Glis­ten­ing Teardrops

Special Focus - - Contents - Chen Zhong­shi

I was walk­ing to­wards Stu­dent Af­fairs Depart­ment with a let­ter in my hand re­quest­ing leave from the school.

That day, I sub­mit­ted my leave ap­pli­ca­tion to my head teacher. He un­der­stood my fam­ily sit­u­a­tion and with­out much fur­ther in­quiries, he wrote in the blank space at the lower part of my ap­pli­ca­tion let­ter, “One-year leave re­quest ap­proved.”

He then asked me to wait and left the room with the let­ter. When he re­turned, another “Ap­proved” was writ­ten onto the let­ter and signed by our head­mas­ter.

The head teacher said, “Go to Stu­dent Af­fairs Depart­ment and get a cer­tifi­cate of ap­proval.”

I knocked on the door of Stu­dent Af­fairs Depart­ment and en­tered af­ter I was given per­mis­sion. I saw a young woman bent over a beige desk, I bowed slightly and asked, “Miss, can you please is­sue me a cer­tifi­cate of ap­proval for my leave?”

She lifted her head and took my ap­pli­ca­tion let­ter. Her eyes were fo­cused on that one line, writ­ten and signed by my head teacher and the even briefer note by our head­mas­ter. “Must you take leave?”

“I have no choice.”

“Can’t any rel­a­tives help you fi­nan­cially?” “They are ... all very poor.”

“How can you be sure you’ll come back af­ter one year?”

I was con­fi­dent of it. My el­der brother would fin­ish mid­dle school by the fol­low­ing year and my fa­ther planned for him to go to a teacher train­ing school where stu­dents would be given three yuan per month in pocket money in ad­di­tion to free tu­ition and meals. That was the plan of how I could come back to school and con­tinue my education.

I said, “My fa­ther said he could only af­ford the school­ing of one child. If the two of us go to school at the same time, he won’t have the money for it.”

I didn’t ex­plain fur­ther. My pride, a weak­ness of mine that had gripped of me long be­fore, stopped me from elab­o­rat­ing on how poor our fam­ily was.

My fa­ther was a farmer and knew noth­ing but farm­ing. He had to pro­vide two sons for study­ing in mid­dle school at the same time. My brother stud­ied at the town school about 20 kilo­me­ters away from home and I at­tended a newly built school in Xi’an, about 25 kilo­me­ters away.

It would never be a prob­lem for us to share one blan­ket, no mat­ter whether it was tat­tered or frayed, as long as we were at home, but we would need to pack sep­a­rate bed­dings when we went to board dif­fer­ent schools lo­cated re­spec­tively in the town and the city. Then there were also tu­ition, meals, and other nec­es­sary ex­penses.

In fact, when I passed the mid­dle school en­trance exam, the fam­ily was in no mood for the usual mer­ry­mak­ing that would nor­mally shower a house­hold in the light of such achieve­ment. In­stead, a gloomy air hung over our pover­tys­tricken house.

My fa­ther had two ways to make money to sup­port his two sons. One was sell­ing crops and the other sell­ing trees. I re­mem­bered clearly how he sold trees. My fa­ther liked to plant them from his youth. Along the banks of the ir­ri­ga­tion canal flow­ing at the edges of the few blocks of damp fields that be­longed to our fam­ily, he had planted fast grow­ing poplars. He planted them with such den­sity that was al­most just one step apart from the other. The thick trunks could be used as purlins and the thin ones as rafters.

When he sold trees, he ig­nored the gen­eral rule of sell­ing older and thicker trees first then the younger and thin­ner ones. He let the buy­ers choose what­ever they needed and chopped off thick ones if they needed purlins and thin ones if they needed rafters.

The pa­per notes he prof­ited from the sales passed through a cy­cle: from the buy­ers’ hands to my fa­ther’s, then on to our hands and fi­nally to the school in ex­change for our books, sta­tionery, for my brother’s meals and my drinks.

