A moving and deceptively simple tale of the countryside—from our “Alpine Ambition” issue
Author: Jiang Xinlei 蒋新磊
Born in Qingzhou, Shandong province in 1986, and raised in the countryside, Jiang Xinlei is a rare author of the “post-80s” generation who writes about contemporary rural China. He mainly writes short stories, which appear in established magazines such as Shandong Literature, Hunan Literature, and Young Writers. His short story “School of Love” was translated and published by The World of Chinese in March 2018.
When my maternal uncle passed away, I hurried back home from the city, and this displeased the Eighth Prince. He grumbled something as he fed more wood into the stove. I went up to him and said, “Grandpa Eight, come in and have some tea.” He continued adding wood without even looking up, though his grumbling ceased.
The fire in the stove was blazing, and flames were shooting out like tongues. The Eighth Prince’s face was reddened by the reflected heat, his forehead bathed in sweat. He picked up the kettle and poured the boiling water into a thermos, using his other hand to grasp the towel on his shoulder to wipe his face, saying, “Poor people are more likely to be spat on than whores.”
I was embarrassed, so I quickly snatched the kettle from him and continued pouring the water, explaining, “Grandpa Eight, I’ve been so busy…”
Before I could finish, he stalked off angrily with his hands behind his back. My face was covered in sweat, and I wanted to wipe it off, but I didn’t have a towel and I couldn’t use my hands. Fortunately, the thermos filled up quickly, so I sat down on the Eighth Prince’s seat and began to add more water to the kettle.
Barely a moment later, the Eighth Prince was back. He sat in the shade, opened a bottle of beer with his teeth, and knocked it back. Then he walked over to me and asked me to go away so he could continue filling the water by himself.
My uncle had a large family, so a great number of people were here for his funeral. It was the height of summer, and the need for water was great, so we had to keep boiling it. The Eighth Prince was sweating, and since I seemed to be the one who had made him unhappy, I thought I could help him out for a while. However, he insisted he could do it by himself, and grew angry. “Stop pretending,” he said, leaving me speechless.
Luckily, my third sister came to the rescue, calling, “Shitou, come serve tea to our uncles.” Thus, I had no choice but to walk over, pick up the teapot, and pour tea into each of their cups. When I reached Third Sister, she gave me a knowing look, which hinted that I shouldn’t provoke the Eighth Prince again.
I felt I owed the Eighth Prince, so I whispered when I offered him a cup of tea, “Let’s have a drink tonight.” He didn’t answer, but looked at me, tossed back his tea, and put the empty cup beside me. I chuckled, for I knew that he had agreed. I refilled his cup at once and then continued serving the others.
The main reason I invited the Eighth Prince to drink at my house was to apologize. In the village, people put a lot of emphasis on social obligations. When the Eighth Prince’s wife and daughter passed away, I didn’t come home to help him with the funeral. Now that I was here to attend my uncle’s, the Eighth Prince was sure to feel snubbed. He had every reason to be angry, and I had no choice but to beg for his forgiveness. In fact, I had bought choice meat and quality alcohol on my way home, intending to visit the Eighth Prince after the funeral, but now I had to change plans on the fly.
I felt quite surprised and flattered that the Eighth Prince had agreed to drink with me. I quickly walked into the mourning hall to ask my wife to prepare some dishes, but the Eighth Prince heard. He grumbled as he added more wood to the stove, “No need to pretend. It ain’t gonna work on me.”
My wife looked at me, for she didn’t know what to do. At this moment, Third Sister came over and said, “Let’s all go eat at Grandpa Eight’s house. I’ll go too. I heard that Grandpa Eight just butchered a fat lamb.” She winked at me, so I immediately added, “Right! Let Grandpa Eight treat us. Grandpa Eight should be the one to feed his nephew.” I peeked at the Eighth Prince—he had his back toward me, but his shoulders shook, as if he was laughing. Then I smiled at my wife and Third Sister.
Seizing the chance, my wife said, “Idiot. Go and help Grandpa Eight with the water.”
Third Sister quipped, “That’s Grandpa Eight’s job. No one in the entire village can take it away from him. Right, Grandpa?” She grinned at me.
