It was late. Liujin stood there, leaning against the wooden door. In the moonlight, the ripe grapes hanging on the arbors flickered with a slight fluorescence. Blowing in the wind, the leaves of the old poplar tree sounded lovely. The voice of someone talking blended with the sound of the poplar leaves. Liujin couldn’t hear what he was saying. She knew it was the person who had recently been coming here late every night and sitting on the stone bench near the courtyard gate. At first, this had frightened Liujin and she hadn’t dared to go outside. Time after time, she had peeped out the window. Later on, realizing that this bear-like old man was harmless, she screwed up her courage to go over there. He had sharp eyesight: even in dim light, his eyes were as penetrating as sharp glass. He was busying his hands twisting hemp. He didn’t like to talk with people; his answers to Liujin’s questions were always vague: “I’m not sure . . .” He wasn’t one of her neighbors; then where did he come from? Although he didn’t talk with her, he seemed to enjoy talking to himself. His words kept time with the sound of the wind and the leaves. When the wind stopped, he stopped. This was really strange. Tonight, his voice was louder, and pricking up her ears, Liujin made out a few words: “At noon, in the market . . .” Liujin tried hard to imagine the market scene: piece goods, gold and silver jewelry, raisins, tambourines, foreigners, and so on. But she had no clue about what the old man meant. Even though it was late, a woman was actually singing piteously and plaintively on the other side of the street; it seemed to be a young woman. Could she be singing for the old man? But he apparently wasn’t listening; he was talking to himself. These days, Liujin had grown accustomed to his voice. She thought the old man looked a little like the poplar tree in the courtyard. The poplar tree was old, and so this man must be old, too. Liujin asked: Are you twisting the hemp in order to sell it? He didn’t answer. Sleepy, Liujin went off to bed. Before she fell asleep, she heard the young woman’s song turn sad and shrill. When she arose in the morning, she saw that the old man had left without a trace—not even a bit of hemp had been dropped on the ground. He was really a strange person. When she inquired of the neighbors, they said they didn’t know of such a person. Nor had anyone see him. This made sense, for people generally didn’t go out so late. Liujin knew that she went to bed later than anyone else in the little town: she had formed this habit a long time ago. Still, what about the young woman at night? Judging by the direction of the voice, she seemed to be from Meng Yu’s family. That family bought sheep from the pastures, slaughtered them in the market, and sold the fresh meat. With the strange old man showing up in her yard, Liujin no longer felt desolate and lonely in the autumn nights. She felt a vague affection for him, but she preferred not to clarify the nature of this emotion.
She had lived by herself in this small compound for five years. Before she was born, her parents had moved here from a large industrial city in the interior. Five years ago, her elderly parents went back to their hometown with many others, but she didn’t. Why had she stayed? Why hadn’t she wanted to go to the big city? She had some impressions of the city from her father’s descriptions of it. They were mostly misty impressions, not very reliable. She had tried hard to synthesize these impressions, but without success. And so when her parents packed their bags and prepared to leave this small frontier town to go back to their old home, she began feeling dizzy. She was even unsteady when she walked. Late at night for several days before they left, she heard the cracking sound on the riverside: with her bizarre sense of hearing, she knew the sound came from the poplars. They exploded at intervals until the wee hours. Flustered by the inauspicious sound, she gradually formed a vague idea. When she suggested that she stay behind, her father merely raised his right eyebrow. This was the way he expressed himself whenever something confirmed what he thought. “You’re an adult. It’s your call.” All of a sudden, Liujin realized that he and Mama had been waiting for her to suggest this: she was really an idiot. So she unpacked her suitcase and put everything back where it belonged. True, she was thirty years old: why did she have to live with her parents? When the train started, her parents didn’t lean out the window. She didn’t know what they were thinking about. But when the last car was about to vanish from view, she suddenly saw clearly the big city in the distance. To be precise, it wasn’t a city, but a large white cloud floating in midair, with mirages in the mist. She even saw the apartment in the tall building where her parents lived. She didn’t know why the window was so dark in the strong light. How had she recognized it? Because her mother’s old-style pleated skirt was hanging in front of the window. When she went back, she walked steadily. She was returning to the home that now belonged to her alone. She trembled a little in excitement.