Oliver Eade: A Single Petal
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“There’s a bamboo pole sticking out from his belly… and he smells like a pig’s bottom!” the girl explained.
Alarmed, Feng threw down his calligraphy brush and ran from the schoolroom, grabbing Feier by the hand. Her hand felt so warm and alive in his grasp. Soon, with the girl gone, he’d have nothing left to remind him of the warmth of life; only his scrolls of dead poets’ playful words about some other life, and fading memories of his dead wife’s beautiful face.
Thanks to the Jade Emperor the child had acquired her looks from Meili, for his own fox eyes and panda jaws in a girl would have given the mean old marriage maker’s malice unimaginable opportunities for cruel revenge. Once she’d been asked to find a groom for the daughter of a local carpenter, and there was not a single redeeming feature in the young girl’s face. Everything about it was wrong; either too big or too small. The marriage maker suggested she find a pig in the next village, the Miao village, for she felt sure their pigs were uglier than the Han peoples’ pigs and might even find the girl attractive. At least, that was the story that went around whilst the girl hid herself away for weeks before being carted off in a covered rickshaw, dressed in red, to Houzicheng, the town on the other side of Three Monkey Mountain.
Feng stopped to catch his breath outside the village. He was less fit than his agile daughter. Too much sitting around in the schoolroom had put layers on his belly that would have horrified Meili, but he no longer cared about his appearance. Feier played the doting daughter whatever he looked like. Stopping there, holding on to a post, panting and gasping whilst Feier stood quietly beside him as if she’d run no distance at all, he was again reminded of Meili. Like their daughter, she was quick and lithe in her movements, never tired and, for a woman, seemed so strong. Why, ohwhy had she died? And, thinking back, why hadn’t he forced himself to sit the examination the following day? Had he done that, had he sprung straight back up like a blade of trampled grass, his mind wouldn’t now be filled with the pain of losing Feier to some hard-edged peasant, for without a doubt if he had been given employ in Chang’an she would soon be wedded to a caring and educated court official.
“Sticking straight out of his belly? Like the branch of a tree?” Feng asked on recovering his breath.
“Yes, baba. And that smell! I had to cover my nose!”
What a pretty, sweet nose this was! But it was the girl’s eyes he’d miss most of all. As with the eyes of her late mother, they shone like jewels. Never could he feel truly unhappy whilst still able to look into those eyes; soon, unable to see them, apart from on special visits, and then to see them filled with the pain of an unhappy coupling, he knew he could never again feel joy.
“No voice, no movement?”
A man killed by a bamboo stake so close to their village? It dawned on Feng that it could have been little Feier impaled by the bamboo, for doubtless the dead man would be a villager who’d surprised a roving villain. Perhaps he’d been visiting the lake for the very same reason as his daughter: to pick lotus flowers to bring his family harmony on the seventh day of the seventh moon.
“The man’s face, Feier? Did you recognise it?”
“Half of it was gone, baba. He only had half a face!”
“Half a face? What do you mean?”
“Maybe an animal… perhaps a tiger or a bear… has taken it. What’ll happen to him with only half a face after forty-nine days are over, baba? Will he come back as half a goat... half a person?”
“Face or half a face, he must have a name, Feier. And a spirit.”
Feng took his daughter’s hand again and they ran on, past the path that climbed to the temple on the hill, past the sumptuous residence of Chen Jiabiao, the mysterious nobleman who often travelled to the imperial city and the source of whose wealth was forever a fall-back topic for local gossip whenever items of news grew sparse. When they came to within sight of the lake, Feier pulled her hand free from Feng’s and held back. The man saw why. From a distance, it looked like a mound of brown earth on the grass beside the path with a pole sticking out from it.
“Stay here, my child,” he said, for he saw raw fear in his daughter’s eyes.
After hastily surveying the scene for reassurance the perpetrator of the ugly crime wasn’t lurking in the undergrowth, about to snatch Feier from him, he approached the body. He needn’t have worried. The smell alone would have kept even the most hardened murderer away.
From where Feier still stood, frozen in fear, they could hear the monotonous hum of flies. Closer, the noise bore into his skull and the stench of rotting flesh was overpowering. Feng cupped a hand to his nose and mouth as he leaned over the corpse. His presence angered the flies whose hum rose in pitch and volume whilst he lowered his own face to within a few hand-breadths of what remained of the face of the murdered man. When he saw the exposed flesh alive with flies and maggots, a dead eye dangling from its socket on dried tissue stands, he turned and retched. With a mix of horror and relief, he saw Feier now standing only a few feet away. She’d followed him. Rushing forwards, she hugged her father.
“Baba... I...” she began, as if wishing to say something but unable to do so.
“Don’t look!” warned Feng.
“It’s him, isn’t it?”
Feng nodded. The brown tunic, the shoes and a belly that outstripped even Feng’s bulge, as well as the white tiger tattoo on the back of his right hand tightly gripped around the thick bamboo pole… they didn’t need a complete face to be sure it was Merchant Chang.