A mysterious accident weaves together the fate of two families, in this short story by “post-90s” author Jiang Xinlei
“There’s a man stealing our cucumber!” the child said to Wang Yan.
Wang Yan had planted the cucumbers in front of the school building. There were two rows of them, and they were ready to eat, with flowers on the end and spines on the body. She’d pick them to feed to the students – it was convenient and cheap. She didn’t think someone would go so far as to steal them. Wang Yan marched over in a huff.
The cucumber thief was a man of about 23 or 24, wearing camouflage and galoshes, a worker from the nearby construction site. Wang Yan saw him smiling at her, his tanned face in contrast with his white teeth. Her heart softened. “Go and wash the cucumber,” she said. She pointed to a tap nearby.
The young thief obediently went over to the tap and washed the cucumber.
Wang Yan made cucumber fried in egg, and invited the young man to eat with the children. She looked at him, and blurted out, “How old are you?”
The young man staired, scratched the back of his head, said, “I’m 26. Year of the Tiger.” Two years older than Wang Yan.
The young man told her his name was Feng San, and that he worked in the construction site; because the weather was hot, he’d run over to grab a few cucumbers to eat.
Feng San looked at the food Wang Yan set out, and said: “Thanks, but I don’t eat lunch. At night when I go home my mom makes me an egg-pancake wrap.”
Wang Yan said: “You can’t eat pancakes at night if you eat lunch at noon?”
“Wouldn’t that be a waste?” Feng San asked.
Wang Yan was confused – how could eating be a waste? “Have lunch here, OK? Fill yourself up.”
Feng San said this would be embezzlement, or misappropriation of public funds, and he could never eat with them. The next day, however, he came back. He wolfed down the food.
Feng San asked Wang Yan, “Can I come to class tonight?”
Wang Yan laughed, saying, “It’s a class for young children, what could you learn?” But she looked at Feng San’s earnest expression and found herself nodding.
The children began to tell people, “We have a university student in our class. He eats and goes to class with us.”
Wang Yan’s life became fuller. During the day, she’d teach the students, and cook for them. At night, she’d hurry back to the school to help the struggling students revise. More importantly, in the course of her interactions with Feng San, she gradually grew to like him.
Wang Yan said, “Feng San, actually you’re not a bad guy.”
Feng San pretended to be hurt. “So you used to think I was a bad guy?”
Feng San was clumsy, but he helped her cook, helped her out, and at night attended class with the children.
One day, Wang Yan suddenly said “I have the children, and I have you. I’m content.”
Feng San hugged her as he lifted her up. “Am I dreaming?”
Wang Yan squealed and told him to put her down. Feng San twirled her in circles until she was dizzy.
Feng San said, “You’ve devote your life to teaching, so even children who come from the village can be educated.”
Wang Yan stopped screaming, and looked seriously at Feng San, saying, “I’m not a real teacher; would you be willing to teach these poor workers’ children?”
How could Feng San not be willing? Of course he was willing. This girl in front of him had given up a good job to come and teach the children of migrant workers; he was moved. He kissed her; it was like kissing the flowers planted in the garden of their home in the village.
“Well, then you should teach these children, too. We can be lifelong teachers for them.”
Feng San laughed. “I’m uneducated; how could I be a teacher? I’d get in the way.”
Wang Yan said, “You can do it, because you’re so hard-working. You pay close attention in the classroom.”
Feng San agreed to assist her, but he knew he couldn’t be a teacher. He had a debt to repay, the debt of his father.
Wang Yan didn’t want to argue with Wang Wenhao, but he just wouldn’t let it go. She was about to go out, but he blocked the doorway, yelling at her. “I don’t agree with you being with Feng San, or Li San, or whatever! I owe it to your mother!”
Wang Yan was incensed. “Don’t bring up my mother; this has nothing to do with her! Her spirit in heaven would approve of my relationship with Feng San!”
Wang Wenhao didn’t agree. He began to cry. It’s frightening to see a man cry, especially for that man’s own daughter. He started to think of memories of her mother and how he felt he’d failed her.
Wang Yan stood there, never expecting to see her father cry like a child. After her mother had died, he had cried for three days and three nights, but never after that. This was the first time. Wang Yan quietly listened as her father reminisced about her mother.
A few months ago, her mother had been struck by a freight truck at the entrance to their apartment compound. Her father was out on a business trip, and by the time he returned, all that’s left of his wife was a black-and-white photograph. Everything relating to the accident was handled by Wang Yan. She didn’t seek compensation from the family of the driver, because he’d swerved off the road and died himself. The traffic police said the driver was from a nearby village and had a child of his own in school, so she let it go. After her father returned, he and Wang Yan cried together, but didn’t bring up the matter. Later, her father said it was fate, and there was no need to further trouble another family, that they should just live their own lives. Her father never showed any more suffering, but Wang Yan knew he kept her mother’s picture beside his bed.
