Chapter 4: The Old Freak
The old man had a front and back leg of the roasted hare in either hand, chewing greedily, seemingly unaware of Little Wenchang’s approach.
Little Wenchang was burning with rage, his eyes shooting flames, like a vicious dog that had just had a bone stolen from its mouth. His whole body shook. He gnashed his teeth with every step and yelled, “You bastard, you must have no shame. I sweated half a day, dizzy with hunger for that rabbit, which was not easy to catch, yet you sit there enjoying the fruits of my labor. A man as old as you, yet absolutely shameless. Give it back.”
The old freak gnawed and smacked on the the rabbit bone as if he had not heard.
The more Little Wanchang watched the more distressed he became, the angrier he got. He stood in front of him. “You old son of a bitch, give it back.”
The old man seemed to neither hear nor see him; his dark yellow teeth just ripped into another hunk of meat.
Little Wenchang was getting more anxious. Seeing the old man’s gluttony and his big belly, he was sure to be able to eat it all without a problem. How could any of that meat make its way to Little Wenchang’s belly? Heedless of the risk, he charged.
Not giving him time to grab it, the old man’s dirty hand suddenly reached out and pushed back on his shoulder lightly and the boy was flung on his back. The old man continued eating as if nothing had happened.
But Wenchang was not about to give up. He got up painfully and with a barbaric, beastly roar, pounced on him.
The old freak still ignored him, though his meat-juiced stained hand shot out again.
Who would have guessed that Little Wenchang didn’t pounce directly on him. With still three or four steps separating them, his right foot swept across the remaining embers of the dead fire.
Little Wenchang was extremely smart. He knew he was just a kid and would be no match for the large old freak, so instead he stuck his foot out and kicked at the ashes, which flew up toward the old freak.
Strange! The old freak didn’t move at all, and when the ashes had flown on him and past, he still sat motionless as before, munching on his hare.
Little Wenchang looked and what? There was not a speck of ash on the old freak. Bizarre!
Without thinking, Little Wenchang grabbed a stick from the ashes and charged at the old freak in a rage, chopping down on the old freak with all his might.
This time the old freak turned to look and with one hand grabbed the piece of firewood, extended his foot and used his calf to press down on Little Wenchang’s shoulder.
Little Wenchang felt like a mountain was sitting on his shoulder. His legs couldn’t take it and he fell down on his back. The old freak snatched the firewood and flung it away, then stepped on Little Wenchang’s belly and turned a freakish eye on him and shouted: “Ah! You’re a ferocious little child. What? You want to beat me up?”
Little Wenchang couldn’t move his lower body. He used both hands and exerted his whole strength to push back against that deerskin boot. It was like a dragonfly shaking an iron tree, a waste of energy, and at the same time he screamed, “Shameless! You old son of a bitch! I haven’t been able to find any food the whole day, I’m so hungry I can’t stand it. It wasn’t easy catching that rabbit, yet you sit there enjoying what I worked hard for, a man your age, you waste of life.”
“If you keep on…”
“I’ll say what I want. You’re shameless, you’re an old son of a bitch, you’re…”
The old freak raised his foot and kicked him, rolling Little Wenchang over once, then said, “You little scoundrel, why don’t you go home and get something to eat?”
Little Wenchang got up and rubbed his belly and said hatefully, “If I had a place to get food why would I need to tire myself to death to catch a wild rabbit? Old bastard, one day I swear I’ll get you back for this.” He turned his head and stomped away with big strides.
The old freak laughed riotously, then chewed on his rabbit.
Little Wenchang was hungry the whole day, finally going home at the second watch1. He had nowhere else he could go, so he had to go back home. He was too young, he had no knowledge of the world outside Cai Family Village, but he knew his ancestors’ domestic practices quite clearly; anyone who left the village and went running about in the countryside had to go through the ancestral temple custodian’s doorway. The manager of this temple was actually also the village head, the chief executive of the whole village. In the past, Cai Family Village had over a hundred households, including a precinct head, who represented the area and reported to the prefecture chief. He had to handle the taxes, and needless to say the precinct head was also the village head, one person doing the job of two. The ten representatives of the village of course were village elders. If people were running about in the village, how could the precinct head and the elders not know? He was not only responsible for managing the ancestral temple, he was also responsible to the prefecture chief.
