A FAMILY ACCIDENT
Michael X. Wang
I was thirteen when Bao Meng’er kidnapped me. This was almost forty years ago. Back then, he had a habit of snatching up boys from neighboring fields and forcing them to work in his place in his family’s squash racks, while he slept on a tractor drinking sweet potato wine and eating hare jerky. He was tall, scar-faced, and bare-chested, his muscles as tight and coarse as mule-hair rope. He wore camouflaged pants and a fur-lined hunting cap. He called me Little Peanut, and punched me in the gut before letting me go home. A year later, his aunt had the nerve to knock on our door and ask my mother for a marriage prospect with my older sister. I was furious. I yelled, “Just because Mishu isn’t as smart as everyone else doesn’t mean she should marry someone like Bao Meng’er!” My mother silenced me. In truth, she’d been worried about my sister’s future for quite a while. Mishu, at twenty-five, was four years older than Bao Meng’er. No one had come to our door asking for her hand. Our family was poor and Mishu was stupid.
The Meng’er family was famous in Xinchun Village for their swindling past. During the late 1800s, right after the Qing Dynasty collapsed, Great Grandpa Meng’er opened an antique store in which he and his sons sold counterfeit Qing coins, their motto: Buy so that your children will be rich! During the Cultural Revolution, Grandpa Meng’er led a cadre of Red Guards through Xinchun’s streets, plucking villagers from their yards for ten yuan a head, denouncing them for indecent behavior. It didn’t surprise anyone that Bao, the oldest Meng’er boy, found himself without a marriage prospect. He carried a carving knife tucked in his belt wherever he went. He and his brothers stole from Old Wisdom’s medicine shop and spat on the doorstep of the village chief.
My sister ended up agreeing to the marriage. The entire village came to the wedding. It was a spectacle: the least eligible maiden marrying the least eligible bachelor. We lit firecrackers, chewed on dried octopus, and did cartwheels along the street. As Bao Meng’er and his gang of brothers—my future cousins—paraded through the neighborhood banging gongs and throwing confetti, they gave each boy under twelve a wooden gun that fired rubber bands. I felt sorry for my sister, who must’ve been confused and frightened, her face under a red veil, a gigantic paper rose covering her stomach, her hand clinging to a long golden rod connecting her to her future husband, without whom she wouldn’t know which way to walk.
A year later, my father pushed me to marry the daughter of one of his World War II buddies. I didn’t want to protest, both because Confucius told us to always listen to our parents and because there wasn’t anyone I was interested in. My wife and I had a boy and a girl, and after our daughter married a man from a neighboring village, we moved in with our son and daughter-in-law. My wife got along with them fine, but it seemed like a lot of the time the three of them didn’t remember that I was around. Sometimes I would take an afternoon nap and nobody would call me for dinner. I would wake up to find the three of them munching on fish cakes and rice or slurping black bean noodles. There’d only be three chairs circling the square wooden table in our center yard.
“Forget me again?” I would say, pulling up a stool.
“Don’t be silly,” my wife would say. “How can anyone forget an old man who likes to sleep all day?”
“Who can forget the cost of such an old man’s arthritis medicine?” my son would add.
They’d laugh and I’d laugh, too. Then I’d try to put it all in the back of my mind. I was just being sensitive. After all, I was family, and nobody could ever forget family.
Bao and Mishu had five boys. The boys became five strong, smart, and capable young men, shattering the long tradition of Meng’er crooks. Two left and found fortune in Yuncheng City, and the three who remained got married and started families of their own here in Xinchun. Most families partitioned their land when their sons married, but even at the time of his youngest son’s wedding, Bao Meng’er kept all his land for himself. The three remaining Meng’er boys pleaded with the village chief to persuade their father to give them their share, and it was only after the district police threatened Bao Meng’er with an expensive fine that the old man surrendered. He was forced to pass down his land and house to his children, and he and my sister lived with one son one month and another son another month. This lasted for almost a decade, until all three of their sons started losing patience. Who wanted to live with a rude father and a mother as smart as a child?