Today however, it was as if a fuse had been lit, and her father spoke without stopping, telling her about their courtship, their marriage, her mother’s pregnancy, her mother giving birth to Wang Yan, her paying for Wang Yan’s education, everything she knew and didn’t know about her mother. Finally, he was tired out, and sat on the ground by the front door. Wang Yan picked him up, saying, “Father, I’m sorry.”
Wang Wenhao looked at Wang Yan pleadingly. He said “Yan, before your mother died she didn’t say anything to me. She just wanted me to take good care of you, and find a good family for you to marry into.”
Wang Yan didn’t dare say anything more for fear of setting him off again. She poured him a cup of water and said, “Let’s leave this for later.”
Her father’s eyes flew open. “What do you mean, leave this for later? Don’t bring up this Feng guy again!”
Wang Yan trembled a bit, and the water from the cup spilled onto her hand, scalding her, but she didn’t say anything. Her father didn’t agree with her being with Feng San, but he’s stubborn; it’ll get better, she thought.
“I’m not going out tonight,” said Wang Yan, before heading back to her bedroom.
Wang Yan called Feng San. “I’m not going to class tonight; you should go back to your dorm.”
Feng San was worried. “If you don’t go, what about the children? What will they do?” He didn’t know what had happened, but he worried about Wang Yan.
Wang Yan hung up, not knowing what to say to Feng San. She threw the phone onto the bed. Her mobile rang, with a text message from Feng San. He asked: “Why aren’t your coming to class? Does your father not agree?”
Wang Yan didn’t reply to him. She was a mess, and she didn’t know what to do.
After his wife had died, and his daughter moved into the school, Wang Wenhao started leaving the house without eating breakfast. He would buy something simple at the gate of the compound. Sometimes it’d be a fried dough-stick, sometimes an egg-pancake wrap. He got to know the vendors, and learned a bit about their lives.
The woman who sold the pancake was in her 50s, and wore a square persimmon-yellow scarf. One time he woke up late, and rushed out of the compound to buy a wrap. The woman told him, “Sorry, there are no more eggs or dough-sticks. Sold out.”
Wang Wenhao was angry, pointing at a child beggar squatting at the corner and eating a pancake: “You gave it all to them!”
The woman smiled. “I felt sorry.”
Wang Wenhao knew that she gave a few wraps to the children every day. He’d seen it a number of times, the children hounding the passersby for money, and crowding around her if they couldn’t get any. She’d always give in.
Wang Wenhao said, “They’re all scammers, everyone knows that.”
The woman smiled, speaking as she cleaned up her stall, “It doesn’t matter. Look at them. Their cheeks are red from the cold, it’s sad.”
Wang Wenhao snorted and walked away but turned back to look at her. The sun had risen in the east, warm and red. His mood improved greatly.
He laughed as he spoke to himself, “What a woman!”
When she got home, Wang Wenhao gave her an ultimatum, saying, “If you don’t split up with Feng San, we can forget about being father and daughter!”
Wang Yan had just arrived home, and her father was arguing with her. She slammed the door and ran out to the construction site, where Feng San was reading a book. Wang Yan grabbed the book and threw it on the ground, saying, “How can you read at a time like this?”
Feng San knew what had happened. He raised his head, saying, “I have no way of making your father do anything.” He took her hand and started running, toward an alley.
At the entrance there was a woman selling pancake wraps. Wang Yan bought one and began to eat it.
The woman spoke. “Young lady, don’t eat with tears running down your face while the wind is blowing. You’ll get a tummy ache.”
Wang Yan looked at this stranger, and said gratefully, “Thank you.” She started to cry again.
Feng San caught up with her, and saw the woman selling the wraps. “Mom!”
Wang Yan was shocked, and stood up straight, saying “Ms.…?”
Feng San scratched his head embarrassedly as he spoke. “This is the girl from the city I told you about, Wang Yan.”
The woman hurriedly wiped her hands on her apron, but didn’t seem to know what to do, and just stared at Wang Yan.
Wang Yan was also embarrassed. “Auntie, when I’ve free time I can help you at the stall. I live in this compound right here, I can come by whenever.”
The woman agreed, but she was uncomfortable. She subconsciously looked at the compound gate and felt uneasy.