I exchanged a look with my wife. There was clearly a story here, and we should ask Third Sister about it when we have a chance. But I still felt that I owed the Eighth Prince, so I poured him another cup of tea.
The Eighth Prince looked up at me and said, “That’s more like it.”
But that evening, the Eighth Prince stood us up. When my wife and I arrived at his house, the door was firmly shut. This made us feel that we had been asking for a snub, so we went back home dispiritedly. When my mother saw us, she said, “Was he not at home? He always comes home very late, and dead drunk every time. Poor man.” My mother shook her head and walked away, leaving us standing in the yard.
I said, “Let’s try again later. If he comes back and doesn’t see us, he’ll get angry again.”
My wife nodded.
I called Third Sister, and it was as if she already knew. Because before I even said anything, she said, “You were locked out, right? Wait a little longer.”
My mother came and said, “He definitely went to drink.”
“Where does he drink to get so drunk?” I asked.
“In the forest. He’s possessed.”
The “forest” that my mother referred to was the graveyard of our village; all the dead villagers were buried there. I understood what my mother meant—the Eighth Prince had gone to the cemetery to visit his wife and daughter. I suddenly felt a deep pang of sorrow, as if I could see the Eighth Prince drinking alone before the tombs. He must have been crying as he drank.
My mother continued, “Why must he always torture himself? People die like a light flickering out. Poor Grandpa Eight. Your third sister is really a good person. If it wasn’t for her, your Grandpa Eight would be sleeping in the forest all night.”
Every time the Eighth Prince got drunk, it was Third Sister who would bring him home. According to my mother, she always followed him and watched from a distance until he drank too much and lay down on the tombs. Then she would go lift him up and help him home. “Your third sister only weighs 100 pounds, so it’s a real challenge for her to drag home a drunk giant like that.”
Nobody knew why Third Sister did this. It had happened every night for the last sixth months.
I ran outside and hurried southwest toward the forest, and in the distance, I saw the slight figure of Third Sister. She held onto a tree and stared straight ahead. I walked to her and gently called to her, but she motioned me to lower my voice. Turning in the direction she was looking, I saw the Eighth Prince sitting before the two tombs with his legs crossed. He would stare blankly for a while, then take a gulp of liquor. I thought that he would be bawling, but he wasn’t. He was like a machine that had been programmed—staring blankly for a few minutes, then taking a drink.
Suddenly I heard a loud wail, and I jumped. In the gloomy night amid all the tombs, the sound made my hair stand on end. I saw Third Sister quickly running toward the Eighth Prince, and I followed. We propped up the Eighth Prince’s arms and helped him home, or more accurately, dragged him. He was like a stone sinking into water, growing heavier the more we pulled. The Eighth Prince ranted and raved, and hearing it, my heart ached, and I felt guiltier than ever about not attending his wife and daughter’s funeral. I thought that I could even hear the Eighth Prince saying, “Poor people are more likely to be spat on than whores. Stop pretending.” His heart must have been broken.
When we arrived at his home, the Eighth Prince seemed to remember, shouting, “Drink! I want to drink with Shitou! I’m polite even if he’s not!” Third Sister said, “Get some sleep.”
I told her, “I think I’ve broken Grandpa Eight’s heart.”
She said, “He’s been through a lot, and he’s old. Don’t take it to heart.”
I didn’t know what to say, so I said, “I’ll look after Grandpa Eight here tonight. Look at the state of him.”
She batted her hands at me, saying. “No need. Go home and rest. Tomorrow we have to go to our uncle’s early.”
Hearing those words, I felt guilty again, because no matter how busy I’d been back then, I should have come back. After all, it had been so important to the Eighth Prince.
The Eighth Prince was the eighth in his family, and he wasn’t from our village. When he came to our village, he’d been all alone. According to him, all seven of his brothers and sisters had perished in the famine, and he was the only one left. He came here when he married into the family of a paralyzed woman from our village. At that time, people looked down upon a man who lived with his wife’s family after marriage. It was the equivalent of a man betraying his ancestors by letting his children adopt their mother’s family name.