Once a tree was sold, my fa­ther would im­me­di­ately dig out the roots and when he did

so, he would miss noth­ing even the tini­est root hair. He chopped the roots into small pieced and laid them dry un­der the sun. He then gath­ered them in two large bam­boo bas­kets and car­ried them on a shoul­der pole to the town mar­ket to sell to drug stores or other busi­nesses who had de­mand for them. 50 kilo­grams of these at best sold for 1.5 yuan and the money was ul­ti­mately ear­marked for ex­change.

This went on un­til there came a day when all of the poplars around the fields had been chopped off and their roots were dug up. Only newly sowed saplings were still left stand­ing along the banks.

Af­ter I fin­ished first se­mes­ter and re­turned home in win­ter, I sensed that a change had taken place.

New Year came.

The whole vil­lage was merry ex­cept for my fa­ther. On the con­trary, his brow was fur­rowed with mis­giv­ings, and he wore a con­stant sour dis­po­si­tion.

He didn’t con­fide in me un­til the sec­ond night of the New Year, “You’ll have to take a leave of ab­sence from school for a year.” He stressed the length of this leave be­ing one year. I wasn’t sur­prised.

Dur­ing that past se­mes­ter, I longed to go home on Satur­days yet feared to do so at the same time. I was 13 years old that year. I had never trav­elled far but when I was forced to leave home it was to a strange city 25 kilo­me­ters away.

Only on Satur­days could I go home and bring back bread for the next week. My crav­ing for a bowl of noo­dles also peaked on Satur­days af­ter spend­ing the whole week eat­ing hot wa­ter soaked bread.

Ev­ery Satur­day, af­ter the sim­ple bowl of noo­dles that seemed to me like a sump­tu­ous gourmet feast, the emo­tional chal­lenge came when I had to ask my fa­ther for money for the next week. Ev­ery time I saw how his face sank and how the sighs came in bunches.

I turned away as I did’t have the gump­tion to look him in the eye.

I had not only once asked my­self why I must study in mid­dle school, but also why I must bring reg­u­lar trou­ble to that beaten face of his.

My fa­ther ex­plained his plans to have my brother ap­ply for a teacher train­ing col­lege af­ter one year, at which time I would be able to re­turn to school. He didn’t want to up­set the whole fam­ily dur­ing the New Year so he waited un­til a day later.

My fa­ther con­soled me say­ing, “It won’t mat­ter much to wait for a year. You’re very young.”

I replied lightly, “Af­ter a year, I’ll grow taller and no longer need to sit in the first row. It pains my neck in classes al­ways rais­ing my head high.”

My fa­ther gave yet another of his melan­choly sighs, “We have no more trees to sell now.”

The teacher put down the wooden dip pen she held be­tween her fin­gers and said, “Wait a bit. I’ll be back soon.”

Af­ter a while, she re­turned look­ing hot and ex­cited. She said af­ter sit­ting down on the chair, “I went to see the head­mas­ter...”

I was sur­prised. She didn’t say what she talked about to the head­mas­ter or what he had replied. Now she held her hands on the edge of the desk, eyes dropped low, and gave an air of help­less­ness.

Fi­nally she started fill­ing out the cer­tifi­cate, then took out the stamp and stamped below the texts. Then she stamped again across the per­fo­rated lines. I ran my hand over the cer­tifi­cate of autho­riza­tion, feel­ing its stiff­ness, folded it twice and slid it into my pocket.

She came around the desk to me, draw­ing the cer­tifi­cate out of my pocket and put it into my school bag, say­ing, “You must come back next year to con­tinue your study.”

I bowed low to her and left. I heard

the door slam shut be­hind me and at the same mo­ment I heard a voice shout “Wait!” She ti­died her shoul­der­length hair and walked to­wards me. Then we walked side by side on the stairs be­neath the veranda, her hands in the pock­ets of her jacket.

We passed by one class­room win­dow, one back door and one front door af­ter another, all in plain sight of my class­mates, I started feel­ing un­easy about see­ing their fa­mil­iar faces. I low­ered my head and quick­ened my pace, feel­ing her keep­ing pace right along with me, we al­most went out of the school gate at the same time.