On Bao Meng’er’s sixty-seventh birthday, he and Mishu found themselves nowhere else to go, thrown out of their youngest son’s yard because Bao had slaughtered a lamb without his daughter-in-law’s permission. Drunk, he pounded on my door. Mishu carried their belongings in a knapsack over her shoulder.
“Open up, Little Peanut! I see your light on. It’s cold out here!”
It was one in the morning. My wife and I had been asleep for hours. The glow he was seeing probably came from our furnace. I put on my slippers and reached for our flashlight. Outside, the air smelled like skunks. Wading through our center yard—my knees hurt from arthritis—I covered my hands with my sleeves to protect them from the shrill winter wind. I opened the window on our front door and shined our flashlight through. Bao Meng’er, his hands still as quick as a tiger’s, reached in and took it.
“Shining a light into someone’s face,” he said. He aimed the flashlight back at me. “How do you like it, Little Peanut?”
“What do you want?”
“My bastard sons have all betrayed me. It’d be your honor to have Mishu and I stay with you.”
Sleet covered the dirt road outside. My ankles, exposed, felt like they were submerged in frigid water. Icicles hung from the tops of the limestone wall enclosing our yard.
I yawned. “Just apologize for whatever you did. I’m sure they’ll let you back in.”
“Kings don’t apologize to servants. Fathers don’t apologize to sons,” he said. “The words of Confucius.”
“You’ve read Confucius.”
“Such axioms are understood by all.” He shattered his beer bottle on the ground, then gave the door another shove. “Stop stalling, Little Peanut. Let us in. Can’t you see your sister’s fingers are frostbitten?”
Mishu waved, her nose dripping snot, and the knapsack fell to the ground. “Hello, Little Brother.”
“Sloppy as a wingless bat.” Bao Meng’er picked up the knapsack. “I’m drunk and I still have more sense.”
“All right,” I said. “My daughter-in-law wouldn’t mind her aunt coming in. But we don’t have enough room for you. This isn’t my yard anymore, either.”
“Won’t let me in?” Bao said. “Your ancestors can fuck a turtle.”
Mishu spat on her hands, then rubbed the warm liquid onto her face. Such actions were cute when we were kids, but now frozen saliva hung from her wrinkled forehead, and she looked like a corpse.
“Well?” Bao Meng’er said to her. “What are you waiting for? Go inside.”
Mishu shook her head. “Both of us,” she said.
“Don’t worry, Cattle Brain. I’ll be fine out here. You’ll see me in the morning.” He unwrapped the knapsack, revealed a stained bed sheet, and began pitching a tent.
I unlocked the door and opened it to a slit. Mishu squeezed in. When we reached the house, she took out an extra blanket from underneath the stone bed. She walked back to the front door and slid it through the window. Then she came inside, undressed, lay at the end of the bed, and fell asleep with the blanket over her face, her gray hair jutting out like stalks of sun-hardened sorghum.
That night, I couldn’t tell how well the rest of my family slept, but I barely got a snooze in. Bao Meng’er didn’t make it easy on us. He howled an old country song, distorting a lot of the lines: Ah, spring roses. Ah, autumn cherry blossoms. Ah, the night sky. Ah, the round moon. You will be here, you will be here, and you will be here. Where will I be when winter is near?
Except for the hourly buses to and from Yuncheng City, cars drove on Xinchun’s streets mostly during the morning. Since it was winter, delivery trucks, tractors, and the pastel-colored motorcycles of village boys were parked in ditches, meters away from fallowing fields. The drivers left for work all at once, and from seven to ten, Xinchun’s dusty cobbled main street became as packed as a city avenue. When I was little, the morning rooster had woken me up. These days I got out of bed to honking horns.
