hand down; the knife cut into Ma Kuisan’s chest with a slurping sound, all the way to the hilt. He jerked the knife to the side, releasing a stream of blackish blood, but the rib cage stopped his motion. “I lost my head,” he said as he pulled the knife out, wiped the blade on Ma Kuisan’s leather coat, gripped the handle tightly, and opened Ma Kuisan’s chest.
I heard a gurgling noise and watched the knife slice through the fatty tissue beneath the skin and release the squirming, yellowish intestines into the opening, like a snake, like a mass of eels; there was a hot, fetid smell.
Fishing out the intestines by the handful, Father looked like a very agitated man: he pulled, and he tugged; he cursed, and he swore; and finally, he ran out of intestines, leaving Ma Kuisan with a hollow abdomen.
“What are you looking for, Father?” I recall asking him anxiously.
“The gall bladder. Where the hell is his gall bladder?”
Father cut through the diaphragm and fished around until he had his hand around the heart-still nice and red. Then he dug out the lungs. Finally, alongside the liver, he discovered the egg-sized gall bladder. Very carefully, he separated it from the liver with the tip of his knife, then held it in the palm of his hand to examine it. The thing was moist and slippery and, in the sunlight, had a sheen. Sort of like a piece of fine purple jade.
Father handed me the gall bladder. “Hold this carefully while I take out Luan Fengshan’s gall bladder.”
This time, Father performed like an experienced surgeon: deft, quick, exact. First, he cut away the hemp cord that was all Luan Fengshan could afford for a belt. Then he opened the front of his ragged coat and held the scrawny, bony chest still with his foot as he made four or five swift cuts. After that, he cleared away all the obstructions, stuck in his hand, and, as if it were the pit of an apricot, removed Luan’s gall bladder.
“Let’s get out of here,” Father said.
We ran up the riverbank, where the dogs were fighting over the coils of intestines. Only a trace of red remained on the edges of the sun; its blinding rays fell on all exposed objects, large and small.
Grandma had advanced cataracts, according to Luo Dashan, the miracle worker. The source of her illness was heat rising from her three visceral cavities. The cure would have to be something very cold and very bitter. The physician lifted up the hem of his floor-length coat and was heading out the door when Father begged him to prescribe something.
“Hm, prescribe something…” Miracle worker Luo told Father to get a pig’s gall bladder and have his mother take the squeez-ings, which should clear her eyes a little.
“How about a goat’s gall bladder?” Father asked.
“Goats are fine,” the physician said; “so are bears. Now if you could get your hands on a human gall bladder… ha, ha… well, I wouldn’t be surprised if your mother’s eyesight returned to normal.”
(Translated By Howard Goldblatt)
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