In our village, men who married into their wives’ families all felt inferior, except for the Eighth Prince.The Eighth Prince was young and proud, and he liked to walk around in the village with a cigarette in his mouth. When arguments broke out in the neighborhood, he would offer to be the judge; and if weddings or funerals took place, he wanted to have his say. He’d often proclaim, “Back in my hometown, I arranged all the weddings and funerals; I was in charge. Unlike here, where there’s even a committee to arrange funerals.”
But some people didn’t buy this, especially a few young men. They liked to ask him difficult questions in order to see him scratch his head and laugh awkwardly. People all called him “Eighth Prince,” mostly to tease him, but he was willing to consider himself a prince. But these were things that happened a decade or two ago, so I didn’t know what the Eighth Prince was like now. I seldom came home after graduating from university. Our village was poor and remote, and only a few people managed to make it out, so I became a respectable person in their eyes. Even the Eighth Prince respected me. He was always saying to me, “Shitou, you’re back. Shitou, you must have gotten rich.” Only now, his whole attitude toward me had changed, and I knew he was offended by my thoughtlessness.
Like I said, people in our village cared a lot about social obligations. When a wedding or a funeral took place, custom dictated whether you should attend and whether you should help out with it. It was my obligation to come back and help with the funeral of the Eighth Prince’s wife and daughter, but I really could not get away from work at that time, so I had no choice but to call him to apologize. Later, my mother called me and said, “You shouldn’t have done that. Grandpa Eight seems really angry.”
I didn’t take it seriously, since I thought I had explained my situation pretty clearly. I didn’t imagine he would hold a grudge. I talked it over with my mother, but she said, “You still can’t see? No matter how busy you were, you should have come back. Do you know how embarrassing it was for him? Grandpa Eight cares so much about face, and you’ve slapped his.”
But how could I make it up to him? I felt so helpless.
My mother continued, “You’re somebody in this village now. Don’t forget any favors you owe to anybody.”
I just worked in the city, and the only difference between the villagers and me was that I didn’t need to work with the hoes, but maybe in their eyes, I was really a big bug. I understood the Eighth Prince’s anger and hate, and I felt sorrier and sorrier for him, especially when I thought about what he was like now—he was not as bossy, proud, and arrogant as before.
The next time I saw him, I became much more tactful. At my uncle’s funeral the next day, I almost didn’t know what to say. I tried to find a way to start a conversation with him when I poured tea into his cup, but to my surprise, he smiled at me and said, “Come over and have a drink tonight.” I immediately agreed and remembered last night’s events. I knew that he wouldn’t break the appointment—he just wouldn’t be drinking with us.
That night, Third Sister and I waited for him in the forest, and we didn’t approach him until we heard him cry. This time I didn’t let my sister help me, but carried him on my back. I realized that he was not as heavy as I thought that time when we dragged him home. In fact, he was so light that I felt like I was carrying a bag of bran.
Third Sister said, “Let me carry him for a while.”
I said, “He’s not heavy. I can do it.”
The old man on my back was raving about something, and it seemed as if whenever he uttered a word, he would lose some weight. I walked faster and faster, wanting to bring him back home as soon as possible. I felt that it was getting cold at night.
The Eighth Prince’s daughter was the apple of his eye, and her sudden death hit him hard.
The girl’s name was Tianjiao, which meant that even gods felt proud of her. Just from her name, you could tell how much hope her father had pinned on her. Tianjiao didn’t disappoint his expectations, because from primary school to high school, she was always top of her class. The Eighth Prince praised her to everyone he met, so the whole village knew that he had an outstanding daughter.
But actually, our village was still very sexist at that time. So whenever the Eighth Prince praised his daughter, the listener would nod along and praise Tianjiao, but behind his back, they would say, “She’s just a girl. One day she will marry into another family.” I was just a kid, so one day I parroted to the Eighth Prince, “She’s just a girl. One day she will marry into another family.” He had just been ecstatically bragging that his daughter had won first place in the Math Olympiad.
I remember it clearly. With his mouth still open, he gaped at me. I was terrified, and I bolted back home, slammed the door, and shouted, “The Eighth Prince is coming!” Before my parents understood what had happened, the Eighth Prince was at our house, and broke out in curses, “My Tianjiao will be the first college student in our village! Who the fuck do you think you are?” Neither of my parents was very argumentative, so they endured his abuse quietly, until my third uncle and fourth uncle came in with their hoes and chased him away.