Feng San’s mother didn’t appear at the compound entrance again, and Wang San worried. That weekend, she gave Feng San a call: “Why isn’t your mother at the pancake stall?”
Feng San said “I think it’s strange, too. Maybe business wasn’t good there.”
Wang Yan started to chuckle, so much it gave Feng San goosebumps. “What are you laughing about?”
Wang Yan said “I think there’s hope for us. Let me tell you, Feng San: I think your mother and my father like each other.”
“Don’t be silly. They have a consumer-merchant relationship. Coincidences like that don’t happen.”
Wang Yan told him, however, that her father was acting abnormal. Every day, he’d babble that the pancake seller wasn’t at the compound entrance, how great she was, how she fed the beggar children. She finished decisively: “My father definitely likes your mother.”
Feng San said “Then what shall we do? Isn’t our love story hopeless?”
“Don’t be silly. I have a solution, kill two birds with one stone.”
Feng San didn’t know what Wang Yan was on about. She didn’t reveal her plan either, just telling him: “Just have your mother show up tomorrow.” Feng San agreed.
The next day, however, Feng San told her there was a problem. “My father died in a car accident at the entrance of your compound.”
Wang Yan felt a faint stirring of something, and demanded: “Your father? Did he hit a woman, and he himself…”
“Yes. That woman was your mother.”
Wang Yan said, “How did you know? How could there be such a coincidence? Why would your mother come there to sell pancakes?”
Feng San spoke. “We wanted to find the family of the victim. We haven’t given the compensation that the court ordered, but the family of the victim never appeared. My mother and I came into the city to work, so we could earn money to repay the debt, and so that we could find the family of the victim.”
Wang Yan said, “We never asked for compensation.”
“This is our heart’s wish, we have to repay the debt. But my mother, like you said, slowly grew fond of your father. She didn’t think someone from the city would take a fancy to her, with a grown-up son. And also, this neighborhood was where my father died.”
Wang Yan stood still for a long time until she spoke. “Your mother doesn’t know that the woman who was killed was my mother, right?”
After Feng San said she did not, she sighed in relief, “You have to promise me you won’t ruin this by letting the secret out. Tell your mother that the victim’s family moved away, nobody knows where. I’ll take care of the rest.”
Wang Yan convinced Wang Wenhao. The logic was simple: Love isn’t about social status, but mutual feelings. At first, Wang Wenhao protested, but Wang Yan pointed out, “Aren’t you and Auntie Feng in the same boat?”
Wang Wenhao laughed, and said, “As long as you are happy, I am.”
Everything went more smoothly than expected, and the wedding was a lively affair. Wang Wenhao and Feng San’s mother married, and Wang Yan and Feng San married. It was a hasty yet perfect conclusion to the drama.
Wang Yan and Feng San worked at the school teaching the workers’ children They were the only teachers. Because there were still gaps in Feng San’s knowledge, Wang Yan taught him at night.
Feng San stood under the cucumber trellis and looked at the children. “This school is proof of our love.”
Wang Yan smiled but didn’t say anything. She felt her life was good.
The secret they’d agreed to keep from the parents a few years ago seemed like it would stay a secret forever. On the fifth anniversary of the accident, they happened to go to visit the graves. Wang Yan blurted out: “What a coincidence, they passed on the same day.” She looked at her father and Feng’s mother.
Wang Wenhao understood what she meant. He rubbed his daughter’s head. “Silly girl, both of us knew. How could you fool us? Still, you two are good kids.” He looked at Feng’s mother as he spoke.
Wang continued, “And you two taught us a lesson, that love cannot be stopped by anything. Let the past stay in the past.”
“Daddy!” Wang Yan was crying, her head on her father’s shoulder.
Author’s Note: I got acquainted with a woman selling pancake wraps in the neighborhood where I used to live. She would often speak of the car accident that took her son’s life, with tears streaming down her face. One day, out of the blue, she told me she was getting married and would no longer sell pancakes. I was intrigued and decided to write a short story. Love is an eternal theme, which I can’t avoid writing about. I knew it was not a simple romance for the woman, considering her traumatic experience. Love is also complicated and widespread. I filled this short story with all kinds of love, because I believe love makes human interactions fuller.
Jiang Xinlei (蒋新磊)
Born in Shandong in 1986, Jiang Xinlei still lives in his home village. His short stories mainly focus on rural and migrant-worker experiences. His work has been published on Shandong Literature, Hunan Literature, Contemporary Fiction, and other magazines, as well as Douban.com.
School of Love | Fiction is a story from our issue, “The Noughty Nineties.” To read the entire issue, become a subscriber and receive the full magazine. Alternatively, you can purchase the digital version from the App Store.