At that time, the population records were difficult to keep up with and the checks were more lax than they had been in the past, yet the governmental regulations were no match for the rules within the family regarding strictness; all power gradually fell to the hands of the manager of the ancestral temple. Unfilial children could be secretly put to death. Not long after, an official report was sent up reporting the disappearance of three people, and the local authorities sent only two or three soldiers to check it out, who after a couple meals decided to leave things unsettled, and what’s more amazing, only a warrant for the arrest of the culprit was recorded in the records in order to get the matter over with. So, in reality, the authority over life and death in the village rested with the manager of the ancestral temple, so normally the children of the village were circumspect and cautious. They didn’t dare run around wildly. Little Wenchang was very wary of the ancestral rules, and he didn’t understand the outside world; there was nowhere he could go, so he had no choice but to obediently go back home and prepare for his beating.
He got what he expected. A turn with a leather whip left him bedridden for half a month. By the time he could get out of bed it was already the end of the ninth month. Winter had arrived.
By this time the wheat had already been planted, so it was leisure time for farmers.
In early afternoon the school in Shadow Rock village let out, and ten-year-old Cai Wenhua went with a group of village kids and descended the mountainside and rushed toward Cai Family Village’s village gate. Below the slope was a well-ordered field, and on the slope itself grew a grove of jujube trees, the leaves long since fallen off; the sharp points of the branches whistled in the cold wind.
A small path led through the jujube grove, and twenty or so kids flew down it. Among the group, Cai Wehhua was not old, and was gentle and quiet, but he was the village head’s only son, so had naturally become in essence the group’s leader. Yet he had no real influence within the group. In other words, he had never established his power or authority. Compared to them, he was unrestrained and unrestrainable.
The group of kids exited the forest and in the distance saw Little Wenchang leading his big yellow dog, pursuing two strong horses bolting for the other side of the slope. Clearly, the Cai Family Village head had certainly just returned to the village with the steward from Fine Horse Village, as the horses’ saddles had not yet been taken off! Heavens! To say a little kid sneaking off with horses, who can’t even get into the saddle and can’t control them, can you consider that sneaking off? Maybe the horses had not gone a long distance, maybe he wasn’t sneaking off with them, only leading them.
Little Wenchang, since his cousins had started school, had gradually become estranged to them. Actually he was leading the horses, and when he saw the group of kids shouting he assumed they were marvelling at his ability, so he let go of one of the horse’s reins and suddenly led the other horse away a bit, turned it around, and throwing the reins up behind it, stepped into the stirrup and climbed up onto the carved saddle.
He sat the horse well, his manner strong, and he turned his head to the kids hurrying over and laughed haughtily, and striking a pose, shook the reins.
The kid leading the group stopped and said in a funny voice, “Ha! Uncle Little Tiger is so spirited.”
Little Wenchang was small, but his seniority was great to be addressed “uncle”, yet he was still called by his pet name. Not only was that disrespectful, it was an offensive violation.
Yet Little Wenchang didn’t care if the manner of addressing himself was right or not, he just smiled weakly and flicked the reins. But his flick was bad, and the horse suddenly jumped forward three feet.
His legs were short, and the horse’s back was wide, so it was too easy to slide around and too difficult to get a stable purchase, so when the horse leapt forward he was thrown from its back.
“Hahahaha! Uncle Little Tiger, let’s see your brilliance again,” the group of kids hooted and hollered merrily.
Only one kid ran over, that was Wenkui, who was four years older than Wenchang. He ran over and flung off his book bag and extended his hand and helped Wenchang up. he said with concern, “Brother Chang, are you hurt? Hurt…”
“Thanks, Brother Kui,” Wenchang said, shaking his head with a forced smile.
The kids had surrounded him, laughing uproariously, while standing to the side was Wenhua, who hmphed and said, “Little Tiger, it serves you right. Hmph, you dare to ride dad’s horse, you have a lot of nerve. When I go home and tell him he’ll give you a taste of his leather whip, and then we’ll see if you dare do it again.”
Little Wenchang felt pain in his hands and feet, and he was incensed by that talk. He got to his feet and with arms akimbo got close and said darkly, “You jerk! Except for tattling to your superiors, what else can you do? You…”
Wenhua stepped back, his face blanched. He was shorter than Wenchang, yet he was stronger, and his clean white face was that of a spoiled child. Little Wenchang was younger than him by two years, yet was a head taller, and though he looked thin and frail, he was actually strong and sharp. The two didn’t get along and would sometimes come to blows; every time it was Wenchang standing firm in the wind while Wenhua went home crying to tell, with the result that Wenchang got the whip. Little Wenchang recently had not clashed much with Wenhua because Wenhua was his older brother, and because his uncle’s whip was hard to endure.
But today he was not able to let things slide. What was the big deal about riding a horse? Getting thrown had gotten him worked up so that he was too angry to suppress it, so he pressed forward and opened up on Wenhua.
- between 10-11 pm ↩