“He’s just an outsider,” said Fourth Uncle.
“A man with no descendants to his name,” Third Uncle supplemented.
Hearing this, the Eighth Prince turned back, picked up a stick, and started to chase and beat my uncles. They were afraid that he might kill them, so they ran as fast as they could, leaving the Eighth Prince cursing at our door. Since then, neither my parents nor I have ever dared to cross the Eighth Prince.
The accident took place during Tianjiao’s final year of high school. She had the weekend off from school, so she was reviewing her lessons at home. The Eighth Prince said, “You’re going to university next year, and next semester you’ll be busy with your classes. Since you have some spare time now, why not go to the city to buy some clothes and stationery?”
Tianjiao and her mother thought that it was too early to go, but the Eight Prince insisted, so they finally agreed and took a pedicab to the city. They had a car accident on the way—the driver was fine, but both Tianjiao and her mother died. The driver knew of the Eighth Prince’s reputation, and hid like a mouse in his house for a few days, not daring to venture out. Unexpectedly, though, the Eighth Prince didn’t make a scene. He simply deflated, like an eggplant in the frost.
Much later, my mother told me what happened afterward. She said, “Grandpa Eight came to our house and asked, ‘Is Shitou coming back?’” He meant whether I would come to the funeral. When he found out that I would be unable to attend, he said nothing, and went away with his head bowed. In fact, he had called me already, but I told him that I was too busy, so he went to plead his case with my mother. “He really was pleading,” said my mother. “He almost kneeled down.” She said that she had never seen Grandpa Eight lower himself like that. My mother was at a complete loss to see such an arrogant person humbled before her eyes.
Like I said, I understood how the Eighth Prince felt. I wasn’t trying to make myself important, but I simply couldn’t get away. The Eighth Prince and the majority of the people in our village thought that since I worked in the city, I must be somebody. My presence would dignify their family members’ weddings or funerals. This view was also communicated to me by my mother. She said, “Grandpa Eight cares so much about face, so you should give it to him. Instead, you embarrassed him. That was wrong.”
Because of this, I tried hard to give him face at my uncle’s funeral, but his stubbornness always made me feel rebuffed. Maybe Third Sister was right—he was trying to earn his face back through his own efforts.
My mind’s eye would always recall the memory of the Eighth Prince drinking before the tombs at night, the memory of the old drunken man ranting on my back, and they would bring pangs of sorrow to my heart.
My third sister and I took on the task of escorting the Eighth Prince home. Every day during my visit, we followed him and watched him stare blankly at the tombs, drink off his alcohol, and cry, and then we carried him back home. He seemed to feel bad about it, because when I put him to bed, he said, “How can I let you do this? How can I let you do this?” But the next time I met him he would resume his arrogant air. I thought that he was just playacting, for his anger had more or less faded. I told my wife, “It won’t be long before the Eighth Prince invites us for a drink.”
On the last day of my uncle’s funeral, I decided to say something to the Eighth Prince and see if I could ease the tension between us, but Third Sister caught my arm and held me back. She was the one who understood the Eighth Prince best. Or maybe everyone understood him well except me, but only she would explain.
I saw the Eighth Prince take a plastic bag and put some steamed buns into it. He then took out two more plastic bags, which were also filled with steamed buns. He also took three plastic bags’ worth of dishes. Darting a quick glance around, he stuffed these bags under his shirt, and walked away like a pregnant woman. Anyone with common sense could see that he had taken something. I thought it was all a bit pitiful, so I looked at Third Sister.
She said, “For the last sixth months, he’s been boiling the water at every wedding and funeral. People would give some steamed buns and dishes to him as payment, but he was always too proud to take them. Everyone knows how hard he took his wife and daughter’s death. Since then, he has lost almost all ability to work, or the mood to work. He’s proud, but when he gets too hungry, he will sneak a steamed bun and some leftovers, and we all pretend not to see it. And he’ll always take some food home. Since we all know his situation, we have an unspoken agreement on this. Poor man.”