Like my son and his wife, Mishu slept late. I had liked to sleep late as well when I was young, but now the only time I had any energy was in the morning.
Bao Meng’er was still behind our front door when I went out to sprinkle salt on our center yard and shovel away the sleet.
“I’m hungry!” he shouted. “Tell Mishu to wake up and bring me something to eat!”
I uncovered our wok and scooped the leftover squid stir-fry into a chipped ceramic bowl. Then I passed it through the front door window.
“Thanks,” he said. “Here’s your flashlight back.” He wolfed down the stir-fry, shoveling the rice into his mouth with his hands, licking strands of carrot and celery off his beard. “Fuck my sons. Fuck their wives. Fuck this village. Little Peanut, you’re the only good person left in the world.”
“All right,” I said.
“I’m serious. I haven’t been very kind to you in this lifetime. But, by Buddha, I swear I’ll repay all my debts in the next one. If I’m born an ox, I’ll clear your fields. If I’m a dog, I’ll watch your house. If I’m a sparrow, I’ll make my nest above your door and sing your children songs.”
“Revolutionary tunes only.”
“It’s a promise.” He wiped his mouth with his sleeve, then cleaned his beard with a comb. Glancing around like a fox, he gave off the impression that he was about to do something important. “Say goodbye to Mishu for me.”
“Where’re you going?”
Across the street, our neighbor flung a bag of garbage over his wall. In the distance, smoke rose from the coal refinery and billowed up to the see-through moon.
Bao Meng’er stepped out into the street, turned to me, and waved. “Goodbye, Little Peanut, my only friend!”
“What’re you doing?” I tried to unlock the door but my hand jittered. I dropped the key. When I reached down to grab it, my knuckles scraped against a loose wooden panel and my index finger started to bleed.
By the time I made it to the road, Bao Meng’er was lying unconscious on the ground, his cheek against the icy cobblestone. A thin stream of red colored the hair on his upper lip. I had my finger in my mouth, sucking the blood in, and it almost seemed like I was tasting his blood and not my own, that I was the one lying there in front of a rusty green minivan with a crowd of people gathered around.
The ancestors used to say that dragons gave birth to dragons and phoenixes to phoenixes, but a rat could only teach her offspring how to dig holes. Almost an ancestor myself, I lacked such clever sayings. I could only describe how things happened.
My wife, my son and Mishu were already up when the minivan hit Bao Meng’er. Mishu rushed out with a toothbrush hanging from her mouth. She got down on her knees and shook her husband, whose head bent back like a hose. The driver of the minivan, a tourist guide from the city, introduced himself to me as Mr. Jiang, and phoned the nearest hospital in Yuncheng.
“Is he dead?” my son asked me.
“What happened?” my wife said.
“I don’t know. One minute he was talking about dogs and sparrows and the next he was lying on the ground.”
“What happened to your hand?” my wife asked.
I nodded to the door. “Need to get that thing replaced.”
Mishu kept on shaking her husband. My son tried to pull her aside but she was as sturdy as a brick on the Great Wall. Weeping, she babbled in a language no one understood: long mournful howls followed by teethy bursts of pitter-patter.
Then, miraculously, Bao Meng’er woke up.
“Ouch,” he said, rubbing the back of his head.
“Bao Meng’er, you’re an elephant.” My son laughed. He pulled me aside and whispered, “It’s a good thing he didn’t die in front of our house.”
I wondered if my son would’ve said the same if it had been my body lying there.
Mr. Jiang squatted next to Bao and patted him on the shoulder. He took off his blue cap with the word “Driver” written on it in English and revealed a round face drenched in sweat. “How about a trip to the hospital?” he asked Bao.
Bao Meng’er spat on the ground. “It’s the least you can do, isn’t it, you fart-brained lunatic. My leg feels like it’s been snapped in two.”
“Now wait a minute. You stepped out into the street. You didn’t move.”
