THE THIRD DAY
I walked on, following the rails that looked like light beams, looking for that rickety cabin next to the railroad line that harbored so many stories from my early years. In front of me was rain and snow, and in front of the rain and snow were row upon row of tall buildings dotted with dark windows. They retreated as I walked toward them, and I realized that that world was gradually leaving me.
Faintly I could hear the sound of my father lamenting the ways of the world, a sound so far away and yet so intimate. In my ears his complaints began to stack up high, just like those tall buildings in the far distance, and they brought a smile to my lips.
For a long time Yang Jinbiao was convinced that my birth parents must have abandoned me on the railroad tracks because they intended me to be run over by a train, and for this reason he would often mutter to himself, “I could never have imagined there could be such heartless parents on this earth.”
This stubborn conviction made him all the more devoted to me. From the time he plucked me up from between the rails, I was never out of his sight. At the beginning, I spent my days in a cotton sling. The first such sling was made by Li Yuezhen, out of blue cotton; the later ones, also blue, were made by my adoptive father himself. Every day when he left home to go to work, he would mix milk formula and pour it into a bottle, then stuff the bottle into his clothes, next to his beating heart, so that his own body heat could keep the bottle warm. Then he would lower me into the sling around his neck. Hanging by his side was an army-issue canteen, and on his back he carried two bundles, one stuffed full of clean diapers, the other one empty, ready to be stuffed with my dirty diapers.
He would walk back and forth when he had to change the switches at forks in the railroad line, and I would sway back and forth on his chest. Surely there could be no finer cradle, and the sleep I had as a baby was the sweetest I ever had. If it hadn’t been for hunger, I think I might never have woken up when in my father’s arms. When I burst out bawling, my father would know I was hungry and would feel for the bottle, then stuff the nipple into my mouth. I grew up day by day sucking on the bottle, in my father’s body heat. Later, when I woke up hungry, I no longer bawled but stretched out a hand to feel for the bottle. That action delighted him no end, and he ran to tell Hao Qiangsheng and Li Yuezhen how smart I was.
My father soon attuned himself perfectly to my needs, knowing when I was hungry and when I was thirsty. When I was thirsty, he would take a mouthful of water from his canteen and then slowly transfer it from his mouth to mine. He was able to distinguish—or so he told Li Yuezhen—the subtle difference between the sound I made when I was hungry and the sound I made when I was thirsty. Li Yuezhen wasn’t sure whether to believe him, for she depended on the time of day to determine whether her daughter was hungry or whether she was thirsty.
If my father caught a whiff of something smelly as he tramped along the railroad line, he knew he needed to change my diaper. He would squat down next to the tracks, lay me on the ground, and as trains trundled by he would wipe my bottom with grass paper and fasten a clean diaper around me. Then with a lump of soil he would briskly wipe away most of the mess on my diapers, and then fold them up and place them in the other bag. After he got home at the end of the day, he would set me down on the bed and use soap and running water to wash the dirty diapers.
Our home was a little cabin some twenty yards from the railroad tracks. Outside the door, diapers were hung out to dry at various heights, like leaves hanging from a tree.
I grew up amid the sounds of trains rumbling by, in the shaking and trembling little house. When I was a bit bigger, the cotton sling on my father’s chest gave way to a cotton sling on his back, and that sling slowly got bigger too as I continued to grow.
My father had quick hands, and he soon taught himself how to tailor clothes and knit sweaters. During work hours, his coworkers couldn’t help laughing when they saw him, because he would knit a little sweater for me as he walked along the tracks, with fingerwork so expert that he didn’t need to look at what he was doing.
After I learned to walk, we would hold hands. On weekends my father would take me to the park to play. There, confident in the safety of our surroundings, he would let go of my hand and follow along behind as I ran around everywhere. We were very much attuned to each other’s needs, and if we were going down a little path I would sense at once, even without looking, when my father stretched out his arm, and would give him my little hand right away.
After we returned to the house next to the tracks, my father would be vigilant in protecting me from dangers, and when he was cooking inside and I wanted to play outside, he would attach us with a cord, one end tied to his foot and one end tied to mine, so that I grew up within the safety zone that he had defined. I could roam around near our front door, but if I saw a train approaching and couldn’t resist going closer to the tracks, I would hear the warning shout of my father from within the room: “Yang Fei, come back!”
The little house that I had been looking for appeared, just as the two rails were drifting off into the distance. A second earlier it had not been there, but the next second it was. I saw myself as a young child and my father as a young man, and also a young woman with her hair tied in a long braid. The three of us emerged from the house. My face looked vaguely familiar, my father’s face I remembered as though it were yesterday, but the girl’s face was indistinct.
As a little boy I was happy as a lark, utterly unaware that I was ruining my father’s life. My railside birth had narrowed his path dramatically. He had no girlfriend, and marriage was now only the remotest possibility. His best friends, Hao Qiangsheng and Li Yuezhen, introduced him to several prospects, informing them ahead of time about my foundling origins, so as to make clear that my father was a kindhearted and reliable man. But when those young women met him for the first time, if he wasn’t changing my diapers he’d be knitting a sweater for me, and the sight of him in full domestic mode, although making them smile, would also make them turn around and leave.
It was when I was four that I met the young woman with her hair in a braid.
The Seventh Day by Yu Hua,
Pantheon Books. Translated by Allan H. Barr.