I thought his pride was also the reason he was still holding a grudge against me. I needed to find an opportunity to help him to earn his face back. But such opportunities didn’t come easily. How would I find one?
At this time, Third Sister came over. I was just about to find her and ask her to look after the Eighth Prince if he got drunk at night. After all, I had to go back to the city, and it wasn’t easy to take care of the Eighth Prince. I felt kind of sorry as I said, “That’s very kind of you.”
She didn’t answer me, but told me excitedly, “Get my sister-in-law. Let’s go drink at Grandpa Eight’s house. We need to drink our fill.”
My wife was just coming out with our luggage, since we were about to leave. Hearing Third Sister’s words, she hurriedly put the luggage back and said, “You two drink as much as you want, and you can stay over at Grandpa Eight’s tonight.”
We all laughed.
I thought that this might be my only chance to patch things up with the Eighth Prince, so I had to be drunk as a skunk to please him. I didn’t know that in the near future, there would be an even better opportunity, though I wished the circumstances had been different. Maybe the Eighth Prince was the one who wished it, because that time, he earned face enough to spare.
We met the Eighth Prince on his way back from the market, carrying a big piece of pork. He wore a Mao suit, and he strode vigorously toward us with his back straight. It was summer, so his forehead was covered with sweat, and some kids came over to tease him.
They asked, “Eighth Prince! Aren’t you hot?”
He said, “No.”
They asked, “Did you buy that pork?”
He said, “Shitou is coming to my house for dinner.” Seeing us, he beckoned me over and said, “Come on, Shitou. It’s hot! Let’s go home and eat watermelon.”
I felt quite flattered, but surprised as well. Although he had relented a little bit at my uncle’s funeral, he would still rebuff me whenever he wanted, and treat me like a stranger. Now, his attitude had done a complete 180, and he gave me such a warm welcome that I couldn’t get used to it at all.
We followed the Eighth Prince into his house, and found that his home looked a bit different; cleaner, tidier. The pile of bottles in the middle of the room was gone, and the floor was swept clean. He said, “Your third sister helped me clean it, even though we’re not relatives, nor friends. She’s a good person.”
I looked at Third Sister, and saw that she was smiling.
I drank lots that night, more than I had ever drunk before. But the Eighth Prince drank even more, and he began to cry as he drank. He lay on the ground, sobbing. We tried to help him up, but he raved, shouted, and cried, and seemed to turn back into the Eighth Prince who got dead drunk in the forest at night. We expertly put him to bed, but he didn’t fall asleep right away as he usually did. He was talking. He said that he missed his wife and daughter, and he said that if it wasn’t for him, his daughter would already be in university. His face was covered with snot, mingled with his bitter tears, which flowed into the crags of his wrinkles. He said, “I have been strong all my life, but from start to finish I have been alone.” He said a lot of things, but most of them were difficult for me to make out.
Third Sister held the Eighth Prince in her arms. Before my eyes, the Eighth Prince transformed into a child, crying uncontrollably into his mother’s breast.
My third sister said, “I am your daughter. You are not alone.”
It seemed that the Eighth Prince heard her, because he cried even harder, as if he wanted to flush out all of his sorrows. His voice became one long sound, a single tone stretching indefinitely. He cried for a long time, until finally, this old man called the Eighth Prince fell asleep. He started to snore contentedly, as peaceful as a baby.
Third Sister seemed tired, so I motioned to her that I could take over. “Shh…” She put her finger to her lips, like she was afraid to wake a child. I smiled and looked at the white-haired, sleeping old man, remembering all his former arrogance, his pretend strength.
At this time, I heard the chirping of cicadas. I looked out the window and found that it was getting dark. How time flew! A day had passed. It was getting chilly, so I took a blanket and covered the Eighth Prince with it. Third Sister smiled wearily.
That was the last time I saw the Eighth Prince. I was in a hurry to go back to the city, so I left in the morning without saying goodbye. Would he be displeased about that? I didn’t know. In a word, I went back to the city, continued my humdrum routine of work, went back to my ordinary life, and gradually forgot about other matters. I knew that Third Sister was a good person and that she would take good care of the Eighth Prince. Sometimes she would call me and tell me something about him. The Eighth Prince was feeling much better and had started going out to socialize with the other seniors, and he even learned to play chess. Instead of calling him “Eighth Prince,” they were calling him “Grandpa Eight” now, but he would joke, “Call me Eighth Prince. That’s status.”