“Tell that to the cops. Come on, Little Peanut, help me up to the van.” He motioned me over. “You’re coming as a witness. We’ll make sure this blind cheetah never drives again.”
“I’ll do whatever you want,” Mr. Jiang said, raisings his arms. “I don’t want any trouble.”
Mishu and I shared a seat in the back while Jiang drove the van out of Xinchun Village, up through the Blood-cloud Mountains—the road so slippery we hit the railing twice—and then onto the paved highway that led to Yuncheng City. I wasn’t comfortable in such a cushiony seat, and sat using a Tai Chi technique I had learned from Floating Paper, Xinchun’s martial arts master, that put most of the weight on my legs. Bao Meng’er fell asleep immediately, snoring along the way. Mishu stroked his hair and pinched his cheeks as if he was a fat, wrinkled, salivating doll.
“How could you live with him for so long?” I asked.
Mishu stuck out her tongue and slapped the top of her head. She always did this when she was happy.
“Why are you so happy?” I asked.
“I like the city. Tall buildings. Sweet smell on the street. Meat vendors. I like to be there because I like to eat.”
Years ago, when Mishu was pregnant with her first son, she had started to lactate. Excited about the change in her breasts, she stopped by each of her neighbor’s yard to show them off.
As soon as we reached the hospital, Mr. Jiang wanted to leave. Bao Meng’er yelled, “Murderer!” and Jiang let him keep the keys to the van until the police arrived. The nurses dropped Bao into a wheelchair and pushed him to a ward painted half-orange. On a three-legged nightstand, fake dandelions rested in a plastic vase. The hospital had a sweet smell to it, like that of rice liquor.
I watched them from a bench outside their room and listened to the doctors as they examined Bao’s body. They determined that he had a concussion and that his right leg was shattered in three places. Mr. Jiang paced up and down the hallway, occasionally peering out a window to see if the police had arrived. Mishu lay on the bed next to her husband, pushing the button that made the mattress bend.
When the doctors left, Bao Meng’er yelled, “Come inside, Little Peanut. I want to talk to you.”
I walked into the room.
“Close the door.”
I closed it and sat on the stool in between Bao Meng’er and my sister’s beds. “I know what you want from me,” I said. “But I’m not going to lie for you.”
“Listen to me, Little Peanut. We’re family. We’ve been family for almost forty years. Anyway, I didn’t ask you in to talk about that. I want to tell you what I saw back there right before that van hit me.” He closed his eyes, breathed in, breathed out, then opened his eyes. “I saw the meaning of life.”
There was a sudden chill in the room, like the moment right before I went to bed each night, when the last light was turned off and my eyes hadn’t adjusted to the darkness.
“You saw the meaning of life,” I repeated.
“Yes. For years I’ve lived with your sister and I’ve wondered. I would look at her and I would wonder why she liked living so much. She’s sixty-six, four years older than me, but she has as much enthusiasm for life as a ten-year-old.”
I turned around and glanced at Mishu. She was on her stomach, her arms and legs spread to the corners of the bed.
“It’s not so hard to understand,” I said. “My sister likes her life because she has a husband and five sons. What more could she ask for?”
“Let me finish.” Bao Meng’er took a sip from the tea that the nurse had poured for him. “Your sister—my wife—she likes to live because she has no concept of death. She has heard of it, of course, but unlike the two of us, she doesn’t know that death will come to her as well. When a lion kills a deer, does it think about its own demise years later? Death by old age is an experience almost exclusively reserved for man. Old-Man-in-the-Sky made sure of that. But we have to think like the animals—without care—especially given our age, or we’d be so depressed we all might try what I pulled this morning.”
Tilting my head, I considered his words. Finally, I managed to say, “I don’t think what you just said is the meaning of life.”
He picked his nose with his pinky. “It’s close.”
