Yes, I Do Know You
 
 by Yafei Hu
Yafei Hu 2002
feedback
back to home page
 
When I was little, I once asked Mother if I had met him. Mother said, you never met him. When I grew older, I asked Mother again if I had met him. Mother said again, you never met him. When I grew older still, I asked Mother no more. I knew I had met him.

He wore a black cotton-padded jacket that day. I remembered only the color—nothing else but the color. Perhaps the jacket had nothing else but color. His face was long and dark, so long that it went straight into the collar of the black jacket, and so dark that it seemed part of the black jacket. I couldn’t make out much of his face, because of its darkness. Yet, I could see his eyes clearly: one was big, the other small. The big one was obviously bigger, the small one obviously smaller. He seemed to be trying to open his big eye bigger, and close his small eye smaller. I was a little afraid of him.

One day, Brother had grown tall enough to reach the top drawer of Mother’s bureau. I stood next to him, waiting for him to take some grain coupons from Mother’s ID booklet. Brother was on his toes. His hands seemed to get hold of something. He was staring at it.

“Aren’t they there? Mother always keeps the coupons there,” I said impatiently. The head of the Little Red Guards from my school was waiting outside for the coupons.

“They are here. Wait,” said Brother, still staring at what was in his hands.

“What is it? Can I see?”

Brother turned his head toward me, hands still in the drawer, still standing on his toes.

“Can you keep a secret?” he asked.

“Yes.”

When Brother dropped his heels and withdrew his hands from the drawer, I saw Mother’s ID booklet. He opened it, and brought it closer to me. I saw Mother’s name, age, place of birth, and profession. The last line was Family background: Landlord.

Now I knew why Mother never mentioned him. I also knew that we shouldn’t mention him either. So he became a secret, a secret that Brother and I kept for a long time.

But he was stubborn, and wouldn’t disappear. He stayed in the back of my mind and kept reminding me, you know me.

When I became thirteen years old, I lived in Beijing by myself. Mother’s fifth cousin was the only relative I had in the city. We called her Fifth Aunty of Beijing. Mother wrote me on each holiday, urging me to visit Fifth Aunty of Beijing. I didn’t like to visit her. Going to someone else’s house made me feel more lonely, even though it was a relative’s house.

Once, Fifth Aunty of Beijing mentioned him. After that, I was no longer reluctant to go to her house. He told me to go.

Fifth Aunty of Beijing smoked. In fact, she smoked more than she spoke. What she left unspoken, I had to fill in by myself.

There was a village on the banks of the Huai River; it was called Long Huai. In Long Huai, only his family, Zhao, ever became wealthy. Their wealth came from a hardware store that his grandfather had started. In the hardware store, the villagers could find nothing fancy, but many things that they needed in their daily lives: woks and kettles, hammers and nails, glue and matches, etc.

During his grandfather’s time, the villagers of Long Huai saw his grandfather, Old Zhao, work behind the counter, eat behind the counter, and sleep behind the counter. Even after he had bought several acres of land and built a house, Old Zhao still lived in the store.

Old Zhao’s son, Young Zhao, followed in his father’s footsteps, and rarely left the store. Young Zhao’s wife, and later his son, Little Zhao, brought his meals to the store three times a day. If the villagers didn’t see Young Zhao’s wife or Little Zhao walking along the dirt road with a bamboo basket, they would wonder, “Is the hardware store closed today?”

By the time Little Zhao took over the hardware store, he was already wealthy. He had a big piece of land, several tenant farmers, and a big house. One day, Little Zhao married a girl from a poor family in Long Huai, closed his hardware store, and moved into his big house. In the big house, Little Zhao and his wife raised four children—three girls and a boy. They were called First Girl, Second Girl, Third Boy and Fourth Girl.

“First Girl is your mother, Third Boy your uncle.” Fifth Aunty of Beijing took a puff of her cigarette.

“So my aunts are Second Girl and Fourth Girl,” I said to myself.

“He was proud of Third Boy, and he spoiled him. He sent him to the school in town.” Fifth Aunty of Beijing blew out some smoke.