Apart from that, the Eighth Prince seemed to have vanished from my life.
June 30th, the last day of the first half of the year, I received a call from my mother. I was on a business trip in Xinjiang at that time, swamped with work, and I knew that my mother liked to make long calls to talk about nothing, so I didn’t answer the phone. But she continued calling, and I was just about to answer when I received another call from my wife.
“Why didn’t you answer the phone?” she scolded me.
I said, “I was busy.”
Then my wife told me that the Eighth Prince was dead.
I suddenly broke out in goosebumps all over.
“When did it happen? Was he ill?” I demanded.
“I don’t know. His funeral is the day after tomorrow, and mom said that you have to come back for it.”
I would definitely go back, because the opportunity had come from the underworld for me to make up for my mistake, though in circumstances that were not welcomed by any of us. I called Third Sister, but she didn’t answer. I asked for leave from work, saying that I had an emergency in my hometown. They didn’t seem willing to let me go, but I hung up the phone and hurried back home anyway.
I didn’t miss the Eighth Prince’s funeral.
His funeral was a little sparse, with only a few people standing in front of his door. The two panels of wood were mottled, and they would squeak when they moved. As I entered, they all greeted me and said, “Shitou, you’re back.” I nodded, overwhelmed by sorrow, though I tried my best to prevent the tears running down my face.
I went into the mourning hall and found a shabby coffin. Third Sister was the only one keeping vigil beside it. I opened the lid of the coffin and saw the Eighth Prince lying inside. He looked like he was sleeping, and his cheeks were still rosy. His shroud didn’t fit him. It was so big that it looked like a Chinese opera costume.
In my mind’s eye, I recalled Grandpa Eight crying in the forest, recalled Third Sister and me carrying him home, recalled him sleeping as soundly as a baby in Third Sister’s arms after drinking with us for the last time. I tried to remember his former arrogance, his pretend haughtiness, and the image of children chasing him and calling him Eighth Prince, but I failed. He was just an old man, who lay quietly when his life had ended. Neither the past nor the future had anything to do with him from now on.
In the end, I couldn’t help but burst into tears. People who came to help with the funeral all huddled together before the door of the mourning hall, looking curiously at the scene inside. Maybe they were confused about why Shitou who worked in the city cried about the Eighth Prince’s death. I didn’t understand why I cried either, nor any of the things that happened between the Eighth Prince and me at my uncle’s funeral.
Perhaps at this moment, the Eighth Prince was smiling in heaven and saying, “Shitou is a good kid.” I helped him to regain his face, so would he forgive me? I thought he would.
The lonely, lowly Eighth Prince had left this world. His funeral procession was as short as a candle, with not even enough people to make it look winding. The scattered sound of crying was barely audible in the heat of summer, but those who listened carefully could hear a continuous low cry, as well as a high female voice, as shrill as Chinese opera. They were incongruous with the weather and the procession. One of those sounds came from me, who acted as the Eighth Prince’s son, while the other came from Third Sister, his daughter.
The Eighth Prince was gone. I stood for a long time looking at his newly built tomb. He was buried with his wife, right by their daughter. The three of them were together again. I looked up at the blue sky. It was cloudless, and almost dazzling to behold.
I turned to Third Sister and said, “Look, Grandpa Eight is smiling at us.”
– Translated by Zhang Yuqing (张雨晴)
Author’s Note: The main character of “The Eighth Prince” is based on an elder relative of mine. I planned for him to be a rural senior citizen who feigns aggressiveness due to his insecurities. But during the writing process, “Third Sister” broke into our world, and I began to feel that rather than merely creating a memorable “Eighth Prince” character, I wanted to tell a story that includes the themes of insecurity and aggressiveness. This experience of writing this story also made me realize that what attracts readers is not necessarily the characters or plot, but the warmth in human relations.
Fiction: The Eighth Prince is a story from our issue, “Alpine Ambitions.” To read the entire issue, become a subscriber and receive the full magazine. Alternatively, you can purchase the digital version from the App Store.