After going into the hospital and getting Bao Meng’er’s testimony, the police pulled Mr. Jiang into their cruiser and questioned him. The poor man came out looking as if he’d just exited a sauna, using a hanky to wipe his forehead before replacing it in his breast pocket. I noticed for the first time that his western-style jacket had patches on the elbows—hand-sewn ones made with festive red tablecloth. He walked over to the grass beside the glossy jade sign that had “Yuncheng City Hospital” written in careful golden calligraphy. Then he squatted down next to me.
“What bad luck,” he said. “I had to cancel on three customers today, three rich students from America who wanted to see your village. And now the police wouldn’t believe a word I said because my license expired. You know how expensive it is to renew a license these days.”
He might’ve been trying to flatter me. Few villagers had cars, and by my Chairman-Mao cap and cotton-stuffed dungarees, I didn’t look like the type to own one.
I said, “I’ve never driven a car in my life.”
“Take pity on me, Old Timer. Just like you, I was born into a poor family. I never knew who my father was. I have a wife and daughter, and my mother is sick with cancer. Every month, her medical bills alone cost me a week’s wage. You saw what happened back there. The police will believe you if you just tell them the truth.”
As he spoke, a dozen bumpkins pulled up in front of the hospital on a tractor dragging a two-wheeled wagon. Diesel filled our noses. The bumpkins unlatched the wagon, and two young men carried an unconscious elderly woman into the hospital on a straw-and-bamboo stretcher.
“How old are you?” I asked Jiang.
“I’ll be thirty-five this May.”
“When I was your age, I never got sick. I could drink all night and still be fresh enough in the morning to plow the sorghum field. My mother, in all her forty-five years, never tasted honey. My first child, a girl, died when she was seven because of diabetes. Even if I believed what you said, me pitying you is like a cricket pitying a panda.”
He stretched out his legs, kneaded his calves, and stood up. “You country folks are all the same,” he said. “All a bunch of hooligans.” He walked through the revolving door and into the hospital.
The police waved me over. There were two of them. They wore brown gloves, they had their pants tucked in their boots, and their leather jackets squeaked whenever they raised their arms. The fat one opened the door to their cruiser, and the skinny one got in next to me. The fat one sat up front, turning around so that his elbows hugged the headrest.
“How long have you known the victim?” he asked.
“All my life. I even know about his family’s history. They’ve lived in Xinchun Village for centuries.”
The skinny one wrote down my words on a notepad. When he finished, the fat one asked, “How would you describe your relationship with Bao Meng’er?”
I tucked my hands underneath my thighs and leaned back. “He’s my brother-in-law. He treats my sister poorly. Once, when I was a boy, he threw me into the Yellow River. That day, I learned how to swim.”
“So you wouldn’t call your relations with Bao Meng’er a friendship?
“He’s my brother-in-law,” I repeated.
The fat one nodded, reached into his pocket, and offered me a cigarette. I took it, and he cupped his palms to light it. For the second time, the skinny one finished scribbling down “brother-in-law.”
“Mr. Jiang told us he saw a tent next to your front door,” the fat one said. “Why was Bao Meng’er outside your yard this morning?”
“His son had kicked him out. He and my sister came to our door in the middle of the night but we only had enough room on our bed for one more person.”
“So you would describe Bao Meng’er’s mood this morning as one of agitation.”
“He was hungry, so I gave him some rice.” I paused, extending my hand to take a better look at the cigarette I was smoking. Its quality surprised me. My lungs felt warm and full, as if they belonged to a much younger man. My mind swam with memories both good and bad. It was true that, until today, Bao Meng’er had not been very kind to me. But he was still my brother-in-law, and I couldn’t deny that he played a large part in my life, just as I couldn’t deny that Mishu and I came from the same womb, however much I had wanted to when I’d been young. Plus, the old people used to say: When in a complicated situation, it was always better to harm a stranger than someone you knew.
“Bao Meng’er was never a saint,” I told the officers. “But he was never the depressed type, either. In fact, given the chance, he would probably use one of his sons as a shield to block a bullet. Such is his nature.”