“Didn’t my mother go to the school in town, too?” I asked.

“Thanks to me, her fifth cousin, she did,” Fifth Aunty of Beijing said.

In Long Huai, girls weren’t supposed to go to school; they were supposed to sew. But First Girl didn’t like to sew. She was bored at home, and she wanted to go to school. She told him she wanted to keep Fifth Cousin company, and go to the same school that Fifth Cousin went to.

Among all the girls in Long Huai, he disliked Fifth Cousin the most. Fifth Cousin didn’t behave like a girl. She fought her father and went to the school in town. She even brought a fancy-dressed young man to Long Huai. Now she was going to take his First Girl away. He said to First Girl, Fifth Cousin already has someone to keep her company; Fifth Cousin doesn’t need you. But First Girl wouldn’t give up, so he locked her in the guardhouse. He meant to scare her. The town authority requested every rich family to build a guardhouse, and to keep an armed guard. The guard was supposed to alert villagers when bandits came. The guard succeeded in keeping bandits out, but he failed to keep First Girl in.

First Girl never came back to the big house after she ran away. She finished the first semester with the help of Fifth Cousin. Then they ran out of money. She wrote her mother, the wife from a poor family, and asked for help. The wife from a poor family didn’t have any money of her own, although she was living in a big house. She thought and thought, and finally came up with a plan. For the first time in her life, she did something behind his back. She stole grain from the barn, sold it, and had someone bring the money to First Girl. She continued stealing grain and selling it until First Girl had finished school.

“She wasn’t really stealing. He didn’t know how to compromise, so he kept one eye open and one closed,” said Fifth Aunty of Beijing.

I thought of his eyes: one was big, the other small. The big one was much bigger, the small one much smaller.

The villagers of Long Huai didn’t understand the outside world. He didn’t understand why First Girl never came back. First Girl became a communist, and then married a communist. He didn’t understand communism. He only wanted Third Boy to carry on the family. But life became harder and harder to understand. The communists came to Long Huai, and labeled him evil landlord. They asked the villagers whether anybody had died from his exploitation. The villagers thought it over, and concluded that nobody had ever died from his exploitation. But the communists said that he had built the guardhouse in order to keep the communists out.

He didn’t know that First Girl was also a communist.

The guardhouse was gone; the communists tore it down. The big house was gone; the villagers shared it. The Zhao family was gone; First Girl moved them, one by one, to the city that she lived in. First, the wife from a poor family, then Third Boy, then Second Girl and finally Fourth Girl. He was the only one left behind.

He had always treated the villagers decently, and the villagers remembered. The Zhao family’s carpenter taught him carpentry. He began walking the roads around Long Huai, carrying a shoulder pole and calling out to attract customers. He made tables and chairs, and did repairs. All the measuring he did gave him a permanent squint.

“Did he ever come to our house?” I asked. Fifth Aunty of Beijing might know.

“Only once, during the years of the Great Leap Forward. There were harvests in the newspaper, but no harvests in the fields.” There was a slight crack in Fifth Aunty of Beijing’s voice. “There was nothing to eat in the village.”

He came to the house. He came to join his wife and his family, but it wasn’t his family any more. It was First Girl’s family. In First Girl’s house, his wife could be a daughter from a poor family, a working-class woman. But with him around, his wife would be the wife of an evil landlord. If First Girl took him in, she would be choosing a counter-revolutionary over communism.

He didn’t know that First Girl was a communist. He thought that she was still bitter about being locked in the guardhouse. He still didn’t know how to compromise. He went back to Long Huai after one day. Later, someone asked First Girl’s mother who the old man was. She said that he was a distant relative from the countryside.

I was three years old when he came. I knew he wasn’t a distant relative.

Years later, I heard Mother mention him for the first time. She was sitting with Uncle. Tears were streaming down her face. She said, “There was nobody around him. Father died alone.”

When he died, he must have been wearing his black jacket, and he must have been saying, “You know me. You all know me.”

I know I met him. I want to tell him, “Yes, Grandpa, I do know you.”