She called out once again for me to wait, I stopped and she came over, pat­ted my school bag and said, “Don’t lose your cer­tifi­cate.”

I lifted my eyes to look at her. Sud­denly, un­der her long eye­lashes, I could clearly see tears welling up. Like wa­ter in the lake ris­ing in the rain, the tears gath­ered into a drop, a glis­ten­ing and translu­cent drop.

I quickly low­ered my head. I knew I’d cry out loud if I had stared into her eyes for a sec­ond longer.

I held my head down, bit my lips and kicked a frag­ment of a tile in an ef­fort to keep my emo­tions in check, I stood there tensely for a mo­ment when the acrid taste of a bit­ter liq­uid streamed from my nose to my throat.

Later on in life, I ex­pe­ri­enced a sim­i­lar back­flow of bit­ter tears, but this was first time in my 14 years of life that tears washed through me. This was the first time in my life that I had felt so over­whelmed. Un­for­tu­nately the back­ward chan­nel was stopped up and be­gan to over­flow, so a small trickle es­caped from the cor­ner of my eyes. My sight was blurred by it and I quickly wiped it away with my sleeve.

I fi­nally man­aged to lift my head up and tried hard to speak in a cheer­ful tone, “Miss, I’ll be leav­ing now. ”

She laid her hand softly on my shoul­der and said, “Don’t for­get to come back next year to re-regis­ter.”

It was at that mo­ment that I caught a glimpse of two drops of glis­ten­ing tears slide down along her long eye­lashes and land on the sunken area be­tween the bridge of her nose and her cheek­bone. The tears ran down and hung at the sides of her nos­trils.

I bowed to her with all my heart again be­fore turn­ing and leav­ing.

2

5 years later, my fa­ther, who’d sup­ported me by sell­ing trees and roots, said to me dur­ing his last mo­ments, “There’s one thing that I truly re­gret.”

I couldn’t have pre­dicted what was to come next.

“I shouldn’t have let you take that one year of leave. ”

I felt an elec­tric shock through my body and stood there con­founded and dumb­founded for a time. It was as if I’d fallen into an an­cient ice hole and my limbs and my body were frozen solid, even my heart was iced over.

Af­ter grad­u­a­tion from high school, I re­turned to the vil­lage be­cause I didn’t re­ceive any col­lege of­fers. I used to com­plain that, “All was due to that stupid one year’s leave...”

Grad­u­at­ing in 1962 was the tough­est era for China’s econ­omy. Col­leges tight­ened up their ad­mis­sion quo­tas. No one re­ceived an of­fer in our class. Nev­er­the­less in the pre­vi­ous year, half of the stu­dents were ad­mit­ted to col­leges from my school, even though we weren’t one of the best high schools. If only I hadn’t taken that one-year break and had grad­u­ated in 1961...

My fa­ther con­tin­ued, “For that one year of de­lay ... you paid a heavy price of 20 years. Now, at least, you did fi­nally achieve some­thing...”

I felt my frozen heart start pound­ing again and sud­denly re­called the glis­ten­ing teardrops welling up the eyes then drip­ping and hang­ing on the sides of the nos­trils of that kind teacher. I be­gan to tell my re­pen­tant but dy­ing fa­ther of those tears. He closed his eyes and mur­mured, “But you ... how come you never ... told me of this ear­lier?”

To­day I’ve fi­nally put this story of al­most 40 years down on pa­per. It is for me a sin­cere prayer. In to­day’s world, where de­sires be­come a pow­er­ful cur­rent thrash­ing the heart’s ev­ery door and win­dow, I wish I could pro­tect the well­spring of tears from dry­ing that had glis­tened like pre­cious pearl upon the face of that teacher form­ing a crys­talline win­dow to her soul. It’s this same well that nour­ishes the soul, and pu­ri­fies the soul of our na­tion.

( From Un­der Green Shades, Chi­nese Lit­er­a­ture and His­tory Press. Trans­la­tion: Zhang Lei)

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