After the skinny cop finished writing the word “nature,” he exited the cruiser and let me out. I saw Mishu standing by the window, blowing on it and then writing Xs. Bao sat in a wheelchair next to her, and when he noticed me looking at him, he raised his arm and gave me a thumbs up.
Bao Meng’er stayed in the hospital for three months. Mishu slept on the bed next to her husband’s when it was empty, and moved to a chair when it was occupied. One day, I brought them a pot of boiled eggs and a liter of hawthorn juice and found her napping at the foot of Bao Meng’er’s bed like a curled-up cat. Mr. Jiang was forced to pay the hospital expenses. In addition, he sent Bao Meng’er a check for twenty thousand yuan to cover what the police had called “irreparable occupation damage.” Bao was still classified as a poor peasant, a farmer—the use of his legs “integral” to his work—even though I hadn’t seen him pick up a spade in years.
After leaving the hospital, he rented an apartment outside Xinchun Village, on the third floor of a newly constructed suite where the coal miners lived. His sons often visited him, even those living in the city who had, before his accident, only come home during the Spring Festival. During the few times he returned to Xinchun—to soak with his friends in the perfumed waters of Tang Ming Baths, to purchase meat from his favorite butcher, or to buy herbal medicine from Old Wisdom—villagers observed that he had grown wise with age, even generous with his tips. Old Wisdom claimed that Bao Meng’er had told him, after complaining about pain in his lower back, that we old people needed to learn from the young, to embrace life to the fullest and not worry so much about death. “Pain,” Bao told Old Wisdom, “is like experience: Both are veils that distort life’s truths.”
By chance, on one of my trips to the city to sell off extra tomatoes, I came across Mr. Jiang again. He was in a bad shape, begging next to a bus stop. He wore the same clothes as the last time I’d seen him. It was only after I dropped a ten-yuan bill into his pail that he looked up. It took him a second to recognize me.
“Where’s your van?” I asked, understanding that it was a stupid question as soon as I said it.
“Confiscated by the state,” he said. “Driving without a license. They didn’t even let me sell it.” His mother, he told me, passed away a week ago. None of his friends had money, so in order to avoid jail, he had to borrow from a couple of loan sharks. He wasn’t able to repay his debts on time, and they took away his wife and daughter as collateral. They told him they’d only make the two of them do honest labor—wash dishes, scrub laundry, polish nails—but who could be sure they’d keep their word?
“Where are the police now?” he asked me. “Where are the police now?”
I told him he should try and get them out somehow, that they should come to our village and hide out. “We don’t have much,” I said, “but at the very least I could offer all of you three meals a day and a warm bed. Given your situation, I’m sure my daughter-in-law won’t mind.”
He shook his head and pushed me aside.
“Please.” I reached into my pocket for some cash. “Here. This is half of what I earned today. I’ll give you my son’s phone number if you just wait a while longer for me to remember.”
He grabbed the money. “Go away,” he said. “You’re blocking my view of the people getting off the buses.”
I came home feeling exhausted. I went to our bedroom and lay down, turning my head so that I could see my family doing work in our center yard. My wife and daughter-in-law chopped vegetables while my son counted the money I made that day.
“Taking your afternoon nap?” my wife called. I didn’t respond. I didn’t want to be good-humored anymore. I’d fall asleep, I knew, and wake up to a cold, lonely dinner.
|return to fiction|
Michael X. Wang was born in Fenyang, China. He moved to the United States at the age of six, and has lived in New York, Michigan, Illinois, Indiana, North Carolina and Florida. He received his MFA from Purdue, winning a 2010 AWP Intro Award in Fiction. His work has appeared or is forthcoming in Hayden's Ferry Review, Day One and Prick of the Spindle, among others, and his chapbook, A Minor Revolution, was published by Amazon last October. Currently, he is at Florida State University, getting his PhD in Fiction and working on a novel about Mao’s revolution.